CONTENT WARNING: THIS POST DISCUSSES GRAPHIC AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES.
When season six of the wildly popular fantasy show Game of Thrones premiered, one of the creators, David Benioff teased that, “This season, women would rule.” The show delivered on that front: viewers watched as Daenerys Targaryen led a massive army towards King’s Landing to reclaim her rightful position as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, a role now filled by the long suffering Cersei Lannister, who, in a shocking turn of brilliance, orchestrated a massive explosion that killed everyone who opposed her. Elsewhere, Arya Stark finally avenged her murdered family by slitting the throat of the man who killed them while her older sister Sansa took vengeance on her rapist and laid claim to the title of Lady of Winterfell. The show has taken progressive strides with its female characters over the course of six seasons; shifting the women from sex objects who exist for the pleasure of both the male audience and male characters and powerful roles that drive the plot forward.
Game of Thrones premiered April 17. 2011 and became a critical and commercial success. However the show garnered controversy for its explicit sex scenes, gratuitous nudity and sexual violence often centered on the female characters. In the Washington Post, Jezebel founder Anna Holmes writes that the show’s “often outlandish” eroticism “often overshadows or distracts from the actual story,” (Skin, 2012). She notes that episodes regularly feature naked women, while the male characters rarely disrobe entirely (Skin). The show’s heavy usage of female nudity and sex led critic and blogger Myles McNutt to coin the term “sexpostition”, which describes a scene in which male characters discuss key elements of the plot or their personal histories with significant relevance while female characters engage in sexual activities in the background. (You, 2011). McNutt raises the question regarding sexposition: “is it simply because we couldn’t be trusted to pay attention otherwise?” (You). In a scene in early season one, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish engages in a two and half minute monologue regarding his history with the Stark family and his romantic feelings for their matriarch, Catelyn Stark, while two naked women practice sexual acts on one another. The women are relegated to the role of the sex object; they are minor characters designed to be watched, and have no significance to the story. Their appearance in the scene is meant to keep the viewer’s attention while they (the viewer) are fed several pieces of important information about a male character.
The use of women as attention grabbing sex objects is something that Laura Mulvey discusses in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. She explores the idea of the “male gaze”, a masculine point of view across movies and literature in which women are presented as the objects of sexual pleasure for both the male audience and male characters. Mulvey writes that the female characters have no direct influence on the plot, and merely serve as a support or sexual object and reward for the male (Mulvey, 61). One of the characters who embodied the object of the male gaze was the redhead Ros.
Beautiful and sultry, Ros was a recurring character in the first three seasons of the show, whose role was to sleep with powerful men and coax out their important political plans or personal backstories. Ros was consistently portrayed as the passive character in the scenes she appeared in, designed to be viewed and fetishized by the male audience. Mulvey states in her article, “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on the female figure which is styled accordingly,” (62). In Ros’ case, her female figure was most often naked, helping keep the viewer’s attention and serving as a surrogate for the audience when it came time for key male characters to deliver an exposition. She became a connection between several characters: Jon Snow, Varys, Joffrey, Pycelle and Littlefinger, without having development of her own. She was used as a political pawn by Varys and Littlefinger and had several sexual encounters with Pycelle in which he would discuss the political history of Westeros and his servitude to a long line of Kings. In one scene, Jon Snow, the bastard son of Eddard Stark and Sam, a fellow brother of the Night’s Watch, discuss their romantic histories with women; Jon reveals to Sam and the audience that he almost lost his virginity to Ros, but didn’t want to risk having a bastard child and forcing that child to endure a hard life. The scene is meant to show that Jon Snow is an honorable man while once again, Ros is thrust into the role of the sex object in order to advance the development of a male character, even in a scene in which she doesn’t appear. Ros was finally killed in the towards the end of season three, when she was shot with a crossbow by Joffrey Baratheon and left hanging in a sexualized manner which shows her body in a way to appeal to the sexual fantasy of the male audience.
Criticisms of excessive sexual violence has been directed at Game of Thrones several times over the course of its tenure. Ramsey raping Sansa, the brutal stabbing of the pregnant Talisa Stark, Joffrey’s torture of Ros and another sex worker, Cersei’s extended nude “walk of shame” and the rape of women by the Dothraki warriors are scenes which demonstrate the show’s willingness to push the boundaries of television in its depictions of sexual violence against women and portray rape as the norm. Debra Ferreday writes that the sexual violence against female characters contributes to rape culture which desensitizes the audience to the treatments of women onscreen. “The stories we tell about rape are slippery…they tell us a great deal about society’s attitudes towards gender, sexuality, violence…(Ferreday, 23). She argues that the director’s defense of scenes containing sexual violence contributes to the idea that “boys will be boys”, which in turn leads to rape being trivialized in contemporary society (30).
Early seasons seemed to fall into the trap of objectifying their female characters and subjecting them to excessive sexual violence, but as the series progressed several important women began to develop and transcend the role of the sex object. Season two introduced Brienne of Tarth and Ygritte, two women warriors who could best the strongest male adversaries (e.g. Loras Tyrell, Jon Snow and the Hound) in battle.
They are both portrayed as loyal, brave and physically and mentally strong, and both are more than just a tough female character. In an article published in the Crimson White at University of Alabama, Marina Roberts writes that “Women are either frail, emotionally weak creatures whose motives lie in pleasing men or conforming to social expectations, or they are ‘strong female characters’ who essentially behave exactly like poorly written men do and solve all problems with violence,” (Representations, 2013). Brienne and Ygritte however, retain their femininity, allowing themselves to feel emotion and romantic attachment to their male compatriots, all while challenging the idea of what it means to be a proper woman. Arya Stark, the youngest daughter of Eddard and Catelyn, consistently challenges the expected roles of women in Westeros; she would rather learn the practical skill of physical combat to help herself survive in an incredibly violent world.
She doesn’t let the fact that she is female dictate her her life, she learns how to fight and defend, and learns to survive without the help of anyone else. Other female characters used their sexuality to survive, furthering their own agendas and gain power in the male dominated world.
Margaery Tyrell is an example of a woman who uses her sexuality to gain power over men and navigate her way through a world where characters die almost as quickly as they are introduced. Intelligent and politically ambitious, Margaery lets her agenda be known in her conversation with Littlefinger, “I don’t want to be a queen, I want to be the queen.”
Groomed for a life in the high court by her grandmother, Margaery is shown to be one step of everyone else in the capital city of King’s Landing and her beauty, as well as her innocent sweet-girl facade allow her to subtly manipulate King Joffrey Baratheon, while leading him to believe that he is the one with power in their relationship.
When Joffrey is poisoned at their wedding, Margaery turns her gaze to his younger brother Tommen, who is set to inherit the throne. Despite her desire for power, Margaery’s genuine compassion for the common people and for her family sets her apart from the other contenders for the Iron Throne. The inclusion of Margaery, an ambitious and intelligent young woman is a progressive step for Game of Thrones, proving that the show can write for a wide range of female characters beyond that of the sexual object. In her novel, “From Reverence to Rape”, feminist film critic and author Molly Haskell writes that there has been a progression of female characters in pop culture, and that smart and ambitious characters like Margaery Tyrell have not always existed in the history of Hollywood cinema.
“Hollywood was not interested in sponsoring a smart, ambitious woman as a popular heroine. A woman who could compete and conceivably win in a man’s world would defy emotional gravity, would go against the grain of prevailing notions about female sex. A woman’s intelligence was the equivalent of a man’s penis; something to be kept out of sight (Haskell, 501).
The series never downplayed Margaery’s intellect, and she proved she could survive in a man’s world by outmaneuvering her male counterparts like Joffrey. The writers also developed Margaery in an emotional manner; she cared strongly for her brother and grandmother and she befriended the tortured Sansa Stark and genuinely tried to make her life more bearable in court. Margaery’s compassion was her greatest strength and she proved she could be multi-faceted ruler who was both strong and caring.
Game of Thrones has not shied away from giving screen time to other ambitious and powerful women. Catelyn Stark was portrayed as politically savvy and intelligent, while still being maternal and warm. Catelyn counseled her husband in political affairs, and would negotiate in war on her son’s behalf. Talisa Stark, Robb’s wife, spent much of her time risking her life on the battlefield tending to wounded soldiers on both sides of war. One of the most popular heroines to emerge from the series was Daenerys Targaryen, who commanded three dragons and a massive army and whose goal was to retake the Iron Throne which had been forcibly and violently taken from her family years when she was a young girl.
Daenerys had a significant character arc through the show’s tenure, developing from a frightened young woman into a powerful queen, feared and respected by all. When the series began, she meekly bowed to the will of her abusive brother and served as a political pawn in his attempts to retake the Iron Throne. Early episodes portrayed Daenerys as sexual tool who had to sacrifice her independence and her body to serve the will of the powerful men, like her brother and her husband, the warlord Khal Drogo. It was through her need to survive that Daenerys found the inner strength she needed to take back her sexuality, gently teaching her and rough and hulking husband how to respect her, and turning the relationship into one that was built from genuine care and mutual love, even though it had started as an arranged marriage.
Through her relationship with Drogo, Daenerys began to build her confidence; before long, she was issuing commands in the hyper-masculine Dothraki culture and was able to convince her husband and the other warriors not to rape or harm the female prisoners they captured in a village raid. She embraced her role as Queen and Mother of Dragons, standing up to her controlling brother, freeing the slaves she encountered in her travels and building up a large army of warriors and friends willing to die for her if the need should arise in her quest to take the Iron Throne.
Daenerys and other female characters like Margaery and Arya are the embodiment of the heroines Norma Jones writes about in her book “Heroines of Film in Television: Portrayals in Pop Culture”. According to Jones, heroism in popular culture is “arguably a masculine affair that emphasize a man’s linear, rational-logical trajectory towards a noble goal and self-fulfillment (Jones, 131). She argues that despite this, contemporary heroines have defied gender expectations and are no longer exclusively focused on love and marriage but instead a struggle to gain access to power, recognition as unique individuals, success in a man’s world and an improved life in the dominant social structure (153). Daenerys and Margaery do not focus on romance but rather their goals to gain power in the patriarchal structure of Westeros, while Arya defies the expectations of noble-born girl and instead works to avenge her family and survive in a male dominated world.
When Game of Thrones premiered, its depictions of women were problematic; portraying them as sexual objects to be traded and abused for the sexual pleasure of both the male audience and male characters. However, over the course of six seasons, female characters like Daenerys Targaryen, Margaery Tyrell and Arya Stark emerged from the role of the sex object and fought to gain power and influence in the male dominated world of Westeros. They proved that women take back power from the male characters and drive the story forward, without the help of powerful men like Jon Snow and Joffrey Baratheon. As season six of the show ended, Cersei Lannister donned the crown as the first queen to rule over Westeros without a king at her side, while Arya Stark sailed home to be reunited with her sister Sansa who now ruled over the North. Meanwhile, Daenerys set her sights on Westeros. leading three dragons and a massive army to take the Iron Throne for herself and fulfilling the promise that show creator David Benioff made, “This season, women would rule.”