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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Wonderful scenery and cinematography, particularly the parts representing the far north, with its forbidding, snow-covered, mountainous views.
- 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.
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?