Thursday, May 30, 2024

The “Sexism Debate” about Game of Thrones is anything but “Crushed”

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I feel rather bad taking actors to task for their comments in interviews about the media in which they star. I feel especially bad for every woman cast in Game of Thrones (GoT), because they can’t go one interview without being asked about the sexist criticisms it has engendered. But what am I to do when my Google newsfeed is full of headlines that say ‘Game of Thrones’: Emilia Clarke crushes sexism debate and “Game Of Thrones’: Sexism Criticisms Blasted By Emilia Clarke”?

Oh well, debate over! Emilia Clarke said it wasn’t sexist, and she is the Arbiter of Truth for All Women!

But even if it was somehow mythically possible to the “disprove” claims of sexism levied at GoT, this really ain’t the way to go about it:

“There’s so much controversy. Yet that’s what’s beautiful about Game of Thrones – it’s depiction of women in so many different stages of development. There are women depicted as sexual tools, women who have zero rights, women who are queens but only to a man, and then there are women who are literally unstoppable and as powerful as you can possibly imagine. So it pains me to hear people taking Thrones out of context with anti-feminist spin – because you can’t do that about this show. It shows the range that happens to women, and ultimately shows women are not only equal, but have a lot of strength.”

I don’t want to be disingenuous; I do see where Emilia Clarke is coming from. In fact, she seems to understand that the depiction of something shitty, say sexual violence against women, is not the same as the endorsement of said shitty thing. Just because Sansa was raped, doesn’t mean the rape was presented in a good light. And though I do understand the argument that in a fantasy series, there needn’t be rape at all, nor such an oppressively misogynistic society as a setting, I personally don’t agree with that; I don’t agree with the mentality that these subjects aren’t something to be explored in fiction, or that there isn’t a value to that exploration.

George R.R. Martin seems to agree with me, because while his world of Westeros is a horribly upsetting place for women to live in, he examines their mistreatment and relegation from power as a major theme throughout the books. Probably because he has something to say about it. See, this is the power of speculative fiction: to be able to distance ourselves from our own cultural assumptions about issues so that we can really dig deep at them. Westeros is not our own world, yet it has uncomfortable similarities to our history. The way Martin explores his setting’s effect on his characters, from Catelyn’s “patriarchy brain” where she never challenges any fundamental assumptions about the system, to Cersei’s corrosive internalized misogyny, and even to Sam’s toxic understanding of ‘strength’ and subsequent anxiety at his inability to live up to this ideal, has, I would argue, incredibly feminist implications for the readers.

So yeah, Clarke, we agree. It’s important to show women struggling and to have different types of women. Actually, this “different types of women” defense is very, very common among the GoT cast. Sophie Turner said as much in a Wall Street Journal interview, Natalie Dormer has gone on record praising its “realism” and how sheltering isn’t constructive, and Jack Gleeson basically said “depiction isn’t endorsement” verbatim:

“Yeah, of course; it’s a tricky thing when you are representing misogyny in that way because I wouldn’t say the show ever implicitly condones misogyny or any kind of violence towards women. But, perhaps, it’s still unfair or unjust to represent it even if the gloss on the representation is a negative one.
Obviously as a 23-year-old man, I can never put myself into the mindset of a woman who has been sexually assaulted, but I think that sometimes you have to represent awful things happening onscreen even if they’re for entertainment because you have to expose the brutality of them, because the chances are you’re not going to see that anywhere. So there’s a chance it engages some kind of empathy but it is a gray area. It might be very traumatic and stressful to watch those scenes.”

And I’m sitting here, mostly nodding my head along with this sentiment, while on the table sits my thrice-read copy of A Feast For Crows that is falling apart at the seams (this also isn’t counting my audiobook listens). So clearly I am okay with media that is set in a challenging environment where women suffer. In fact, if done well, I believe there’s a strong value in that.

Here’s the thing though. GoT is not done well. I don’t even want to touch how it’s completely devoid of logic, characterizations are erratic, almost everything that happens is unmotivated, how it’s just shy of narrative sadism… Seriously. You can hear me talk about it for two and a half hours with Wendy and Julia if you want.

No, I really just want to talk about showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D)’s use of their “setting” and scripting of women, and how no, they’re not challenging anything at all with GoT. They are simply incorporating wildly sexist tropes into the very fiber of their show, and giving us a parody of feminism at best.

The first point is easiest to hit on: their setting. Right away, I’m going to need to forbid any talk of “this is how it is in the books.” The show is not the books. The show is hilariously not the books, actually, to the point where even D&D recently told us that it’s so off-the-rails, it won’t even be spoiling the upcoming The Winds of Winter:

“People are talking about whether the books are going to be spoiled – and it’s really not true,” Benioff told EW. “So much of what we’re doing diverges from the books at this point. And while there are certain key elements that will be the same, we’re not going to talk so much about that – and I don’t think George is either. People are going to be very surprised when they read the books after the show. They’re quite divergent in so many respects for the remainder of the show.

“But there’s violence against women in the books!” Ya. There is. Jon also gets stabbidied in the books too, but in wildly different contexts, with a wildly different meaning, and wildly different implications. If D&D can straight up admit that they’re just making shit up, then they do not get to hide behind the books anymore. So from now on, A Song of Ice and Fire is irrelevant to this article, okay? If they don’t want to take it seriously as an adaptation, there’s no reason we should.

D&D’s setting is almost as inconsistent as Littlefinger’s accent. You see, they do establish that Westeros (it pains me not to use ‘Weisseroff,’ but this is important and demands a Serious Tone™) is a kinda shitty place for women to live. There’s a heavily toxic patriarchy where women are pretty often victims of sexual violence and easily relegated from power. When their version of Cersei was faced with her son Tommen getting thrown into an obviously abusive relationship in Season 5, in addition to her leadership not being taken seriously due to the fact that she is a woman (“Queen Mother, nothing more”), she had little to no recourse, and was rather backed into a corner, nearly shipped off to Casterly Rock, unless she acted. No wonder she sought out the High Sparrow.

Or we can talk about how in Season 4, Craster’s wives were all raped and mistreated at the hands of the Night’s Watch mutineers, and powerless to do anything until Jon’s rescue squad showed up.

However…that same toxic patriarchy kind of magically disappears when it’s not deemed cinematic enough. It’d be a better love story if Robb fell for a sass-talking field nurse who tromped around battlefields without a chaperone, talking about how stoopid other girls were for party planning (not an important societal function or anything)? Well okay, let’s zap in Talisa, Queen of the Anachronisms! It’d be more entertaining to see Diana Rigg quip it up? Okay! Olenna can become the official negotiator of House Tyrell because that’s a thing that would totally happen. And of course, my favorite example: it’d make the audience really bummed out to see Tyrion rape a sex slave? Well alright, let’s magically ignore not only the patriarchy, but the slavery system as well, and have her hit on him, encourage him to finish his drink, and then offer services for free.

I’m sorry, no one is ever allowed to claim “historical realism” in a show where Talisa existed. And the fact is, D&D don’t seem to have any clue what they’re doing with this “patriarchal” setting, as it is not uncommonly brushed aside for convenience. How on Earth can we possibly accept the argument “it’s important to show different types of women with different types of struggles” when there is no consistency given to the system against which they are supposedly struggling? This is not a commentary on anything; it’s an “edgy” setting that mysteriously vanishes when its implications are unsavory or boring.

So the fact that this is a show that relies so heavily on the mistreatment of women, as well as the total objectification of their bodies is rather…

Yes, men are harmed in this show too. But there is a clear pattern with whose bodies are used for audience titillation. Let’s look at the most recent season alone:

  • A brothel scene with the seven kinky gods, including some really classy crotch-shots (it actually seemed like the director purposely cut the women’s heads out of the frame). But don’t worry; the men were tastefully wrapped up in clothes.
  • The Myranda/Ramsay scene with her body on display for its entirety
  • Tyene’s horribly contrived strip-tease
  • Melisandre popping her tits out to proposition Jon
  • The former slave sex worker who stripped to full frontal before the Unsullied told her “no no, you don’t need to do that”
  • Sansa’s rape (then followed by the scene with her artistically placed bruises and tousled hair)
  • Trant raping young, confused girls that seemed to be pulled randomly off the streets of Braavos with no understanding of what was happening. Then later Trant beating his soon-to-be rape victims to show the audience how “bad” he is
  • Shireen being burned alive
  • Gilly almost getting raped, and the attack framed as two guys trying to “damage Sam’s goods”
  • The only people inside Winterfell who were harmed being women: Sansa, Myranda, the random old lady
  • Karsi’s character being changed from a male character to a woman simply because only a woman could have an emotional death-by-children (and having her be completely passive in that death)
  • Selyse’s suicide being treated as the punchline to Stannis’s “it can’t be worse than mutiny” remark
  • Cersei’s young, hot body double and totally naked walk, when the previous “walk of shame” for the High Septon cut him off at the waist except for like a 2 second shot of his butt

In case you forgot too, Sansa, Selyse, Shireen, and Myranda’s bodies were either broken or brutalized to further the storyline of a man. But I guess three seconds of Michiel Huisman’s ass means it’s equal, right?

Really, the only thing that can be gleaned from the list is that no, it has nothing to do with “how it was back then” (as if that ever made sense), nor any commitment to exploring the full implications such a toxic patriarchy. Instead, GoT has picked a setting that is as voyeuristic as possible towards women, without bothering to challenge a damn thing.

Then there’s the writing. The actual scripting of their female characters.

I don’t really want to shock anyone, but these multitudes of “strong women” simply don’t exist. Let’s start with “Khaleesi,” because A. Emilia Clarke is the one who, ya know, “defeated” the sexist claims apparently and, B. If there’s one face of “empowerment” on this show, it’s Daenerys. It’s been that way ever since she told Missandei “all men must die, but we are no men.” Which…what does that even mean? That she’s immortal?

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Khaleesi. You know what else is stupid? Her. Seriously, in this most recent season, she made one asspull decision after the other, including a series of 180°s that gave me more whiplash than Hardhome’s shaky cam. Is she pro-trial because Barry randomly suggested it, or is she pro-public executions? Is she gonna use her suspiciously trained dragons to roast former-slavers for no reason, or force one of them into a marriage to no effect?

That’s the other thing: every single choice she made this past season had absolutely no consequence. All it did was make her look like this erratic asshole who desperately needed Tyrion’s council, to the point where he was literally arguing for her in the pit with Hizdahr before the games started. Did the random marriage or opening the pit do anything at all to appease the Sons of the Harpy, by the way? Of course not! Every decision she made only painted her as ineffectual, and even cruel on occasion.

And then, and then her moment of “empowerment” was…what exactly? Holding hands with Missandei to accept her death? Having Drogon spirit her away from danger because she was a damsel in distress? And how refreshing that the season closed with her in a situation from which she needs rescue.

Really, the scripting of Dany was just infantilizing, there’s no other way to put it. She needed to have Barry explain to her the value of a trial, she needed Hizdahr to explain to her the importance of politics, she needed Tyrion to explain to her how to handle the Jorah situation, and she needed both Jorah and Daario to save her from the Harpies (and set off to save her again in Season 6, if the trailer is to be trusted). But I guess since she spews her meaningless platitudes in a monotone voice, we should assume she’s empowered and strong, right?

Brienne of Tarth is another GoT dame often pointed to as a “strong woman.” And yeah, she’s physically strong. She kills a lot of dudes. In fact, that’s kind of her first instinct. Actually, it’s kind of her only instinct. Who needs to try and use words when you can draw a blade? That’s it. That’s the totality of her character. There’s no internal struggle, or battle with her place in the world, and frankly her womanhood seems incidental at this point. It’s really, really hard not to contrast this to her book counterpart, who might offer one of the most complicated critiques of womanhood in the series, but I promised I wouldn’t. I’ll leave Brienne at this: is the fact that her “strength” is completely inseparably from her blade a good thing, or even moderately challenging to the audience?

It’s okay though, women on GoT have something else from which they can draw strength…their boobs! No seriously, to be an Empowered Woman on this show, you must be a fighter or a minsky sexual manipulator. Margaery is definitely the worst example of this, to the point where she is a statutory rapist (I will not hear any moral relativist arguments, especially with the show’s transparent and mercurial setting), and that is her means of exacting power. Which, maybe was supposed to be a commentary on the lengths she had to go for power, except that it wasn’t presented in a negative light. It was presented as a joke, because Tommen must be so lucky.

But even with all that Empowered sex, Margaery still seems to have no political ambitions and no aim past sending Cersei away because she annoys her. And because women always be catty, amirite?

Actually, I am right. You can count positive female interaction in Season 5 on one finger: Missandei and Daenerys. Which was unearned.

My point is, even Margaery’s “empowerment” is in a completely petty context, and built on the assumption that women must either rely on their feminine wiles or learn to fight, or else they’re just fucked in this society. There’s no “strength” in non-sexual “feminine” skills/virtues, which I guess explains Talisa’s entire existence. If you managed to make it through Obara’s Episode 4 monologue without raiding your fridge, it seems that D&D took the choice about “tears or spear” to heart.

Sansa is the perfect character who exemplifies this. And actually, her character arc is the perfect microcosm through which we can come to understand the sexism that just permeates the show. But without rehashing every single micro-decision, let’s simply examine her past couple of years. At the end of Season 4, we were shown that Sansa was an Empowered Woman when she lied to the Vale Lords, right? Except that they couldn’t simply have her be a girl with a highly developed intuition who saw a chance to escape her current situation and jumped. No, they immediately had to give us a scene where she told Littlefinger “I know what you want,” not-so-subtly lampshading his sexual interest in her. And even that might have been passable had it not been for her final scene of the season:

And of course in case we forgot to read the vampish attire as “hot,” we get the Baelish reaction shot:

This means that one of her first external exhibits of agency and control in the narrative was instantly framed in a sexual context. I guess we wouldn’t have believed that she became a “player” otherwise.

I think it’s also really important to understand how D&D and their creative team think about scenes like this. From the costume designer at the time, Michele Clapton:

“David and Dan came to me with the idea of a transformation for Sansa. They wanted her to be her own woman rather than this victim… I liked the idea that after this, she doesn’t want to sew anymore. The metal piece is really a miniature of Arya’s sword, Needle, and the idea is that there’s a ring that you stitch through and then that’s her weapon.”

Okay, first of all, ignoring the utter idiocy of Sansa the Welder, the language here is very interesting. “Her own woman rather than a victim” paints a false dichotomy, but one that plays into this “sexual manipulator is the only path to Empowerment for feminine women” issue. Secondly, the idea that the girth of Sansa’s empowerment was so great that she decided to give up sewing, that dumbass hobby, speaks volumes of what the attitude towards feminine-coded skills are.

However, these horrifying implications were only furthered with Sansa’s Season 5 storyline. For starters, she ended up in her shitty, “gothic horror” situation because they sort of took any intelligence her character had previously shown, and punted it out the window. As the audience, we were supposed to swallow the fact that Sansa is so stoopid she just listens to anything Littlefinger tells her to do, even if it’s “marry your enemy for revenge.” That makes all of the sense. And absolutely doesn’t solidify the Bolton claim in the North or anything. Square pegs in round holes are not exactly unique to the female characters of GoT, but at least the men get to their illogical situations through their own choices (hi, Stannis).

There’s nothing to call Sansa’s scripting but infantilization when she started to cry in that scene overlooking Moat Cailin, saying [reasonably] she would starve herself rather than marry Ramsay, and Littlefinger hushed her as a mother might do her crying toddler.

But okay, whatever, she landed herself in this marriage arrangement with Ramsay. Unfortunately, D&D decided to also throw any displayed intuition out that window too. It doesn’t take a great genius to realize that maybe Ramsay is not the best dude in the world, and yet she still goes through with the wedding…for revenge.

“This isn’t a timid little girl walking into a wedding night with Joffrey. This is a hardened woman making a choice and she sees this as the way to get back her homeland.” Bryan Cogman, producer of GoT.

Okay, maybe this poorly worded quote is low-hanging fruit in the “sexism debate” here. It is kind of victim blaming 101, but Sansa’s rape has been almost universally derided, even by critics who seem to love the show. Instead, I’m trying to talk about overarching issues with her scripting and presentation, and how this reveals majorly sexist assumptions.

For example, the assumption that to be recognized as a victim of abuse, you have to look a certain way.

I’m talking, of course, of the major Madonna-Whore complex in this plotline. They got Sansa out of her Dress of Empowerment as quickly as possible, and into matronly clothing. Literally, I think they were Cat’s. Meanwhile, Myranda got a scene where it was clear that she was a plaything of Ramsay’s who was in absolutely no position to leave this relationship. His actions made her visibly upset, and we were reminded of how she was just “the kennel master’s daughter” and “you know what happens to things that bore me.” And of course this doesn’t excuse all of her actions, but the narrative never recognized this abuse. Or the implications of pitting two abuse victims against each other and framing it as petty, catty jealousy.

Theon murdering Myranda was so clearly supposed to be a “yeah, bitch got hers” moment, and I’m sorry, but it just reeked of misogyny. The “bad” woman gets thrown off a balcony while the woman who had been “pure,” and who was a Bonafide Victim gets rescue. How fun.

Based on the trailer, Sansa’s going to become Not a Victim again next season; she’ll be Empowered yet again. And I bet she’ll get a cool outfit change and some lipgloss to go with it!

Look, you can tell a meaningful and progressive story that has rape in it. You can explore implications of that brutalization. I’m not trying to say otherwise. But personality ping-pong is not the way to achieve this, nor is falling back to the sexist tropes that were so grossly prevalent in this storyline: Rape is Drama; Madonna-Whore complex; Women are Catty; Damned by Comparison; Damsel in Distress.

No, Sansa’s rape wasn’t presented in a good light. The narrative wasn’t “endorsing rape.” But it also wasn’t presented in a logical light, or a realistic light, or with its focal point being Sansa herself, or with any consideration to her character. It wasn’t endorsing the act, but it sure as hell was endorsing sexism as a great go-to for storytelling and quality TV.

“Basically, when we decided to combine Sansa’s storyline with another character in the books it was done with the idea that it would be hugely dramatically satisfying to have Sansa back in her occupied childhood home and navigate this Gothic horror story she’s found herself in and, of course, to be reunited with Theon – setting her on the path to reclaiming her family home and becoming a major player in the big overall story.” Bryan Cogman

It’s not you, it’s the narrative satisfaction.

However, one last point I want to make, and one that critics miraculously miss in this “sexism debate” is that it’s not just about Event A, or women with their tits out, or the existence of sexual violence. It’s about the pattern of writing. And while they may be trigger-happy to ask all women involved with the show their opinion on this “woman” problem, we aren’t asked about the treatment of men. Because you wanna talk sexism, let’s talk Toxic Masculinity.

Let’s talk about how Jaime wasn’t allowed to struggle with PTSD because it was so dang important that he had a wackado fight where his golden hand stopped a sword. Let’s talk about how Tyrion’s alcoholism was comedic, or how spotting a dragon magically fixed his depression. Let’s talk Sam embracing every single harmful stereotype about “what is strength” by walking around braggin’ about his sex and slaying, and getting a “thank you” laid for saving his dame from rapists.

Let’s talk about how Hizdahr was mocked by Dany and Daario for not being traditionally manly, and ultimately killed, that wuss; about Jon’s character development being relegated to swinging a sword harder, faster, better, and stronger than his simplistically evhul enemies; Stannis refusing to shed tears for his daughter while his wife pulled a 180° and broke down, ultimately to kill herself (revealed as a punchline to a joke); Tormund flipping out and murdering the Lord of Bones over a mild suggestion of homoeroticism; Karsi the Wildling Extra changed to a woman because apparently it’s not emotionally significant for men to care about their kids; Tommen’s rape and Bronn’s torture at the hands of women Played for Laughs; Trystane strolling around with a cutlass and smirking when asked if he had a girlfriend before.

Because I really, really want to talk about how these bullshit sexist assumptions about “what is strength” manifest in Every. Single. Male. Character. Except Loras, because Gays so Special!

GoT so completely buys into our society’s assumption of what makes men “strong.” And I’m not trying to say that masculine men can’t be, or that anything is inherently wrong with that type of gender expression. What I am saying is that when this is the only mold that is portrayed as “good” and worthy of praise, that can lead to a lot of issues.

Men Act, Women Are. Men are Tough. Men Don’t Cry. All Abusers are Male. A Man is not a Virgin.

And woe-betide any man who doesn’t fit into that cast; maybe a man who was abused by a woman and not taken seriously (or perhaps too embarrassed to report); a man who struggles with anxiety, or PSTD, or depression, or anything that could be perceived as a “weakness.” Because it’s really not good to continually drive home the message that such a man is somehow lesser, or even worse, at fault. Maybe there’s a reason that male suicide rates are 3-10 times higher than women in the United States?

We need to take this seriously. As “dramatically satisfying” as it was to see Bronn and Jaime’s bro-trip, there is something to be said about a story that revolves around a competing understanding of internal and external honor, framed against the realization of a mutually destructive relationship and the adjustment to a new disability; you know—an exploration of weakness and inner turmoil.

Shit, I referenced the books.

Where does this leave us? Well, I’m really sorry to say, but this “debate” is anything but “crushed.” GoT profits off of a “historical-ish” setting that is truly just meaningless, while its writing embraces a multitude of sexist tropes. Frankly, in my view, the debate is only “crushed” in the sense that sexism is so thoroughly woven into the fibers of this show that it’s essentially self-evident.

But the thing is, the continual framing of this as “a debate” that can be easily swatted away with a few choice words by Emilia Clarke…that’s the issue. Because how can there ever be a solution when there’s no recognition of what the problem is? It’s not just Sansa’s rape; it’s not just the Dornish women playing the slapsies game in the basement or dumping wine on the floor while the men talked serious politics; it’s not just the number of tits that parade across our screen. It’s the entire pattern of writing in this show. But so long as critics keep giving them a pass, there is no reason for anyone involved to reflect on this. There’s no reason for Benioff and Weiss to do anything but keep on keepin’ on, and apparently that’s exactly their plan:

Stop strawmanning the arguments. Stop with the Women are Special bullshit where you think the words of one female advocate of this show somehow “disproves” charges of sexism. Because frankly, other than unmotivated Shocks™ and poorly lit sets, it’s one of its defining characteristics at this point. And from the looks of things, that’s not about to get better any time soon.

UPDATE 8/11/16: For an in-depth look at how the show’s sexism continued into Season 6, please check out the three-part series “The Fallacy of GoT’s Women on Top.”

‘Game of Thrones’ images courtesy of HBO

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