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Game of Thrones’ Fantasy Misogyny

In watching Game of Thrones and falling in love with the worldbuilding, the characters, and the stories, there’s one thing that’s inescapable: the misogyny. This is not just a violent, brutal television series, but specifically one that features violence against women. In almost every episode, there’s a rape or threatened rape, a violent murder of a woman, or another exertion of male power over women; there’s Prince Joffrey and his brutal beating of a sex worker, the threats to Tyrion’s lover Shay, Brienne’s near-rape when she’s escorting Jamie Lannister to King’s Landing, the implied wedding night rape of Daenerys, and so much more. We won’t even get into the Red Wedding.

This is a show about male violence against women.

George R. R. Martin’s books aren’t much better.

Critics of the misogyny embedded in the series, and the world it’s build on, are often told that misogyny is ‘realistic, for the time.’ This defense is a bit puzzling, as this response makes it sound like Game of Thrones is historical fiction, rather than what it actually is, which is fantasy. The series is indeed set in a version of Medieval Europe, complete with feudalism, warring kingdoms, and some of the technologies that would have been available in that era, but to talk about it like it’s a serious and accurate depiction of this era is ludicrous.

Often, fantasy authors choose this setting as a basis for their worlds, because it provides rich opportunities for exploration. This was a period of intense superstition, storytelling, and wonder. It was the tipping point right before radical social changes that forever altered the way the West lives and functions. If you want stories about horse-mounted battles and brave knights errant and kingdoms struggling to survive, it’s a fantastic setting to choose, whether you’re writing The Sword in the Stone or epic fantasy doorstoppers.

But Game of Thrones isn’t historical fiction. It’s not a series about what life might have been like in the Medieval era. It’s a series about what life in Westeros is like, which is why there are things like dragons and zombies. Game of Thrones features witches, wizards, and other mystical figures with immense, supernatural power. The world of the series is inherently fantastical, which is part of its draw, because it pulls the reader, or viewer, into a totally different and wondrous place, even if it’s anchored in some familiarity; thus, we see people riding horses and equipping castles, trading from precious gems and silks and sailing in traditionally-rigged ships. But we also see people rising and walking again after they’re dead, and monstrous zombie horses, and dragons with jewel-like scales.

At its heart, Game of Thrones is about fantasy: something that is not real. Like so many other books in this specific subset of the fantasy genre, that with a world based extremely loosely on historic England, it is not truthful to history, or even to geography, let alone science and fact. That’s not what the series is about, nor is it what readers want to engage with. We read books like The Mists of Avalon, to pick a random example that’s pretty much dead opposite to Martin’s series, to imagine a wondrous world, or to envision an alternate history infused with magic, not because we think they’re accurate depictions of what life was like in a specific period of history, even if the people in them aren’t real.

What’s curious, and deeply troubling, about Game of Thrones and their ilk is that while they can change so many things about history to create a rich, fascinating, densely-imagined world, apparently fantasy does not extend to imagining gender equality. Throughout the history of fantasy as a genre, it’s been used to advance stories of horrific violence against women, misogyny, and rape culture. And the excuse, always, is that it’s ‘necessary for the era in which it was set.’

But why? Game of Thrones isn’t set in a real place or time. It isn’t bounded by what actually happened or what life was really like for women. The show could just as easy be about a matriarchy, about a misandrist society (I say this with tongue firmly in cheek), which would be a fascinating confrontation and flip of gender norms if done well. It could also be a world of equality, with men and women fighting side by side, dying side by side, enduring the horrors of their world side by side, all on the same footing.

Instead it’s a world where young women are used as political pawns, where the rare female knight fears rape, not just death (and where the very real sexual assaults of male warriors are mysteriously erased from the narrative, even though they, too, would be ‘accurate for the time’). While some women of power are depicted textually in Game of Thrones, they are shown as unusual for the society they live in — and they have to fight dragon’s tooth and nail to get where they are. Daenerys, for example, is a highly distinctive and outstanding woman, a warrior and princess attempting to reclaim her throne from the men who have stolen it. Cersei, meanwhile, for all her scheming and manipulation, is constantly reminded that she is only a woman, and thus isn’t anyone’s equal in society.

If this is about fantasy, and we can do anything we want, why is fighting misogyny so impossible? How is it that we can imagine a world where dragons walk the Earth, but not one where women don’t have to fear rape?

Photo by Søren Niedziella, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

3 thoughts on “Game of Thrones’ Fantasy Misogyny

  1. I dislike misogyny, intensely, I rail against it when I find it, I also find that women who should be “fighting” it, respond to it, because that is all they have known. I am a feminist, Im not radical, but I am old and fed up that in my fifty plus years not more “equality” has been accepted.
    Railing against a work of fiction seems to do more harm than good in my humble opinion, Im far more peeved by adverts that have women in the throes of orgasm over flicking a duster around a room. For me denying that rape and violence against women in a show like GOT IS horrible…to not show “reality” is more egregious. as if it doesnt happen….The strongest characters in GOT in my opinion are the women, again, reality, despite their hardships/rapes, violence, and suffering from patriarcal domliness. Even Sansa as the bullied, beaten weak willed woman, IS learning how to cope in her world, her “reality” That it shouldnt be that way, is obvious. But until there is “acceptance of people, wether they be women, fat, skinny, gay, trans, black white or plaid… Works of fiction are still works of fiction….reality is not. I enjoy Game of thrones intensely, I enjoy Hannibal, I enjoy dark side of people in “fiction and fantasy, I enjoy Being a dominant woman who brooks no misogyny from “reality” yet I find reality is far harsher than the red wedding. JMNSHO:)
    I enjoy your writing and a lot of your views btw:)

  2. Agree completely with your comments. Restorative Justice International works in the U.S. and globally with victims of violent crime including those sexually assaulted. We find it hard not to weigh in on issues regarding violence in our culture. When sexual assault is not taken seriously in the U.S. or anywhere on the globe this is part of the reason why. We need to do more to combat violence against women, or men, in an increasingly violent society.

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. At last, some rationality. I’ve Googled “Game of Thrones misogyny”, and apart from one article in the Guardian commenting on the TV series, all I’ve seen are shout downs of the “there are strong women roles” and “it’s fitting to the fantasy” sort.
    I’ve never actually watched the series, but having read the first two books I won’t be reading any more – there are far too many scenes of sexual violence and abusive sexual language, and if there’s not many of us asking why I certainly am.

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