At the end of April, an article found its way onto the Guardian website, written by Danielle Henderson. In this article she claimed that too much sexism and racism encouraged her to stop watching the popular HBO fantasy epic, Game of Thrones. This is a show set in a medieval fantasy world featuring Dragons, Giants, Ice Zombies and, yes, even Imps, but I want to argue that to claim the show is sexist is to entirely miss the point.
Let me start by saying I am a HUGE fan of the Songs of Ice and Fire books upon which the series is based. George R R Martin is a master at creating a vast and complex world and understanding the different players in that world and how they impact the overall narrative. He is also great at writing strong female characters. Now before you bite my head off and call me a woman-hating misogynist, let me explain. The fictional world in which this is placed is very much like the medieval world of our own history, just without the actual magic, and mythical creatures (sadly). It is a reflection of a lot various aspects of our own society and, yes, even in how we view and treat women and how they have been forced into a second class role throughout most of human history.
Game of Thrones isn't meant to satisfy this utopian vision of a world in which men and women are equal, all races hold hands and dance gayly in meadows while a half goat man plays a flute. It's not meant to be nice, it's not meant to be an egalitarian world, but the world created still has, and presents brilliantly, very strong female characters. Now I'm aware the writer of the article is referring exclusively to the show, so I think I should touch upon that a little.
The show has adapted the books (mostly) loyally. As it has progressed, certain storylines have been given the chop while others have been sped up to the point where they are now overtaking the books. The show is filled with gratuitous sex and violence that one would expect of such an adaptation, but the writer (rightly) points out that there is an elevation of gratuity when it comes to sex, particularly rape, compared to the books. She mentioned the episode "Breaker of Chains" in which Jaime Lannister was perceived to have raped his sister Cersei next to the body of her late son, the former King Joffrey.
This scene was very different in the books and, while it caused a serious amount of controversy, I found myself struggling to understand what all the fuss was about. While I could see where the arguments were coming from about rape, it again missed the point. The complex nature of Jaime and Cersei's relationship, with him being away for so long, the introduction of Jaime's new apparent love interest Brienne, created a sort of friction between the two. There are also suggestions that Cersei blames Jaime for not protecting Joffrey, yet she still passionately loves and adores him. The way the scene played out was acted perfectly, I don't agree that it was rape in the way we would understand it as, while Cersei's initial instinct was to refuse Jaime due to all her conflicted feelings, she ultimately welcomed his embrace in the scene.
Anyway, back to the main point of the article. Does GoT feature sexism? Absolutely. Is there a lot of sexual abuse featured in the show? Again, yes. These, however, are not featured to degrade women or to cement women as some form of object to be controlled by men, it is to make the point of the brutal and disgusting world in which the show is set, but this doesn't mean women are always the victim. Frequently, the show switches to the story of Daenerys Targaryen a woman who, after the death of her husband, to whom she was 'sold' in order to buy an army for her now late brother Viserys to avenge the death of his father in Westeros, took command. She built an army and led to free slaves and promote a new philosophy of justice on the continent of Essos.
The character in the books is only a teenager of 14 when we first meet her, and while she is obviously played by someone much older in the show, it is still an inspiring tale of a female in a very male dominated world, using her wits and, sometimes, even her sexuality, to get what she wants.
The writer of the article concludes her piece by saying:
"If we can't trust the showrunners to reflect the spirit of the story any more, then what's left?"
But that's just it, they ARE reflecting the spirit of the story. This week we saw a perfect example of what I was saying about strong women. The episode "The Mountain and the Viper" gave me personally my moment from this season. It was a small thing to most people, and certainly something everybody undoubtedly forgot by the end of that particular episode, but the moment seeing Sansa Stark descending the stone steps in that dark dress, with a gorgeous, but deep down sinister, smile on her face, uttering the phrase "Shall we go?"
You may not see that as important, but I do. We have seen Sansa for the best part of 4 seasons be a victim and perhaps represent precisely what the writer of the article meant when she was thinking about sexism, but at the culmination of this story, we see something new. We see a strength, a power, and a wit we have not seen from Sansa as she realises the powerful position she is in. She may have been the victim of brutal men for so long, but now SHE is in charge, she knows it, and she will use it to her advantage.
Seeing scenes like this have me realising just how great a show GoT actually is. While Sansa is in that powerful position, the world in which she lives is still very harsh and very cruel. Women are still raped and bartered by men, but this fantasy world isn't supposed to be perfect, and that is what makes it so thrilling and enjoyable to watch. Some will ask what is the 'point', then, in these rape scenes, such as the one also depicted in "Oathkeeper"? The answer to that is simple, it is to display just the true and twisted nature of the world in which the show is set.
The author of the article is, of course, free to stop watching the show for whatever reason she feels necessary. However, to stop watching a brutal fantasy series like GoT because it is too 'sexist' or 'racist' is frankly absurd. These scenes don't promote or glorify rape, in fact, their inclusion is to display just how disgusting these things are and how they are perpetrated by truly horrendous people. Women, however, are still largely capable of holding their own with their male counterparts depending on their position. Think Brienne, Melisandre, Lady Catelyn, Cersei, Arya, Yara (Lady Asha) Greyjoy, Daenerys and now Sansa. All strong women who regularly outwit or outfight their male counterparts and actually promote women more generally than degrade them.
Frankly, if you watch a show like this seeking out sexism, racism, homophobia or anti-disabled ideas, you're probably going to find them. But to do that is to totally misunderstand the point of a show like this which is to enter the fantasy world and just enjoy the ride, you're not supposed to watch it with your political views constantly in mind, you're supposed to watch it and forget all that.