Game of Thrones: How Much of My Politics Will I Suspend for a TV Show?

TRIGGER ALERT: Discusses scenes of sexual violence as they happen on Game of Thrones
SPOILER ALERT: Discusses up to Season 4 Episode 5, “First of His Name”

Game of Thrones is one of my guilty pleasures.  Now I’m beginning to wonder if I’m feeling more guilt than pleasure. This inner battle has waxed and waned over the four seasons but it’s recently become more pressing and it seems as though the guilt side is winning.  And it’s not for the scene (you know, of Cersei and Jaime in the Sept of Baelor) that many people were upset about from the “Breaker of Chains” episode.  Instead, this scene had only the slightest mentions and analysis from the torrent of recaps and episode analysis that come out from the entertainment blogosphere the Monday after a show.  Perhaps that was what alarmed me most.

Can you trust this person

Source: @booktopia

There’s been no shortage of analysis and opinions published about Game of Thrones and its depiction of women in the highly patriarchal and violent medieval fantasy world of Westoros.  Compared of other hugely successful works of fantasy (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek come to mind) there is undoubtedly a much richer variety in female characters that more than pass the Bechdel Test.  See the chart for a sample of the “GOT is Feminist” and “GOT is Not Feminist” camps.  The writer of the series, George R. R. Martin, has donned the label “feminist” and is lauded for his development of highly complex female characters.  Nonetheless, in the hyper-masculine world of Westoros, “All men must die”, no one can be trusted (see image), and just about every female character has been threatened with or experienced sexual violence.

I came to the series late, resistant to watch it after the consistent reports of the show’s “rapey-ness” and critical of HBO’s use of sexposition.   I had been very intentionally avoiding shows and movies with rape scenes.  I was influenced by a passage written  by Inga Muscio who, after pointing out that one out of eight movies produced in the US contain a rape scene, argued “In American cinema, rape scenes tend to be violently eroticized, and often have nothing to do with the main plot of the film.  When viewing a rape scene, scads of men [I wouldn’t exclude women here] feel confused and disgusted with themselves if it turns them on.” This brings me to the scene where I questioned why I continued to watch the show.

The scene was a relatively short scene in “The Oathkeeper” episode. Above The Wall, the Night’s Watch mutineers have turned a homestead called “Craster’s Keep” into a rape camp.  Craster, him had lived there with his 19 “wives”, many of whom were his daughters before he was killed during the mutiny.  The scene contained a very graphic representation of the continuous raping of very minor characters, Craster’s “wives”, as the character Karl lets the audience know what a complete and total scumbag he is.  I’ve spent the better part of a week trying to dissect the scene and my reaction.  Why this scene?  Why not the Dothraki raping/pillaging scene?  Why not the prostitute forced to beat another scene?  The possibilities of where I might have had my fill are endless.  But this stuck out. During this scene, I put Game of Thrones on notice.

Myles McNutt, coiner of the term “sexposition” interpreted the scene very differently.  I’m grateful for his viewpoint which was far more nuanced than other write-ups, which glossed over the scene or referred to the women being abused as concubines. He argues that cutting to an abused, silent character is evidence of the show’s interest to “highlight and acknowledge the atrocities being committed against them.”  He called it a “small moment of refuge from a space that otherwise dwells on violence against women, and female nudity that is consistent with the show’s modus operandi.”  For that pit in my stomach, however, it was not refuge enough.  Alison Herman argues that the sexism and cruelty are not without purpose and that Martin “created dozens of female characters who struggle with what it means to survive in that world in ways that render them three-dimensional and tremendously empathetic.” A valid argument, but not what happened in this scene.

My gut reaction as I watched the bare women’s bodies used as a backdrop for violence was that the scene was far too eroticized without the opportunity for viewers to care enough about the characters.  During that scene, for about 5 seconds, I had a hard time distinguishing it from violent porn.  The visible bruises on the bodies were enough; the cries of “no” in the background were enough; the fearful women clutching at what was left of their clothes were enough.  A short cut to a face was not enough for me to cancel out the exposed and abused.  The scene could be a critique on violent masculinity, even as it revels in it.  But must it revel in it?  Can it revel in it and still be a critique?  These are all answers I don’t know, but am doubtful.  As we work against the various ways violence manifests in our lives, to what degree do we allow it to manifest in our entertainment?  How much of my politics am I willing to suspend for a TV show?

Remembering why I avoided the series in the first place, I visited Muscio’s website and immediately landed on an entry titled “The Girl Who Didn’t Watch Rape Scenes.”  In it she weighs her own reactions to “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” series and the sexual violence portrayed.  She concludes that the rape was important to the development of entire series and to the drive and persona of the character.  It’s a hard line to walk.  There’s our reality of invasive rape culture and sexual violence, which we rally against daily.  Sexual violence drives to destroy the most gendered source of pleasure and replace that with ultimate pain, humiliation, and shame. This will inevitably be reflected in the different means of storytelling of our time. How it is reflected is important.  I had to see how this played out.

I found myself shivering as I watched this week’s “First of His Name” episode to see what happened at Craster’s Keep.  I instantly felt relief and vindication when the character whose gaze was highlighted during the Craster’s Keep = Rape Camp scene stabs him in the back, ultimately resulting in his gory demise.  And the vindication kept on coming with many characters getting their revenge in Craster’s Keep, even the direwolf, Ghost, who was mistreated by a mutineer in “The Oathkeeper” episode.  The episode ended when the women of Craster’s Keep took their chances on their own announcing that, “Craster beat us and worse.  Your brother crows beat us and worse.  We’ll find our own way.”

I still agree with Muscio’s premise, that it is detrimental to watch (and depict) rape scenes.  I think it should be done sparingly and always with great care. I think we should continue to analyze our entertainment and hold ourselves accountable to our politics.  Everyone has a different perspective, a different take. It’s the conversations around those perspectives and takes that are as important as the media.  It is the actions that take form because of these conversations that are as important as the media.  As for how I feel about the series now? It’s still on notice.

A not-at-all extensive list of some of the discussion regarding GOT and feminism, crudely flung into one of two camps:

GOT is Feminist

GOT is Not Feminist

Complex Nuanced Critique of Patriarchy Why Sansa is the Strongest Character

How Patriarchy Screwed the Starks

9 Ways GOT is Actually Feminist

Jaime Lanister is Actually a Feminist

GOT: Feminist or Not?

The Meta Feminist Arc of Daenerys Targeryen

Feminist Media Criticism, GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Sady Boyle

Just Because You Like it Doesn’t Make it Feminist
The Fans Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

The Abused Wives of Westeros: A Song of Feminism…

Does it Matter Whether Game of Thrones is Feminist?*(Not entirely in this camp)

What the R Stands for in George R R Martin


Comments are closed