Warning: this article contains spoilers for those not up to date with Game of Thrones season six.
Now deep into its sixth season, Game of Thrones is in full swing with its most watched series to date. Following months of fan speculation and anticipation, the season opened with priestess Melisandre’s magical transformation into a geriatric crone (after the requisite topless shot).
And yes, the season remains replete with the now predictably unexpected gore, graphic nudity and violence, epitomised in episode one by Ramsay Bolton’s callous dismissal of his dead lover’s body: “She’s good meat, feed her to the hounds.”
Given the pornographic fusion of violence and sexuality and the deliberate absence of moral standards, Game of Thrones is enthralling. But it is also disorientating, leaving many with a sense of unease – I, at least, keep asking myself why I continue watching. Sex is everywhere, so much so that the series seems to revolve around a mandate whereby sex is ubiquitous and compulsory.
One reason for the series’ success can undoubtedly be found in this spectacle of violence and sex. Set in a world divorced from our own, it satisfies audiences’ needs for heightened sensations, but is unconstrained by a moral compass. But more importantly, author George RR Martin’s fantasy speaks to us because it is a poignant social commentary grounded in sexual, economic, cultural and political conditions that reflect contemporary concerns. So despite the fantasy setting, the way in which Game of Thrones engages with social matters such as gender and sexuality is rooted in the here and now.
In some ways, Game of Thrones’ established formula is emblematic of a wider cultural shift that allows for more open-minded attitudes to sex. Yet, the series also parades a liberal, at times blasé, attitude towards sexism.
Over the past six seasons, there have been copious graphic portrayals of explicit sex and sadistic torture. Violence appears to be entangled with sexual themes as female characters in particular are repeatedly abused and violated. Think of, for example, the torture and murder of the lowborn prostitute Ros at the hands of mad boy-king Joffrey in season three. Or of Sansa Stark’s chilling off-camera rape by her psychopathic husband in season five.
The lives of most male and female characters are structured around this “gotta fuck” principle that typically posits men as the ones who “fuck” and women as the ones who suffer it. This was elegantly summed up during episode seven, in which the High Sparrow tells Queen Margaery: “Congress does not require desire on a woman’s part, only patience.”
Sexism is overt and undisguised and sex is often depicted as painful, most commonly exercised by men upon women. Rape in particular is depicted with complacency and smug indifference as an efficient instrument of power used in times of social unrest and war, but also as a means to cement kinship between men and their families.
Think back to Daenerys Targaryen’s repeated sexual assaults at the hands of her warrior husband. This was addressed again this season with Khal Moro threatening: “We’ll take turns fucking you and then we’ll let our blood-riders fuck you and if there’s anything left of you we’ll give our horses a turn.”
This is not to say that Game of Thrones’ treatment of sex should be interpreted as the same old sexist story, whereby men use rape as a threat and women seek to acquire sexual agency. Undoubtedly, both male and female characters endure suffering, sexual violation and dismemberment – Theon Greyjoy’s castration and psychological abuse in season three being the most prominent example.
The series’ commitment to the visualisation of sex(ism) could be read as a nod to critical and political movements that endeavour to make the structures of sexism and its effects on men and women more visible. Importantly, sexism in Game of Thrones does not rely on humour to make it palatable, nor is it hidden under a veil of nostalgia.
So from one point of view, the series appears daringly cutting-edge, as many have argued. Unlike other banal examples of sexist entertainment that lull us into a kind of intellectual coma, Game of Thrones appeals to our critical capacities, revising narrative expectations and ways of reading and seeing. It challenges us to face sex(ism) head-on: this is sexism visible for all, uncompromising, confrontational and humourless in its relentless portrayal of sexist abuse.
But this may be awarding the show too much. Because despite this heightened visibility, Game of Thrones does not take up a critical stance. As such, it runs the risk of wilting into self-congratulatory introspection.
While paraded before our eyes, sexism comes to be seen as less of a problem. Here, the act of making sexism visible does not undo the problem but recreates it in a sexist liberal guise. For me, this need not amount to a moral blindness, whereby we are becoming numb to the pernicious effects of sexism. But it does highlight the challenges that any form of substantive contemporary critique of gendered, sexist, class and economic power dynamics has to face.