HBO’s medieval den of iniquity breeds discussion.
“Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon. The best one’s between your legs. Learn how to use it.” This is the advice dispensed by the frosty Queen Cersei to her captive, and soon-to-be-daughter-in-law, Sansa. If you’re feeling lost, there is nothing to worry about. You’re just one of the uninitiated, and it might be worth your while to sit down and catch up on HBO’s hit “Game of Thrones” from the beginning – though some might argue otherwise.
Cersei’s unsentimental sentiment speaks to the bawdy “reality” of George R.R Martin’s fictional Westeros, a vision enjoyed by 4.2 million viewers as the show concluded its second season this year. One memorable moment from last year was a scheming brothel owner relating details of his past while instructing two of his moaning, disrobed charges in the finer points of client satisfaction. Not to be outdone by its first season, we are reacquainted with one of the two women as she’s ordered to brutalize her co-performer at the behest of a smirking pubescent king.
Such onscreen antics have arched plenty of eye-brows and attracted various shades of publicity to the big-budget fantasy series. Writer and blogger Charlie Jane Anders observes that King Joffrey’s sadistic treatment of his evening’s entertainment “pushes the envelope of what even a subscription cable channel can get away with.” “Saturday Night Live” even parodied it with a mockumentary “behind-the-scenes” look that featured a horny thirteen-year-old as a consultant (not much younger than the sadistic boy-king Joffrey and in a parallel position of having his carnal whims catered to without question.) Despite being far from the only show on premium cable to offer such “adult” content, “Game of Thrones” has garnered a unique amount of controversy. Does its more outré moments – which range from boisterous naughtiness to misogynistic depravity – actually serve the needs of thestory, or its audience?
In an early review, New York Times critic Ginia Bellafante labeled the show “boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.” If dismissing something called “Game of Thrones” from the laudable class of HBO show that examines “the way that institutions are made and how they are upheld or fall apart” were not challenge enough, she went on to assert that: “The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.” It may be convoluted to present the show’s visual dolloping of (for the most part) female flesh as evidence of pandering to an otherwise reluctant straight female audience. Yet by also implying that fantasy is exclusively the domain of men, Bellafante did not just confuse “Game of Thrones'” vocal base of female fans. She provoked them. And by doing so, Bellafante perhaps unwittingly added a touch of reflexivity to the conversation. The onscreen sexual politicking of fictional Westeros fuelled questions of viewer identity and gender, as viewers, bloggers, and critics rushed to defend their genre and their show.
“Geek With Curves” blogger Amy Ratcliffe points to the story’s growing population of empowered, and occasionally lethal, women and suggests that the off instance of sexual oppression contributes a satisfyingly “gritty” verisimilitude to the basically medieval setting, honoring the source material. “The pages of the series are stained with blood and gore and lust,” writes Ratcliffe. “Do I pick up the books specifically for the sex scenes though? Not at all.” She accuses Bellafante of “making sweeping generalizations about women”, echoing Ilana Teitelbaum of The Huffington Post, who claims that Bellafante is “proudly contemptuous of the entire fantasy genre” while “patronizing to women readers.” But one may still argue that the show is similarly guilty of patronizing at least some of its viewers. Many of its stories are told in bathtubs and brothels.
Viewers are sometimes treated to an expository monologue draped in various attention-grabbing “set-pieces”. Geared to convey back-story or other information, they remain inseparable from, but unrelated to, the flesh at hand. “Is it simply because we couldn’t be trusted to pay attention otherwise?” asks academic Myles McNutt, who coined the term “sexposition” for this clever device. Rather than having anything genuine to do with the story, sex merely props it up when the writers fear that it cannot stand on its own. In an otherwise favourable review, AOL TV critic Maureen Ryan complains: “I can’t take it seriously as a treatise on oppression or the examination of female roles in a feudal society if much of the female nudity is thrown in as frivolous window dressing.” Yet as “Game of Thrones” often reminds its audience, strong female leads and gratuitous nudity aren’t mutually exclusive.
“Game of Thrones” suffers no shortage of strong women, whose sexual packaging is far from uniform. On one of the spectrum, there are those autonomous few that wield their charms with a certain deadly precision. Cercei falls in this category. So does the Melisandre, a newly introduced high-priestess of Luciferian vamp. On the other end, there are those whose relationship with sex is chastely inapplicable: tomboy and assassin aspirant Arya Stark, or the huskily Valkyrean Brienne of Tarth. Yet the journey of the prostitute Ros, recipient of pimp Littlefinger’s pedagogy and Joffrey’s sadism, is telling. Though a victim of what Charlie Anders notes as season two’s increased “sexual direness”, Ros is only revealed as a character worthy of relating to once she steps back into her dress. Anders does not necessarily regard this as a bad thing, writing that if sexual violence is a regular threat, “maybe it should be gratuitous rather than crucial.” When women on the show are sexually victimized, maybe the victimization itself should not be the driving plot force behind their development as characters. Ros’s determining moment has only just now arrived and it’s a departure from business as usual. This season’s finale sees her approached by the politically savvy (and sexually uninterested) Varys, who proposes a change of allegiance – and employment.
A fellow traveler here is Danaerys, the show’s resident queen of the desert. Undressed when we first meet her, we learn that she is the exploited younger sister of an exiled prince. Her role as a bargaining chip in her brother’s quest for power culminates in an arranged marriage to a gorilloid barbarian warlord – and its forced consummation. Unlike Ros, whose later deliverance from carnality arrives with the whim of a male authority figure, this princess must figure her own way out. After Danaerysturns turns her situation to her advantage and emerges as a leader, it becomes harder to dismiss her initial trials as “sexposition”. They set her character-arc in motion. The fact that her first real moment of empowerment takes place in the boudoir (in a later episode) becomes incidental. Yet as with Ros, it is troubling that our acquaintance with Danaerys only drifts north of her neck when something about her other than her body proves itself worthy of our attention. For the attractive young women of Westeros, personhood is like clothing. It is not a given. It is something to be earned, unless arbitrarily bequeathed by men.
Patriarchy frequently devolves into outright predation, and there is variety in sin. King Joffrey has the look of a boy torturing insects as he stands back and lets his commands and his title do the ravishing. He commits his eye and his authority to the violation, but not his body. Compare this to the seabound Theon Greyjoy (who like many of the male characters, has a family life that would grant Oedipus himself a relieved chuckle of schadenfreude). He gives the viewer a rare glimpse of male anatomy as he spits contempt at the wench he’s rocking his boat with, a scene Anders describes as “exploitative and dehumanizing”. Maybe so, but these adjectives apply to both victim and perpetrator. There is a message here, of sorts.
Sex is common scenery in Martin’s world, but sexual violence is what genuinely illustrates it – and the stunted souls of many of its male inhabitants. According to Anders, such behaviour reinforces a theme of the books, “that during wartime, a lot of social constraints get loosened or shredded, and the result is a non-stop parade of atrocities.” It also conveys, according to the New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum, “the way the engine of misogyny can grind the fingers of those who try to work it in their favour.” It can also burn the eyes of anyone on the cusp of finding this misogyny entertaining. From a storytelling perspective, these scenes may not drastically affect the course of events. But in their violence, they bring more meaning to the table than the jaunty eyefuls offered by the show’s earlier episodes. Though far from noble, Joffrey and his ilk perform at least one laudible act: if “sexposition” is HBO’s attempt to reward us for tuning in, their antics ensure that we are punished in turn.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.