After 30 episodes, uncountable deaths, and one very bloody wedding, it’s easy to forget just how violent Game of Thrones is. To the uninitiated, HBO’s groundbreaking fantasy series is shocking even in this brand-new televised world of whacked FBI rats and feet severed by lawnmowers. Which is why it makes perfect sense for Maris Kreizman to ask us longtime fans if the show has finally crossed the line in the sand when it comes to on-screen violence.In an essay for Medium, the writer behind the genius mash-up Tumblr Slaughterhouse 90210 poses a vital question: if a fantasy universe is entirely up to the writer’s imagination, why imagine a world that’s so unrelentingly brutal — especially towards women?
The reason Kreizman’s asking this now and not a year or two years or even two months ago is that, until recently, she’d been put off the show by one of its most disturbing early plot lines: the arranged marriage and rape of Daenerys Targaryen. Her initial impression of the Game of Thrones universe was of a place where “female characters were meant to be objectified,” and a full viewing didn’t do much to change that opinion. Kreizman accurately describes a landscape dominated by “violence and cunning and blood,” a burden that falls especially hard on women: “Rape, or the threat of rape, or antiquated fantasies about rape, are present in every single episode.”
“The Dark, Twisted Fantasy of Game of Thrones” is absolutely correct when it calls the series’ violence more “visceral” than anything else on TV. True Blood’s sprays of dyed corn syrup don’t come close to the stomach-churning sight of, say, Jaime Lannister’s severed stump, and even Boardwalk Empire’s bondage-happy Gyp Rossetti can’t match Prince Joffrey when it comes to preying on women. And Kreizman’s equally spot-on when she points out that all the menace and gore is a conscious choice. The universe of Game of Thrones and its source material, A Song of Ice and Fire, may be loosely based on medieval England, but George R.R. Martin was as free to create a world without patriarchy as he was to invent a race of otherworldly ice demons.
But I can’t help but read Kreizman’s shock and discomfort and think to myself: Exactly. The whole point of the violence on Game of Thrones, sexual and otherwise, is to get under viewers’ skin. The show’s most intense scenes force us to come to terms with the gravity of violence and its impact on our favorite characters far more effectively than the average televised shooting. When we see Daenerys sold into slavery and raped by her new husband, it’s the absolute nadir of that character’s personal agency. And while I agree with Kreizman that Dany’s evolving relationship with Khal Drogo has a heavy dose of Stockholm Syndrome to it, I’d also argue that we understand why the young khaleesi embraces the power her marriage gives her precisely because we’ve seen Daenerys at her most powerless. Dany’s rape may be gruesome, but it’s far from gratuitous.
The same logic applies to other female characters’ experiences with sexism and sexual violence. Take Cersei Lannister, a woman whose frank appraisal of sex as a survival strategy rubs Kreizman the wrong way. Just like Daenerys, Cersei’s been treated like chattel her whole life, and just like Daenerys, Cersei’s a widow of a loveless arranged marriage. Only instead of finally achieving independence, the queen dowager is shunted into yet another engagement. It’s this tragedy that humanizes Cersei, keeping her from becoming a mere “conniving villainess” and transforming her into a true antiheroine — a figure that’s been conspicuously missing from high-quality dramas for quite some time.
Still, rape and other forms of gendered violence are more than just a means for character development in the Game of Thrones universe. Fantasy may be the opposite of reality, but it’s also meant to reflect it. Just as Game of Thrones deals with themes of power and governance that resonate with the way we do politics today — realpolitik versus black-and-white morals, obligation versus opportunity — it adopts a similar approach to gender. The women of Game of Thrones face problems still epidemic in the world off-screen, yet another reason why scenes like Sansa’s near-rape in the second season are so hard to watch. And those real problems are all too often left out of fantasy narratives altogether.
That’s why, to this viewer, the violence and sexism and cruelty of Westeros serve a purpose. A Song of Ice and Fire is not just an excellent story in its own right; it’s a deliberate response to a genre that’s often just as averse to including complicated women with serious problems as it is to killing off protagonists. Most high fantasy authors create universes that conveniently airbrush out both women and their conflicts, leaving only a token tomboy or a damsel in distress. To me, that practice does far more to encourage objectifying women than telling the story of a prostitute using her sexuality to get ahead (Ros) or a female warrior who’s just as likely to be mocked as respected (Brienne).
Kreizman is right when she argues that George R.R. Martin chose to create a patriarchal world. But he also created dozens of female characters who struggle with what it means to survive in that world in ways that render them three-dimensional and tremendously empathetic. The women of Westeros negotiate issues like exploitation and rape as if they are real, life-threatening forces — and that’s how it should be. Game of Thrones may not be a historically accurate fantasy, but it’s an internally consistent one. And when it comes to women in this genre, that’s huge.