The Battle of the Sexes in Game of Thrones’ Westeros

With more than half of the episodes failing the Bechdel test, women are repeatedly subjected to sexual assault and rape with few consequences for the perpetrators.
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By Derek Wood

The cult TV show Game of Thrones is critically acclaimed for its use of bold storytelling and character development, but not all things are created equal in George RR Martin’s fantasy world. As an adaption of Martin’s original books, this hit show gained its audience after airing on HBO in 2011. Yet with its rise in popularity, controversy has arisen over its frequent use of nudity and sexualized violence against women among viewers and critics alike. Debates over television nudity would be an oversimplification of the problem. Rather, the issue has to do with the discrepancies in whose bodies are exposed and mistreated. The show has also come under fire for its graphic scenes of rape and the way female characters are brutally treated and victimized. Such criticism begs the question, does Game of Thrones, one of the highest rated shows on the market, have a problem with gender equity, misrepresentation, and the over-sexualization of women?  Despite the author and showrunner intent to create strong and memorable female characters, are the women of Westeros truly equal to their male counterparts? This study seeks to find out by using a critical textual and institutional analysis.

One of the biggest problems with television shows, films, and the media in general is that there is a clear schism in the ratio of male to female actors, writers, and producers of such content. “Within American broadcasting, women own less than 7 percent of U.S. commercial broadcast TV and radio stations” (Campbell, Jensen, Gomery, Fabos, Frechette, 2014, p. 233.” This imbalance remains consistent when examining female writers for television, as “the number of women writers on prime-time broadcast programs declined from 29 percent in the 2009-2010 season to a mere 15 percent in the 2010-11 season of writers for prime-time dramas, comedies, and reality shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and the CW” (Campbell et al, 2014, p. 233). The televised version and story of Game of Thrones [GoT] began in 2011 when it first aired on HBO. When compared with other primetime shows for women producing behind the scenes, an article by Vanity Fair revealed that “…only one of four total episodes in the series thus far [had been] written by a woman” (Robinson, 2017). Like all major TV shows, Game of Thrones writers are almost exclusively male, even in spite of maintaining an equitable ratio of male to female co-stars in each episode. Emalia Clark, one of leading women in the show who plays Daenerys Targaryen, mentioned the Game of Thrones gender ratio in an interview with the LA times. “There are a lot of shows you watch with … four men and the wife, six dudes and the girlfriend. On ‘Game of Thrones,’ you don’t have that” (Ordoña, 2016).

Undoubtedly, GoT has created some uniquely strong female characters for a television show that is so widely watched by audiences. Some examples include Gwendoline Christie, who plays the role of character Brienne of Tarth. Even though she isn’t recognized as a knight in the show’s environment, she doesn’t fall into the typical conventions of a female stereotype. As a strong female archetype, Brienne of Tarth is known to go head-to-head with other male co-stars, and can win her own battles without needing rescue. The same is true with the female character Arya Stark, played by Marie Williams. Like Gwendoline Christie’s character, Arya plays a fan favorite who defies feminine character tropes. Far from playing the role of the typical princess, she serves as a faceless assassin who is not afraid to get her hands dirty. Within GoT’s storyline, it’s not just the men who compete for the iron throne. Many female characters are set up to compete equally against men for ultimate power in the fictional seven kingdoms. In the current season, the ratio is a solid mix between male and female characters, as well as kings and queens.

Despite its balanced ratio between the sexes and seemly well-written female characters, Game of Thrones’ gender problem rests with its clichéd representations of power. As the journal article Lessons in Westeros, Gender and Power in Game of Thrones contends, “despite the show’s representations of several strong female characters, such as Cersei Lannister or Catelyn Stark, women generally wield very little substantive authority in Westeros” (Clapton & Sheperd, 2016). The study concludes that the character Daenerys Targaryen’s rise to power is not due to her strength as a female leader, but rather derived from the reliance of her dragons and gaining assent after enduring sexual assault. “Daenerys must therefore suffer sexual abuse before she can become a leader, and her leadership itself is largely based on her possession of dragons” (Clapton, et al., 2016). One of the first introductions to the Daenerys character is her being groped by her brother, and a brutal scene of her being raped by her new husband. As the show progresses and Daenerys gains leadership, she is noted for traits that are typical assigned to the male characters. “Confidence, ferocity, aggressiveness and a capacity and willingness to use force are key masculinised traits employed by Daenerys as she develops as a leader” (Clapton, et al., 2016).

The study analyzes another central character, Joffrey Baratheon, who is known to inflict violence against women. His depiction as a cruel and evil boy precede the death of his father, which enables him to become king. Even though Joffrey is an infamously hated character, his enactment of degrading sexual violence against female characters is unabashedly justified in the storyline. For example, in one scene, Joffrey tortures two prostitutes after they were assigned by a friend to quell his anger and tyranny. Adding drama to the already exploitative scene, Joffrey is shown torturing and murdering the two women, underscoring GoT’s propensity for wanton misogynistic violence. “Joffrey forcing prostitutes to torture one another in such an obscene fashion could be hailed as evidence of the show’s gratuitous representations of sexualized violence, or its willingness to ‘revel’ in such appalling acts of degradation and misogyny” (Clapton, et al., 2016).

GoT’s incessant display of sexualized violence against women has led to a backlash among some of the program’s fan base and critics, with the most profound criticism launched against the show’s rape culture. The main argument contends that rape has become a cheap and unjustifiable GoT ingredient in the storyline because of how frequently it appears in random scenes and plot lines that did not appear in the original book. One example of a gratuitous scene of rape is between brother and sister Jaime and Cersei Lannister. As a clear deviation from the book, which has no such scene, audiences and critics have questioned why the vehement rape was included in the final script and made the cut to television. After a public outcry of disapproval for the episode, director Alex Graves came out to defend the rape as consensual. But fans and critics took exception to the way he justified the scene. “Graves explanation of the scene he directed seems nonsensical since it overlooks the question of whether a sexual act that begins non-consensually can ever become consensual” (Ferraday, 2015). While fans who are dismissive of the rape scenes in the show argue that such violence was part of the ancient fantasy universe being depicted, others have voiced concerns about the impact such scenes have in contemporary times. “The series depiction of incest and rape…cannot be separated from a wider contemporary culture…[with] debates around media representations of sexual violence and issues of consent rape culture” (Ferrday, 2015). Rape and rape culture are often tucked under the radar in our society, which is why outcries to end it on GoT are so important. “The stories we tell ‘about’ rape… are slippery: they tell us a great deal about society’s attitude to gender, sexuality, violence, property and family relationship” (Ferrday, 2015).

Recent exposure of sexual harassment or rape culture in Hollywood has put GoT in the hot seat, with actors and audiences demanding media content that rises above the all-too-common depictions of males as rapists and sexual abusers and women as sexual objects and rape victims. The need for more equitable gender roles in the media has been at the heart of the movement to end the social acceptance of violence against women in society. “Exposure to objectifying-media, including TV contents, may have important social consequences. For example, exposure to sexual and sexist media content is associated with greater acceptance of stereotypical attitudes” (Galdi, Maass & Cadinu, 2013).

Even in its benign depictions of women, Game of Thrones fails crucial measures of gender equity as a whole. For instance, most episodes failed to pass the Bechdel test, which “…gives films a pass or fail rating based on three linked criteria: One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” (Selisker, 2015). In a study assessing GoT’s claims to displaying strong female characters, it only passed the test on few selected episodes. “18 out of 67 episodes passed the test” (Nordine, 2017). In the underground fantasy world of Westeros, GoT fares no better than most mainstream movies and shows in which the female characters are written around the males. The seasons that scored the best on the test were Season One, Season Five, and Season Seven, with the worse test score applied to Season Four, which scored a 0%. Cumulatively, the study found a total of seventeen rapes and attempted rapes throughout all of its seven seasons.

Although posing nude females in the media is not exclusively GoTs problem, it offers a unique opportunity to assess the show’s sex and gender progressiveness. Across media, “women are often sexualized—typically by showing them in scanty or provocative clothing. Women are also subordinated in various ways, as indicated by their facial expressions, body positions, and other factor” (Collins, 2011). While violence and nudity are abundant in the media at large, these cheap Hollywood ingredients are coded in gender specific ways on GoT. On the one hand, when it comes to the show’s violence, the male characters are predominantly depicted as the perpetrators of fighting and killing. Nudity, on the other hand, is basically always depicted with female characters. In the first season, “the record shows 33 naked people, with a gender breakdown that was heavily skewed towards women. Some 88 percent of the nude characters were women, while only 12 percent were men” (Gresbey, 2017). Fan and media critic Myles Mcnutted coined the phrase “sexposition” to refer to the show’s flagrant display of random nudity in almost every episode. “It’s something more than gratuitous or ample sex and nudity in a show – it’s using that sex to divert the audience or give the characters something to do in scenes that involve a big download of information or monologue” (Hann, 2012). This female nudity trend continues across all seasons of the program, with Season Seven as the only one that is split in half across the sexes. “Only six characters got naked in Season 7, and there was an equal number of nude men and women” (Gresbey, 2017).

In an interview on the imbalanced representations of gendered nudity in the show, Emile Clark spoke out in protest, deriding the show’s common exposure of nude female characters. “I feel like there’s a little bit of inequality between the amount of nudity that happens with women – this woman in particular – and what happens with the other guys” (The Guardian, 2016). Clark’s comments and the trending criticism of the practice could indicate why the most recent season cut back on its nudity and offered a more equitable display of anatomical exposure between men and women. Yet few doubt that the program will curb its branded sex appeal, for its HBO target audience has grown to include both sexes. Although “a scathing New York Times review dismissed the series as ‘boy fiction’ and suggests that the show was oversexualized,” GoT is viewed by women as much as men (Watercutter, 2013). “Approximately 2 million women are tuning in to the show on average each week – about 42 percent of Thrones’ total 4.8 million viewers” (Watercutter, 2013). What’s unique about this finding is that it indicates that, overall, media producers and writers are not broadening their storylines and plots to accommodate and appeal to mixed-sex audiences. Instead, GoT’s masculinist coding is borrowed from other media genres, like video games, in which “41% of female characters wore revealing clothing and an equal number were partially or totally nude” (Collins, 2011).

Conclusion

At first glance, the world of Westeros has made strides in conventional storytelling by having female characters depicted as more than caretakers or housewives. Game of Thrones’ female characters have depth and angles to them, with courage and strength featured among their positive attributes and leadership roles. Yet a more in-depth, critical textual and institutional analysis of the program reveals that the costs for women to aspire to power are far greater than their male counterparts. With more than half of the episodes failing the Bechdel test, women are repeatedly subjected to sexual assault and rape with few consequences for the perpetrators. Far from being an outlier or noteworthy harbinger of social progression, GoT’s female characters are exploited as sex objects for ratings and marketing. With more scrutiny being placed on all aspects of cultural production in Hollywood and in society at large, the hope is that the mainstream media will begin to shine a better light on the misrepresentation of women and girls, and hire more female writers and producers who aspire to make fair and equitable media representations a basic human right.

Student Author: Derek Wood

Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University

References

Campbell, R., Jensen, J., Gomery, D., Fabos, B., & Frechette, J. D. (2014). Media in Society. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Clapton, W., & Shepherd, L. J. (2016). Lessons from Westeros: Gender and power in Game of Thrones. Politics, 37(1), 5-18. doi:10.1177/0263395715612101

Collins, R. L. (2011). Content Analysis of Gender Roles in Media: Where Are We Now and Where Should We Go? Sex Roles, 64(3-4), 290-298. doi:10.1007/s11199-010-9929-5

Ferreday, D. (2015). Game of Thrones, Rape Culture and Feminist Fandom. Australian Feminist Studies, 30(83), 21-36. doi:10.1080/08164649.2014.998453

Galdi, S., Maass, A., & Cadinu, M. (2013). Objectifying Media. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38(3), 398-413. doi:10.1177/0361684313515185

Game of Thrones nudity: Study backs Emilia Clarke’s call to #FreeTheP. (2016, April 23). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/apr/23/game-of-thrones-nudity-emilia-clarke-freethep-hbo

Grebey , J. (2017, September 14). Something Is Happening to the Nudity on ‘Game of Thrones’.  Retrieved from https://www.inverse.com/article/36476-game-of-thrones-nudity-men women-season-7

Hann, M. (2012, March 11). How ‘sexposition’ fleshes out the story. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2012/mar/11/sexposition-story-tv-drama?newsfeed=true

Nordine, M. (2017, September 07). ‘Game of Thrones’ Rarely Passes the Bechdel Test, and It Still Has a Rape Problem – Study. Retrieved from http://www.indiewire.com/2017/09/game-of-thrones-nude-sex-bechdel-test-1201873916/

Ordoña, M. (n.d.). ‘Game of Thrones’ star Emilia Clarke stands ready to rule the world — or at least Westeros – LA Times. Retrieved June 9, 2016, from http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/la-en-st-0609-emilia-clarke-20160516-snap-story.html

Robinson, J. (2017, August 02). Game of Thrones: The Real Reason Cersei’s Hair Is Still So Short. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/08/game-of-thrones-why-is-cerseis-hair-still-short?mbid=social_twitter

Selisker, S. (2015). The Bechdel Test and the Social Form of Character Networks. New Literary History, 46(3), 505-523. doi:10.1353/nlh.2015.0024

Watercutter, A. (2017, June 03). Yes, Women Really Do Like Game of Thrones (We Have Proof). Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2013/06/women-game-of-thrones/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Julie Frechette, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Worcester State University, Worcester, MA. She is the co-editor of the book Media Education for a Digital Generation, as well as the book, Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace. She serves as co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME).
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