Game of Gender Relations

Over on PolicyMic, Julia Rhodes writes, ‘Game Of Thrones’ and ‘Mad Men’ Make Women Characters Out to Be Mothers, Whores, and Little Else.

I’m not a frequent Mad Men watcher, but I’m really into Game of Thrones. I’ve been thinking about the gender relations throughout — where Martin and the TV show make commendable moves, and where they fail — and I think this article gives the series too little credit. Ironically, Rhodes paints the series with too broad a brush.

It’s hardly a feminist watershed, of course, but both the novels and the TV series contain a range of reasonably thoughtful — if not particularly insightful — takes on gender. In addition to Arya and Brianna (masculinized), characters Rhodes critiques as obviously masculinized, consider some of the characters she fails to identify — like Daenerys Targaryan, Asha/Yara Greyjoy, and Ygritte the Wildling. Each is both feminine and a powerful warrior; none of them “must either de-feminize or prostitute themselves in order to gain power,” as Rhodes contends. Ygritte and Asha are both trusted warriors, neither without giving up her womanhood. Once Dany’s husband dies, she keeps a small clan together with sheer charisma and force of will. Yes, their lust-worthiness is also an important part of each character (esp. as shot for TV, in Daenerys’ case), but not one of these characters serves primarily as a mother or a whore. They’re warriors — and, in Dany’s case, a contender for the throne.

Yes, the books and show are primarily led by men, told from a male perspective, and well short of a natural 51/49 gender ratio, even in non-speaking roles. (If anything, that ratio should be more female-heavy in a world where so many men are dying in battle…) Still, this is decidedly less so than much of the other literature in the genre (paging Mr. Tolkien…), and women serve many roles other than mothering and whoring.

Yes, it’s filled with tired stereotypes (Cersei, Sansa, and Julia Roberts — er, I mean Shae — come to mind). Yes, the attempts at female perspective and dialog are, um, not strong suits. And yes, more than a token conversation here and there between women (let alone one that is not about men, children, and/or menstruation) would be nice.

Still, this is an over-wrought criticism that doesn’t show a real understanding of the series. In addition to the characters named above, consider Brianna, whom Rhodes does mention. She loves Renly more than life itself — literally — and falls apart as her Romeo dies in her arms. Granted, cutting-edge feminism it’s not (not-particularly-attractive woman hopelessly follows gay man on his adventures; yawn), but it’s another example of where this article leaves me wondering, “Did you pay much attention?” With such a thin understanding of the series, the author can’t get into the somewhat more subtle ways in which Game of Thrones still doesn’t fulfill the wishes a feminist (e.g., me) might have for more accurate and nuanced gender portrayals.

Just as damnably, the article also doesn’t give credit where due. This series is primarily targeted at men, and if there’s one dominant theme about gender relations (at least, to anyone who’s looking at anything beyond all the eye candy), it’s how rough it is to be a woman in a patriarchal society. To me, at least, that message comes through loud and clear. A key theme within that broader message is that rape is bad, rapists are bad, and rape often has and should always have dire consequences for the perpetrator.

Which brings us back to Arya. She did not proactively seek to pretend to be a boy; she did so (at the very strong urging of, yes, a grizzled-but-caring adult man) in order not to be identified and/or raped during her clandestine journey. That’s kind of an important detail that complicates the analysis.

It’s a series whose characters are painted with very broad brushstrokes. (See: Baratheon, Joffrey.) The books, written for men, are by a nerdy manchild who doesn’t have a particularly rich understanding of how women think, speak, and behave. The TV show is on a channel known for catering to the male gaze.

Those don’t add up to Toni Morrison. Duh.

Still, Rhodes goes overboard here. The series makes an obvious, honest effort to identify the constructedness of gender roles and the unique struggles of women in a patriarchal society. It also screams to its male audience, “RAPE IS BAD!”, a lesson that (quite sadly) still needs to be taught.

TV and broader society are still places where victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and “Back in the kitchen with you!” are not only common, but even proffered as insightful commentary on the day’s affairs. Especially against that (oh-me-how-far-we-have-to-go) backdrop, Game of Thrones is okay by me. And that’s not just my inner 13-year-old talking.

2 thoughts on “Game of Gender Relations

  1. Well said, Bill. As someone who opts for sci fi more often than fantasy, I was surprised that I kept coming back, episode after episode, to Game of Thrones (sexposition notwithstanding, which I could do without). I have been particularly impressed with how Daenerys’s narrative arc has been handled. She amasses political (and military) power by freeing slaves. In that respect, she’s the Angelina Grimke of the Seven Kingdoms.

    Of course, feminist critiques of GoT and other popular series are not (as you acknowledge) totally unfounded. I think the rub comes with the wonderful complexity that’s possible in marquee television dramas. They can have it both ways. Mad Men can be read as a critique of mid-20th-century white masculinity, or its flagrant sexism can be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure.

    Media critics (popular and academic) need to continue to develop a critical vocabulary that accommodates these contradictions so that we can more fully appreciate (and account for) each text’s complexity.

    In the meantime, whenever I get disheartened, I can always watch reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

  2. Thanks Kari! You’re right that polysemy is an important factor here, too. Like “All in the Family” (is Archie Bunker an example of a dated mindset, or a hero for the bigoted holdouts?), these shows can be read in multiple ways, and it takes at least an inkling toward social critique to see the text as potentially critical and progressive — unlike, say, Harry Potter. I left this out (and I’m a good bit nervous including it still), but thinking about the portrayals of rape in popular culture always makes me think of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. The rape portrayals are graphic and horrifying — but I worry that some found them graphic and stimulating. (I wonder how one can responsibly portray the horror of such violence without taking such a risk, but I don’t think that’s it…) While Joffrey’s sexual violence is included in the GoT series (and is more graphic with more male-gaze-rewarding footage in the TV version than I would’ve liked, to say the least), I was relieved that it didn’t get to the same level and that it did not include actual sex.

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