I have just finished the immensely enjoyable Game of Thrones TV series, which is a thoroughly excellent and engrossing viewing experience and a fine addition to the genre. I don’t really have any substantive criticisms to level against it, except that it was too short. Oh, and that it was awesomely misogynist, and this misogyny was clearly intended as part of the fabric of the setting. Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe it’s my terrible bleeding-heart leftism, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to ignore this kind of thing in TV and movies. Not in the “I refuse to give those bastards my money” kind of way, but just in the “I can’t help noticing it, and I’m a bit sick of it,” kind of way. I’ve noticed this in a few TV shows recently and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say two things: a) it didn’t used to happen and b) it’s a particular problem in modern interpretations of imagined (i.e. fantasy or historical) settings. There might also be a bit of c) modern writers think this is essential to establishing “authenticity” in non-contemporary settings, but whether or not I touch on this we’ll decide as the rant continues.
Before I discuss this in more detail, though, a few points about A Game of Thrones. I don’t know how true the TV show is to the books, how much swearing and foul language there was in the books and how much Martin’s work was intended to be “gritty,” “dark” or “realistic.” I get the impression it was meant to be all these things, but I don’t know because I haven’t read the books. I’m guessing there must be something in the books to spur this kind of interpretation in the TV show, but then again – when the Sci-Fi channel made A Wizard of Earthsea they swapped the skin tones of the main characters, and Studio Ghibli completely fucked up the underlying philosophy of the same book, so … anything can happen in TV. So in discussing the TV show I’m going to talk about it largely on its own merits.
So, let’s have a look at the misogyny in A Game of Thrones and the way it establishes the setting, and its essential unreality; we’ll look at some other modern creations (Deadwood, The Walking Dead and True Blood) for comparison, and then we’ll take some old ideas from Susan Faludi to examine whether what we’re looking at is a generational phenomenon in the TV/movie industry. Or is it just HBO? And maybe we’ll call on Rosanne Barr for support.
The Misogyny in A Game of Thrones
This TV Show (henceforth referred to as ‘Thrones) is rich with misogyny, primarily expressed through the language used by the main characters, though supported by the nature of the depictions of sex and the prevalence of certain industries (sex work and slavery) and their depiction in the show. There is a further element to the language used, though, which elevates the misogyny beyond mere deprecating language to create an atmosphere in which the female characters are constantly viewed in terms of their sexual vulnerability, and reduced to little more than sexual organs. This is the essence of misogyny – it’s not just bad language, or sexualized language, but an atmosphere of simultaneous sexualization and victimization of the female characters. In ‘Thrones this is very useful for setting the context of, for example, the Khaleesi‘s behaviour (or that of Stark’s youngest daughter, Arya), so that their resistance to suppression and attempts to rise above their status as women are all the more valiant for the fraught context. It also, however, creates a very unpleasant and exhausting environment for the viewer – something which on the one hand is quite good, as it makes the setting richer and more alien, but on the other hand is quite horrible since it leaves you thinking all the male characters are worthless scum, and makes it harder to sympathize with them.
It is this atmosphere of sexualization that I’m primarily interested in here, though the use of words like cunt, bitch, slut and whore continuously throughout the series is a type of misogyny in itself. A couple of examples of the use of language to create a pervasive and detailed atmosphere of misogyny are:
- Sex as a conquest metaphor: when approaching the Aerie, a castle on a promontory, someone in the approaching group says “This is the aerie, it’s said to be impregnable.” Of course, impregnable has multiple meanings, but someone else in the group has to make the sense of sex-as-conquest explicit by redefining the particular meaning of impregnable in this case: “Give me 10 men with grappling ropes and I’d get the bitch pregnant.” A perfectly natural choice of phrase at this point would be “I’d capture it” or “I’d take it” (or even her), which leaves the sexualized nature of pregnability implicit, or even chooses not to use it. There’s nothing inconceivable about these alternative choices of phrase. But the chosen phrase changes the meaning of the original statement, and sets an atmosphere of sexual menace over the simple task of visiting a castle (this isn’t helped when we witness the breast-feeding activities going on in the castle, but that’s a separate story…)
- Degradation of the conception process: “Boy, you were nothing until I squirted you into your mother,” one lord tells one of his sons, in a meeting with Stark’s wife. This choice of words is both brutal and very pithily expresses the relative roles of lord, lady and younger son. It also brings to the fore the role of woman as penetrable or as a vessel – something that commonly happens in the dialogue in this show. They don’t just talk about “having sex” or “conceiving” or “fucking,” but about going inside, being inside, penetrating. They revel in explicit discussion of the nature of the cunt. But it also denigrates that place and its role, using crude or everyday language to reduce the sexual and conception process into mere plumbing, crassly expressed. What is a woman, but a bucket you squirt into?
- Explaining the cunt: at one point, a guy who has been signed up to the Nightwatch tells another member “I’ll never be inside a woman again.” Again we see the man describing the sexual process explicitly in terms of the nature of the cunt. He isn’t just talking about not getting to have sex; he is talking about the details of the process. And he isn’t talking about women as a desirable thing in and of themselves (“I’ll never touch a woman again,” “I’ll never enjoy a woman in my bed,” etc). He’s talking about the one part of a woman that has any value in this show.
Simultaneously with this language, ‘Thrones also sets out a world where women are extremely vulnerable and sexual predation is the norm. We see this in many ways throughout the story, and some of them fall into classic misogynist tropes:
- The threat of child rape: the most shocking example of this is Arya, a girl of about 10, being told she will be raped if she doesn’t make herself look like a boy. But it is also implicit in the treatment of her older sister at court, who from the moment of her promise to Joffrey begins increasingly to seem like a girl at risk of being used, rather than treasured
- The omnipresence of rape: The Khaleesi‘s story starts as rape, though it changes later; criminals on the Wall are often referred to as rapists, perhaps more often than is strictly necessary given the relative proportion of these crimes in society; basically every time the dol’thraci go to war they commit mass rape, and it is accepted and ignored by all involved (and spoken of as if it were merely scratching an itch). This is a vision of a mediaeval society where rape is a standard accoutrement of masculinity
- The rock-star vision of sex work: sex workers (or “whores” as they are universally referred to) are a continuous presence in ‘Thrones, and they are treated in much the same way as they are imagined in the world of rock stars. In this vision, sex workers are all very beautiful, very sexually excited, very engaging, they love their work and everything they do is done just like a lover, only with more energy. No one ever gets any diseases from them, and they are all young and pretty. They also all love having sex with each other. This is pretty far from the reality of sex work, and there is way too much sex work in this show to start with – it’s as if the writers think that the entire world consists of housewives or sex workers, and there’s so many that every nobleman can find 6 to play with at the drop of a hat – and they’ll all be pretty and willing. It’s a rock-star’s vision of an industry that, I have no doubt, most of the producers have never experienced first hand. This madonna/whore stereotype is a classic sexist trope, which serves to establish “good” women in their place, who men in any case don’t like having sex with and “squirt” themselves into for the sake of heredity; and “bad” women, who men actually enjoy spending time with but sneer at for their fallen status. It’s an unrealistic and misogynist vision of women.
- Death as sex: In one telling conversation, the King and his mates are swapping remiscences about their “first,” which turns out to be the first man they killed. The conversation is set up so it seems they’re talking about sex until they elaborate a little, and it’s clearly intended to equate death and sex. Have the producers been reading Andrea Dworkin? Or did they just feel like giving her (hugely controversial) theories a massive leg-up?
- Unmatched sexual depictions: the only time we see a cock in 10 episodes is on a spy being dragged to death on a horse, and on a very old man who is clearly being depicted as a bit silly. Yet we constantly see tits and arse. This is a common representational inequality used when the viewer is assumed to be male, and serves to preserve the power of men as characters separate from their sexuality, while constantly reminding us that women are only sexualized.
So this is the atmosphere of ‘Thrones: a combination of classic sexist and misogynist imagery and story components, combined with intensely misogynist language intended to define women as sexual objects and to render them continually sexualized whenever they are onscreen. This is the world that our producers have imagined for us. But in many ways it is a highly unrealistic representation of the way men talk and think about women. Not only is the sex work as depicted here completely divorced from reality, but the language the men use is not language that ordinary men use in conversation with each other. When was the last time my male reader(s) said to another man “I like being inside a woman,” or talked in anyway about women in terms of inside and outside, or even described any aspect of their cunts? How many of my readers would take the word “impregnable” as an opportunity for a rape reference? Has anyone here ever met the kind of man who would talk about “squirting” into a woman? Now, it might be argued that this is the language of the times, that men were different back then – if so, how come Eddard Stark never once uses language like this, and eschews “whores” due to a single historical mistake? Stark is clearly the character we the viewers are most meant to sympathize with, and he has clearly modern values. The other character we most sympathize with is the Khaleesi. She has values that are out of step with her own culture’s (witness her brother’s behaviour, or that of the men at court) but also of her adopted culture’s (she protects women from rape while the women around her ignore it as a necessity of war). This makes me think that the producers know that their viewers will be uncomfortable with the values they are presenting for their world. So why do they go to such lengths to create this environment?
Misogyny in Other Creations
I originally thought of titling this post “A Game of Thrones and the Misogyny of HBO” but I checked their past programming and they have a wide and diverse range of shows, some of which are very non-misogynist. Some of their other shows are, though, and I think the one that springs to mind quickest is Deadwood. Outside the HBO fold some good examples of very sexist (if not misogynist, for those who wish to make the distinction) shows are Mad Men and The Walking Dead. In the case of Deadwood, the producer has defended his use of words like cocksucker and fuck even though historical evidence suggests that the word cocksucker is a post-WW2 invention, and in the era of Deadwood men did not use sexual terms in non-sexual contexts. i.e. this whole image of fucking and sucking cocks as a derogatory concept is much more modern than these shows would have us believe. In The Walking Dead we see modern folk cast into a very pre-modern world, living as hunter-gatherers in a zombie apocalypse. They largely retain modern values about language and its use, but revert to very traditional gender roles.
I think what we’re seeing here is a belief that “authenticity” requires misogyny and sexism, and a subsequent exaggeration of the nature of this misogyny, or even an imposition of modern understanding of what misogyny is onto a very different world and setting. This is most obvious in Deadwood, where we know that historically most swearing was blasphemy-oriented, but in the show the blasphemy has largely been dropped in favour of sexualized insults. It’s gangster-rap as a template for historical sexism. We’re not seeing a historically authentic brand of sexism, but the producer’s image of how men behave when they’re given complete power over women. I think this says more about the writers and producers than it does about the historical setting they are imagining. As further evidence, consider True Blood, which imagines a perfectly modern setting steeped with magic and violence. Here we occasionally witness misogyny and hear this type of language, but largely we see a world where women prey on men and women, men prey on men and women, and all’s fair in the war of the sexes. Obviously one could say this is because vampirism equalizes gender differences, but the decision to adapt these books to TV was a choice made: and I note that when people choose to make fantasy stories in the modern era (such as Buffy, or the soon-to-be-released American Gods) they choose novels that make it easy for them to tell stories that don’t require misogyny or sexual violence. I have a suspicion that the writers of these shows choose very carefully so that the imagined worlds they create are misogynist, but the fantasy stories of modernity are not.
Why do they do this? I think that they do this because this generation of writers is more misogynist than their viewers. We have a lot of evidence we can call on to examine this possibility, because we can compare modern stories with older stories, and ask ourselves what has changed.
Trends in writing, and the Backlash
Susan Faludi’s Backlash describes the trend in 80s and 90s cultural products (particularly film) towards sexist and/or misogynist stories that are much worse than the material produced in the 70s, and she characterizes this as the result of a backlash against the feminist gains of the 60s and 70s. This backlash occurred across society, but is most easily seen in the movies and TV shows of the era. I think this backlash is still ongoing, but as men of a new generation have become increasingly used to women’s workplace rights, perhaps it becomes increasingly evident in the one area where laws can’t affect our relations with each other – cultural representations of sexuality. As women become more equal in bed, some TV shows increasingly try to react against this through a specifically misogynist, sexualized backlash.
Susan Faludi described the particularly vehement response to the TV comedy Rosanne, which I recall as being a quite funny and very realistic look into the ordinary lives of ordinary Americans. This show was noteworthy for being very popular, but also being an extremely realistic insight into real life. It had fat characters, it treated inter-racial friendship as normal, and the family was a working class family completely disconnected from the fantasy of shows like Beverly Hills 90210. Faludi’s description of the backlash against this show is interesting, because it shows a range of highly gendered language used to attack Rosanne Barr, and also a great deal of discomfort about the idea of TV shows reflecting real life. Rosanne Barr herself describes the writing process of the early 90s as extremely sexist and openly degrading to women, and it’s no surprise that this persists into the modern era.
This may seem counter-intuitive, since we’re supposed to have come far since the 60s, but consider a few simple comparisons. Which is more sexist – Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones? It could be argued that this is a fault of the genre – LoTR is high fantasy, while ‘Thrones is meant to be all dark and gritty and realistic. I don’t think this defence works, because Robin Of Sherwood was envisaged as a gritty and dark take on the Robin Hood stories, and it managed to completely eschew any sense of misogyny while carefully constructing an extremely authentic representation of a sexist mediaeval world. I also think it can be argued quite reasonably that women are better represented in the original Dawn of the Dead than they are in The Walking Dead. I’m willing to bet (though I haven’t seen it) that The Wire is much more misogynist than Cagney and Lacey. Choices are being made about which stories to show and how to show them, and somehow between the 70s and now, the concept of authenticity in post-apocalyptic or fantastic worlds has come to be equated with misogyny. I think this is a generational change, and its origin in the 80s and 90s is well described by Susan Faludi.
The really frustrating aspect of this is that we don’t have any control over the political messages that are put into the work we watch, and in general, because we’re rational adults, we tend not to boycott shows that are misogynist or politically very unpleasant if they’re also very well made (which most of the shows I’ve referenced are). We enjoy them despite their political flaws, especially if they’re in a genre (like fantasy) that has historically been mostly crappy. I think the writers know this, and they know that they can present whatever political vision they like if they’re doing a good job on the show itself. So we continue to sit through the unnecessarily vile language, the misogyny and the unnecessary rape- and sex-work stories (and, in fact, the unnecessary sex scenes and gore) because we’re watching the show for non-superficial reasons.
The best example I can think of for this is internet porn. Internet porn is free. We watch it because we like porn. But (for Western porn, anyway) the majority of the free downloadable porn is full of vile misogynist language and some stuff that, I think, most men don’t care to see and wouldn’t ask for if they could commission their own movie – dp, face fucking, etc. But we watch it anyway, because we want to look past that stuff to see what we’re fundamentally interested in: pretty girls fucking. The people who make this stuff know this, so they present us with their politicized vision of sex, and we sift out the politics so we can enjoy the sex. Because it’s free, and in any case the market is saturated with these images, we have to tolerate all this stuff we don’t want in order to see a good fuck. The same is true of a good fantasy story or post-apocalyptic world. But it doesn’t have to be that way – it’s just that we have no way to send the message to the producers except to not watch what is, otherwise, excellent stuff.
I imagine a lot of people will mistake this for a PC rant about sexism in art, and assume I’m calling for some kind of boycott or censorship or something (this is the internet, after all). It’s not, and I’m not. It’s not that I don’t or can’t watch this stuff, it’s just that I’m sick of watching shows where all the female characters are hysterical or weak; I’m sick of being told that women exist only to be fucked, or that any world where women don’t have the same rights as men has to be necessarily imagined as a sexually torrid and rape-centric barbarian’s paradise. I’m sick of people mistaking swearing for toughness (just as I’m sick of rock videos where people mistake tattoos for rebellion). This shit doesn’t represent the real world, or real relations between men and women, and I don’t think it’s particularly representative of the historical reality of how people lived their lives before women could vote or control their bodies. I hate being told by defenders of this kind of stuff (like the producer of Deadwood) that it’s authentic, and therefore must be unsettling or confronting, when even superficial investigation reveals it’s not authentic, and it’s actually an ahistorical impression of the writer’s imagination of how a sexist world works. I don’t need to be reminded that women have cunts. I’ve had sex with lots of women, I like cunts very much thank you, and when I see a pretty girl I am certainly capable of wanting to fuck her; but that doesn’t mean I see women as cunts, or think of them only in terms of their cunts and of being inside them, or that I want to watch stories about a world where women are constantly vulnerable to being fucked. I can imagine a perfectly good sexist world without being reminded about the pervasive (but very low) risk of rape for those women. Rape is nasty, and I don’t need to be reminded of it every time I want an hour’s escapism in a fantasy world. This doesn’t make me squeamish, and I don’t need some idiot from Hollywood who can’t have sex without paying for it telling me that I don’t have the cajones to think about reality. Because none of this is meant to be reality, and I don’t watch TV stories about dragon-summoning Khaleesi so that I can be reminded of the worst aspects of reality, especially when those worst aspects are probably largely in the imagination of some woman-hating dweeb.
Also, I like to be able to watch TV with my partner, and sometimes she gets a bit sick of being subjected to show after show in which she is told that, as a woman, she is weak or hysterical or vulnerable or good only for sex. Maybe one day she’ll stop watching fantasy, historical drama, and sci-fi shows if they keep being like this, and then I’ll have to watch them by myself, which is not as much fun.
So, if you’re reading this, TV writers and producers: can you try and do a bit better? I know it’s really hard for you to understand real women, and it’s easier to make a world superficially authentic with a bit of swearing and blatant misogyny, but it’s a mark of your skill as a writer if you can do better than this. So why don’t you give it a go, you might surprise yourself. You might even find that people respect you a little more.