Why Write About Game of Thrones?

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.

07 comments on “Why Write About Game of Thrones?

  • Síle , Direct link to comment

    I agree with you, up to a point. I was outraged by the latest episode, not just by the rape scene but the way in which they diminished Cersei’s power so that she is not much more than an irrational, ‘hateful’, grieving mother. What happened to the Cersei who told Littlefinger that ‘power is power’? The whole episode was rife with misogyny. Sam taking control of Gilly’s c
    fate because he’s ‘worried’ about her, in a feeble attempt to show how much of a MAN he has become. Then painting Ygritte as an absolute villain so that *SPOILERS* after the attack on the Wall, we will feel that Jon and the brothers are more justified in killing her, a slight reflection of what has happened to Shae. Arya’s scenes were dominated by the Hound, and Dany’s scenes dominated by Daario. It was like the writer was just saying, ‘Look at this guy! Look how awesome he is! Dany likes him, and so should you!’ As well as that, Ellaria Sand seems to exist purely in brothels, there as yet another piece of flesh for us to admire until the men have to get down to serious manly business and TALK. Then she has to clear out with the naked prostitutes because she has no place in the Red Viper’s non-sexual endeavours. But to bring my seemingly aimless ranting to a somewhat logical conclusion: I am angry too, like you, that this previously excellent show with some of the richest varieties of female characters I have seen on television is choosing this misogynistic route for its new season. And I’m glad I found this blog, because it’s reminding me that these blunders are not normal. HOWEVER, does this mean that we should give hope? Definitely not. Game of Thrones may not be perfect in its representation of women, but they are still the driving force of the plot, along with the men. I am willing to overlook the pointless nudity in favour of the well-developed, complex characters such as Sansa, Arya, Daenerys, Margaery and so on. Because no matter what the show does, it cannot unmake what it has made these characters. Though I vastly prefer the books, in some ways the show has made improvements with the women of Westeros. It changed the feeble, one-dimensional Jeyne Westerling into the intelligent, witty and strong healer Talisa. It gave Shae an arc besides Tyrion’s, and made her kind, fierce and complex. There are many more examples, but I want to respond to your point about the violence against Talisa in the Red Wedding – that was not just for shock-value. It was to show the cost of love, and power, and the helpless situation Robb and Talisa placed themselves in by marrying against the Freys’ wishes, and how she was viewed by them as no more than an object, Robb Stark’s pretty young trophy wife. I don’t agree that depicting this sexual violence is misogynistic. It is a harsh reality in these medieval-fantasy worlds, and I would be more annoyed if they glossed over such vile acts against women as though they did not happen or did not matter. That did not happen in the book, true – but I’m sure it happened to more than a few women in George RR Martin’s world. The difference in Jaime and Cersei’s case, regarding the rape scene, is that it is vastly out of character for both of them, and the context is completely different. Which brings me to what I love about his books, and what the show is at least attempting to imitate – they do not shy away from anything. I intend to persist with this show, and continue to enjoy and criticise it, for the sake of the characters and stories and HOPE that they will do justice to in their depiction.

  • Maddy , Direct link to comment

    It’s not even about the books for me as much as the fact that they are intentionally making choices that make me uncomfortable and you just articulated why. I feel like all those micro-aggressions just cumulated for me in that scene and that is what people are reacting to (at least that’s what it feels like for me). I have been frustrated before but this is the first time the show has made me this angry and upset. It’s not that I don’t think rape should ever be depicted in fiction (although I think you should think VERY carefully about how and why you make that decision, and there is evidence that they haven’t done that), or even just a reaction to that particular scene. It’s a cumulative effect. And it’s not that there aren’t thing in the novels that aren’t problematic – they’re not perfect (particularly on race) but they are nowhere near this level of exploitation. There are even things the show does better than the books, but I never got the impression from the books that the author didn’t understand the oppressive nature of patriarchal structures in both everyday microagressions and in a macro sense. While he was depicting a misogynistic world, I never got the impression that GRRM himself is misogynist and I can’t say the same for the show.

    And the thing about it that frustrates me is that they have such great actors who have made me reconsider how I think about these characters, even when I have taken issue with the writing decisions. I’m still going to watch it but I totally understand why some people have had enough. And I think it’s important that people keep speaking up about this stuff without people calling them ‘oversensitive’ or ‘book purists’ or telling them they should just stop watching if they can’t take it.

    Sorry this is so long but I really like your analysis!

  • Camila , Direct link to comment

    I think you make a lot of excellent points in this post, and I find it very interesting that the writers and producers of the show veer from Martin’s original creation so that women not only take a backseat to the men, but then deconstruct their complexities entirely (with the possible exception of Margeary, who is much more complex and well constructed in the show, but perhaps only because she becomes a POV character). The treatment of characters like Catelyn, whose arc in the series serves to be a Cassandra-like harbinger of doom for her son but loses so much of the agency that made her interesting, and Cersei, whose personal demons are only explored through her drinking (but we seem to gloss over her except to emphasize how horrible she is, which is funny in that basically that’s how the male characters around her see her) is reductive and difficult to parse.

    I would argue that this show does a great disservice to Martin’s work not because of the plot deviations, but because of the character deviations, and the choice to focus so heavily on the male players where the female ones have equal footing in the books. It’s difficult to care, for instance, about Stannis without Melisandre, and it’s exceptionally difficult to divorce Littlefinger’s arc from Sansa’s, and Arya, of course, stands on her own without the need for companionship (as in the novels she accompanies and abandons several companions as she goes along), and it is not the female characters who serve to highlight the flaws and strengths of the male ones, but rather the other way around. It’s shame the series couldn’t do the same.

  • tinyorc , Direct link to comment

    I, for one, am really glad you write about GoT as much as you do. Your analysis is always excellent and you manage to cut write to the heart of things; I always come here if an episode has left me with vaguely confused angry feelings but I’m not sure why. I also really appreciate your analyses of individual female characters, because you also manage to find the positive in their portrayals and identify how they negotiate their own power and agency in the deeply misogynistic world where they exist.

    And I think you’re very right about the fact that writing about Game of Thrones is not just about critiquing one TV show, or one set of creators. I would even go further say it’s about more that critiquing a genre or even TV as a medium. Game of Thrones is one of the single most popular TV shows of all time, no questions. It is a huge and influential cultural force. Critiquing the show is cultural critique – it’s asking “why?” over and over again – “why does this world appeal to so many people?” “why are we so willing to forgive this male character but not this female character?” “why are we willing to swallow brutal violence against women in this context, but not this context?” We’re not just asking questions about a TV show, we’re asking questions about the society that created this TV show. We’re asking questions about ourselves.

    And Breaker of Chains really brought that home for me. The fact that so many people could watch a scene where a woman is shoved on the floor, held down and forcibly penetrated while she’s crying and struggling and saying “No, please, it’s not right” again and again… the fact that so many people could watch that and still debate in earnest whether that counts as rape or not… I mean, fuck Westeros, that says some deeply disturbing things about the real world and the culture we live in right now.

  • Anne , Direct link to comment

    Thank you. I agree with everything you said. It horrible that my friends who also watch this show don’t see the aspects that have just killed my love for it. This blog gives me hope, even if Game of Thrones itself doesn’t.

  • Nico , Direct link to comment

    I have always advocated for feminism and women’s rights, and have always been dissapointed by the harmful portrayal of women in media, and I agree with a lot of things you wrote. However, I am also very strongly annoyed by people who use the word “mysogeny” irresponsably. It’s a big word, it matters, and I really really think it doesn’t mean what you think it means. It was the same with many of Anita Sarkesian’s arguments on her videos; great arguments kind of ruined by her constantly implying that the people who make these things actively HATE women and WANT to create harmful tropes. Many women and men work on these show to make strong female characters, and defeat stereotypes against women (yes, there can be pointless nudidty AND strong female characters in the same place… not that the first is good for anything, but still.). And even though this WAS kind of a very huge mystake, I don’t think it’s right to accuse the show makers and the whole thing so far of MYSOGANY outright.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I think you misunderstand what people mean when they say that something (especially a show or a book) is misogynistic. I think it’s unlikely that anyone involved in the show is going around thinking about how much they hate women, or plotting how they’re going to fit more harmful tropes into the story. The problem is that this stuff is insidious. Somebody can be a perfectly lovely person under normal circumstances, but have internalized a lot of the misogynistic (and racist, and ableist, and etc etc) messages that society sends out every day, in TV shows and books like Game of Thrones, in newspapers and the news, in advertising, in our language itself. It’s very difficult for even somebody who is actively attempting to avoid being sexist/racist/etc to rid themselves of these internalized ideas entirely, because they’re just *so* pervasive, so when writers DON’T make an effort, they crop up everywhere. Not because the writers are “women haters” or anything like that, but because they allow these misogynistic ideas and tropes to creep into the narrative without thinking about them critically. They’re not put their because the WRITERS hate women, but because the general tone of our society does, and the word “misogynistic” when talking about a narrative therefore isn’t attacking the WRITER, so much as the context that they’re writing in and perpetuating.

What do you think?

%d bloggers like this: