Game of Thrones has become a lightning rod of controversy in the last three weeks because of a very familiar problem: its depiction of women in a fantasy version of Medieval Europe and its frequent use of sexual violence against those women.
Indeed, several weeks ago a sympathetic and popular teenage character was brutally violated on her wedding night by her monstrous new husband, which led many fans to question the sexual politics of the series, or even their own willingness to continue watching it.
Now, it should be noted that this scene’s victim, Sansa Stark (played by 19-year-old Sophie Turner), was never married to or raped by Ramsay Bolton in the book series. However, this did occur to a tertiary character in George R.R. Martin’s source material, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Nor is it the sole instance in Martin’s five gargantuan fantasy novels that sexual violence occurs.
However, likely due to recent accusations leveled at both Game of Thrones and its source material’s author, Martin felt the need to speak out via Entertainment Weekly.
In a lengthy response to criticisms, Martin said:
“The books reflect a patriarchal society based on the Middles Ages. The Middle Ages were not a time of sexual egalitarianism. It was very classist, dividing people into three classes. And they had strong ideas about the roles of women. One of the charges against Joan of Arc that got her burned at the stake was that she wore men’s clothing—that was not a small thing. There were, of course, strong and competent women. It still doesn’t change the nature of the society. If you look at the books, my heroes and viewpoint characters are misfits. They’re outliers. They didn’t fit the roles society has for them. They’re ‘cripples, bastards, and broken things’—a dwarf, a fat guy who can’t fight, a bastard, and women who don’t fit comfortably into the roles society has for them (though there are those who do—like Sansa and Catelyn).
…I wanted my books to be strongly grounded in history and to show what medieval society was like, and I was also reacting to a lot of fantasy fiction. Most stories depict what I call the ‘Disneyland Middle Ages’—there are princes and princesses, and knights in shining armor, but they didn’t want to show what those societies meant and how they functioned.
…To be non-sexist, does that mean you need to portray an egalitarian society? That’s not in our history; it’s something for science fiction. And 21st century America isn’t egalitarian, either. There are still barriers against women. It’s better than what it was. It’s not Mad Men any more, which was in my lifetime.”
Martin continues his thoughts here on women who have come up to him and proclaimed their admiration for a number of Martin’s central female characters, and to speak about how ignoring the commonality of rape in a world built around medieval war is, in his mind, fundamentally dishonest.
I think there is something to be said about his argument and the criticisms of both Game of Thrones and “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
As written in my review for the episode in question, there is a sad and brutal reality to women being married off to monstrous abusers who in society can hide behind wealth or privilege to commit horrendous and unforgivable acts. It isn’t even ancient history, as we see all too much in the news from Chinatown directors to sitcom dads.
I have sincere trouble grappling with calling either variation of this story “sexist” or “misogynist” since most of the best characters in the saga are women, often rebelling against the hegemonic and systematic abuse of society. Arya Stark is my favorite character bar none who despite losing her whole family is nobody’s victim; Brienne of Tarth is possibly the best swordsman in the epic storyline, preferring chainmail to silk and having bested the incredibly misogynistic Jaime Lannister and the self-admitted rapist Sandor Clegane in combat (at least on the TV series in the latter case); and Daenerys Targaryen is perhaps the series’ most iconic figure: a feminine and maternal presence who was sold into a warlord’s marriage bed in the show’s first episode, but quickly grew to outlive him and rule over a half-dozen conquered cities that were previously synonymous with the slave trade before her armies arrived.
Even the villainous Cersei is also one of the most nuanced and complex characters of the series, who unlike the more archetypal villainy of her son Joffrey, or her father Tywin, is given hundreds of pages of inner-monologue and sympathetic consideration and human contradiction by Martin in A Feast for Crows. And despite her numerous flaws, her weaknesses actually demand more focus than most of her male counterparts.
I would argue “A Song of Ice and Fire’s” desire to subvert expectations—such as emasculating the natural hero of a boy king out for revenge by telling his tale from the perspective of his disapproving mother—gives it more of a leg to stand on for also using the all-too-real violence committed against women as a possible narrative tool.
….But I still have severe issues with the HBO series, which has too readily and brazenly thrown in rape scenes that were not in the book and also added nothing to the series except disgust. Beyond the abuse of Sansa, which does have a tragically believable logic to it, there have been instances of sexual abuse or assault not only absent in the novels, but categorically inserted into the series for shock value or storytelling shorthand (i.e. these guys are really bad, because murdering likable characters is not enough visceral evidence).
I cannot criticize those who feel the need to stop watching the series because of the frequency of these choices (from my recollection, five instances in five seasons, with only two of them occurring in the novels).
Likewise, I think there is a culture of shock value on cable television that can risk trivializing all manners of violence and sexual exploitation, such as revealed by director Neil Marshall to Empire when he recounted an HBO executive being on set with the sole responsibility of urging filmmakers to increase the onscreen nudity and states of undress.
A number of premium cable series that I am too fond of are also similarly cavalier about using rape and other manners of exploitations as a plot device. Never mind network television, where procedural series like Law & Order: SVU make it a weekly perverse carrot that dangles before viewers of all ages in syndicated reruns.
I’d daresay, that not unlike Martin’s choice to speak generally of 1,000 years of European history as patriarchal in its institutionalized sexism, there is also a culture of expectation on certain networks, both amongst the show-makers and the show-watchers, to tease, titillate, and most certainly exploit one gender in the crass name of entertainment and artistic license. And sometimes that manifests in the vilest and most ill advised of manners.
However, unlike most series, including some of my favorite on premium cable networks like HBO, Game of Thrones is stacked with a female cast that other than Peter Dinklage, arguably gets all the best scenes and storylines. There are no wives waiting at home while their anti-hero husbands track serial killers and cheat on them with women half their age, nor any other housewives who sit at home while their husbands cook meth in a desert and get into all the fascinating criminal underworld action, nor even more former housewives developed by negative, narrative shorthand as cheating, nagging, or incompetent, while all the men deal with the real important end-of-the-world zombie politics in the other room’s main storyline.
For that reason, Martin is not wrong to defend his world (particularly on the page), where a misogynistic system does not necessarily equate to actual misogyny. With that said, there is still undeniably something rotten in the state of televised Westeros, particularly when it can have back-to-back episodes that double deal in rape and titillation (though fortunately never in the same scene…yet).
I hope that in the remaining seasons, however many there might be, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss consider this before putting pen to page. Otherwise, they risk burying a series built around a female queen conquering slavery with fire and blood, with the added smoke cloud of justified anger. Hardly an outcome worth gratuitous shock value and anemic plotting.