There has been much criticism of Game of Thrones, especially of the TV series. It’s been accused of being sexist, racist, sexist, too violent, sexist and sexist again. Now most of this critisim has been levelled at the HBO adaptation so I’ve studiously ignored it but I was at a friend’s house the other day and she said she’d just finished reading the first book. While she thought it was good, it was far too sexist for her tastes. I challenged her on this and her response ran somehitng like ‘Oh the prostitution! it’s everywhere! so many prostitutes, is nobody safe?!’ only less hysterical.
So i decided it’s time to weigh in. I’m half-way through a storm of Swords part 2 so this will only really about the books up until there, not the TV show as that’s covered in more detail elsewhere.
The show added a lot of prostitution that wasn’t really in the original but I found the original quite feminist. Look at characters like Arya Stark, Daenerys Targareyn or Brienne Whatshername, especially in the later books, and it’s clear that there a numerous incidents of strong powerful women being progressive and assertive and all that good stuff in a world that doesn’t necessairly cater for this.
The negative first: Yes there is quite a lot of sex in the books. So? sex on it’s own is not a problem and I never felt that it was used gratuitously. Sexuality is used usually for plot points (i.e. when Sansa gets her period she’ll be forced to marry and sleep with Joffrey), to create a specific atmosphere (How creeped out were you when Robert Arryn was still breastfeeding at age 9?), or for character development (see the numerous scenes between Danerys and Drogo). So where does the negative come into it? Yeah, all the prostitutes are women, the men were too busy dying in various wars to branch out into prostitution. There are scenes of sexual domination over women and men often brag about it to other men because that’s what they do in testorone fueled war filled society. But at no point did I feel the narrator was condoning any of this behaviour, the only time sexual objectification of women felt normalised (for me at least) was when a particular character was normalising it. In this way we learned more about that character and his (or her) world view. Yes there are scenes of violent sex but for them not to take place at all would be implausible. Even in modern warfare and modern civilisation sex is a weapon and a tool and rapes occur all the time. In a society that is arguably more violent than ours it just wouldn’t be believable if it didn’t take place. G. R. R. Martin never claims that this is a desirable state of being.
The positive : As I mentioned there’s strong women (I might cover that in more detail some other time), the sex isn’t always a bad thing, and the prostitutes aren’t crawling out of the walls. It’s more the references to them that are everywhere. Frequently men are bragging about sexual exploits that probably never happened. Again we are learning about the characters themselves, this kind of dialogue doesn’t necessarily denigrate the women in and of itself. In fact there are occasions where it makes more of a show of the man who said it. But what about the poor prostitutes? I hear you ask. Don’t they get a voice at all? Isn’t pushing them into the background as merely a conversation starter for men just as bad as sexually objectifying them? Well it would be if that was what was happening but it isn’t. In a world dominated by swords chivalry and patriarchy many women use their sexuality as an extremely effective weapon. Look at Cersei Lannister, her incestuous relationship with Jaime was born from love but also allows her to ensure the succession of the throne is entirely in Lannister hands. She was wed to a man she did not love and rather than weep and become a broken woman she took control of her sex life, refused to have his children and proceeds to gain more and more control over King Robert, then King Joffrey as the series progresses. She is effectively Queen of the land. Look at Daenerys Targareyn, how she grows as a character through her self affirming marriage with Drogo. One of the first positive acts in her journey to become Queen is loosing her virginity. Both sold as brides, virtually prostituted to gain power for their male relatives, yet they turn the situation around and claim the power for themselves. The Game of Thrones has room for Queens as well as Kings, and these Queens are just as well equipped using their sexuality in nefarious manipulative and even joyous life affirming ways. Even when it boils down to the prostitutes themselves Daenarys is virtually sold to Khal Drogo, Chataya is a pretty smooth business lady, Alayaya is shown as intelligent and kind, teaching herself to read, even Shae becomes a very important character despite some uncertainty over her motives in being with Tyrion (He pays her wages after all). The fact that Tyrion’s first wife was a prostitute turns out to be hugely important to his character development but again, I did not feel that the girl was necessarily portrayed as beaten down and exploited. She got paid for what she did and paid well, she chose to enter into it and Martin even tells s the story through his voice so that the violent sexual domination that followed is more of a psychological of profile of Tyrion’s inferiority complex than anything else. The girl is removed from the violence itself in this detached account, the narrative did not revel in it.
The setting : Once Upon A Time Tolkien became the god of all that is fantasy literature. And it was then decreed that all fantasy can only take place in a homogenous middle ages European society with magic thrown in. I think it was Ben Yahtzee Crowshaw who blamed Tolkien for the fact that the phrase ‘Standard Fantasy Setting’ can now be uttered without the slightest hint of irony. I mentioned the setting once or twice earlier in the post and I’d like to analyze it here. Despite all the ideology of fantasy as genre where anything can happen it still has to be believable. That’s why, when author’s throw in tropes like magic, they tend to set their stories in a recognisable place where humans also believed in magic. hence the domination of the medieval from where people legitimately believed this stuff could happen. Along with that belief comes the limited opportunities for women etc.
I want to look at how this specifically functions in Game of Thrones though. Martin’s book is, above all else, political. it’s a character driven struggle for power and dominance over the rest of the land. To fit in all the violence and intrigue and to tie in with what most fantasy fans believe it makes sense that they’re fighting for is a Kingship. Now in a land like this the army and formation fighting is necessary. History has shown that facing this kind of weaponry armour, arms, stamina etc. are required, it takes a hardy bunch of lads. Women genetically speaking are not predisposed to develop the kind of muscle necessary and in societies like this they were not often given the chance to, more on that in a minute. (However Martin includes several female warriors and leaders: Danaerys, Brienne, The free folk beyond the wall, the leader of one of Tyrion’s wild hordes is a woman – So Martin does accept that women are just as good as men on the battle field before anyone gets angry about that). The men dominate in the ranks however, and frankly that’s because most of them are going to get killed. When all the men die the population needs to replenish itself so that’s one major reason why women are largely absent from the frontline in this series, logically speaking you need more women than men to reproduce quickly. Also in a society that has so many wars and conflicts that at this point I’m beginning to lose track, it’s natural that the vast majority of that societies’ wealth will be spent on wars. therefore, no universities. The careers for the common people are limites to trades. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, that sort of thing. A lot of these trades involve quite heavy physical labour that quite frankly is difficult and dangerous after about the sixth month of pregnancy, why are you pregnant? Oh yeah, because everybody died. However some women do not become attached or tied down, and even the ones that do often have careers in this world. How many landladies, female innkeepers, blacksmith, cooks etc. are scattered throughout the books? Some of the women who are prostitutes are clearly doing it because they want to, look at Chataya’s in the later books.
Yes there is a lot of prostitution and un-consensual sex but in a series based around a throne, therefore an aristocracy, women are valued for breeding, preserving lines, purity etc. With purely logical reasoning it’s no surprise that the story Martin set out to write requires women’s sexuality has paramount importance to the plot. It simply wouldn’t be believable that a land with this kind of psyche wouldn’t have prostitutes. I think Martin handles his female characters admirably and for me, even the prostitutes have become some of the most memorable characters of the series.
Postscript: Let us remember that there are no equal opportunities for men in Westeros either. I have yet to hear someone saying that it’s sexist that all the men are conscripted into armies, sent off to war and killed before most of them get through puberty.