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What I Don’t Like about Game of Thrones

 

GoT DVD cover

GoT DVD cover

A few weeks ago, on the first day of the school May vacation, one of the busiest traveling days of the year, Game of Thrones came to Groningen Central train station.I was there for a more ordinary reason: sending our current “extra kid” off on a train to see her parents in Germany. But as I entered the main hall of the station – beautifully restored and usually rather empty and echoing with the footsteps of travelers passing through – I was surprised to see a huge group of people waiting in line. Eventually I spotted what they were waiting in line for: the throne from Game of Thrones.

These people had come to the central station simply to pose to have their pictures taken while sitting on a throne.

This was the moment that I decided it was time to watch Game of Thrones. Why would people be so eager to wait in line to sit in a fancy chair?

Since it was the May vacation, I was able to put my decision into action. We have the first two seasons on DVD at home, so I watched both seasons.

For all of you Game of Thrones devotees, I’ll list what I like about it first, so you won’t, I hope, get defensive when I write about what I don’t like.

  1. Some truly excellent acting. Peter Dinklage, who plays the “imp,” Tyrion Lannister, for example, is wonderful at expressing his articulate intelligence and wit, while hiding the hurt he feels at how the world sees him as a “half-man.” Both Jack Gleeson, the young man playing the new king Joffrey, and Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy, portray beautifully the insecurity and indecisiveness of young men trying to prove themselves. Even the child actors – particularly Isaac Hemstead-Wright, portraying the paralysed Bran Stark, and Maisie Williams, playing Arya Stark, Bran’s willful sister – do a believable job, something you don’t see often in child actors.
  2. The politics. The whole series is about politics: what happens when a king dies, the plotting and scheming behind the scenes, sometimes boiling over into violence or all-out war. And its portrayal of the cynicism among the politicians is as relevant to the real world today as to the fantasy world of Game of Thrones. At times, it’s quite humorous as well.
  3. The willingness to kill off main characters. Normally in TV series, the main character is the one you get attached to, the one you root for, and the one who you know will not die. In Game of Thrones, anyone can die, including the one you most identify with and would expect to be able to escape any possible predicament.
  4. The special effects. In particular, the dragons are incredibly realistic, and, at the end of the second season, the first clear view of the “white walkers” is chilling and otherworldly.
  5. Wonderful scenery and cinematography, particularly the parts representing the far north, with its forbidding, snow-covered, mountainous views.
  6. Great costumes, great makeup. Many of the women’s dresses are beautiful and flowing, while the Dothraki warriors, for example, are appropriately threatening-looking.

So I’ve enjoyed watching the first two seasons for all these reasons. However (You knew there was a “however” coming, didn’t you?), there were two things that nearly spoiled the whole thing for me.

Rape followed by love

In the very first few episodes, Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, is married off to the leader of the Dothraki warrior tribe, Khal Drogo, played by Jason Momoa. This is a political move by her brother, to influence the Dothraki to lend him their army so that he can claim the throne of the Seven Kingdoms. Daenerys is afraid of Khal Drogo; he is much bigger than she, he is muscular and angry-looking. They don’t speak the same language, and she does not want to marry him. On their wedding night, although it is not shown, they have sex, though the implication is that he rapes her.

The series is set in an imaginary world, and it is clear from the beginning of the series that treating women as property is acceptable in this setting. They are ordered about, they are raped, they are either enslaved or paid for sex. If they are married they must be faithful, but it is accepted that married men, in this world, are not faithful. I can accept all of that as unpleasant parts of the setting and story line.

I can imagine that in a society where marriage represents a transaction, there would be no expectation of affection between the husband and wife. I can imagine that she perfectly well expects that she has to have sex with him when he wants, and that she would get used to that. I can even imagine that gradually, eventually, if she’s lucky, an affection and respect would grow between them because of their shared experiences over years of sharing a household, raising children, and so on.

What I cannot imagine, however, is what happens between Daenerys and Khal Drogo on their wedding night. Despite the fact that she’s an unwilling partner in this transaction, Daenerys immediately falls head-over-heels in love with Khal Drogo in the course of that one night. This part I do not accept! Women do not fall in love with their rapists, even if that rape is an accepted part of the society. I’ve heard of the Stockholm syndrome, in which victims of kidnapping fall in love with their captors, but even that doesn’t happen overnight. This is the sort of thing a rapist might tell himself (“She loved it.”), but no one else should buy it. It sends a dangerous message about rape.

Nudity and sex

There’s a lot of nudity in this series – mostly full frontal female nudity — which I don’t mind as such, and there are a lot of graphic sex scenes. But the nudity or sex should serve a purpose, and much of it doesn’t in this series. The new word that has been coined for this gratuitous nudity is “sexposition”: a scene in which dialogue or other information necessary to the plot is presented against a backdrop of sex or nudity. In Game of Thrones the sexposition scenes generally take place in brothels.

If it matters to the plot, I have no objection. For example, it is key to the plot early in the first season that we see that Cersei Lannister (played by Lena Headey) and Jaime Lannister, her brother (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), are having an affair. I don’t mind the glimpse we have of them having sex because much of the subsequent story depends on us knowing that.

However, there’s far too much nudity and sex that serves no purpose other than general titillation of a male audience. For example, in the last episode of season two, Bronn (played by Jerome Flynn), the sidekick/bodyguard to the “imp” Tyrion Lannister, is drinking in a pub with a bunch of soldiers. There are women there too, portraying prostitutes. One of the prostitutes approaches Bronn, strips down to completely naked, and sits on his lap, facing the camera so we can see her entire body. He proceeds to exchange words with a rival who is sitting across the room, a subplot that has absolutely nothing to do with this naked woman on his lap. As far as I can tell, she is an unnamed actor playing an unnamed prostitute and has absolutely no role in this scene. She is there only to give a male audience something to look at while this verbal pissing contest takes place between the two men.

I can see why you’d want to have prostitutes in some scenes with some of the characters. It adds background, richness, to our view of the men who are visiting the prostitutes. But there’s absolutely no need for the women to be sitting or walking around stark naked. The same message, that these women are prostitutes, could be delivered without all of the gratuitous nudity.

The same thing goes for the sex scenes. Most shows just suggest sex is going to happen and then move on to the next scene. In Game of Thrones, far more is shown before moving on. And there’s no plot-related need for it.

There is no equal time, either. Whenever there’s a sex scene, we see the woman’s full body, but almost never see the man’s genitals. As far as I could see, full male nudity is only shown once in the first two seasons: when the dimwitted giant, Hodor (played by Kristian Nairn), walks into a scene stark naked, and is immediately ordered to go put some clothes on. Why does no one order all these women to go put some clothes on?

So why is there all this nudity and sex and rape-followed-by-love? I can only see it as a male wish-fulfillment fantasy. I think George R.R. Martin, the writer of the books the series is based on, wrote out his own fantasies when it comes to women, and then the HBO producers embellished these fantasies considerably. It’s clear why male viewers would enjoy it: all those breasts are a great selling point. I wonder, though, why it’s so popular with women.

Violence

This series is packed with as much gratuitous violence as gratuitous sex and nudity. We are shown cruelty, blood and mayhem in unending variety and gruesome detail. Here, too, much of it is unnecessary.

I have to admit, though, that the violence doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the sex and nudity. Perhaps the difference is that we’re not meant to enjoy the violence. It’s meant to shock, to make us feel a sense of horror and revulsion, not to titillate.

What happens next

I haven’t watched past the first two seasons. The controversial rape scene in the current season of Game of Thrones hit the media, though. It seems to have shocked enough people that it may lead to some changes in the scripting and directing of further episodes. Or maybe it won’t. After all, the more Game of Thrones pushes the boundaries, the more it is talked about, and the more people will watch it.

I’m not sure whether I’ll bother watching any more of it. I spent too much of the first two seasons rolling my eyes in exasperation: “More breasts? Another sex scene? Not again! Is this really necessary?”

 

What do you think? Does this bother you like it does me? How do you feel about how women are portrayed in Game of Thrones?

5 Comments

  • dmcraanen

    May 18, 2014 at 10:13 am

    Funny you say this, because this is what people have been upset about throughout the series and the series wouldn’t be the same without all the sex and violence. Upsetting people is exactly what George RR Martin wants to do – and he’s doing a good job. He recently gave an interview on it:

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/06/george-rr-martin-game-of-thrones-sexual-violence

    And I think he’s got a point. Doesn’t mean that Dany’s wedding and all that wasn’t slightly weird and perhaps people should get a viewer descretion at the start of that episode about it.

    Reply
  • Sanne

    May 18, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    Though I’m a fan of the show, I do agree with some of the points you make in this blog. Most notably, the rape followed by love. Dany and Khal Drogo are an extremely beloved on screen couple, and I have several female fans who drool over Jason Mamoa (but only in character, not the actor himself). This angers me. That a young girl (she’s 14 in the books I believe) is portrayed to fall in love with a man she’s forced to be with, under dangerous circumstances where he is her protector, I can believe. In the books, this process hardly takes a night. But for a rapist to be seen as desirable, as their love to be seen as a perfect romance, the Romeo and Juliet of our time, really makes me nauseous.

    However, there is one point in your blog I have even stronger feelings about. To not misinterpret, I’ll quote the point I mean:

    “I think George R.R. Martin, the writer of the books the series is based on, wrote out his own fantasies when it comes to women, and then the HBO producers embellished these fantasies considerably. It’s clear why male viewers would enjoy it: all those breasts are a great selling point. I wonder, though, why it’s so popular with women.”

    I was honestly very offended by this. From your blog I gathered you did not read the books, so first of all, I don’t think you should be drawing conclusions or judging an author in the basis of a TV show. But what struck me more is that this comment strongly undermines what it means to be a writer, something I did not expect from you. To accuse George RR Martin of writing out his own fantasies because the imagery in the show offends you is simply not a valid claim you can make. Authors are not what they write, and what they write does not reflect their inner desires. Otherwise we could lock up a whole lot of writers who write from the perspectives of murderers or psychopaths for the sake of art or social comment. George RR Martin is an intelligent writer who has defended his use if nudity and sex in a world where these, as you mentioned, are seen through the eyes of commodity and power.

    Secondly, stating that you can see why the show has so many male fans due to it’s nudity undermines the intelligence of the male fans of the show. Frankly, I can see how male fans of the show could interpret that as a sexist misunderstanding of their devotion to a well written, complicated storyline. And if you have to wonder why the show has so many female fans, I ask you the same question: can you not imagine women looking past nudity to see the same great qualities too? As a female viewer of the show, I’ll give you a few reasons why I love the show:

    Arya Stark: a strong minded, rebellious young girl who defies the stereotypes society and her family name have put upon her from a young age. She is curious, strong, eager to learn and prove herself, and loves no one more than her family, and the people willing to be her family.

    Catelynne Stark: it’s not in the show yet, but even after death, the Stark mother shows her devotion to her children, and has always been a strong influence on what went on in Winterfell, and was her son’s wisest adviser. Even after the death of her husband, she was strong and spoke up against even those who overpowered her or outranked her for the sake of the ones she loved.

    Tyrion Lannister: one of the biggest hero of the show and books, Tyrion outspokenly opposes rape, or the harming in any way of those who are too young to know the truth of the world. He is sarcastic and takes little seriously, yes, but he has a great heart that’s in the right place, and though he sleeps with many a prostitute, he believes in love, and consent.

    Sam: Jon Snow’s lovely friend, who sticks by any friend he makes, and saves a girl from her raping father to ensure the safety of her and her baby, despite the dangers it meant for him and his position in the knight’s watch. He killed the first white walker in centuries to protect her, albeit with a bit of luck. He is sweet, strong, and perseveres.

    Ygritte: the wildling girlfriend of Jon Snow. Explaining why she is badass really is futile, but what needs explaining is that love, or specifically Snow’s love, is not her main motivation, as is often true for female heroes. She cares about a safe and happy future for her people, she cares about honor, faithfulness, and history. And she fights better than any southerling man can.

    The amazing artists, writers, costume makers, and any other creative force behind the show: because they have done an amazing job.

    In short, yes, the show shows a lot of nudity, and little when it comes to men. This is also down to regulation, as male sex organs are a major no no when it comes to the screenings. It’s worth mentioning that the actual sexual organs of a woman don’t make it past either. And yes, the show has a relationship born from rape, which I disapprove of. But Dany didn’t grow strong, independent, and into her real character until after she learned to live by herself. And to accuse an author of sexual ulterior motives due to the nudity on a television show just isn’t fair to the author.

    Reply
    • rachel75

      May 19, 2014 at 8:32 am

      Okay, all fair points! I did intend to point out that it was the show’s makers rather than the author, but I guess I wasn’t clear enough about it. I did read the first book, by the way. At least I think I did. To be honest, I don’t remember it at all beyond the rape-becomes-love scene, so I might have stopped reading at that point, out of disgust at that scene, which IS down to the author.

      I enjoyed watching the show as well, except for the aspects I listed. Otherwise I wouldn’t have watched all of what we had on DVD: the first two seasons! I would have stopped after the first episode. And I know there’s been a lot of on-line commentary about these issues. Yet the fact that so many are watching it with so little complaint implies acceptance, unless we all let the world know what we think about the more offensive aspects. I’ve seen a lot more about it on-line since this most recent rape scene in the current season, and I’m glad people are letting the makers know how they feel. I’m still not sure I want to see any more of the series though…

      Thanks for commenting, and keeping me on my toes!

      Reply
  • carole

    January 1, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    I totally agree. I found myself getting so angry. Breasts all the time, is the show for men only??. No naked men.
    Won’t be watching anymore.n

    Reply
  • rachel75

    January 1, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    I think at some point when the opportunity presents itself I might very well go ahead and watch more, mostly to reevaluate it in light of what Sanne posted above. And, as I already pointed out, there was a lot to like about it too. I heard something at some point about them responding in the next season to some of the complaints, so I’m curious about that too… of course, having said that, it shows how they get and keep so many viewers, doesn’t it?

    Reply

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