The Dark Side of Fantasy: Sex, Violence, and Women in Game of Thrones

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Art Credit: via Dark Media Online

For decades, the fantasy genre was hidden in plain sight—every used bookstore worth its salt had hundreds of smelly paperbacks testifying to its popularity, but it rarely broke out into the mainstream. The public will forever associate Star Wars with science fiction, but geeks have convincingly and futilely argued that Star Wars is more properly categorized as fantasy. After all, The Force is akin to sorcery, and as opposed to the futurism of sci-fi, it takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Even the venerable fantasy classic The Lord of the Rings was often written off by critics as a teenage preoccupation rather than a monumental literary achievement. After the unprecedented success of Peter Jackson's film trilogy cemented the epic tale in our collective mythology, such dismissals now seem unthinkable.

By now, it seems clear that fantasy is here to stay. If the LOTR movies were the cinematic event of the last decade, Game of Thrones has become a global phenomenon in the defining cultural medium of this decade—premium cable television. However, not all fantasy is created equal; the success of GoT is pretty disconcerting if you care about how women are portrayed onscreen. More specifically, you might wonder why actresses on GoT have to get naked every twenty minutes.

But before we get to the full frontal critique of gratuitous nudity, we're going to have to stop on first base and spend some time discussing how this relates to the historical evolution of genre fiction. While both Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones may fall under the same fantasy/sci-fi header at bookstores and video on-demand menus, the contrast between the two is instructive. Though LOTR practically embodies the fantasy genre—indeed, it's the only fantasy work that many people are intimately familiar with—the worldview presented in the books is an outlier. Tolkien's heavy Christian influence isn't exactly the norm as far as swords and sorcery goes.

The fantastical film and literary genres we all take for granted—sci-fi, fantasy, and horror—all have rich storytelling traditions we could trace back to Gilgamesh if we had a lot of time on our hands and a supercool comparative lit professor to walk us through it. But the CliffsNotes version is this: For commercial purposes, our current definitions of these genres were largely created by the pulp writers in the first part of the twentieth century, like H.P. Lovecraft, the master of horror and alien creatures, and Robert E. Howard, who created Conan the Barbarian—a character that was hugely influential in creating modern fantasy.

While much of the English speaking world was still bound by Victorian mores, Lovecraft was redefining horror and fantasy by imagining entirely new interconnected dimensions where there is no moral order, only existential dread. What overt intellectual influences the pulp writers had is hotly debated, but it's safe to say that since Howard was born just a few years after Nietzsche's death, there was at least a “God is Dead” vibe in the air.

Then there was the contemporary Freudian influence of the era, which reshaped the understanding of human nature from an extension of original sin to something capable of being shaped through empiricism and probably helped outline the worldview that birthed these genres. And if you know anything about Lovecraft or Howard's love life, the invocation of Freud is really a bit of tragic irony. Howard had just one brief and unfulfilled relationship with schoolteacher and aspiring writer Novalyne Price—their relationship was the basis of 1996 film The Whole Wide World starring Renée Zellweger and Vincent D'Onofrio. But for most of his life, Howard was obsessed with his mother and shot himself at age thirty when he learned she had fallen into a coma.

Which brings us back to the question of how women are portrayed in fantasy. If this pulp worldview, which flirted with some of the more insidious ideas of the early twentieth century, is your moral framework for storytelling, where do women fit in? The pulp writers were a boys club who put who all their female characters through this Nietzschean/Freudian/chauvinist grinder. Women exist just to serve men, either by gratifying the male protagonist's id or his conception of himself as Nietzschean Superman who creates meaning solely through his own actions. Basically, the only way for female characters to be judged worthy in this worldview is to become sexualized versions of men or just plain sexualized.

Now as far as descriptors go, “fantasy” is a big tent and obviously LOTR and lots of other great works of the genre don't have the same women problem. Then again, noting that a Venn diagram of “fantasy” and “adolescent male fantasy” have a pretty big overlap is not exactly a new observation. Go into any used bookstore and grab one of those aforementioned paperbacks at random—the odds of it having a Boris Vallejo-esque cover are pretty high. There's almost always some cartoonishly proportioned woman wearing a barely there outfit that's a clear antecedent to the “slave Leia” costume that got Gen X men so hot and bothered. It's a hallmark of the genre.

So then, looked at from a more critical and historic perspective, GoT seems less like cutting-edge TV for the twenty-first century and more like the logical culmination of the more pulpy and regrettable fantasy trends that dominated the genre in the twentieth. It's a stark contrast with “high fantasy,” as embodied by LOTR. But to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, another well-known fantasy author, the greatest trick GoT ever pulled was convincing the world it was high art. And nowhere are the show's moral failings more evident than the show's capricious nudity and treatment of women. [Spoilers ahead, if you care about that sort of thing.]

Having sex, and dealing with the resulting consequences, is about the only thing the female characters on the show do. Catelyn Stark, the most positive portrayal of motherhood on the show, is openly contemptuous of her stepson. Cersei Lannister is the mother of a tyrant boy-king who is the product of ongoing incest. She does nothing to rein in his cruel and rapey ways, out of her irrational attachment to her son. A teenage Daenerys Targaryen, a.k.a. Khaleesi, is brokered as chattel to a suspiciously Conan-like warlord in order to secure his army to help the Targaryen family recapture the seven kingdoms. He consummates the “marriage” by raping her in front his soldiers, in a pretty graphic scene. Of course, she eventually comes to love this monosyllabic brute and teaches him to love her. Then he dies, along with their child, and she becomes the literal “mother of dragons,” creatures which will be used to destroy anyone who gets in the way of her fierce ambition to fulfill her familial destiny. (How's that for a feminist message?) In order to describe all the other women scheming to sexually manipulate the male characters on the show, you'd probably need a detailed flowchart to explain it properly. Interspersed throughout all these character arcs masquerading as flimsy excuses to get all the main female characters naked, they somehow manage to make sure every other scene takes place in a brothel where female extras wander around naked in the background.

In an era of social media campaigns like #YesAllWomen, the relative silence surrounding the portrayal of women on GoT has been telling. The excuses proffered are laughably transparent. We're told that the nudity isn't exploitative; it's continental and sophisticated. Carice van Houten, a frequently naked Dutch actress who plays the witch Melisandre on GoT, put it this way: “We can see machine guns but we can’t see f---ing – sorry – people? I really don’t get, I have to make a point here. Who sleeps with their bra on? I mean, sorry if that’s a Dutch approach but I think we need to get used to it. It’s part of life.” While sex may be part of life, evil red-headed witches who seduce kings and then literally give birth to an evil spirit are not.

One writer at Salon declared “We need to talk about the nudity on 'Game of Thrones,'” only the problem in her mind was not the amount of nudity but its unequal gender distribution. “So get with it, HBO. Even things up a bit. Fill the giant penis-shaped hole in your show and I can go back to loving you with only minor reservations,” wrote Rebecca Pahle. “Well. You’ll have to fix your violence-against-females-used-for-shock-value problem, too. But that’s another post for another time.” In other words, Pahle could have complained about the show's treatment of women, but thought demanding male nudity was a more pressing concern. God forbid she consider that the show's cavalier attitudes toward the female body in sexual contexts might be related to how the show doesn't seem to otherwise care about protecting the corporeal integrity of women.

At least the creator of another HBO show is honest about what's going on. And it's not about serving the story—it's commercial pressure. “There is a clear mandate in pay-cable for a certain level of nudity,” True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto told BuzzFeed. “There’s not a great deal of nudity in the series at all, though, compared to other shows on pay-cable. I’d be happy with none. Seems to me if people want to see naked people doing it, there’s this thing called 'the Internet.'”

Of course, one could write volumes on how commercial influences and post-modernism have conspired to reject portrayals of traditional Christian ethics in favor of entertainment focused on sex, violence, and superstition. Judged in this context, GoT author George R.R. Martin and the talented folks at HBO have done an impressive job of realizing their vision for such a complicated and alien society. There's no question that GoT is very compelling. But the show has never answered a fundamental question: Why would you want to imagine such a morally terrible place, let alone do it in such explicit detail? Storytelling is a lot like seduction—it's a lot more effective when a little is left to the imagination.