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Posts Tagged ‘Game of Thrones’

(Trigger warning: strong language, sexual violence, and just… Game of Thrones)

It took me two weeks to watch all of Game of Thrones. Now let’s talk about it.

I know many people have already said that Game of Thrones is problematic as far as feminism goes, but I wanted to dig a bit deeper into those uncomfortable feelings that the show raises in those of us who have any interest or stake in gender equality (aka hopefully all of us).

Using women’s bodies as decoration is pretty much the oldest trick in the lazy-and-uncreative-media-making book. We see it in many different forms, all of them predictable and yet upsetting. (Some) men like looking at women’s bodies, so we stick them everywhere for them to enjoy. Game of Thrones is not different in this respect, its use of female bodies is pretty much identical to that of every shitty (and “good”) piece of media that thinks women (or at least those of us who look a certain way) were put on this planet so that men can sit back and “enjoy” their appearance. GoT is different in other ways, like in that it takes the whole objectifying thing, to which we got pretty desensitized, to such an extreme level that we’re almost convinced that it’s not even objectifying anymore. Now, they tell us, it’s quality, progressive, and insightful television. But it’s really not, or at least that piece of it isn’t. The fact that Game of Thrones is well-produced, interesting, complex, and super addictive doesn’t change the fact that it also reaps the benefits of our sexist society and its treatment of women’s bodies. Its usage of female nudity serves, above all, the “fuck yeah, tits!” ideology, even if those tits are surrounded by (and maybe even belong to) interesting characters and ideas in an epic and glamorous fantasy world.

The reason this is so annoying, more than it is when shows like How I met Your Mother or The Bachelor do it, is because Game of Thrones actually had the potential to be a not-sexist (or, god forbid, feminist) show, and partially it is. With a lot of decent female characters who get actual story lines, depth and complex personalities, GoT could have been truly progressive and interesting in its treatment of female characters, but I guess we really cannot have it all; some objectifying apparently makes the feminist medicine go down.

The sexism in GoT is pretty blatant, and if you haven’t noticed it yourselves, there’s probably nothing I can say to make you understand it (the show does a pretty good job of explaining it all by itself). But just to recap: the women in this show, all but the selected few who are outside the acceptable age range for blatant objectifying, serve a dual function: they’re characters, and at the same time they’re ornaments. It seems quite obvious that so much of the nudity on the show is unnecessary, it doesn’t serve the plot or enhance the emotional impact, and it is clear that its main goal is entertaining the male viewers who can’t stay engaged. The women in GoT are naked a lot. Seriously, a lot. It seems like half the time when there’s a conversation going on, there are just some anonymous women in the background, prancing away in the nude (as it is in all of our lives, I assume). Women are naked when they aren’t really even in the scene, just decorating the screen, and they are also naked when they’re talking and conversing (maybe that’s the only way they, or we, will listen). They’re naked at night, evening and morning. In their homes and in the great outdoors. When they’re having sex or when they just exist in the world as females. Basically, it seems like everything that a Game of Thrones man can do, a GoT woman can also do, only she has to do it naked.

Not only are women naked so much more often than men, but they are naked in a very different and particular way. Usually they are shown fully, or at least fully enough to have their breasts and almost-vag showing, facing the camera, and either dramatically removing and dropping a piece of clothing , or just kinda standing there, just being naked. This is the most obvious “I’m here to be looked at” nudity there is. Always passive, decorative, inviting, presenting. There is no variety in terms of what female nudity can be; it’s never aggressive, funny, intimidating, awkward, sad, or relaxing; it’s always just sexy and there to be turned on by. This can give us a pretty good idea of what GoT believes female bodies are for. Pretty basic male-gaze stuff.

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(Sorry about the kittens, I didn’t know what else to use and didn’t want it to be boring!)

The men, on the other hand, seem to be able to keep their clothes on most of the time, even well into sex scenes. Talk about a double standard… The striking visual of a fully nude woman and a fully clothed man is pretty common on the show. But even when men are shown nude (always when it makes sense, say when they’re having sex), it never feels like the viewer is supposed to get turned on by their nudity. They don’t get sensual shots focusing on their body parts, they don’t undress for the camera, they don’t stand there and wait for the audience to enjoy their strong bodies.

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Actually, the only time male nudity gets the same visual treatment as female nudity is, of course, in the gay sex scene. Why? Because, as sexism and heteronormativity have taught us, someone has to be the woman, right? (No.)

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I’m not saying that we should objectify men (although I’m sure some viewers would be happy to see Jon Snow sensually removing his heavy coat and present himself to the camera); they deserve to have their clothes, as do we all. I’m saying that maybe female characters can be treated with the same seriousness that male characters enjoy when it comes to decisions about their bodies and nudity, instead of being used as pretty decorations for the set.

We should also take a second to consider the few women who aren’t shown nude. There aren’t very many of them; Arya and Sansa who are both too young, in real life and hopefully in the show too (although I have a guess what will happen when Sophie Turner, Sansa, will turn 18), and Catelyn and Olenna, Margaery’s grandmother, who are both apparently too old. Since Arya and Sansa are both simply illegal to show naked, I’m going to focus on the older characters, who are also more interesting as far as nudity goes. So, the women of GoT are supposedly shown naked a lot because that’s the harsh truth, because in the world that the show portrays, this is the reality women live in. The reason I don’t buy this is exactly because of these older characters. Women like Catelyn Stark would also be naked sometimes in the world of GoT. She has sex, she showers… she is, like pretty much everyone everywhere, naked at times. But in the show, magically enough, she is not shown naked even once. Why? Maybe it’s because Michelle Fairley, the actress who plays Catelyn, has acted in more than 50 movies and TV shows before GoT, and might be harder to get to undress than, say, Emilia Clarke (Daenerys), who has acted only in 3 movies/shows before GoT. Maybe it’s because Fairley is almost 50 years old, while the other actresses who are shown nude tend to be in their 20s and 30s. Maybe older women aren’t considered “attractive” enough to be shown nude. Maybe there is even a disrespect that is associated with nudity, and older age gains you some respect that the young women aren’t given. Maybe it would just be too pricey to get a famous actress to agree to be filmed nude. Either way, Catelyn Stark manages to be a convincing and real character, even with all of her clothes on. Apparently the harsh reality can be compromised sometimes, even on the truthful Game of Thrones. The thought of Fairley being able to negotiate her nudity in a way that the younger actresses couldn’t is deeply disturbing (actually, Lena Headey, Cersei, who is 40 years old and who has acted in almost 60 movies/shows before GoT, did not agree to be naked and has a body double for her nude scenes), and the thought of the very particular kinds of female nudity that we are shown, even with the massive quantities of it, makes me think that maybe it’s not all about the plot and the commitment to the visual reality.

It is not only older women who aren’t shown naked, it is also bigger women or just any woman who doesn’t 100% fit the Hollywood ideal. Granted, there are pretty much no bigger women in the show at all, naked or dressed, but let’s just say that in the made up world of GoT, all women are probably not as thin as they are in the show. Bigger women exist, and they are also often naked. The traditionally less attractive men in the show (older, bigger) are actually shown nude sometimes, although never in a sexualizing way. Men’s bodies in GoT are a million times more diverse than women’s bodies, and they have different uses and meanings; women’s bodies seem to only mean “sexy.” The fact that bigger and older women are never shown nude and that it is always thin, young and traditionally good looking women who have their bodies presented to the audience, again, goes to show us that the main point of the nudity is to turn guys on, nothing more.

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Another important way GoT uses female bodies is as the recipients of many forms of violence. This is, of course, true  for male bodies as well (and animal bodies, or any body that appears on the screen really), but again, not in the same way. More often than not, it seems that the violence against the women of GoT is not meant simply to shock us, but also to please us in a weird fucked up way. This is also a common theme in film and TV, where abuse of female bodies is glamorized and presented as visually pleasing rather than as sad or disturbing. This often includes sexualization of violence against women, like we saw in the earlier scenes between Daenerys and Drogo, when he continuously rapes her. I prefer not to include screen shots from those scenes as I found them terribly disturbing, but they are still important. So yes, they are shocking and disturbing, but they also give this awful feeling that someone is finding this visually pleasing. They don’t just read “terrible,” they also read “sexy” and maybe even “sensual”. They still focus on Daenerys’ body, on her nudity as attractive, not as disturbing, as if telling the audience to be thankful that Drogo decided to rape an attractive woman because now we get to look at her. Much like in the dumb “We Saw Your Boobs” piece, here too we get to see Daenerys’ boobs, and the fact that it’s in a rape scene doesn’t seem to matter much.

Sin City (my least favorite movie of all times) is a great example of this, of using the hitting, stabbing and killing of women as visual stimulation for the audience and as a source of pleasure. It’s hard to put my finger on what it is that makes a certain portrayal of violence against women effective, meaningful, and compassionate, and another humiliating, glamorizing, and indulging. It’s one of those things: you know it when you see it. There is just this sense that the makers of the show find some pleasure in the visuals of violence against women and not necessarily use them for the right reasons. I’m not saying that they think that you should abuse women, clearly they understand that these are negative acts, but it can certainly seems like they find some distorted beauty in violence against women, which they don’t find in violence against men.

Abuse of women is also often taken less seriously than abuse of men. When Theon was tortured, he got to have his pain featured and detailed on several episodes and scenes, his abuse was taken seriously and the audience was expected to sympathize with him. We experience the violence along with him, twitching and cringing with every hit he suffers. But when Ros (aka the main prostitute and a much more interesting character, if you ask me) was brutally murdered, she got one swift shot (which was, of course, very artistically arranged) to show her death; you could miss it completely if you just looked down to your popcorn bowl for one second. Theon’s loss of his penis got so much more attention and screen time than the loss of Ros’ life. Obviously losing your penis would be a pretty traumatizing and generally terrible experience, but so would dying at the hand of a teenage psychopath.

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What these particular uses of female bodies teach us is who Game of Thrones is actually meant for. In a heteronormative society, constantly decorating the screen with female bodies is basically saying that this is guy territory. Women are allowed to watch, but it’s not really directed at us. It tells us that people who can’t handle watching the most graphic and brutal violence and sexual violence scenes (say, survivors of sexual assault who find it triggering) can basically go fuck themselves, because no one cares. Can’t take it? Too bad. Sissy girls can go watch the Disney Channel, this is for tough guys only. This pretty much sucks since, like I said, Game of Thrones is an addictive show with interesting characters and story lines, and excluding (mostly) women (considering that we are the majority of sexual violence survivors and of those who might not find the female-bodies-as-flower-vases genre appealing) is shitty, to put it simply.

The other reason this sucks is because although the story is made-up, fantasy, imaginary etc, these women had to be naked in real life. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being naked, when desired it’s fun and cool and all that, but this is not these women’s relaxing me-time; this is their job. Getting naked as a job is a complicated topic, but this is not really what these women do anyway. They’re actresses. They act. Game of Thrones, as one of the most popular shows in the past couple of years, is probably the best a beginner British actress can do right now. Many of these women are very new to acting, some of them having Game of Thrones be their first big role, and so there is something pretty disturbing about the situation this creates. Let’s see, you’re an aspiring young actress, and you’re offered a role in the most expensive TV show of all times, that people talk about nonstop and that will make you a star (and probably pretty wealthy) overnight, and where you will actually get to play an interesting character, with depth and all of that good stuff. The only thing is… you have to be naked. A lot. So, you can agree to be naked and become all of these things, or you can say no, keep your clothes on and spend the next so and so years auditioning for students’ short films and not earning enough money to cover even the bus fare to the set and back.

In other words, these fantasies create very real realities. A TV show is different from a book or a story, because it has to take place in the real world and be enacted on real people, at least to a certain extent. These are things that are written into contracts, that are negotiated, that people actually have to do. It matters when so much of the success you can have as an actress depends on whether you agree to undress for the camera.

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The other side of the reality behind the fantasy can maybe explain why GoT treats female bodies the way it does. Game of Thrones is made by men. It’s created, directed and written by men. Two men created it, men directed all but 2 episodes, men wrote all but 3 episodes, men filmed all but 2 episodes and out of 23 people credited for some level of producing, only 6 are women, none of which is credited for all 30 episodes. You get the point: a lot of men. Obviously, having a male-dominated production is not unusual in the TV or film world, but this is more extreme than many other popular shows, even less “progressive” ones. Hot I met Your Mother, True Blood, Bones, Grey’s Anatomy, Pretty Little Liars and Scandal are all either created, directed or written by mostly women, or at least an equal number of men and women. There are still A LOT of TV shows that have practically no women in main production roles, but it’s no longer obvious; clearly it is possible to include women in production and excuses are running out. This matters because when men tell all the stories, the way women are portrayed tends to go wrong. It’s not that involving women in the production guarantees a 100% feminist product, but maybe it increases the chances that female characters in the show will be treated more like characters and less like sculptures that can move. Also, going back to the piece about the realities for the actresses in GoT, I can’t help but think about the actual shooting of these scenes, of having to stand naked for long periods of time, in front of a room full of men who are telling you what to do and how, while your male counterparts are fully clothed. Again, these characters are naked in the made up story, but the actresses are naked in the very real set.

Game of Thrones could be a really great show. It has all the ingredients right there; it can be clever, innovative, surprising and trusting of its audience’s intelligence. Sometimes it is all of these things, but when it comes to female bodies, GoT is expected, boring, disregarding of its audience, and quite lazy. It could be great for female characters, actresses, and viewers, but instead it chooses to treat us and them in the old and boring sexist way of television.

For future reference: women sometimes wear clothes. When women don’t wear clothes, it’s not always for men (or anyone) to look at. Older women and bigger women exist. Violence against women is never beautiful or sexy. Women’s pain is real and important. Women watch your shows and deserve to be taken seriously as viewers and not be ignored. Actresses should be able to become successful even if they want to keep their clothes on. Female bodies were not put on this planet to please you with their form. If you want to make good television, take women seriously and find new ways to portray and engage with female characters, instead of repeating the same old boring stereotypes.

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A note on race:

I’m sure that there are a lot of people who can say this better than me, but I can’t talk about the body politics of GoT without mentioning the racist crap these guys pulled off. Okay, I didn’t read the books, and I don’t care, this is what it is. Portraying the violent, wild, sexually-aggressive and barbaric people as.. well, not-white (and, let’s admit it, probably Arab) is NOT okay. Showing all the slave-cities as, again, not-white (white people never enslaved anyone, clearly) is not okay. Having Daenerys, aka the whitest person ever, come to free all the slaves with her gracious good-heart is kind of fucked up. Again, the show supplied everything I could ask for to make a point, in this extremely disturbing last shot where Daenerys is shown literally as the shining, white center of the depressed brown mass of people who she is going to save. White savior complex 101. Thank god for blue eyes and blond hair, or these poor dark slaves would be stuck with their masters forever! I can’t remember where I read this (sorry), but someone criticized The Help saying that black people didn’t need white people to initiate acts of defiance for them; they did that all on their own. It is pretty much the same problem for this story, and the visuals speak loudly of the problematic idea that white people are needed to save people of color. Daenerys is like any white American college student in a trip to Africa, taking a picture with the poor village kids and posting it on her facebook to let the world know: “wohooo! look at me saving all of the poor dark kids!!! yayyy!” Thanks…?

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