Game of Thrones: The Responsibilities of Female Representation

Game of Thrones

Lena Headey as Cersei

Last week 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.

Game of Thrones

Natalia Tena as Osha

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.

Game of Thrones

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys

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.

Game of Thrones

Sibel Kekilli as Shae (left), Sophie Turner as Sansa (right)

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.

Game of Thrones

Natalie Dormer as Margaery

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.

Game of Thrones

Rose Leslie as Ygritte

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 these 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.

 

Annelie Widholm is a screenwriter, blogger and freelance writer who is passionate about storytelling in general, but storytelling in film and television in particular. She is an avid tea drinker, aspiring globetrotter and a believer in the goodness of very dark chocolate.

14 thoughts on “Game of Thrones: The Responsibilities of Female Representation

  1. Just one thing, as far as I know, the creators of the show do not have any background in advertising but are graduates in literature, screenwriters and novelists, fact checking is your friend. Cheers

  2. It should be noted that George RR Martin wrote this series with the intent of doing a fantasy story that doesn’t censor any aspect of the more brutal and harsh truths of what anyone has to do to survive in such a dangerous world. While it’s hardly fair, history is littered with examples of women using themselves as a sexual object to get further personally or politically (Cleopatra, anyone?). And Martin is a student of history.

    The nudity and sex didn’t bother me as much in the books, but it is true that once it came on screen, I started wondering how much of it is because of my aforementioned reasoning, and how much of it is because Martin is a pervy old man.

    Regardless, I think he does deliver some female characters that are empowered, regardless of sexuality. Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark come to mind.

    • Hello! I absolutely agree with you, and as I mentioned in the article, I do realize that prostitution and rape are a part of the times and the world that Martin has sought to create. The argument I made against how prostitution and rape are portrayed on the show was drawn from how these “facts of life and war” (or what have you) are not quite as predominant in the books as on the TV-show. Granted, they occurr in the books, but we don’t have the description of naked or assaulted women as an expected part of every chapter. The instances of prostitution are more often than not alluded to in dialogue (as with Tyrion and his love of whore houses) and the more graphically described sex is by default between two of the main characters and thereby emotionally linked to a purpose, be it character evolvement or character insight. This is why the nudity and sex doesn’t bother me in the books at all.

      As for Martin being pervy, well, that’s a whole other discussion, isn’t it. 🙂

      And yes, thank goodness for all those amazingly strong and driven female characters that litter both the books and the TV-show. Brienne, Arya, Asha, Dany, Cersei (selfish horror of a woman that she is), Catelyn, Margaery. They are many and there are more to come.

      Thanks for leaving a comment! Always appreciated.

      All my best,
      Annelie.

  3. Good article and well thought out. I agree with your sentiments on the troubling role of women in Game of Thrones. I fear GoT has become a mish mash of new and old ideas where most of the female characters are pushed into traditional roles or forced to sexualize themselves such that they may climb the ladder of power. The sexual liberation of the Wildlings (Ygriette) and highborn women’s struggle against traditional roles (Cersei, Daenerys) are certainly a harsh reality for women in real-life Western society. In the show, the fact that this often culminates in female nudity as well as other subjugating situations is (in my opinion) an exaggerated symptom of the larger problem in both Westeros and the real world. Whether or not this was intentionally included in the books/show to illustrate a point is irrelevant but we should all contemplate how we treat one entire half of our species.

    • Hello, Richard! Thank you, very glad you liked the article. I can see what you mean with your comment, but I do feel that what the show does so beautifully – and which permeates the books as well – is the depiction of the woman’s subjugation without the women having to take their clothes off. To climb the ladder of power the highborn women have to make the show of being demure, obedient and subsurvient. Cersei’s reprehension at this simple fact of life, her having no claim to Casterly Rock or any true power save that which she can wiggle from her husband and then, later, from her son, is a perfectly good example of such a depiction.

      What I am disagreeing with you here, to clarify, is your comment that women must take their clothes of or use their sexuality in order to climb the ladder of power. In Game of Thrones – as, I believe, in the Western world that the Seven Kingdoms reflects – women climb the ladder of power by using their intelligence, wit and charm. They scheme and play the game, just not as openly as the men.

      As for the characters who do use their sexuality in order to gain power over a man (Ygritte and Melisandre above anyone else) they do so with a specific purpose pertaining to their character traits and character journeys. They are not these nameless prostitutes that appear in every other episode of the TV-show (and prostitution is not depicted in any such way in the books) that I have such a problem with.

      What I am getting at here, and restating what my article was addressing, is that I don’t have a problem with nudity that has a purpose for being there, but your comment above would have the nudity of the show be a storytelling technique used to underline how exposed the women of the Seven Kingdoms (and the Western world) are to male dominance and I don’t believe the nudity usually goes as deeply as that when used on the show.

      I do fully agree with your final assessment, though. 🙂

      With thanks!
      Annelie.

  4. A very good essay that articulates many of my own feelings toward the nudity on Game of Thrones. I have no problem with nudity in film, generally speaking, but I agree that some of the scenes in Game of Thrones are more troubling than others.

  5. This is an interesting article Annelie, and I think you raise some good points. I feel nudity has become such a big part of Game of Thrones that it loses its erotic quality. But there is definitely a discrepancy here pertaining to the showing of male and female nudity. I often wonder in movies if many filmmakers are afraid to show the male body, as if it will be regarded as embarrassing or repulsive in some way … despite the fact that there are plenty of viewers — male and female — who would be perfectly happy to view it onscreen. Certainly, the discrepancy is apparent in GoT, and with the amount of sex scenes that permeate the series, there’s no reason why a contextually warranted depiction would be irrelevant.

    • Hello! Happy you enjoyed the article. I am in absolute agreement with you about the nudity losing its erotic quality. As for the contextually warranted depiction of male nudity in relation to female nudity – absolutely true, it wouldn’t be irrelevant. However, it does make me want to examine when and why and how the nudity adds anything at all, and when it’s there merely as window dressing. I am getting so fed up with its blandness! Oh, there we have a woman’s ass and tits again. Whoopie.

      All my best!
      Annelie.

  6. Nice to see you on curnblog with an intelligent and well-thought out piece.
    You will thankfully be spared more comment from me on this occasion, as I have never seen any of this series. From what you write about it in this article though, I doubt that I will want to bother.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Hello, Pete – and thank you for those kind words! The show does have a few redeeming qualities, though they seem to be getting bogged down by the unwanted impressions, which is a darn shame. I can only hope the showrunners are not about to lose their footing completely. I can recommend you read the books, though. They are every bit this side of amazing.

      All my best!
      Annelie.

  7. Fantastic piece Annelie – and very topical given the recent controversy over one scene in particular in a recent episode of ‘Game of Thrones’.

    It’s great to have you on board!

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