(Content warning: rape, sexual violence, comments on violence)
Anyone who’s been near pop culture in the last four years is no stranger to the provocative nature of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Between unsparing battle scenes and frank sexuality, it’s not your Grandmother’s fantasy realm. Or maybe it is, but it’s certainly not your six-year-old cousin’s.
And while I’ll fight anyone who argues that women’s nudity can only be a tool for “shock value” to pull in viewers and demean women, “Game of Thrones” gives me a peculiar sense of vexation when it comes to nakedness.
1. The Sexposition
A pioneer in “sexposition,” or the strategy of men speaking their inner monologues or plans out loud while women drape themselves around them, flaunting their bare naughty bits, “Game of Thrones” frequently uses naked women to…well, pull in viewers. Or at least treat them as objects while men talk about their important plans.
All in all, I’m generally pretty neutral about sexposition as a plot device. Though it’s worth noting that for a show that’s just trying to knock down the puritanical hangups around sexual relations with a more natural and open portrayal, it’s strange that basically all women share the same beauty standards across the board. There must be one helluva profiting waxer in Westeros.
What I do have a problem with, is the fantasy trope that is a strong danger for these sort of expositions: you run the risk of your female characters being sex-centric. Again, not something I can say I’m wholeheartedly against, but it’s a common element of fantasy novels to have women few and far between. Those women who are featured are often stuck using sex as their only tool or weapon. “Game of Thrones,” does display a pretty hefty roster of strong, complex women, has featured a whopping number of sex scenes, wherein (according to a Buzzfeed breakdown of the first two seasons) had an imbalance between how the characters were portrayed. Leading me to the second point:
2. Where have all the nude men gone?
Now I could break down for you what the scale of each of those squares means (or you could click through to the Buzzfeed page itself), but realistically, there’s no way this breaks down well. So while I’ll rage against the machine or anyone else who says that these women are inherently cheapened because they feel comfortable showing their body, there is an imbalance here that can’t be ignored.
The fact of the matter is that though “Game of Thrones” has had its share of coitus, the display has been almost consistently women going bare. By no means would I argue that these women reduced to just a pair of boobs (at least, not by any intelligent viewer). Women on “Game of Thrones” are each powerful and nuanced in their own way (though their power is still, often, filtered through their role, which is intrinsically linked to their gender). But when there’s such a disproportionate difference between men’s nudity and women’s nudity, something’s off.
Though the quality in writing has changed, a long-time selling point for premium cable has been that it was uncensored. But when your show is more comfortable with showing a man busting out of his skull rather than busting out of his pants, you’ve got some messed up priorities. There’s a way to have women be in the buff and not have them be just straight photography, but one-sided nudity is a quick route to over-sexualizing your female characters.
3. A bit (too much) of the old ultraviolence
When the show first started, it seemed tapped into the (largely) feminist-friendly (ish) vibe of its source material. And yet, over the years the show’s sexual nature has featured a growing rate of violence in Westeros.
In most fantasy novels, TV shows, and movies, “medieval misogyny” is believed to be par for the course, making it common to parade of sexual violence–most often against women. Similar to casting choices in Thor, while Westeros is a land of magic and dragons, it’d just be too unbelievable and just plain illogical if the women of Westeros weren’t subjected to some sort of sexual threat. Four seasons in, many of the main female characters, and a number of background women, have been raped. And a man has, at one point or another, threatened any women who haven’t yet been sexually assaulted.
And to screw up the narrative even more, several sex scenes from the book—which were at worst questionably consensual—were added to the show with a uncomfortable dynamics. In fact the character Ros, a street-smart prostitute who was invented just for the show, existed pretty much entirely to be hurt at the hands of men. Although it could be argued that at one point she served as if not a player in Westeros than at least an intelligent pawn, very little came of her plotline beyond her own pain, and eventual gruesome death.
It seems the model for Westeros is that if you want to hurt a man (like Oberyn Martell) you hurt a woman. And if you want to hurt a woman (like Ros, Cersei, or basically any other female character) you hurt a woman again.
At the end of the day, those who engage with “Game of Thrones” will have to decide for themselves how they feel about the show’s sexual politics. The creators certainly don’t seem open to the discussion. But maybe it’s time we recognize that just because women in Westeros are afforded certain power, privileges, and freedom from FCC regulations, doesn’t mean they’re not also being used to satisfy and perpetuate the same tired problematic relationship to women’s bodies.