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Game of Thrones: Naked Ladies, Rape, Incest Subplots Not Necessarily Sexist

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"Game of Thrones: Naked Ladies, Rape, Incest Subplots Not Necessarily Sexist"

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Hey there, folks, I’m very glad to say that Alyssa Rosenberg (formerly a guest blogger in these parts) is joining the ThinkProgress family and that while some technical aspects of her joining the crew are getting worked out she’s going to be contributing some posts to this space (among other things). Her first such contribution is below:

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By Alyssa Rosenberg

Given how heavily HBO promoted Game of Thrones, the fantasy series it premiered last night, I’m not really surprised that there’s been an outpouring of critical response to the show. What I didn’t expect, though, was that so much of the morning-after analysis would consist of a discussion about whether the show is sexist.

I say this from the perspective of someone who has read all four of the George R.R. Martin books on which the show is based, and who’s seen the first six episodes of HBO’s adaptation. So I come to this with context about how sex and sexuality play into Martin’s larger universe that first-time viewers aren’t going to have. But even knowing what I know about how the characters and their storylines develop, I’m still taken aback by some of the criticism, and dismayed by the reminder that our culture’s in a place where the default assumption is that any depiction of rape or sexual violence is gratuitous. Take this, from Melissa McEwan at Shakespeare’s Sister:

I am, however, averse to gratuitous pornified images of naked women being inserted into entertainment in a way that treats their breasts like props. And I don’t regard the line between the two as remotely fuzzy or difficult to navigate.

Leaving aside the exploitative nature of the storytelling, it’s also just lazy and intellectually insulting. I am a grown-ass adult capable of understanding that Tyrion Lannister is a lech without actually hearing the slurping sounds while he gets a blowjob and seeing three naked prostitutes gifted to him by his brother. I have the faculties to discern that Viserys Targaryen is a horrible shit without actually having to watch him molest his teenage sister’s breast. Etc. And if you can’t communicate these characters’ attributes without lingering close-ups on tits, then you are not a good filmmaker.

Or a question from one Entertainment Weekly colleague to another, “Do the women get to do anything more than be miserable or sex objects (willing, paid, or raped) for the men?” Or the deep and abiding weirdness of the New York Times Ginia Bellafante opining that “The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise,” before going on to insist that no real women prefer fantasy to other kinds of literature and television.

It’s true that networks like Showtime and Starz–and many, many other entertainment producers–are often in it just for the T&A. But if we always assume that’s the case, we run the risk of condemning or missing out on shows and movies where there’s a very specific point to both sexual nastiness and explicit consensual sex. If the point of a character like Viserys Targaryen is that his power obsession has ugly sexual overtones that are manifested directly in the physical evaluation of his sister as he’s prepared to sell her off in an arranged marriage, then it’s not true, as McEwan writes, “if you can’t communicate these characters’ attributes without lingering close-ups on tits, then you are not a good filmmaker.”

The incestuous relationship between two of the main characters in Game of Thrones is meant to communicate their moral and spiritual rot, not simply to provide something naughty for us to get nervous and excited over. Their sex scene in the show’s first episode isn’t presented in romantic terms, but rather in somewhat desperate ones. And contra McEwan’s complaints about a sex scene involving Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf brother of the queen and her twin brother,the insistence that Lannister is as good a lover–or perhaps an even more sensitive, passionate one–than his full-sized counterparts is a blow against the frequent use of people with dwarfism in entertainment as proxies for children or comic relief rather than real human beings.

The sexual universe where Martin set his story, and where HBO is taking us now, is discomfiting both because of the specific characters Martin’s created, and because it’s a period piece. There’s something far more honest in a scene where a young woman gets raped on her wedding night to a man she doesn’t know and doesn’t love, or where, as The Tudors does, an unwilling bride passes out during her first night with her husband in front of witnesses to their union, than in misty romance-novel retroactive rewrites of sex and marriage in eras past. Women may be constrained in Martin’s universe, but that doesn’t mean they’re powerless.

What it does mean is that it’s worth it for viewers to give the show a shot. If the series continues to hue as closely to the novels as it has so far, HBO will give viewers a richer, more progressive sexual universe than the show’s critics expect. But that requires a willingness to expect that there’s rhyme and reason to the sexual madness beyond the simple demands of a market for naked ladies.

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