Just because you like it, doesn’t make it feminist: On Game of Thrones’ imagined feminism

Someone messaged me yesterday asking my perspective on Game of Thrones; wondering if I had any feministy links or insights to share with him.

I stopped watching GoT early in the second season, after Joffrey forces one prostitute to beat another unconscious in a horrifically sadistic and gruesome way. I’d already been having a hard time digesting the women’s-bodies-as-wallpaper theme in the show, never mind the sexualized violence, and watching this misogynist man-child force a woman to beat another bloody pushed me over the edge. It was bad enough that, in the very first episode, teenaged Daenerys is raped by her new husband and it was bad enough that the directors feel it’s necessary to include naked prostitutes roaming around in the background of scenes that don’t require porny, decorative ladies there for any particular reason, but this just did it for me. I feel like I’ve watched enough rape and violence and sexed up sadism to last me a lifetime. No more please.

To be clear, I have zero problem with depictions of sex or nudity on screen. I wrote about Lena Dunham’s non-porny nude scenes in Girls as an example of the difference betweeen pornified objectification and non-sexist depictions of women’s bodies and of sex on screen to show that, yes! it is possible for women to be naked or sexual without turning it into porn. But we just don’t much like doing that these days in mainstream media and pop culture. It’s as though we’ve forgotten how, or are simply too lazy to imagine anything different. Women are to-be-looked-at and we expect women’s bodies, in imagery, to turn us on — We’ve learned that’s pretty much the whole point of women’s bodies.

After receiving this message, I started looking around online to see what feminists were saying about GoT, having stopped paying much attention to commentary on it since I stopped watching the show.

The first thing I came across was this article at Buzzfeed: 9 Ways ‘Game of Thrones’ is Actually Feminist.” And man, am I getting sick of people trying to force feminism into places it doesn’t exist. Last week I read a post over at Bitch about how, while the actresses who play Peggy and Joan on Mad Men were reluctant to call their characters “feminist,” they (according to the writer, Yoonj Kim) actually “displayed feminist thinking” and were only rejecting the label because of negative connotations. But both actresses point out that their characters have little interest in any kind of radical movement and while they may want respect, or to get ahead in the workplace, that doesn’t necessarily equate to feminism. Why Kim feels so adamant about pushing the feminist label onto these characters, I don’t quite understand.

I get the feeling that (some) women, especially younger feminist women, really, really want the things they like to be feminist. Which is a nice thought, of course, but is also ridiculous. Just because you’re a feminist doesn’t mean that everything you do, think, or watch is, or must also be, feminist. I watch Real Housewives on the regular, for example. I really, really love it. It isn’t feminist. Not in any way. And that’s fine. I’m over it. Why do we feel like we need to look for feminism in places it doesn’t exist?

It’s how we end up desperately insisting that burlesque or porny selfies are “empowering” or even feminist. “IT MAKES ME FEEL GOOD RIGHT NOW. PEOPLE ARE LOOKING AT ME. I MADE A CHOICE. TO SHAKE MY TITS ON STAGE” has nothing to do with a movement to end patriarchy. It just doesn’t. Feel free to post photos of your cleavage on Instagram all you want, but don’t call it feminism. It just makes me feel sad. Likewise, trying to force feminism on things you like — Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Magic Mike, whatever — doesn’t make it true.

The argument being made by Kate Aurthur, the author of the Buzzfeed article, seems to be that the creators of the show altered the female characters in the books in order to give the characters in the TV series more power and agency, making some of them into more multi-dimensional characters than those which were depicted in the books. And sure, that might be true, but having some forms of power or having moments of agency doesn’t equal feminism. Particularly in a show that unnecessarily objectifies and sexualizes pretty much all of the female characters. Just as, while some individual women may hold power in the world, that doesn’t necessarily equate to an equal world or work towards the collective liberation of all women.

In a post over at The Literati Collective, Elizabeth Mulhall points out that “none of the female characters demonstrate power that is not in some way mitigated by their gender.” So these characters may be allowed to be temporarily powerful in certain contexts, but we’re always reminded of their subordinate status or their role as object of the male gaze. Even in the books, author George R. R. Martin (who claims to be a “feminist at heart” HAAAAAAAAA) obsessively reminds his readers about Daenerys’ young, sexy, lady-boobs, which certainly has translated into imagery in the show. From the books (and inside the mind of a, supposed, male feminist):

“When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest …”

Don’t forget about her boobs, you guys. She has boobs. And she thinks about her boobs whenever she does anything. We all do. As Mulhall points out, “Her demonstrations of power are almost always balanced out by observations about her nubile body and general boob-havingness.” It’s like, ok, we’ll give you some power, but stay sexy. Which is pretty much how things work in real life too, if you hadn’t noticed. Sure, a few of you can have some money and some power, but also pose for photos in your underwear. Deal?

Martin seems to think he did his female characters (and, actually women everywhere!) a favour by letting them be humanish, but I’m afraid that isn’t enough to make the show, or the books, for that matter, “feminist.” Nor does “less rapes,” as Aurthur seems to think.

Not only that, but when confronted with criticisms about the over-the-top sexualization, the show creators, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss can only muster up defensiveness, saying:

“I don’t know why sex and violence get highlighted so much… You don’t hear people talking about gratuitous punch lines and gratuitous politics: It’s all about what belongs in any given scene. We put in the show what we think belongs in the show.”

“Wah! We like it!” Is pretty much their response. If you can’t even accept and address these kinds of criticisms, I’m not inclined to put any effort into buying some garbage about how “Oh, but the female characters are human beings!” Whatever. So a girl runs an army. Not only does the ability to kill other people or have some power over a certain number of other people not equate to the liberation of women, like, in any way at all, but if feminists are telling you you’re objectifying women and sexualizing violence and your only reaction is to defend said objectification and sexualization, you lose pretty much all your credibility in feminism-land.

I’m afraid we’re grasping at straws on this one, ladies.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.