In a recent article from Verily Magazine, Mark Hemingway critiques the portrayal of women in HBO’s Game of Thrones and traces the objectification back to the pulp roots of the trashier side of “fantasy.” I found his brief history of this diverse genre interesting and I agree with much of his criticism of the show and books. He had the right idea with his critique but I think he ended up missing the mark.
Hemingway portrays Martin’s books as the literary descendant of Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series or any of those fantasy paperbacks where the men are muscular, the damsels are scantily clad, the dragons have riders, and the wizards are bearded. As evidence for this, he describes the rather obvious objectification of women throughout the series; the way they are bartered and used for gratification and the rather ridiculous appearance every episode of numerous topless women. This style of objectification reaches its low when the women are paraded naked in the background of the frequent brothel scenes where they are used as props (literally making them into objects). I certainly agree with Hemingway that this is objectification. I also agree with him that it’s wrong. And I agree that it’s shocking more people (especially feminists) aren’t critical of this portrayal of women.
But I think Hemingway’s understanding of the origin of this objectification is wrong. He sees it as the teenage fantasy of a bad fiction writer, some hack who dreams of magic swords and Princess Leia in her slave bikini. While I certainly think such a scenario accounts for 90% of the fantasy section at Books-A-Million, I don’t think Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a result of this. And not just because his books are so expansively imagined and richly detailed. But rather because I think there’s a deeper philosophy in his books that leads to the objectification of women.
It’s probably helpful here to differentiate between the sex and nudity in the books with the sex and nudity in the show. Not to apologize for Martin but to clarify the source of each. For instance, at the beginning of Martin’s first book, Tyrian is said to be a drunk who frequents brothels. We never see Tyrian visit a brothel and the accusation often comes from characters who despise him. Tyrian jokes about prostitutes but these jokes seem to be a form of his dwarvish bravado. Like much in the books, there is rumor, innuendo, and second hand gossip but no explicit description of Tyrian’s “whoring” in the North. HBO, instead, shows us a veritable harem pleasuring an ale-swigging Peter Dinklage. I’m sure someone could argue that this scene established Tyrian’s character in someway. But the presence of multiple naked prostitutes is certainly not necessary for this end. The same is true of much of the show’s nudity. If it seems completely gratuitous, it probably is. When my wife (who hasn’t read the books) and I watch the show, she often asks me, “…why is that woman naked?” My answer has almost always been, “I don’t know. It wasn’t like this in the book.”
That isn’t to say the book is some innocent tale that’s been sexed up by HBO. The books still portray a shocking amount of depravity, sexual and otherwise. But Hemingway’s “teenage fantasy” criticism of Game of Thrones only rings true for the show. A perfect example of this is the scene where Catelyn Stark jumps out of bed to read a letter from her sister. Inexplicably, she is completely nude and makes no attempt to cover herself. Do some women sleep in the nude? Sure! Was there any reason for Catelyn Stark to be nude in this scene? Absolutely not. It was completely gratuitous and distracting. Not because I’m a prude who thinks women should sleep in full length nightgowns. But because her nudity was baffling and the viewer spends the whole scene trying to figure out why this person is naked. For most of these scenes, I can only assume the “reason” is that it’s HBO and gratuitous nudity is now a mark of the show and the producers know they need to keep up the breast count if they’re going to keep up their viewer count.
Martin’s real women problem has much deeper roots. For most of the female characters in Game of Thrones, their value resides, without question, in their sexuality. This is why countless prostitutes appear topless while powerful men converse, oblivious to the naked bodies around them. This is why Daenerys Targaryen is sold to the Dothraki like an exceptionally valuable mare. This is why Cersei Lannister prides herself on her ability to sexually satisfy her husband without bearing his children. But Martin’s emphasis on the importance of sex isn’t an accident. Martin isn’t subconsciously writing out his adolescent fantasy in epic form. These giant tomes aren’t simply an excuse to have slave Princess Leia make a cameo in a middle-earth knock off. Martin knows exactly what he’s doing.
In the world of Game of Thrones, power is the only thing that matters. Love is pointless at best. Honor is a joke. Virtue is an illusion. This is why, out of the two dozen or so point-of-view characters in the books, almost all of them are high born. The low born peasants, bereft of power, aren’t worth describing. They’re there as cannon (or sword) fodder of course. And they’re always in the background as servants, farmers, and an afterthought of the main highborn characters. But Martin never describes their feelings, motives, desires, or goals. From his perspective as a storyteller, they really don’t matter.
In this world where physical strength, monetary wealth, and political influence are the only qualities worth having, it is no wonder the women (especially poor women) are treated so poorly. A few women in the series hold some power as they inherited vast sums of money. An even fewer number were born with the size and strength or martial abilities of a man (however, these gifts don’t entirely shield them in a world so steeped in misogyny). Every other woman is left with two options; to suffer terribly at the hands of more powerful men or to use her shrewdness or sexual prowess to try to influence the men around her.
But why would Martin write about such a terrible world? Well, fantasy writing, like ancient mythology, is always meant to tell us something about ourselves or the world around us. Martin doesn’t think he’s creating some evil world where women are treated awfully. Instead, he thinks he’s using a medieval-esque fantasy world to show us what our world is actually like. This is where Martin and HBO would like to deflect some criticism. Rape and misogyny are simply a part of our culture. Depicting those things in fiction makes the story realistic, not misogynistic. And there’s truth to that. But the problem with Game of Thrones goes much deeper than what is portrayed to how is portrayed and what answer the storyteller gives to the problem.
Martin has always been adamant that he doesn’t want to write about orcs. By this he means he doesn’t want to portray any one character or side as evil. But there’s more to the Game of Thrones worldview than an absence of orcs. There’s also a lack goodness or virtue of any kind. Not that characters are unable of making “good” choices but Martin is unwilling to label these decisions as such. Unfortunately, a world without goodness and virtue (and I don’t just mean Christian virtue) is a world in which the trampling of the poor, the oppression of the weak, and the domination of women by men is simply inevitable. And what is Martin’s answer to the state of this fantasy world and, thus, his answer to the problems in our own world? So far, not much.
This silence ought to be quite troubling. Martin might object that he’s a neutral observer. But I don’t think such a position actually exists. But even if it did, that isn’t exactly a vote in the show’s favor. Just as it isn’t a good idea to fill our minds with images of gratuitous sex and violence, it probably isn’t a good idea to fill our minds with a worldview that is almost nihilistic and is certainly pessimistic in the extreme. Either way, we definitely ought to be aware of the source of the kind of objectification portrayed in the now famous books and show. When asked about the nudity on the show, Dutch actress Carice van Houten, who plays Melisandre, answered, “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.” For those who haven’t seen the show, Melisandre is a witch who uses her assortment of powers to help one of the claimants to the throne of the seven kingdom. One way she does this is through sexual acts that, among other things, produce some sort of demon assassin. She also seduces the king and serves as his chief adviser. Her frequent nudity disarms her opponents and is a reminder that her sexuality is one of her main weapons. In light of this, her defense that her character’s nudity is “just part of life” is comical in its extreme naivety. It may be true that Dutch women sleep without bras. But that is definitely not why Melisandre is naked. She’s naked for two reasons. For one, breasts bring in viewers. And viewership, of course, is what HBO cares about most. This use of naked women to sell a product is absolutely objectification. And HBO gets to share the blame for this. Secondly, Melisandre’s nudity reveals her character’s dependence on sex for power. Although this takes a unique form in Melisandre, it is still indicative of Martin’s view that power is all that matters and most women can only achieve power over men through sex. The source of this disturbing idea is not a teenage fantasy but Martin’s much deeper and well-formed worldview that embraces power as the only true force at work in the world.