Is Game Of Thrones sexist?

Feature Andrew Blair 11 Jun 2012 - 07:34

HBO's hit fantasy adaptation Game of Thrones has come under (wild)fire from some quarters for the perceived sexism of its portrayal of women. Andrew takes a look at the arguments...

This article contains spoilers.

As regular users of the internet are doubtless aware, the TV adaptation of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire has lately been accused of sexism due to its frequent female nude scenes, especially in comparison with its infrequent male nude scenes.

George R. R. Martin's universe is not the sexless, don't-snigger-they're-just-good-friends one of The Lord of the Rings. For a start, there are more than two female characters, and people in the books do have sex. In the scud and everything. Martin commented in a recent interview with Grace Dent that the reason for this is because 'people have sex'. It's what they do. It's a major motivation for many people, and it'd be foolish to ignore it just because A Song of Ice and Fire is set in the Fantasy genre.

This goes against the idea that the attitude towards sex in America is usually seen as being backward in relation to Britain. Violence is shown much more frequently than sex without too much complaint. A PG-13 will contain violence (often strangely bloodless), some swearing, and people wearing as little as possible, but rarely any sex or nudity. Grand Theft Auto's notoriety reached apoplexy levels when they added sex to the game. What American censors fear apparently, above all other things, is being confronted with a Sexy Communist Wizard. However, a quick look at the television schedules would lead you to believe the opposite. Torchwood (as co-produced by Starz), featured a sex scene edited for the UK broadcast (despite a nude scene in Children of Earth, albeit one without a sexual context). Starz and HBO are infamous for shows featuring sex and violence.

We might not get many R-rated action movies these days, but such gleeful excess has found a home on television. The soon-to-end Spartacus: Blood and Sand is pretty egalitarian when it comes to the breasts:penises ratio, and also features lots of people hitting each other with sharp metal until bits of them fall off or out. Game of Thrones not only features people getting bisected in several directions, but has one character who spends more of her time nude than clothed, and was created specifically for the television show. She ends up fellating another woman while another character gives an expositionary speech. Manwise, we've got Keith Allen's son, Hodor, and Count Scarlioni - the Last of the Jagaroth - getting their wangs out. It's not a fair swap, really.

The problem is that Game of Thrones is actually really rather good when it comes to strong female roles. Because George R. R. Martin refuses to write any characters without shades of grey (even Joffrey, the uber-scumglomerate-of-want-to-stabness, elicits some sympathy when you consider he had two Dads and neither of them gave a toss about him). The wanton norkage undermines this positive, because there are fewer male characters in the same position and so it becomes a case of one step forward, one step back. The articles in The New Yorker, The Huffington Post, and io9 all point out the many positives coming from the popularity of Game of Thrones. They're all very reasonable, and rather than actual outrage, they express disappointment in the show for being both:

A. Awesome. In the literal sense of the word.

B. Disparate in its treatment of men and women as sexual objects.

As people, though, many of Game of Thrones' prostitutes have more characterisation and depth than lead females in other fantasy television. Shae, Ros and Doreah are minor roles, but they're more believable than Eva Green's sorceress in Camelot, who is subjected to a truly hilarious sex scene/grunting contest with James Purefoy. However, Ros' role in the show is frequently just to be naked. When there's a Saturday Night Live sketch about the level of topless women in the show, there are arguments for embracing that reputation, but it's not as if there isn't already a lot of sex and nudity in the books for HBO to get people interested, if they're being that cynical.

On the home front, an article in The New Statesman by Laurie Penny (who you may have heard of through Warren Ellis, or that time she was saved from being run over by Ryan Gosling) asks why Martin could not have imagined a universe which portrayed women more equally.

This is an odd question, because Martin is not in charge of the television series, and her article suggests that she is referring to the television show rather than the books. If you're going to show a society that is corrupt, flawed, and unfair to many, not just women, isn't it easier to create a scenario that demonstrates these inequalities?  Generalisations be damned, the American attitudes towards Game of Thrones' sexual content seem a lot more thoughtful and relevant. Plus they actually talk about problems that are, y'know, there.

If gratuitous, unpleasant sexual content is being broadcast, odds are it is not intended to titillate. There has yet to be a successful correlation made between watching Game of Thrones and people going off being all ultraviolent and pure stoked for a rammy, even with the ones who stream it illegally.

The series has many things going for it. Every review praises a different character and begs for them to be given more screen time. The backstabbing political intrigue sits side by side with quests, fantasy wars, love stories and cruelty to horses. It's been accused of lacking subtlety, but it is worth remembering that these are adaptations of some very lengthy books. Relatively speaking it is both unsubtle and subtle. Compared with many television programmes, it's got a lot of undercurrents going on, multi-layered characters, and you still have to pay attention to follow it, but compared to the book it really flags up some important plot points.

This is fair enough, really. It's difficult enough remembering every character's name before you're sidetracked with the thought 'Hang on, is that Jerome Flynn?', so we'll forgive them if they show us relationships only hinted at in the books, and spell out things in blunt sentences. Even with ten hours to spare, it's not an easy ask to fit everything in. Any book adaptation is going to have to lose a certain amount of subtlety, and of course a lot of inner monologues. We can't say there haven't been additions that enhance and improve on the source material, so the change of medium hasn't had an entirely negative effect on the story.

The ridiculous quantity of nudity is distracting though, and it causes people to focus on it at the expense of other story aspects. (A lot of innocent people are dead, for instance, but no-one really seems entirely bothered by that.) Toning down and evening out the nudity would still result in a show with well above average levels, and it wouldn't hurt to have Richard Madden or Kit Harrington's balls on screen at some point. 

So what have we learned?

Well, we've learned that lots of nudity can distract viewers from other things that are going on, that lots of American journalists are able to embrace the show as something other than a guilty pleasure, and that when it comes to on-screen naughtiness, Game Of Thrones wears the crown. It is known

Read our review of the Game of Thrones season 2 finale here.

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'Hang on, is that Jerome Flynn?'
Thank god(s) someone else gets side-swiped by that every time Bron gets sweary and all bad-ass.  'White Cliff of Dover', 'Unchained Melody', 'Soldier Soldier' .............. same guy ................ wow! Just wow!

“A lot of innocent people are dead, for instance, but no-one really seems entirely bothered by that.”

This is due mainly to a weird thing when it comes to cinema/television, people are fine with gratuitous violence, death, blood and murder but show a bit of tit and it’s THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

I’m probably over simplifying but it always seems to be that sex/nudity is bad but chop off someone’s head and showing that act in all its gory detail is acceptable.

I don't find the nudity distracting at all. The only thing in the entire second series I found distracting was the one episode where I found myself counting how many times they dropped the "C bomb".

A Song of Ice and Fire (the books) aren't in the least sexist and portray very strong female characters while showing the reality of the incredibly sexist medieval society - however the TV program is - the nudity is ridiculous and one sided (personally I like it...but I can see how it could upset people, and it is rather shoehorned in). It's a TV show of unsurpassed brilliance and the excessive nudity does cheapen it a bit...but I guess it gets viewers.

"She ends up fellating another woman"???
You might want to look that word up in the dictionary.

But I agree, Nobody seems too bothered that thousands of poor people have been killed in this show, or that Tyrion essentially used a WMD against Stannis's fleet. We do like to get all hot and bothered about the sex though, don't we?

Enough of this retarded battle of the sexes crap...

Seriously ENOUGH!!!

GOT is a tv series set in a complex world where both men and women are powerful, where both men and women get treated atrociously, where both male and female bits are flashed at the camera....

If you want to study this program for social references then how about considering the historical basis that Martin used for creating the world of Westeros (yes I know its a fantasy novel but Martin has drawn huge amounts of inspiration from medieval europe) consider how those in power abuse their power and what effects their abuses of power have....

hey you could even compare it to reality... why are we arguing over a few naked breasts in a tv show when we have far more pressing concerns to face... such as the fact that the vast majority of us are getting shitted on... regardless of the biological coin toss that took place at the moment of our conception....

I must admit that was the most shocking one for me too, it was about 5 times in the first 5 minutes. 

for me its all about whether the sex is there to drive the plot or whether ist there to show tits and ass (and other bits as well). for example, just before thingy baratheon was killed by the shadow monster thingy, there was a scene with him and his gay lover and his wife came in and basically wanted him to boff her so she could get preggers. fine. its a plot point and shows her motivations as well as his. but the scene as mentioned above where the woman does the other woman whilst littlefinger talks is just there for effect. it doesnt add anything to the scene other that the obvious 'blimey, there a woman doing a woman and there like showing quite a lot of it and hang on, what did he just say?'. personally, you could chop 90% of the sex/nudity coz it doesnt really add anything. i would though like them to show some battle sequences. this for me has been the real let down of got coz they dont show any (apart from the battle for kings landing, which was frankly very poor). the show is about war, SHOW ME WAR!! please ffs. its not that hard. as ive said before, its like watching gladiator/braveheart without the battle scenes. this series for me has been quite boring really due to the lack of battle scenes so i really hope they sort this out for series 3, athough i doubt it.

Game of Thrones features some very strong female characters, so I fail to understand the accusation of sexism. Sexism is certainly a theme of the overall story; many men of the world of Westeros do not take women seriously. And considering much of the story and culture of the series is based upon medieval Europe, the discriminatory attitudes of the male characters towards their female counterparts is to be expected -- it isn't set in the offices of The Guardian, after all (I'm not hating, Guardian readers).

As for the penis:breast ratio, is that an accurate guage of sexism these days? I think the sight of Hodor's todger balanced things out for several seasons...

I have never seen a single episode of this. Maybe I'll take a look to see what makes it a popular show?

"wanton norkage". Thats my new favourite phrase. Thankyou, DoG.

...and society makes another regressive step backwards...

It's clearly not sexist but I have to admit I'm really getting annoyed with all the needless nude scenes that are not in the book. While a lot of it is passable season 2 really has bordered on Spartacus extremes such as during the riot in the streets a woman has her shirt ripped open and she waves her tit towards the camera. This show is clearly better than that and I could do with it being toned down a tad 

I believe that the sex and nudity is perfectly acceptable in this show. For example, the scene in Season One with Littlefinger making his speach, whilst two women are performing oral sex on one an other. For christ sake, he runs a brothel. What the hell do you think happens in a brotherl? They don't just sit around sipping tea, it's a house of pleasure, this is what happens in brothels.

The show itself is set in a pseudo-medieval world, do you realy think they would be so uptight about sex and nudity as we are today? If you want an acurate portrayal of how things would be in this world, then you have to take into account the views of the people that inhabit it. If anyone has read the books, then you will know that Martin doesn't tend to hold back on sex/violence and foul language. Why should the Television adaptation? If it didn't stay close to the source material then people would be up in arms about it.

Make your minds up about what you want people! The show is also rated 18, which gives it free range to show nudity. If people are put off by it that, then go back to watching your PG-13 shows, and leave the shows with adult content to the people with the stomach to handle it without complaint.

There is an awful lot of nudity but honestly, it's the last thing on my mind after an episode. In the end, I don't think it distracts.

There are a lot of boobs in the show - to be honest we now shout "tits"
everytime they appear now - but I never view it as sexist just amusing a
lot of the time - I mean would the whores really be so clean and
well-presented?

I am currently reading the first book and can honestly say I think it's fairer in its treatment/depiction of women than the TV series is. Don't get me wrong I LOVE the show and it's a great adaptation but for example the de-flowering of Daenerys by Drogo in the book is actually quite tender and beautiful whereas in the TV show it was portrayed more like a rape and I don't really see why that was necessary. Especially as it then made her falling for Drogo seems a bit odd in the show. That said in the book Daenerys is also only 13 so I guess that's not something they can depict on TV!

What's wrong with being sexy?

The Littlefinger scene is actually really neat, he outlines everything about himself and what he is going to do across the next few seasons and implies that everyone should know better but they are too busy paying attention to the two prostitutes going at each other in the corner of the room. If all you got from that scene was the ladies you are guilty of exactly what he was talking about.

As an aside there are almost no battle scenes in the books, the show seems to be keeping with this though a lot if it has to do with production costs. The books are primarily about the characters and their actions/motivations, the war is just a backdrop to all of that.

The character of Ros is a prostitute working in a brothel in a medieval-esque brutal fantasy setting. Whats the problem? Its like saying the show is protraying men as womanising, sadist evil blood-lusting killers.
The show is a reflection of the source material, an the source material draws many of its inspirations from things that happened during medieval times in terms of the unfair life of women up to a certain point, however;Brienne, Arya, Cersei, Catelyn. What do they all have in common? They are massive, huge strong and interesting characters, and they all happen to be women.The above criticisms are without foundation; if it is a sexist show, then might as well throw it all in there; its also dwarfist for its portrayal of Tyrion and enuchist for its portrayal of Varys.Which is to say, such suggestions are utterly bollocks.

I've been told that women have tits on their chests. Men (generally) don't. I believe the ratio of topless men to topless women is far more even than the boob/sausage ratio.

SO THERE!

 I think it is more an issue of objectification. Not in-universe, because as has been pointed out here and elsewhere, the in-universe treatment of women in GoT is consistent with much of our own history, and it is also consistent with the novels, and I'd be inclined to give it a pass on those grounds. I also feel that many of the female characters are credible and are given a voice on the show, just as the male characters are; they're as layered and complex as the men, and that's fine.

I suspect that the problem some people have with the show lies in the relationship between the viewer and the female characters. There IS a disparity here. We see far more beautiful naked women than beautiful naked men. They are shot in a titillating way (cf the shot of Dany in episode 1, and the way the camera lingers on her bum as she walks into the hot bath, for example). I've no problem at all with nudity, but I think it does a disservice to a serious and intelligent TV programme when they shoot it in this way; compare it to Spartacus, for example, in which everyone gets naked ALL THE TIME and it's treated with a sort of hearty pragmatism and equality that is actually so refreshing to see! I would watch Spartacus with anybody (well maybe not my 90-year-old granny, heh) and not feel embarrassed...but certain scenes in GoT (I'm looking at YOU, brothel exposition scene!) do feel kind of cheap, unworthy of a show of this quality.

I mean, I love Game of Thrones. I loved the books and I enjoy the show. I like sex and I like nudity and I DON'T for one minute want those things censored out - but I want them to add something to the plot or to the characters, and I want them filmed with the maturity and intelligence that characterises the rest of the show.

 No, no. Sexist.

The whole point is that Game of Thrones is a world similar to Medieval times. It was very much a man's world then. The fact that the male characters often objectify and abuse the female characters shines a light on their attitudes, rather than the attitudes of the writers. If anything, it gives greater depth and strength to the female characters as they battle to have a voice and an effect on a man-dominated world. In my opinion, ASOIAF/GoT has some of the best female characters in fiction the world over. And mostly this is due to their battle against the sexism of the world they live in. Daenerys, for example, is a timid, submissive girl at the start of her story and then gradually becomes a strong, empowered and ruthless leader. It might be worth noting that as Dany got stronger, Emilia Clarke got naked less often. She's had zero nude scenes this year. Maybe that's a reflection of the fact she no longer needs to use sex to obtain power over men? I thought the same was happening with Ros this series, but then she flashed Varys in episode 10. Some creases to iron over, clearly.

the sexism police are never happy:  The Dograthi Army is led by a proud and clever woman!  Yes but she was getting taken from behind by her husband!  Damn sexist show!

It just seems like some people like to complain, I don't see Game of Thrones as being sexiest at all.

It is precisely this kind of article that gives fuel for loud-mouths to keep lodging ridiculous complaints like this one, because they know they'll get media attention.

If some harpies claim that so-and-so show is "sexist", let them. Who cares what they think? Don't give them attention.

Game of Thrones ain't sexist, it's sexy!

Ignore feminists like Laurie Penny, you can never please them. The show has compelling and realistic characters. Most of whom are drawn in shades of grey. It does have alot of sex and nudity, but so what? It is aimed at adults and adults like sex and nudity.

Agree with Kate.  There is definite imbalance in the show.

To the haters out there, if you hate it don't watch it simple as that but no you want to watch it and complained later. What a jackasses those people are. 

I don't find nudity, language or violence distracting in the slightest when it's done well.  You know what's distracting? Bad TV, which Game of Thrones is most assuredly not.  So, yeah, folks who get wound up so much by these things probably would do better to examine their own hang-ups about that sort of stuff.  Here's an idea: Don't tell the creators of the best show on television how to go about their business and let those of us who are grown-ups enjoy it.

I think a lot of it is unnecessary. The Hodor scene brought nothing to the story (although it gave my wife and I a good giggle), and the riot in Kings Landing shows a random woman's dress get ripped and a breast falls out; you'd think the episode was directed by David Zucker. I think rather than add more male nudity shots, they could cut down on the female nudity to balance things out. I'm not the least bit prudish, but sometimes I think "Really? Did she need to get her boobs out to make the scene believable?"

That being said, I love the show and can forgive such things. Maybe they could be as even-handed with the death scenes too; far more men are killed in the story than women, after all...

Of course there is sexism, it is the medieval theme, you know. It doesn't offend me either.


Lets be honest the USA is a prudent  country , where the porn industry  is bigger than anywhere else in the world.  yes GOT shows more than in other shows, but is not like Spartacus which is all about showing as much nudity , sex and violence as possible , mostly it is shown when it simply makes sense.
 Its a world where people are not taught from early on that nudity or sex is something "dirty"or "distracting" and has to be hidden at all times. But instead that the naked body is natural and can be beautifull thing.
As far as equality , yes women in that world are often (ab)used for sex. That is inherent with the setting and times of this fantasy world (based on actual medieval times). At the same time this show has more powerfull women than any other show EVER! Many of them who (ab)use thier own sexualty to get things done. (Ygritte harassing Jon as a clear example but there are plenty)

Women have breasts , man do not. So showing breasts is basically the same as showing man without shirts. Compare that ratio and it will even out easily. We have maybe seen more vaginas compared to penisses but mostly from prostitutes ) male prostitutes are simply less common). Or we saw a vagina when giving birth to a shadow baby. Man do not give birth.

Lets stop complaining about breasts or counting penisses in tv shows or cinema. It really is not a problem.
Childabuse in churches or at all , sex tourism in the 3rd world , Internet predators ,women trafficking all over the world etc. are the real problems. And they are not caused by or related to a fantasy show based on medieval times.

Actually, the reason Emilia Clarke has had no nude scenes this year is because she signed a no-nudity contract. She never would have gotten the part in the first place if she hadn't have gotten naked, but now she has the power to refuse to do nudity.

Sorry to be the grammar nazi but " fellating another woman" simply does not compute... look up cunnilingus.

Jesus... over analysis 101.

The nudity is fine, if anything they have toned it done for season 2.
As GRRM said, "People have sex"... I for one don't mind watching them do it.

Women are some of the strongest characters in the show/books, and it shows - people who complain about the ample norkage need their heads checked. They can't show manhood in a state of arousal on TV anyway.. which would be often considering the love scenes and such.. I think this accounts for the slightly lower wiener count.

In Season 1, I was really disturbed by the scenes AFTER Daenerys was raped. Yes, the rape scene seemed voyeuristic and unnecessary (didn't we already understand her being brutalized after their wedding when the camera cuts away as he begins to bend her over without having to see another scene?), but I could see that the producers were trying to depict her trauma. No, what really troubled me was a few scenes after her being raped, when the show had Daenerys eagerly learning the art of seduction from a giggling prostitute. Suddenly, she is able to take her power back by jumping on top of Khal Drogo and poof... it goes from rape to lusty sex, and later love. I can not stand the "raped into consciousness" narrative, where a character's arc begins after she "grows" from the experience of being brutalized.
Not exactly answering the "sexist" question, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

Sidenote: In the book, Khal Drogo was gentle with her. Why did the producers have to change this storyline to rape in order for it to be more entertaining?

that's not the problem...the problem is it's mostly all female nudity. sex and nudity is fine, but not entirely one-sided nudity.

She wasn't being "taken from behind", she was raped. Big flippin' difference, idiot.

I think this show is sexist for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with nudity. For instance, Dany falls in love with the man who basically rapes her... the Dothraki have sex out in the open "like horses" so the animal imagery isn't even subtle... because they have no particular racial background, it would seem, they sort of represent the "every brown person Other" culture, which makes it worse rather than better... and "masculine" characteristics are vlaued while "feminine" ones are devalued. For instance, compare Arya to Sansa? Does liking swords better than needles automatically make you a more likeable person? In Martin's world it does. Note also that a young girl taking up masculine qualities is considered totally cool and wonderful (and I'm not saying it isn't), but what if young Bran liked to sew better than he liked to climb buildings? That certainly would not have been allowed... some might argue that "that's just how things were," and sure, but it's also true that young girls weren't allowed to learn to sword fight back then, so why is one fact cast aside while another isn't?
Forgive me for anything I spelled incorrectly, I read the first book but that was like, a year ago.

The question that we have to ask is, does the show normalize or challenge the portrayals? Of course a show can depict racism without being racist, and so on. But I think it fails to do this in any meaningful way. I think it plays on and reinforces ready-made stereotypes. Sorry to be that goofy party-pooper feminist... I used to really like this show, before I got into feminist theory. Now quite honestly, I can't even watch it.

Yes, its very sexist. We see a full frontal image of male genitalia - completely exposed penis - but we never see vulva, labia or any female genitalia. Just a little tuft of pubic hair with a womans legs closed all the time

Typical sexism against men.

So now writers will have to check their male to female nudity quota on all they write just to satisfy the sexism police...? Get over yourselves, are you trying to ruin my favorate show? If you dont like it, don't watch it! Simples

Nudity and sex? How about the rape, sexual assault, Stockholm syndrom, pedophilia, women being too hysterical and emotional to succeed for power and always in need of men saving them. And since this is based on medieval europe...where are the male slaves being raped? Or the men who lost at war being raped? What, you don't think it happened? Ho ho! It still happens today. And everything else about the series is totally based on medievil times....What a cop out..
Anyway, about the first season...I kept watching every episode because of the cliffhangers. In the end I was disappointed...and no dragon action either.

Has anyone considered that Daenerys was in fact not raped at all. Drogo was a "brute" raised by "brutes" and the way I interpreted that series of events was that she realized all of that (quite intensely on her wedding night) and understood he didn't know any better. So she trained him. If anything it showed me that she had way more power over him than he did over her. After she broke him down it became easy to fall in love with him because he really wasn't such a bad guy just misunderstood.

BTW I actually had to turn off the wedding night scene the first time I saw it. I found it repulsive.

I haven't read the books (should though). However, perhaps the reason this section is not perfectly true to the books is that the screenwriters felt they needed to make this point as succinctly as possible: Daenerys is a strong, intelligent woman who is quite capable of taking care of herself even in a setting dominated by men.

On second thought I just watched the episode again... forget I said anything :-)

if anything, this show is sexist towards men

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