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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