Game of Thrones' Treatment of Women Will Tarnish Its Legacy
The rape of Sansa Stark during the fifth season of Game of Throneshorrified audiences, including then-Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. She vowed never to watch the show again, tweeting that the “gratuitous rape scene” was “disgusting and unacceptable.” Hers was a widely echoed sentiment: Sansa’s was the latest in a line of violent sexual assaults in the show, from Daenerys’s rape by Khal Drogo in Thrones’ very first episode, to Cersei Lannister’s rape by her brother Jaime in its fourth season. For many fans, they'd had enough.
My breaking point had come a bit earlier, with the second season episode in which then-King Joffrey both ordered Sansa half-stripped and beaten, and then demanded at the point of a crossbow, that prostitutes bludgeon each other for his enjoyment. For me, those scenes made it clear that Thrones was a show willing to mount its action upon the stage of women’s bodies. While the series’ treatment of women has improved in the wake of the outcry over Sansa’s Season Five assault amidst a media-spanning bar-raising for how fiction handles female characters, misogyny is Game of Thrones's original sin.
Thrones premiered in 2011, during very different era for television. House of Cards, the first streaming-only hit, was still two years away, and prestige programming was dominated by the gin and ‘60s misogyny-soaked Mad Men, along with Breaking Bad, a show about two badass dudes, one of whom was burdened with a nagging harpy of a wife. It was a different time, and when Game of Thrones burst onto the scene in a barrage of blood and boobs, the show was an instant hit.
But questions of misogyny emerged early on, particularly focused around the frequent nudity. Critic Myles McNutt coined the term “sexposition” for the show's habit of offering the bitter pill of explanatory monologues in the candy coating of shoehorned-in female nudity. In separate Season One scenes, Tyrion Lannister and Viserys Targaryen outlined their family trees (boring) while frolicking with naked sex workers (exciting!). There’s nothing wrong with nudity—bodies are beautiful, or at the very least, we’ve all got them, and America’s puritanical streak means that our network television is decidedly more devoid of it than that of other countries. But the nudity on Game of Thrones was regressive, never equitable and often contrived, and consisted largely of beautiful women dropping trou to titillate the audience, again and again.
And while there’s been more full-frontal male nudity on this show than on most other programs, very little of it has been sexual. The random Braavosi dude checking his junk for warts in Season Six turned exactly no one on. We’ve seen a dusty prisoner penis and poor mentally handicapped Hodor’s genitals, but few instances of men presented as naked, desirable sex objects—compared to the countless come-hithering naked ladies the show has introduced us to. A rare example of such a scene occurred in Season Four, when Daenerys ordered her general Daario to drop his pants before her. Emilia Clarke called it one of her favorite moments of the series. “That's a scene I've been waiting for,” she told Elle in 2017.
Credit where due, by this measure, at least, the show’s treatment of women has improved by bounds. Broadly crunched the numbers, and no season has been as nudity-filled as the show’s first, which saw upwards of 30 incidents of tits and/or bits, with 88 percent of them belonging to women. There were just 16 naked people the following season, but all were women. There was an uptick in Season Four, with 23 characters baring all, 90 percent of them women. By Season Seven, however, only six characters did so, and fully half of them were men.
The rapes have slowed, too, with none depicted on screen since the Sansa controversy. The show's creators were deservedly criticized for adding Jaime's Season Four rape of Cersei to the story when it never occurred in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, but the books generally have more assaults than does the show—one fan found that the show featured 50 acts of rape while the books included approximately 200. Martin defends including such abuse on the grounds of realism. “I'm writing about war,” he told Entertainment Weekly, “which is what almost all epic fantasy is about, but if you're going to write about war and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don't portray [sexual violence], then there's something fundamentally dishonest about that.”
“People will say 'Well, he's not writing history, he's writing fantasy - he put in dragons, he should have made an egalitarian society'," he continued. "Just because you put in dragons doesn't mean you can put in anything you want. I wanted my books to be strongly grounded in history and to show what medieval society was like.”
Fair enough. But consider all the realism the show and the books it’s based on have chosen to omit. No one seems troubled that not a single character has succumbed to dysentery, that scourge of medieval society. A realistic Thrones would have a lot more spilled chamber pots, fleas, and plague-bearing rodents. It would also have a broader variety of sexual violence. Martin and the showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have not found that realism demands the vivid depiction of the rape of men, though it is also a widely perpetrated weapon of war. Instead, the burden of realism is disproportionately placed on the rape of women. And not old women, or unconventionally attractive women, both of whom are also the targets of rapists. The only conclusion is that the show is depicting what it imagines audiences want to see—sex, violence, and sexual violence inflicted upon attractive women.
Then there’s the Arya Exception. It holds that as Arya is never raped, nor sexualized, always self-actualized, and handled as respectively as any of Thrones's male heroes, misogyny cannot be deeply imbedded in the show. (The Arya Exception is often accompanied by the Brienne Corollary, though unlike her younger counterpart Brienne of Tarth is subjected to an attempted rape during season three.) And yet both of these character’s respectful handling and status as fan favorites rest on their rejection of all things traditionally feminine. Sansa, who in the early seasons longed to be a princess and eat lemon cakes, was for years among the show’s most hated characters, and she’s married off twice against her will, beaten, and raped. The Arya Exception is doubly damaging in that it equates traditionally female characteristics with weakness and male ones with strength, while falsely suggesting that women might be spared the brutalities too often visited upon our gender if only we’d quit it with all that girly shit we love so much.
The show is ending with three women, Cersei, Daenerys, and Sansa, among the most powerful and politically skilled contenders for the Iron Throne. But we’ve seen each raped on-screen, which makes them no less worthy or forceful, but does mean that viewers have seen them suffer intimate indignity that has not been visited on their male counterparts. The series was willing to give them the power to rule Westeros, but not the respect it’s shown to relatively minor male characters like Ser Davos (a smuggler) and Jorah Mormont (who sold slaves).
Thrones’s misogyny demonstrates a profound lack of imagination. Martin, Benioff, and Weiss could conjure dragons, but not a world in which men could be the targets of female desire. They brought White Walkers to terrifying life, but couldn’t consider sexual assault as anything more than a provocative plot point. This failure has thrown a pall over seven seasons of otherwise great television, and it’s a sin that threatens to limit the show’s watchability in future years, as audiences tolerate less and less chauvinism in their entertainment. No matter what happens in the final season, Thrones’ treatment of women has irreparably tainted the series.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.