Game of Thrones is a juggernaut. There can be no doubting its success and its popularity both within nerd culture and without. Fans of the book seem generally thrilled with the adaptation, while those who had never heard of Westeros before Sean Bean stepped into Ned Stark’s cloak have been bewitched by the heady mixture of violence, fantasy, politics and sex.
It’s that last part which has proved to be most problematic. This is the show, after all, that gave birth to the term “sexposition,” thanks to a scene in which Aiden Gillen’s scheming politico Littlefinger discussed his motives while watching two of his brothel’s employees practise their art. Add frequent doses of nudity from both major and minor female castmembers and next to none from their male counterparts, not to mention the pervasive threat of sexual violence, and you’ve got a strong case for calling Game of Thrones a sexist show.
But it’s not that simple. There’s a very strong counter-argument due to the fact that Game of Thrones features some of television’s strongest female characters. Season Three’s best, most shocking episode, ‘The Rains of Castamere’, was dominated by a stunning performance by Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark pleaded and bargained for her son’s life. Gwendoline Christie’s steadfast knight Brienne of Tarth is one of the series’s most interesting characters; a rare figure of moral conviction in a backstabbing world. Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister continues to both connive while becoming more human, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) is fascinating to watch as she is forced to fend for herself, and this year we were given the joy of watching Dame Diana Rigg verbally spar with Charles Dance.
One thing is for certain. While Game of Thrones’ treatment of women might provoke fierce debate, it has not done so at the cost of excluding a female audience. HBO’s current flagship would not have reached this level of success if, as some reactionary articles have suggested, it appealed only to men. When we talked to The Mary Sue’s resident Game of Thrones expert Rebecca Pahle about the issues surrounding the show she made it very clear how devoted she is to it.
“The number one thing I love about Game of Thrones is the characters,” she explains. “Usually when I watch a show or read a series I have a few characters whom I really love, but with Game of Thrones the list goes on and on, and not just because there are dozens of characters to begin with. Sansa, Brienne, Jaime, Stannis… George R.R. Martin has created so many diverse, fully-realised, compelling characters that even when there are elements of the show I don’t like I’ll always keep watching to see my favorites.”
So let’s talk about those elements. Simply put, Game of Thrones is a show that requires nudity from its castmembers. Specifically, from its female castmembers. This isn’t to say that we haven’t seen any of the Game of Thrones men disrobe, but try and think of a female character who hasn’t and you’ll see that there’s not much in the way of balance. From Daenerys’ violent deflowering at the hands of Khal Drogo in Season One (which is a whole other level of problematic) to Melisandre’s recent seduction of the hapless Gendry, taking your clothes of seems to be an integral part of the Game of Thrones experience.
To what extent is this a problem, though? HBO made its reputation by offering its viewers more sex and violence than you could find on another network and those expectations have been there since The Sopranos’ Bada Bing and Deadwood’s Gem Saloon. It’s also important to note that a lot of the nudity isn’t there simply for the sake of it. Good writers use sex to develop their characters and Game of Thrones is no exception. Daenerys’ increased confidence was driven home when she got out of the bath in front of Daario Naharis. Similarly, the scene in which Brienne shared a bath with the maimed Jaime Lannister helped to develop the growing level of trust between the two characters. This is part of the appeal of these more adult-oriented series, that issues and characters can be explored in a more emotionally complex and adult context.
“I’m not particularly prudish when it comes to nudity in shows,” Pahle tells us. “It can be used in a way to add to characterisation; a great example of that is the bathing scene in season three with Brienne and Jaime. Brienne standing up to challenge Jaime [when he mocks her failure to save Renly] read to me as her saying ‘I don’t care what your opinion is on my “femininity” or how I look. You are going to respect me, because I deserve that.’ It was a great moment for her character, and the nudity in that scene wasn’t sexualized for either of them.
“That said, there is a lot of nudity in Game of Thrones that’s more ‘look at this attractive naked person!’ I don’t mind that necessarily; some people say it’s cheap or superficial, and it can get corny, but there’s nothing wrong with some eye candy from time to time. It’s definitely problematic that it’s mostly women who get naked, though. From a practical perspective it’s weird, too, when you consider that such a large part of Game of Thrones’ audience is female. Balance it out a little bit, HBO.”
The issue of the balance goes beyond the main characters and on into the background. The aforementioned “sexposition” is just one of the scenarios in which the writers manouever female flesh into the show. On the other hand, this is the world that Martin has created, a medieval-ish world in which cruel men have the power. A kingdom run by Tywin Lannister isn’t going to be an oasis of equal opportunity. But is that a justification? Is using naked women as set dressing the best way to convey this?
“I absolutely think the sexposition is too male gaze-heavy,” opines Pahle. “People say ‘Oh, the show’s just accurately representing how the world these characters live in is male-dominated.’ But we know the world of Game of Thrones is male-dominated and sexist. It can be seen in Cersei’s struggles to achieve power, in the way people treat Brienne for not being ‘ladylike,’ in the way Samwell Tarly’s father looks down on him because he doesn’t want to kill things. Having less nudity, or having nudity that’s not so skewed to the male gaze, wouldn’t change that one bit.”
The dangers of this cruel patriarchy of Game of Thrones are further emphasised by the persistent threat of sexual violence. Many of the female characters have been threatened with rape, and several have been victims of it. “The threat of sexual violence is a huge part of the series, which establishes early that this world is an awful, awful place for women to live,” Pahle explains. “You have all these women struggling to achieve power, to hold onto power, even just to survive, in this place where they’re belittled and disregarded at every turn. That dynamic is one of the most interesting parts of Game of Thrones for me, and the threats women face to their bodies is an aspect that can’t be ignored. That said, the show sometimes strays into the realm of the creepy and exploitative, especially with how Ros’ death was sexual in nature when there was no need for it to be. Threats of rape, implications rape, or comments about rape—just rape in general—should never be used just for shock value.”
The gruesome death of Littlefinger’s prostitute Ros at the hands of Joffrey was a shocking reminder of both her employer’s lack of conscience and her king’s growing psychosis. But the sexualised Saint Sebastian imagery provoked criticism from those who felt the scene lingered unnecessarily on another instance of sexual violence against women. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Alfie Allen’s Theon Greyjoy, who was memorably threatened with rape in Season Three, is also one of the few male characters to fully disrobe.
The issue of authenticity to the time period is one that’s often raised by commenters looking to justify the way its female characters are treated. This was a time dominated by men and a time in which women were subjugated and subjected to terrible things. But Game of Thrones is not a historical drama. It’s a fantasy. “It bugs me when people say ‘but realism!’ to excuse sexism in fantasy,” says Pahle. “One of the key elements of the genre is wish fulfillment. You’re telling me we can have dragons and White Walkers, but male nudity or having a scene in a brothel where there aren’t naked ladies having sex in the background would crack the suspension of disbelief? Please.”
Unsurprisingly, these issues have provoked plenty of debate. What’s more interesting is that the issue of fandom is rarely in question. These issues are being raised by people who care deeply about Game of Thrones. There are always those, however, who believe that raising a concern about a show means that you aren’t a real fan. Articles with titles like “Why Girls Hate Game of Thrones,” miss the glaringly obvious point: they don’t. Which raises a question that goes beyond the Westerosi. We’ve seen it recently with the outrageously sexist and often hate-filled reactions to “not serious” cosplayers and complaints about the lack of videogames with female characters. Why is there a corner of nerd culture that is so resistant, not only to being challenged, but to being expanded?
“There’s absolutely sexism in nerd culture,” Pahle tells us. “Many guys have this (often unconscious) belief that ‘I like this thing, therefore other fans of it are probably men, too.’ So if a girl likes something they see her as either an anomaly or, more often, a “fake geek girl.” I’ve seen people say girls are only into Game of Thrones for the “hot guys,” whereas I’ve never heard anyone imply that male fans must only like it for the female nudity. Maybe that’s where the idea that ‘girls don’t like Game of Thrones’ comes from. People assume that when girls like something it’s for superficial reasons, like “OMG that actor is so hot!” and that their interest must not be “serious” enough. So when someone who hasn’t watched Game of Thrones sees a trailer full of political intrigue and violence they think there’s no way girls could be into it. But maybe that’s giving them too much credit. Maybe they’re just smoking something.”
Despite the issues raised here, there is no doubt that Game of Thrones is one of the best things on TV. It’s visually stunning, it’s superbly acted, and it’s very well written. But part of loving something is engaging with it, and being able to challenge a show or a film or a book when it raises problematic issues is a vital part of being a fan. Game of Thrones’ male gaze and the reaction to criticism of that issue is indicative of that persistent and baffling preconception that nerd culture is a male domain.
Rebecca Pahle writes about Game of Thrones and the geek world at large for The Mary Sue. Game of Thrones Seasons 1 and 2 are available on Blu-ray and DVD now at Amazon.co.uk.
This feature originally appeared in SciFiNow Issue 83.