Misogyny and Game of Thrones (SPOILERS and TRIGGER WARNINGS FOR EVERYTHING!)
I caught up on Game of Thrones (the TV show) last night and I had the exact same reaction as the rest of the Internet so there’s really no need to go into the specifics, there. From here on out, assume lots of spoilers up to the Season 3 episode The Rains of Castamere, though no spoilers for the books as I haven’t read them yet.
This week’s episode, of course, dealt with the “Red Wedding” that book readers have been eagerly anticipating since day one, I assume. Three major characters are brutally murdered in an out-of-nowhere move that came during what was beginning to look like a surprisingly happy wedding. I’m pretty good at avoiding spoilers but I did figure out from the sheer number of posts about the episode that some major shit was going down, so I spent the entire episode on the edge of my seat wondering who was about to get slaughtered. I suspected it would happen at the wedding and I was sure of it when that guard closed the doors after the bride and groom left the hall, but even I was blown away by the brutality with which the violence started – with Robb Stark’s wife, Talisa of Volantis, being stabbed repeatedly in her pregnant belly and left to bleed to death on the floor.
As Charlie Jane Anders mentions briefly on io9, even before the womb-stabbing, the misogyny in this episode was particularly bad in a series that is regularly filled with brutality against women:
From Walder Frey exhibiting his daughters (and not knowing all their names) to Talisa standing before Walder so he can ogle her tits, to Roose Bolton talking about marrying a fat wife so he could get the biggest dowry, to Walder watching his wife’s throat cut without a flinch — this show is rubbing our faces in misogyny on purpose, to show how it’s part and parcel of the larger brutality.
Cat Stark’s final gambit of holding a knife to the throat of Frey’s young wife to save Robb is particularly brutal – the gambit fails when Frey says simply, “I’ll find another.” Frey is consistent in his views toward women: they’re objects to be used to gain progeny and power.
It’s telling that this entire event came about because of Robb Stark’s subversion and then acceptance of another patriarchal aspect of Westeros – the arranged marriage that would use one of Frey’s daughters (doesn’t matter which) as a pawn to secure more power for the men. Stark didn’t subvert it because it’s misogynistic, of course – he subverted it because he fell in love with Talisa. He continues the arranged marriage tradition by (very, very unsuccessfully) attempting to patch things up with Frey by making his uncle Edmure Tully marry a Frey. In the Game of Thrones universe, it often seems as though these political marriages are unavoidable, as with the last episode’s marriage of Sansa Stark to Tyrion Lannister. But in this case, it was avoidable: Robb only pushed for the marriage in order to get more troops so that he could get revenge on the Lannisters for killing his dad.
This is just one example of many in Game of Thrones in which a losing proposition is directly related to sexist and patriarchal thinking. Some progressives may find the misogyny of the show too much to handle, but I love it because it’s not presented as just an unavoidable aspect of the society or as an excuse to give all the important roles to men and keep the women as silent and useless eye candy. Instead, it’s used to highlight the evil that exists in the characters and in the society at large, as with Frey; it plays a pivotal role in the downfall of certain characters, as with Robb; and it gives the dynamic, three-dimensional female characters agency, something to work within and fight against.
There are two extreme cases that, thus far, seem to support this as a theme. On one end of the spectrum we have the least likable character in the history of fiction, Joffrey Barratheon. Joffrey is a sociopath who from an early age was forcing prostitutes to hurt each other for his entertainment, and who quickly escalated to tying them up and murdering them using his crossbow. At Sonsa’s wedding, he toyed with the idea of raping her, and it was clear it was no empty threat. While many characters in Game of Thrones have defied a simple good-or-evil characterization (Jaime Lannister springs to mind as my favorite example), Joffrey is (at this point at least) truly horrible, seemingly unsalvageable, and eminently punchable.
At the other extreme is Daenerys Targaryen, a woman whose story began with a tragic arranged marriage to a terrifying and powerful man who raped her, but she soon used her smarts to improve her situation dramatically. At this point, she’s plowing around the desert murdering slave owners and, notably, misogynists. Several episodes ago I remarked to my partner that her story was beginning to feel like feminist porn (in the metaphorical sense) which, while very satisfying, could also begin to be a bit, well, cheap and masturbatory. (This may be on my mind because awhile back a few of you linked me to this essay which masterfully encapsulated many of my feelings about Ender’s Game being a kind of bully porn.) But oh, how satisfying this was:
CALL HER BITCH ONE MORE TIME, ASSHOLE!
Daenerys shouting to her new army, “Slay every man who holds a whip” is the very definition of epic feminist badassery.
Misogyny, while a major theme, isn’t the only character flaw that leads to upset and tumult. Obviously there’s also revenge and pride and other vices at play, and so I don’t expect Daenerys’s feminist porn ways to continue much longer, something I’m quite happy about because seriously, it would get boring if she just collected all these freed slaves, marched into King’s Landing, murdered Joffrey with a giant, sharpened Venus symbol, and proceeded to turn Westeros into an egalitarian utopia. I mean, it would be very, very satisfying to watch, don’t get me wrong. But boring.
I’m excited to see where all this goes. So excited, in fact, that I may go ahead and start plowing through the books after next week’s episode, since I’ll have too long of a wait until Season 4.