Let’s be honest. Game of Thrones is not a good TV show.
Sure, it has a fantastic cast and beautiful scenery and dragons. It has some great characters and a gripping plot based on some really exciting fantasy novels. It’s definitely an enjoyable show to watch, at least some of the time. But its characterizations are inconsistent. It values nudity over actual plot. And every moment is permeated by an underlying misogyny, whether its using women as props during exposition scenes to altering female characters’ plotlines and personalities to squeeze them into negative stereotypes.
So why keep watching it? And, perhaps more significantly, why keep writing about it, when any optimism is beyond foolish at this point?
Partly, of course, it’s affection for the original novels and the desire to see favorite moments play out on screen (optimism is a stubborn thing). But I’ll be honest. If not for this blog, I would have stopped watching Game of Thrones. Even if we ignore every other transgression, the character assassination in the latest episode is enough to make me cringe away and never want to watch a moment of the show again. And since the writers have shown that they simply don’t care about this sort of criticism, continuing to criticize the show may seem to only be adding to the hype around it.
But for all its disappointments and vomit-inducing misogyny, Game of Thrones presents us with a really powerful and revealing opportunity. It’s an adaptation of a series of novels that, for all its flaws, challenges a lot of fantasy tropes and presents some really intriguing and compelling female characters. It has tens of main characters, explored over thousands of pages, and its adaptation into a TV show, rather than a series of movies, means that the show can also explore those many characters, go into depth about their backgrounds and feelings, and really dig deep into the novels. Every moment in the show is a choice about how to interpret the text — whether to follow it faithfully, to present the essence of a scene, or to change something entirely to “improve” it for TV. And, most importantly, we have ready access to that text, allowing us to consider and criticize their decisions.
TV shows and movies make misogynistic choices every day, but usually those choices are isolated, making them more difficult to criticize. Sure, that female character expressed a misogynistic sentiment, but some women do feel that way. It’s just the character, not the opinion of the writers. Sure, rape was just used as a plot device, but rape happens in the real world every day. It’s realistic to explore it. Sure, that female character died unnecessarily, but maybe it’s for plot reasons we’ll see soon enough. Maybe the actress wanted to leave. Maybe, maybe, maybe. All together, these moments create a bleak picture, but the individual details can be hard to pin down. After that, that’s just how that story is. It’s just how that story needed to be told.
Not so in Game of Thrones. With the books in hand, we can see the misogyny underlining each decision far more clearly. They haven’t simply chosen to create a character who hates women despite being one, or who becomes a rapist. They’ve chosen to change the existing character, to alter the text and potentially the entire plot in order to make the character more stereotypical and misogynistic than they originally were. When a pregnant woman is stabbed in the stomach, we can see that she wasn’t even supposed to be killed in that scene, or be pregnant, and so know that the change was just for shock value. When a female character’s motivations are taken away, making her actions look utterly irrational, we know that the writers are diminishing her into something that she’s not. Of course, we can’t know why changes were made — perhaps it translates better on TV! perhaps they didn’t have the screentime to develop it! perhaps, perhaps, perhaps — but the comparison creates an excellent (if sickening and terrifying) basis for tackling and criticizing the sexism of not just the show but of the fantasy genre and of TV in general.
After all, why would they make these changes if they didn’t believe they were improvements? Or if they didn’t believe that this was what viewers would want to see?
Cries of “this isn’t how it happened in the books!” are not just a case of book purists run amok. They’re a way to engage with the TV show’s misogynistic attitude and underline just how extreme and problematic it is.
So I can’t hope that I’ll have much good to say about the show, well, ever. I’m pretty beyond disillusioned at this point. But I will keep writing about it. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s a terrible adaptation means that it’s also one of the best and most accessible examples of misogynistic tropes and expectations in storytelling. There’s a lot to analyze, there’s a lot to say, and considering what a pop culture juggernaut it is, closing our eyes and ignoring it certainly isn’t going to make the many problems it perpetuates go away. Writing about it might not actually achieve anything, but it’s sure as hell better than doing nothing at all.