Sexism and Racism in Game of Thrones

Disclaimer: This is a post about the HBO show Game of Thrones, not the George R.R. Martin novels on which the show is based. I haven’t read the novels, though I’ve had friends refer me to parts of the novels after talking about plot elements of the show. (I’d love for commenters to do likewise and point me to elements of the books– up to the middle of Storm!– pertinent to this conversation.)

Spoiler alert and plea: This post will ruin countless plot points from the first three seasons of the show. You’ve been warned. But I also beg you: If something heroically antisexist or relevant happens anywhere after the mid-point of Storm of Swords, please don’t give it away! Keep conversation on the show, please.

End of pleas and disclaimers.

tyrionSo: TV is not social-justice work. A show can illuminate, provoke, or mobilize audiences around an issue; it can challenge an audience’s or genre’s stereotypes; but it’s made to be entertaining and to make its owners money. Buy me a hot dog sometime and I will talk for two hours about how grateful I am that I watched The Wire, but having watched it doesn’t make me an organizer.

That being said, a TV show is part of a cultural conversation, and takes place in an environment contested by social forces larger than TV. Two lessons from social justice work come to mind as I try to untangle my feelings about GoT.

First: It’s possible to perpetuate oppressions even as you strive to challenge them. Game of Thrones is a world full of richly-portrayed, interesting, and morally complex women of all ages. Cersei Lannister (who shades from diabolical to trapped and miserable as the series goes along), Catelyn Stark (an older woman, the linchpin of her family) and her daughters Sansa and Arya, Brienne of Tarth (a tall, tough, physically intimidating woman!), and, of course, Daenerys Targaryen don’t spend the show as props for male ego, competing love interests, or caricatures. (Nor do GoT‘s writers condescend to them by sanctifying them as noble sufferers: rather than pity Arya, I’m frankly starting to get scared of what’s going on in her head.) The women of Game of Thrones are reflective agents struggling for independence in a sexist world. In other words, they are people, striving for fuller lives in an oppressive society.

salladhorBut Game of Thrones is also crammed full of tits. That is, the show’s producers go to incredible imaginative lengths to decorate scenes of male power with (often anonymous) naked women. The prostitutes of King’s Landing are shown as victims of male violence, but are also presented, as when Tyrion invites Podric to his first sexual experience, in scenes of pure objectified perfumey mystique. Any chance Daenerys can be shown naked (including scenes where, I’m told, she was just, you know, clothed in Martin’s novels), the producers take. Have her be bathing when a hunky barbarian bursts in to defect to her? Check. Have her then step nude moodily lit and gently dripping from the bath to say thanks? Check. One character, Ros, whom I’m told is a composite of a number of minor characters in the book, got the worst of this. She spent the maybe the majority of her scenes naked, including in a staged “educational” lesbian sex scene that was one of the most obnoxious and gratuitous things I’ve ever seen on TV, until being crucified and shot full of arrows by Prince/King Joffry. There are some intriguing theories explaining the preponderance of naked women in the show. I’ll leave you to evaluate their credibility.

catelyn-starkThe issue is related, I think, to the show’s vaunted realistic approach to its fantasy world: people curse, sweat, switch sides, and struggle for power, honor, lust, and shame in moral circumstances much more complex than in, say, Tolkein’s world or even Gene Wolfe’s. But this also means that GoT recognizes no courtly presumption of women’s honor or distance from the fray. Sexual violence is everywhere in this world; in that sense, there’s a resigned quality even to its imaginative ambition, a subtext of “this is just the way people are” that’s curious in a show so imaginative in other regards. (As my genius cousin the fantasy novelist said once in exasperation, wouldn’t it be a more imaginative feat to create a fantasy whose world centered on an active struggle against sexism or violence or whose conceit flipped our expectations of such on their heads? Then she told me to read Zoo City, which I got for my wife instead.) But the show blurs its own ethical position by actively exploiting the sexism we already have– setting us up to ogle female characters or non-characters— to “realistically” portray the sexism of Westeros. So: Game of Thrones can challenge some aspects of sexism while at the same time working hard to perpetuate others.

Second: If you as a person with power are striving to address an oppression, you should expect more criticism from members of the oppressed community, not less. 

Drogo-and-Daenerys-with-Dothraki-khal-drogo-30463554-1280-720I’m amazed, though I suppose I shouldn’t be, how vituperative the online responses have been to commentators of color who identify GoT‘s appalling racism. In its portrayal of the Dothraki in Season 1 (and, though it gets less screentime, in its thin characterization of the black pirate Salladhor Saan, eager to “fuck a blond queen” in Season 2), Game of Thrones hits every single ugly trope of white SF/fantasy’s conceptions of people of color. I’ll leave it to these two excellent posts linked to above to spell out a more detailed look at the show. Daenerys’s crowdsurf on the backs of the slaves she’s liberated at the end of Season 3 is the white-superhero-daydream cherry on top of a show whose interest in cultural complexity seems to end at the shores of Westeros. All I’d add is: please, please, please listen carefully when someone of color names racism, even if you’re not expecting to hear it, struggle to see it, or feel personally hurt. Listening carefully doesn’t mean wigging out, getting defensive, blaming the victim, or holding up your opinions over others’ actual lived experience of oppression. If your defense is “hey, they’re trying” (and, honestly, I don’t see GoT trying very hard on matters of race) then consider criticism to be candid feedback on how intentions don’t match effects.

Hey readers, any other recommendations for fantasy which addresses these issues in more complex or radical ways?

9 Comments

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9 responses to “Sexism and Racism in Game of Thrones

  1. I enjoyed reading your article and I think that there’s a fair criticism of the television show with all of the naked window dressing.

    I’m a fan of the books and the show’s adaptation, but at times I wish they’d tone some things down. But I don’t know if I need to show to strive against the quasi-realism of the show, with the underlying dangers of violence to women, since it’s part and parcel with violence to everyone.

    I’ve read fantasy where things weren’t as gritty and dangerous, and I think there’s a place for them, but I think there’s a place for settings like A Game of Thrones and the following books.

    I agree that in a larger social context, the show can be criticized for falling into and perpetuating common themes like the White Savior where Dany, the whitest white girl from white-land needs to save the slaves. I’m curious how the show-runners will adapt to that criticism.

    I’m not necessarily in agreement with those who feel that the Dothraki are a racist shorthand for savagery, especially in context with the similarities to the hairy mountain-tribesman that Tyrion manipulates, or the dangerous Wildlings who are being kept out by the anti-immigration policies of the Night’s Watch, or the Ironborn who are presented as rapacious thugs.

    But I appreciate your request that I listen. I’m not trying to defend the show blindly (at least I hope I’m not.)

    • Hi Patrick, I appreciate your comment! I agree with much of what you bring up here. On the subject of violence against women: what I find troubling (or, at least, worth naming) is less the realistic extremity of the show’s violence, than the show’s attempt to have it both ways, creating strong and complex female characters in a sexist society AND constantly ‘decorating’ the show with naked women. This, I’m told, is much more pronounced in the show than in Martin’s novels.

      As for race: I do think the portrayal of the Dothraki is worse especially than the Wildlings (one of the writers I linked to above pointed out that they are hyped as ‘dangerous savages’ by Southerners, but turn out to be no worse than ‘nomads in matching parkas’— much more familiar than the Dothraki). Again, it seems a lot of the responsibility for this falls on the show, not on Martin.

      Any recommendations for similarly gritty or morally complex fantasy?

      • I’m at a loss for an equally gritty fantasy. I’m a big fan of Patrick Rothfuss’ books, starting with The Name of the Wind. It’s usually included on lists of “Books to Read While Waiting for the Next Game of Thrones book” submissions.

        It also has a sense of realism about it, but it’s not as brutal as GRRM’s works.

      • Patrick, that’s enough of a recommendation for me! I’ll check them out.

  2. Lorelei

    YA fantasy I wish I’d read as an adolescent: Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, and the multi-volume stories that follow. Her female characters strive, fight, struggle to be recognized as good enough, succeed where they are expected to fail, and gradually they change the culture around them so other female and non-gender-conforming characters can see hope that they too may succeed. It’s always a struggle, but the seeds are planted for the future.

    This is a radical approach to fantasy. The heroine, faced with a love triangle of two men who adore and compete for her, decides to say, “I like you both, but F you all, I’m going to be a knight and go adventuring! When I get back I’ll think about all this romance stuff.”

    I love to follow Game of Thrones for the entertainment value, but I am frequently aware of the less savory implications, the blatant sexism and racism. They don’t negate the entertainment for me, but they also do not go unnoticed and uncommented with my viewing community.

    • Hey Lorelei, thanks for the recommendation!

    • Max

      Danaerys was written as otherworldly i.e. the silver hair (not blond silver) and violet eyes. further more the slavers were meant to be just as civilised as the westrosi just in their own way. characters such as sallador sallahn and xaro xaron doxos (both have the exact same personalities) were originally white but the producers felt there were to few people of color in the show. also the dornish are hispanic and have a very equal society in contrast to the rest of westeros; the first born child inherits rather than the first born son, they do not discriminate against homosexuality or bastardry.

      • @Max, I hear you. The points you make speak in favor of Martin’s sense of cultural invention, but they don’t much effect the show (which is what this post dealt with). The ‘Middle-Eastern-ish’ city states that Daenerys has been conquering one after another in Season 3/4, for instance, aren’t given nearly the depth and nuance that Westeros has. And we haven’t (yet) gotten to see much of Dorn, other than the Red Viper and his consort (the latter of whom is yet another excuse for tons of decoratively-naked women).

  3. Pingback: Sexism and racism in Game of Thrones | Around the World in 80 Elephants

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