A show that takes one step forward and one step back, often via a detour along the way.
Warning: This post discusses rape and sexual violence.
Also, spoilers, duh.
Game of Thrones has some of the most powerful, well written, and interesting female characters on television. Female characters who have gone on incredible journeys to hell and back to get to where they are now (or not – GoT has no problem killing off it’s powerful females). The show depicts a broad spectrum of women: rich and clever, young and beautiful, old and wise, magical and powerful, young and feisty, strong and brave. Women who take control of their agency, their identity, and their own stories. But is that enough to make it feminist?
There are a huge amount of female characters in the show, both as main characters and supporting cast, each with unique characteristics, strengths & weaknesses, and exciting story lines that they have gone on. But, then again, there are many many women in the show who aren’t there for anything more than decoration: a nice pair of boobs, or a good bottom. Along those lines, the show is famous – particularly in it’s early days – for what has become known as “sexposition”, where crucial plot points unfolded or were explained whilst sex was taking place. One incident of this particularly springs to mind: when Littlefinger (a brothel keeper/master manipulator) is explaining his desires and motives for Catelyn Stark, whilst also teaching two prostitutes how to make love authentically. But does the show’s tendency towards boobs and bums negate the strong storylines it writes for other female characters?
I would say not. There is nothing innately wrong with depicting lots of sex and nudity. Sex is great, the human body is awesome, and I think bringing it out in the open for discussion is usually a positive move. Sex is complicated, so any depiction of it needs to be equally complex. The show depicts sex between the powerful and the weak, between whores and paying customers and between lovers. Also, and this is important, the sex is varied; we see female pleasure, male pleasure. Whilst it might sound odd to mention this, depicting different types of sex on such a mainstream show is important. Information is important.
Game of Thrones is (very) loosely based on the medieval conflict the Wars of the Roses, a deeply entrenched patriarchal society is the norm, violence abounds. Not just the blood and guts type of violence, but also the other type of violence that abounds in warfare: sexual violence. Rape is depicted on the show in no uncertain terms: within marriage, as a weapon of war, and as a method of control. So, does one cancel out the other? Does a sometimes gratuitous depiction of sexual violence mean that, by default, the show cannot be feminist?
Of course, simply ignoring sexual violence would not be feminist either. It is how it is handled that marks whether the show has a feminist take. And this show has a history of not handling it well; trying to pass rape off as consensual (Jaime/Cersei S4), showing rape when it is not necessary for a character’s development or story (Sansa/Ramsey S5).
This is one of the few shows which connects the objectification of women to a rape culture and makes the audience watch how a vulgar joke or language about a woman’s body leads to the violation of the woman’s body.The Artifice
So, how does it tackle this objectification? By allowing female characters to defy their powerlessness at the hands of the men around them, and allowing them to forge their own paths and futures. The powerful women of this show refuse to just be a pawn in someone else’s game, or a vehicle of violence for their whims. Cersei controls Jaime (among others) by utilising her sexuality, Sansa escapes Ramsey and is later the one to kill him. Women in this show can be queens, warriors, witches, whores, handmaidens, and assassins, each with their own take on, and approach to, power.
One key marker of this is, of course, the Bechdel test. Usually used for movies, it can be used for any work of fiction. In case you haven’t heard of it, the Bechdel test is a simple test that has three requirements:
1) The work has to have at least two named women in it;
2) Who talk to each other (more than just in passing);
3) About something other than a man.
Now, it’s probably easy for Game of Thrones to pass this test, given the number of hours that it has played on our screens. It does of course, pass, if you take the work as a whole, but it took me a moment to think of times when two female characters are together, and do talk about something other than a man. When Sansa and her Septa are together in S1, they talk about Joffrey; when Dany and Doreah are together in S1, they talk about Drogo; Cersei and Sansa talk about Joffrey… it is only when I really thought and really delved into the meat of the episodes did I remember scenes where two named women weren’t talking solely or predominately about man. Once I started to remember, they did come to the fore; Melisandre and Selyse talking about religion (S4) (arguable if the Lord of Light counts as “a man”); Cersei and Sansa talking about power and how to use it (S2); Arya and Sansa talking about the faces Arya has (S7)…
So examples are definitely there but, I think it’s quite telling that the scenes that immediately jumped to my mind, where women take charge of the dialogue (a scene with Margery/Olyenna/Sansa in the garden in S3/4 sprung to mind), I had to disqualify because they were talking predominately about the men in their lives, whether it was future/past husbands/lovers, or about the men in their family. Now, it could be argued that men were the linchpin around which these women’s worlds spin, so therefore a lot of their conversation is going to be about them. Fair enough.
Of course, feminism is not just about the female characters, it’s about other concepts like intersectionality and LGBTQ issues. The show has had it’s fair share of gay or queer relationships; Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell, Loras Tyrell and Olyvar, Oberyn Martell and pretty-much-anybody-he-liked, Yara Greyjoy and random women… It’s never shied away from different expressions of love/desire/lust, albeit that none of the main characters are/have been gay or queer (I count Oberyn, Ellaria, Loras, and Yara as supporting cast).
On other intersectionality issues it’s definitely not as representative as it could be; most of the main cast are white. There are a few supporting characters that are BME, or the odd main character for a season who is BME, but for the most part, the characters and actors playing them are white. Now, it could be argued that because Westeros is supposed to reflect Medieval Europe, it wouldn’t be as ethnically diverse as we’re used to in Europe today (although in major cities in Medieval Europe there were people of all ethnicities and nationalities, travelling around the world for trade, but that’s a very long and complex topic – I suggest reading some European histories). But, that says nothing of Essos, the other continent in the Game of Thrones world where the cultures are much more diverse than in Westeros. It is from Essos that pretty much all of the BME supporting characters originate, but they never quite make it to main cast lineup, although Missandei(!) and Grey Worm do get more of the time code as the seasons tick on.
With all this taken into account, is the show feminist? Hmmm… I’m going to very, very, hesitantly lean towards yes, but could be persuaded otherwise. I think the show’s development of amazing and complex female characters, that are so often lacking in other shows, outweighs some of the questionable things the show does from time to time.
Note by Anna: why I don’t think we shouldn’t be calling Game of Thrones feminist
Calling this show feminist is settling for too little. Yes, this is one of the few shows on television that tells the stories of complex, powerful women. But that is just not enough. We shouldn’t have to dismiss all the ways in which the show is still problematic.
I’m all for sex and nudity on television, but the way Game of Thrones uses predominantly women’s bodies as decoration does not scream equality to me. We’ve seen 28 vulvas but only 7 penises. Of the 51 nude celebrities so far, only 15 have been men. The top three characters with the most nude scenes are all female.
Danaerys, arguably the most powerful female character on the show, tops that list, Cersei is third. It’s the same tired narrative we see again and again: no matter how accomplished the woman, her sexual desirability is still, somehow, important in a way that her male counterpart’s is not.
Maybe it would have been different if more female voices were involved in telling the story, but only 4 out of 74 episodes so far have been directed by women. Of the 17 episodes not written by George R. R. Martin or David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, only 2 have been written by a woman.
Grey Worm and Missandei are the only two continuous supporting characters that are people of color. Their storyline and ambitions very much revolve around those of the leading, white character. If George R.R. Martin could deviate enough from the Medieval European context to introduce dragons, surely casting could have been a little more diverse.
Better is not good enough. We shouldn’t have to be thinking about what questionable things we need to overlook. Calling it feminist feels a little like admitting this is the best we can hope for, which I refuse to believe. We can, and need to, do even better.