Why I, a Woman, Enjoy ‘Game of Thrones’

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t watched the first four seasons of Game of Thrones, don’t read this and get mad at me.

Game of Thrones SexismIn some places online (as well as in the real world), there’s this idea that of course women can’t enjoy Game of Thrones because it’s sexist.  They say it objectifies women, there’s gratuitous nudity, it’s an all boys club meant for medieval fantasy fulfillment and that I, as a card-carrying member of Team Woman cannot possibly enjoy such a sexist show.  This annoys me for many reasons but I’m going to explain my logic below for why I enjoy the show, how it could be improved and why these critics aren’t digging deeply enough.

I, as a human being, enjoy the TV show Game of Thrones.  It has nothing to do with my gender, but rather my general love of fantasy with good plot lines.  Fantasy is one of my favourite genres and while I wouldn’t describe myself as a hardcore fan I do read more fantasy than anything else.  I originally picked up George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series because of friend of mine wouldn’t shut up about the TV show and I wanted to read and watch the first season and the first book simultaneously.  I was actually impressed with both: the TV show for how well it captured the vivid world Martin had created and the books for actually containing that vivid, well thought out world.

Game of Thrones Characters

You’d have to create a vivid world to populate it with all of these characters!

Not only that, I love the characters of both the TV show and the books.  I love that there are not only kick-butt women like Daenerys and Arya but that there are women that are strong without literally kicking butt like Sansa (in her own way) and Cersei. There are awesome male characters too, of course.  Ned Stark, Tyrion and Oberyn were pretty good characters and have/had wide appeal for the general audience.  And still there are characters like Jaime who at first glimpse are really quite horrible but then turn out rather sympathetic when their motivations for their actions are revealed.  You really can’t complain about the characters in Game of Thrones because they are so diverse in their personalities and worldviews.

What I loved about the show that didn’t really appear in the books until later was the more dual nature of characters, Cersei in particular.  She’s objectively a rather horrible human being what with the murdering people who get in her way thing.  At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her for what she had to go through: her mother died when she was four, she was shipped off to a total stranger while still a teenager, suffered years of marital rape and as a woman in a male-dominated world she still really doesn’t have that much power despite being the queen.  Then she had to watch her beloved first child get worse and worse, enjoying cruelty and generally wreaking havoc on the kingdom until he was killed before her very eyes.  Those are the kind of complex characters that I love to read about, even if I don’t totally sympathize with them and all of their actions.

Battle of Orsha

Medieval life wasn’t all that glamorous; just take a look at some of the paintings of the time, like this depiction of the Battle of Orsha.

Now, there are some people that say my enjoyment of the television series is wrong because they are objectifying women.  There’s lots of gratuitous nudity and very few powerful female characters, some people say and therefore women shouldn’t support such a show.  One thing these types of hardcore so-called feminists and/or social justice warriors don’t recognize is the fact that you can love something and still criticize it.

HBO’s Game of Thrones does have a lot of gratuitous nudity, most of it female.  If they’re going to have gratuitous nudity it should be split a little more evenly between the genders in my opinion.  At the same time the gratuitous nudity does highlight an important point of the series: that life for anyone, especially women, would completely suck in the real Medieval world.  In the quasi-medieval world of Westeros women have few rights and even less power so how they’re depicted in the TV show is actually quite accurate.  Sexual violence was even more common than it is now and they weren’t really seen as sentient human beings either.

The one thing many people who criticize the show get wrong is key difference between depicting something and glamorizing that something.  George R. R. Martin does an excellent job in his books of depicting the horror of life in a quasi-medieval world as opposed to the rose-tinted vision a lot of writers have used.  It was a violent, brutal and oftentimes short life and I think that despite some needless nudity, the TV show actually does a pretty good job of depicting the casual horrors of everyday life.  From the Unsullied man’s nipple being cut off to make a point to the depictions of terrible poverty and civilian casualties of the war, I think you’d have to ignore a good part of the TV show to call life in Westeros ‘glamorous’.

Valar MorghulisWatching Game of Thrones is a lot like watching opera (other than all of the dramatic deaths): I love it but I can see the flaws.  In opera, there’s still a pretty bad colour gap in the performers but it’s been getting better in recent years.  In Game of Thrones, they do have needless nudity.  But does that mean I should stop watching/supporting the things I love because there are a couple of improvements that need to be made?  Not necessarily.

Sometimes the best way to change something is to change it from within.  Support opera singers of colour and put pressure on the opera houses of the world to avoid discriminating because of race and just focus on talent.  Watch Game of Thrones but make it clear to the producers that there are some changes that need to be made.  In the latter’s case I think they are listening to the concerns of their viewers; in Season Four there was far less nudity and graphic sex than in the first season.

I think there are very valid reasons to watch/read or not watch/read Game of Thrones like being uncomfortable with the amount of nudity and/or violence.  Or just not liking fantasy in general; that’s certainly not a crime.  But don’t criticize the show or books for being sexist without even bothering to look at the nuances that are being conveyed throughout the series.  If you’re going to criticize something, make sure you understand it first, like Melissa did in this awesome blog entry about the portrayal of sexism in the TV series or Feminspire’s look at the contrast between strong female characters and sexism.

TL;DR?  Depicting something doesn’t mean you’re glamorizing or endorsing it.

10 comments

  1. Abigail Owen

    As a fellow GOT fan, and a woman, and a reader/writer who likes strong female characters I’m with you Carrie. I like your point that the portrayal both in the book and the show are very close to what our medieval times looked like for women. And the strength of the numerous female characters, despite that setting, is impressive. It’s an excellent series (books & show).

    • Carrie Slager

      It is and I’m sick of ‘journalists’ and bloggers saying, “no, you can’t/shouldn’t watch that because you’re [x group]”. I’ll watch whatever I want, especially when it comes to such a great series. It’s a very realistic portrayal of the medieval period and what it was like for women, but that makes strong women in the series (Lady Olenna, Margarey, Cersei, Daenerys, Arya) even more amazing.

  2. Megan.S

    Thanks, Carrie, for explaining something that I’ve struggled to put into words. As a woman and GOT fan, I’m often asked how I can stand to watch and read such an overly sexist and gruesome show. Every show has its weak points, not just this show. Yes, GOT is immensely popular, and it’s because of this that the show gets so many people slamming it. I believe that many people have one idea of medieval-ish times in their heads, that it was romantic and wonderful, but with shows like GOT that get close to how it really was to live back then, the discrepancies throw them off, and instead of trying to understand a different perspective, they fight against it.

    Great post!

    • Carrie Slager

      Exactly. It was sort of hard to articulate at first, but when I get into a ranty mood I’m more articulate than I normally am. There are some legitimate criticisms of the show and I’m often one of the first ones to offer such criticisms (the rather ambiguous scene with Jaime and Cersei in the Sept of Baelor), but some of the things that get tossed around are poorly reasoned.

      Like I said, portraying something isn’t the same as glamourizing it. Take the scene where the Night’s Watch deserters are with Craster’s daughter/wives; I didn’t see a single glamorous thing about the sexual assault going on there. It was real, disgusting and frankly terrifying. And the sad thing? It’s not that different from what really went on in those times and what still goes on today. I think some people are in denial about the bad things that happen out there, which is why it makes them uncomfortable to actually see it happen.

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  4. Miranda @ Tempest Books

    THIS IS THE MOST PERFECT POST EVER!!

    Seriously, I can’t even begin to explain to you how much you were able to capture my exact feelings about this show/series with what you just said. I completely and totally agree with you about everything!

    Cersei is actually my favorite character, because of exactly the reasons that you stated. She’s not perfect (DEFINITELY not, haha), but wow is she intriguing. She’s one of the most complex characters I’ve ever come across. I also really thought that what Martin did with Jamie was interesting, too. Throughout the first book, I completely hated him…yet I quickly began to realize how not-black-and-white he is, and eventually came to really love and sympathize with him.

    Overall, I think that Martin does a GREAT job of creating a world that is both accurate in its horrors while also giving us strong female characters to root for and/or appreciate. A Song of Ice and Fire is seriously a masterpiece, in more ways than one. And I do think that, in general, the show does a pretty decent job of translating it to TV. Although obviously the gratuitous nudity needs to be worked on, overall it’s a good show.

    GREAT POST 😀

    • Carrie Slager

      Thank you! I really struggled to put my feelings into words, but once I got going things just fit together perfectly. Portraying something isn’t the same as glamourizing it, that’s for sure. And like I said, you can watch something and love it but still criticize it. The gratuitous nudity definitely needs working on, but overall the producers of the show have done an amazing job bringing the world of George R. R. Martin to life.

      My favourite part of the whole series is definitely the characters. My fellow fan/best friend can’t understand why I like Cersei, but she is one of my favourite characters because of her complexity. She’s certainly not perfect, but I like that she tries to do her best in a world dominated by men. Even though she’s the most powerful woman in Westeros at one point, she was still subjected to rape, just like many women who had no power. It just really demonstrates the fact that sexism was real and even worse than it is now in a medieval setting.

      Thank you very much for taking the time to read my article and leave such a thoughtful comment. I’m sorry for taking so long to get back to you! 🙂

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