Game of Thrones: The Responsibilities of Female Representation

This spring I read a fiery debate on the Swedish website Moviezine regarding how women are represented in the TV-series Game of Thrones. The debate was mainly between two members of the website and touched on topics of gender equality, something which also served to lay bare how the concept is often perceived. It was mostly this latter part of the debate that got me riled up and feeling the need to partake, but I refrained from diving straight in in order to reflect on my own true reasons for being so tired of naked female bodies in conjunction with completely dressed male counterparts on the screen (and in media in general) today. So I asked myself a few questions.

Firstly: Do I believe that Game of Thrones would be, or would be perceived, as more equal if there were as many male parts as female parts on screen (be they prosthetic or no)?

I personally am not opposed to nudity on television or in film, if there is a reason for it being there. If nudity adds something to the scene by way of character development or as a tool that is used to show the true nature of the relationship between two characters (it may be loving, or engaged in a power struggle, or both) then nudity can be very effective and definitively motivated. I begin to shift in my seat when nudity becomes nothing more than a showcase of undressed women. My annoyance comes from these undressed women usually not having any bearing on the plot or characters involved whatsoever.

However, my answer to the question above is “no”, Game of Thrones would not be, nor would I perceive it to be, more equal if there were as many male sex organs as female sex organs. Equality does not come from measuring the nudity of either sex and comparing the screen-time of each. Rather it comes from using nudity as a storytelling tool instead of a gimmick.

Secondly: Does the fact that the show uses nudity largely in situations where the female characters are prostitutes ease the inequality issue – that is to say, is it not a storytelling technique that is used intentionally to underline visually how the women of the Seven Kingdoms are exposed to male dominance?

One of the participants in the aforementioned discussion remarked that a lot of the nudity in Game of Thrones has to do with prostituted women in situations where it could be deemed natural that they are taking their clothes off or appear without a thread of clothing throughout the scene or, for that matter, appear in the nude and then slip something on towards the end of it. This is absolutely true, but the prostitution which is a part of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin – upon which the TV-series is based, for those of you who were unaware – is not more at the forefront than any other theme that is woven into its pages.

To be perfectly honest I would even go so far as to say that the prostitution, when it comes to being described in greater detail, is somewhere in the periphery of things that are of weight to the narrative. It is most prominent in the relationship between Shae and Tyrion, where her low status as a prostitute is not merely the focal point due to the fact that she has found her way into the bed of a member of one of the most powerful families in the land, but also due to the fact that said man truly loves her with complete disregard for her past and knowing how it would affect him and his relationship with his already distanced father if they were to be discovered.

Aside from this, one could comment that there is prostitution and rape that occur in all corners of the Seven Kingdoms, and that these elements are an interwoven part of a tale that deals with situations of war, destitution and many other realistic scenarios. Either way, prostitution, rape and nudity are given a much less dominant role in the books than the series.

The woman’s subordination in relation to the man’s dominance is a strong theme throughout the books and is brought into the TV-series in the same convincing and telling way: the female subjugation is shown through strong, smart, driven female individuals of whom none have the same freedom, power or multitude of choice as the men surrounding them, simply because they were born women.

But there are layers added even to this most basic of realities as the women who are held back and forced into submission in a social context are highborn women locked in political games and intrigue (Cersei, Margaery, Sansa, Catelyn, Melisandre), while the women who are a part of the lower classes – or who can easily be taken for being a part of them – are allowed a broader playing field and wider freedom of conduct (Osha, Ygritte, Arya, Brienne). On top of which there are highborn women who will not be cowed into a destiny they have not chosen for themselves and refuse to be second to any man, such as Daenerys (who, among other things, takes control and secures herself an equal position next to the husband she is forced to marry), Asha (Theon’s sister) and the Dorne princess Arienne (who has yet to make her entrance into the TV-series).

My point is that the books tell female life stories that consist of depth, insight and a definitive respect for what women are capable of. The female characters are allowed to show courage, strength and intelligence (attributes that are classically thought of as “masculine”). The creators of the TV-series – David Benioff and D.B. Weiss – adopt this approach without pause and the characters that have an actual name all have an emotional anchor in the books they stem from.

I circle back to the comment in the discussion thread, which proposed the use of prostitution as a so called viable reason to show naked women. It begs the question: why has it become the norm to show completely naked women in some form of subjugated position in a room with fully clothed men? My problem with this is not that the woman is naked or even that the man is dressed – my problem is that these scenes take place when there is not even the least bit of narrative reason for them to do so, and these become the instances where the problematic representation of womankind as a gender is perpetuated and restated again and again.

Do we need a naked woman for the scene to work? Nah, but isn’t it always nicer with a naked woman?

I am agog at those who would argue that this is not a problem to be given any real weight because ”the majority of the viewers want naked women in the show”. It would be spectacularly interesting to start a very serious campaign to investigate exactly by how much the ratings would fall if one were to ask all those viewers who are bothered by the unwarranted nudity– and yet love the show – to forego having a seat in front of the television on Sunday night. I suspect this would reveal that viewers do not watch the show because one expects naked women, but because the show has a fantastic level of production that never lets the viewer down.

And so, to answer the question above: no, it in no way eases the inequality issue that nudity is used in situations where the female characters are prostitutes, especially since these prostituted women are nameless, substance free stereotypes who in the series seem to take nothing but pleasure from their work. If all these naked women were to be taken out of the series, and only the female characters that bear actual names were to be shown in moments when they choose to undress, this would help somewhat with what now bothers me as a viewer. Although this would naturally act as a foundation for a whole new debate when it comes to how women are viewed, as well as prompting discussions of gender inequality in representations of sexuality within the series.

Thirdly: Are there never any moments in Game of Thrones when female nudity is used in a way that empowers the woman, rather than the man?

Of course there are! And it’s something that does the show credit. Ygritte and Melisandre are two female characters that use their sexuality in a way that puts them in a position of power. Their sexuality comes from a character driven motivation that not only shows who they are as individuals, but also affects their character development and the part they have to play in the progression of the plot. Ygritte uses her sexuality to seduce Jon, and once they are lovers it’s on equal ground as they have fallen for each other, while Melisandre places herself in a position of power with Stannis, even when – or possibly even more so in those instances where – she is undressed.

What always should be sharpened into a point in any discussion or debate concerning female representation, is the question of who holds the position of power in a scene, an image, or a message. In the Moviezine thread someone frustratingly remarked that these things need not be taken so seriously – that a simple TV-series perhaps doesn’t warrant such close inspection. Of course, HBO and the creators of Game of Thrones have not set out to diminish womankind by contrasting naked women with clothed men. The show is not a political statement and the scenes containing naked women are not plotted to be anti-feminist in tone.

However, what I feel is important to be conscious of (especially for the creators of images that will reach millions), is the deeper meaning these images still inherently hold. Not to say that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are not perfectly aware of this already, I simply believe that they choose to see it as norm and until more creators choose to see things differently, nothing will ever change. The series as a whole can lean on its portrayal of a whole gallery of strong female individuals, but due to the scenes, that are in practically every episode, consisting of nameless women undressing, the show is still bogged down by the meaning behind these images. The naked woman becomes a representative, whether they want her to be one or not, of the fixation, which quite plainly exists in this patriarchal society, of the woman being subjugated to the man.

And we are fed this fixation daily. And from it we hear these never-ending arguments to the tune of “the majority wants to see naked women”. It has become such an integrated part of modern society, and we have such free and constant access to material furthering it that it is even considered nagging, annoying and deviant to oppose this view of women. But it is this view of women that leads to rape: the female subjugation; the woman is willing even if she says no; every woman is a whore if you can only get her on her back.

I’ll admit it’s possible that I am painting it a shade too black, and that I may be drawing the line too sharply. As a creator I do however believe in the creative responsibility to represent the world in a truthful way, but also in a way that could contribute to positive change. The Seven Kingdoms may be an entirely separate universe, but it is ultimately a reflection of our own.

This post is featured on curnblog.com, edited by James Curnow.

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2 Comments

Filed under English, Essays, Reviews and Analysis

2 responses to “Game of Thrones: The Responsibilities of Female Representation

  1. I agree completely with the idea that “the majority wants to see naked women” is absolutely ridiculous and quite frankly, if that is the reason anyone is watching Game of Thrones I urge them to stop and go watch some porn or something instead. I don’t think that is the case for most viewers though (I hope!) as it does have so much more to offer.
    I think it is a strange point you make though about the prostitutes enjoying being prostitutes. I don’t really see why this is an issue – surely it is better for the women to be happy and to have chosen this life than to have been forced into a life of prostitution against their will; most likely by their fathers and because of their poor social standing. I feel more comfortable with the idea that a woman has chosen to become a prostitute due to her love of sex, than with the idea that she is forced to sell her body to survive.
    This post has actually inspired me to write one of my own on the same topic, so if you would like to read my full thoughts, here is the link:
    http://lookclosertamara.wordpress.com/2014/12/15/nudity-and-sexism-in-game-of-thrones/

    • Hello, Tamara!

      As I wrote in my email – you have every right to your own opinion in this matter, however much I may disagree with you. 🙂 I hope that my post showed not only someone taking a critical stance against aspects of the show, but an actual fan doing so. We’re in the same shoes here. I love this show, and ever more so the books!, and it is because of my love for these amazing works of fiction that I find myself even more critical of the show and how it’s handling the visualisation of the novels (even though I know it is with the blessing of George R.R. Martin), because the sexist aspects of this show makes it less appealing to me, makes it feel cheap, to be honest, and it deserves better than that. I will respond to your comment on my post here, and leave a comment for your response at your own blog instead.

      It’s interestingly difficult to write so that every person on the planet will understand your exact meaning and if I was unclear about my comment regarding prostitution in GoT I do apologise, but I do feel you misunderstood this comment and brought it into a different context. For example, the scenario is a brothel with unnamed female characters, in part or completely naked, who seem to be enjoying a romp with elderly, clothed men. Ask yourself this: how do you know these women’s backstory? How do you know they are actually enjoying themselves? GoT is all about manipulation and lies (more or less), right? So if these women are not enjoying themselves, but acting as though they are as part of their job, does this mean that they are in a power position, getting the money they’ve set out to get off these men? Or could it be deemed emotional rape, having to sell your body in order to not starve? And if they are enjoying themselves, again, how are you to know the difference? They have no bearing on the plot or the main characters – they are nothing but window dressing because they aren’t afforded their own subplot. They do not even have names. My comment on prostitutes “taking nothing but pleasure from their work” is in direct relation to what I state before in that same sentence: “And so, to answer the question above: no, it in no way eases the inequality issue that nudity is used in situations where the female characters are prostitutes, especially since these prostituted women are nameless, substance free stereotypes who in the series seem to take nothing but pleasure from their work.”

      Like I said at the beginning of my post – I don’t mind nudity on the screen. I have no problem with a nicely shot sex scene that is there for an actual reason. But boobies for the sake of boobies gets old. And it gets me down. The prostitutes are there for the creators to have a reason to have boobies for the sake of boobies – and so this is where I take issue with it. My point with the comment on prostitution was not to say that I would rather they were all cowering in a corner. Goodness me, no.

      Thank you very much for commenting! I hope my response may have illuminated my intent. I am off to yours! 🙂

      All my very best,
      Annelie.

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