Monday, July 15, 2024

The Fallacy of GoT’s Women on Top Part 1: Setting

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Also known as “Sexism & S6 Part 1,” for those who like repeating series. Part 2 is available here.

Months ago before Game of Thrones (GoT)’s sixth season aired, many of us here at The Fandomentals were a bit horrified by the show’s EW Magazine marketing campaign. As a happy refresher for those who don’t remember, these were the magazine covers with “DAME OF THRONES” written in big letters and promises of “WOMEN ON TOP.”

Okay, maybe some of us were more than “a bit” miffed.

For me, GoT’s fifth season was almost defined by its misogyny, a conclusion I came to after writing a nine-part essay series detailing the sexist tropes and storytelling conventions used by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, and their staff writers Bryan Cogman and Dave Hill (all of whom will be referred to as the monolithic “D&D”), which utilized the framework of ambivalent sexism. This framework allowed for the conclusion that while I strongly believe D&D have no malicious intent towards women and may even think their narrative is progressive, the results and implications of their writing betrays a sexist lens:

“But the thing is, I don’t have to assign malice in this case. Look at the pattern. These sexist tropes used in the Season 5 narrative are a product of D&D’s writing…they are all the result of alterations to the source material.
So there is simply no other explanation for their liberal employ than that this must be how D&D think men and women act, or that this is what they find to be entertaining. Which means that they understand human behavior from a fundamentally sexist position. Because they are sexists™.”

Too often, complains about GoT’s sexism are dismissed with the “but that’s how it was back then!” argument. However, as I also explained in my pre-Season 6 piece “The ‘sexism debate’ about Game of Thrones is anything but crushed,” there is a difference between a sexist setting and a sexist narrative, and my problem with GoT is firmly the latter.

I personally find George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASoIaF) to have incredibly feminist takeaways for readers, as he uses the setting of Westeros to really highlight the issues that arise from the characters navigating such a toxic patriarchy, along with the inherent hypocrisy that comes with the worship at the altar of the “chivalrous knight” and the “maiden fair.” Chivalry, despite being all about “treating women right” and placing “virginal” women on a bizarre pedestal, is sexist. Benevolently so, yes, but still sexist.

ASoIaF has little and less to do with GoT these days, but I do find the contrast a constructive way to clarify my issues with the show. In the books, Martin is able to utilize close-PoVs so that we the reader can juxtapose the thoughts of his characters. We see Cersei’s internalized misogyny and how such self-loathing has this corrosive influence on her psyche to the point where she believes she should have been born a man (not because of a dysphoric discomfort, but simply because she feels that she possesses positive qualities and women are idiots, so therefore she must be a man and the gods were stupid to have given her a woman’s body). At the same time, we have characters like Catelyn Tully, who accepts her relegation from leadership and never once thinks that she’d be a more suitable heir to Riverrun despite being able to run mental circles around her younger brother, yet holds no hatred for her gender or other women; in her view, it is simply her lot in life to wait for her men, and she will push for her political aims from that inherent place of disempowerment.

Examining just these two characters as literary foils allows the reader to explore myriad issues, from female sexual agency, to women obtaining power and control. And hopefully I don’t need to point out that these are issues which still matter quite a bit in today’s society. As I’ve said before, this is the power of speculative fiction: to be able to distance yourself from your cultural understanding so that you can truly dig deep at the issues raised. Plus, in my opinion, it’s no coincidence that Martin picked a setting uncomfortably evocative of our own history, since there is a base familiarity we could latch onto, while it also forces us to think of the evolution of such gendered dynamics.

Add to this the wide array of PoVs Martin provides: there’s Brienne, who is so absolutely uncomfortable with her place in this world yet simultaneously unapologetic for who she is; Arianne, who by being raised as heir to Dorne, has a deeply ingrained sense of authority and leadership and spends her entire plotline claiming her political space in a staunch refusal to be infantilized; Asha, who sees the futility of the reaving lifestyle yet knows she must play into it to achieve any sort of power; Arya, who though she presents and finds herself more comfortable living in a less conventionally “feminine” way, holds absolutely no contempt for women or devaluement of their place in the world; Sansa, who actually draws her strength from “feminine”-coded skills and uses the societal obsession with a demure, courteous woman as a mask while she reclaims as much agency as she can…

I want to also note that Martin is not at all shy in his exploration of how sexism hurts men. Westeros, for the most part, is about as toxically masculine a setting as you can find.

As a quick clarification, “toxic masculinity” refers to the socially constructed assumption that masculinity, viewed as the compulsory gender presentation for men, is unemotional, sexually aggressive, and violent. Men who eschew these gender norms are emasculated, and thus not “real men.” To simplify, toxic masculinity is the school of thought from which idiotic concepts like “Men Don’t Cry” are born.

This is not to say that men shouldn’t be masculine, that anything is inherently wrong with masculinity, or that there aren’t men who happen to be aggressive and stoic. The issue is that this constructed gender expression is viewed as the only viable option for “real men” in society, and that can have incredibly damaging consequences. For example, the assumption that Men are Tough gives rise to abuses against men not being taken seriously, especially if the perpetrator is a woman. Even worse, men may be blamed for their own victimization.

If I may, sexism is a sword without a hilt.

It’s really no coincidence, therefore, that Martin goes above and beyond to highlight how this celebration of one type of “strength” is first of all, incredibly hypocritical, and second of all, quite damaging. We’re in Jaime’s head as he’s unable to cry for his father’s death, reflecting on how Tywin always told him tears were a weakness. We see the way the loss of his sword-hand (and thus ability to fight) fills him with this intense anxiety where his conception of self is thrown completely into chaos. Heck, we even see how Jaime totally buys into “All Abusers Are Male,” continually romantizing his relationship with Cersei in his head despite us seeing his mistreatment first-hand.

Of course it’s not just Jaime; Sam may be the clearest PoV through which Martin examines the harm such a sexist society has on men. Though we the reader see Sam prove his bravery time and time again, he cannot allow himself to feel strong, as he doesn’t live up to the toxic ideal of manhood that was literally beaten into him. The thematic climax of his arc in A Feast for Crows was “lying” to someone (as he was instructed) to say “I’m not a coward.” It’s not that he believed it…it’s that he was able to say the goddamn words.

We’ve also got Tyrion, whose internalized ableism in such a martial world can be paralleled to his sister’s internalized misogyny; Victarion, whose terror of emasculation is basically his driving motivation, at times to terrible ends… Even minor characters offer this same criticism, such as how everything we know about The Mountain confirms what a farce the chivalrous institution of knighthood is, and how physical strength and fighting prowess in and of itself is hardly praiseworthy.

So I will staunchly defend such a setting where we do see troubling things—things that are often difficult to read about—as that exploration is done in such a way that there are feminist take-aways and an underlying sensitivity. I am sympathetic to the argument that George R.R. Martin does not do well enough in some regards, and I’m certainly in agreement with the sentiment that he is far from perfect. But he does pretty dang well, and I would not be so engaged with his book series if I thought otherwise.

However, that’s A Song of Ice and Fire. What the hell is there to be said about how GoT characters they navigate their setting?

Well, I spoke about this before, but GoT’s setting is utterly meaningless.

This was a conclusion fellow Fandomentals author Julia and I came to after we spent more hours than we’d like to admit going back through Season 5 and writing our series of retrospectives. You see in this, we noticed something that we liked to call D&D’s “magically disappearing patriarchy.” The patriarchy would exist so that Sansa could have no recourse to escape her “gothic horror” storyline, but then magically vanish the second D&D thought it would have been better for the audience to see a sex slave offer free-sex to Tyrion for being quippy. And why not make Olenna the official negotiator of House Tyrell despite the fact that at the same time (and in the same city), Cersei was being told by her uncle that she was the “Queen Mother, nothing more,” and that he would not respect her authority?

This is why my initial reaction to the “Women on Top!” campaign was a bit of anger. To me, it looked like shameless pandering in an attempt to win back the audience who may have found the fifth season—you know, the season wherein Sansa was illogically raped to motivate Theon into action, Dany was a fickle moron whose only plans that were presented in a somewhat positive light were the ones suggested by men, an entire plotline revolved around hysterical hypersexualized brown women overreacting to events while the men calmly discussed politics, Arya was thrown into a bizarre cat-fight with another woman, and a small girl was burned at a stake because of flurries—a touch off-putting.

“Women on Top”? This was how D&D were fixing their “women problem”? With a vague reference to a sexual position and the promise that it’d be **Dame of Thrones** in their setting where they do whatever the hell they damn please based on the needs of the scene? Because seriously, how can there be any triumph of *women* on this show when the manner in which women are mistreated and/or relegated from power is inconsistent?

Well as it turns out, there can’t be.

This might seem like a bizarre statement, and certainly based on the press coverage surrounding this season, an unpopular one:

Mission accomplished, guys! Women on top!

I don’t want to be insincere here: I see how on the surface, Season 6 was really appealing. It gave us women in positions of power. It gave us women exacting revenge on their abusers. It even gave us less far less nudity and objectification, now that I think about it. There were two queens (but not three) and maybe a princess (still not sure of Ellaria’s actual title), Sansa “Boss Ass Bitch” Stark, the sassy ladies of Horn Hill refusing to cow to Randyll’s tirade against Gilly and calling him out, and even a ten-year-old girl with a deeply ingrained sense of authority and the capacity to wield it over her subjects.

And it was all meaningless.

Seriously, each situation in which we saw women “triumph” was completely contrived, and how they all played out was simply disingenuous to the “historical-ish realistic-ish” setting D&D have been so careful to pretend they cultivated. As I said of Horn Hill’s Empowered Dames:

“You can’t expect me to believe that the world in which Walder Frey can pull a child-wife onto his lap is the same damn world where Talla feels comfortable asserting herself, or where Melessa Florent can knock her husband’s honor without any fear.
And this really wouldn’t be the same world where Randyll Tarly’s response to this would be, “Your mother’s a fine woman.” Is he so terrified about the idea of emasculation given his “unmanly” son that he threatened to kill him, or does he have respect for these “fine women” sassing and standing up for themselves? Because those two sentiments sit in contention.”

This same carelessness applies to those other Women on Top.

Let’s take Daenerys, who burnt down Vaes Dothrak. Takin’ on that patriarchy, right? Except the Dothraki culture adapted to the needs of any given scene. First, the Dothraki wanted to rape her, but only after checking with their khal. Dany, who should know the culture based on her Season 1 experiences, decided to withhold information about who she was to immediately neutralize this threat (and probably get a horse!) because…I guess she thought it wouldn’t have been a dramatic enough reveal? When she finally told the khal who she was, he promised that no one would touch her, but that she had to join the Dosh Khaleen, the literal ruling group within Dothraki society. Except once Dany gets to Vaes Dothrak, we’re suddenly told that the Dosh Khaleen don’t actually have any real authority, and that this random group of khals decides who joins them, even though it was established that this is the fate of former khaleesis.

So then to have Dany in this room where they’re all basically telling her “oh well now you will be raped because it is decided”… What the hell is going on here? You can see how this is beyond the book-reader nitpick of “in the books, the khalasar finds Dany when she’s leaning against her dragon eating rare meat like a badass,” right? The patriarchy against which she triumphs is ridiculously mercurial, and all she manages to do is successfully burn down strawmen.

Then to add insult to injury, we’re seriously supposed to accept, as viewers with working brains, that burning down the holy place of a group of people who already sort of consider Dany a “witch” would earn her their loyalty. Guess they just didn’t even understand their oppression ‘til that white woman showed up!

Maybe that’s what happened with Cersei blowing up the sept too? We haven’t been shy about talking how ridiculous her ascension to the Iron Throne was. But seriously, my dudes, we cannot be expected to swallow the idea that this same institution, which was so important to pacify to the point where the Tyrells didn’t even want to think about freeing their two heirs (one of whom was being held for the crime of perjury), could suddenly get blown up without there being mass riots. What are we to make of this? That people just over-estimated the importance of the Faith? Was every single member of the Faith Militant in the sept at that one time? That all the High Sparrow’s remarks about “we are the many, you are the few” was hot air and Olenna Tyrell was a big moron for taking it seriously? Does this also make the High Sparrow equally stupid for being so brazen in his attempts to go after the Tyrells and Lannisters, or is he secretly some kind of genius that was running a fool-proof Batman’s Gambit until the plot required him to assume Cersei would show up for her trial (despite already having murdered one of his Faith Militant)?

Yay, Women on Top! Cersei won the game of Idiot Ball! Of course, to even back her into the powder-keg corner D&D had to randomly have the Faith outlaw trial by combat, which was literally presented to us as the “gods choosing the fate of the accused” in Season 1. It’s almost as if the High Sparrow had anachronistic concepts about feudal order. So once again, we get someone triumphing against an erratically penned strawman. I guess it’s fair to say that he was at least consistently sexist, but then blowing up the sept also blew up sexism for *reasons*? No seriously, how else can you explain Cersei being coronated to calm applause when her brother was still alive for one, when she had no claim to the throne for two, and when she is also considered “old” by Westerosi standards—succession is generally something people keep in mind with their rulers. Because that’s kind of why wars are fought.

Speaking of keeping succession in mind, we have the North where absolutely no one thinks to question the authority of a ten-year-old girl making war-time decisions, but then every single person conveniently overlooks the fact that Sansa Stark would be Robb Stark’s heir (as they don’t know about Bran’s survival). Then they elect a bastard because Lyanna says “I don’t care.” Cool. It’s not even worth mentioning that this is supposed to be the same world where five Blackfyre Rebellions were fought over the issues that can come as a result of bastards and their claims…I’m talking about the fact that a person who has the support of the Vale army (which they know because she literally arrived with it) and a far better claim to Robb’s throne is sitting right there. And no one says boo. That makes the sense. And this is so feminist because Lyanna was the mouthpiece for this turn of events.

Please tell me that I don’t need to explain how seeing a horribly violent hypersexualized brown woman who spent all last season determined to murder an innocent white girl (only to do so in the final episode) going on to murder her kind of!brother-in-law and his son because they were “weak men” who valued conciliation and prudence and be rewarded with the support of an entire kingdom was not an example of feminism. Please tell me that…

I’ll get into Ellaria’s scripting and her violence in the other two parts of this series, but once again, she’s “on top” for no discernible reason. The idea that every single guard in Dorne would back a coup by this woman is beyond ridiculous. The idea that a bastard would be ruling Dorne is beyond ridiculous. There’s a reason power comes from marriages and the family name (D&D’s excuse when they were trying to explain the idiocy that was Sansa marrying Ramsay) in a feudal society and that’s heavily because of succession. Are we to assume there is a House Sand? Are we to assume Ellaria has been legitimized (and by who)? And just pragmatically, we’re talking about someone who only had any sort of “say” in Dorne because she was the paramour to a prince; you mean to tell me there wouldn’t now be this inherent ambiguity in who would be next in line under this system: Obara (the oldest) or Tyene (Ellaria’s oldest)? Especially given how well they all get along…

Women on Top. On top of what? We don’t know. They’re in power! How did they get there? We don’t know. What is this challenging? We don’t know.

I’m sorry, but this is a child’s understanding of feminism. D&D (or at least most media critics) seem to be laboring under the delusion that if they just go ahead and stick women in positions of power, or have women sass-talk men, no matter how unearned, no matter how out-of-place, no matter how disingenuous to the reality of the situation, then it’s progressive. That they are doing right by these female characters, and doing right by women.

No. This is pandering, it’s a bit infantilizing truthfully, and it’s simply pathetic given how thoroughly and progressively Martin managed to explore gender dynamics and feminist issues with his setting. To put it bluntly:

“At this point, after so many years writing for these characters and spending time in George’s world, we had to be able to walk on our own feet. A lot of people go in and have to create their own characters and they do fine with it. At a certain point, if we weren’t able to do it, then shame on us. George gave us an incredible gift with probably more fantastically drawn characters than I’ve seen in pretty much any book ever. If we weren’t able to do that, we weren’t the right people to be running the show here.” —D.B. Weiss

Yeah, you weren’t.

Part 2 of this series covers how each female character in and of herself is hardly a shining example of empowerment (Sansa “stuffed silently in a corner” Stark is a more accurate descriptor, let’s be honest). I close out this series with Part 3 by discussing how each woman’s “triumph” in Season 6 was the result of an act of violence, and how it really is more of a parody of feminism than feminism itself.

Images courtesy of Elia Mervi & HBO

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