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‘Game of Thrones’ and the Threatening Fantasy

Game of Thrones is a show for Star Wars fans who thought Princess Leia should’ve been raped. Or at least that she should’ve been shown fucking Han Solo.” That’s how I recently summed up my impression of the HBO fantasy series based on George R.R. Martin’s bestselling books after a three-season marathon binge. For that very reason, the first few episodes creeped me out when they debuted in 2011, and I never bothered to commit to a season pass. Daenerys Targaryen was a compelling heroine and her wedding gown was a teensy bit more demure than Leia’s sexy gold slave bikini. But just about every man on the show was Jabba the Hut — Jabba but with functioning sex organs. Female characters were meant to be objectified. Andy Samberg summed it up quite well on Saturday Night Live — it was all just too gratuitous for me, as if the fan fiction of dorky teenagers had become art. But then, this summer I looked at my Twitter feed and realized I was missing out on a nerdy pop-culture phenomenon — something I can’t abide — so I decided to delve into the show, to get caught up in the story and learn the history of the Seven Kingdoms, and figure out why everyone suddenly wanted to name their daughters Khaleesi.

I am not squeamish. I am used to HBO. I am used to sex and graphic violence and whatever you call what happens on True Blood. But Game of Thrones is visceral, literally. Body parts get hacked off and all sorts of gunk oozes from wounds, and the camera never cuts away. The spewing sound that accompanies decapitations becomes disgustingly familiar. We see everything. Nothing is insinuated. The personal depth and inner story we see in a majority of supporting characters actually come from seeing their insides. Sadism is commonplace. And in this world, a world in which violence and cunning and blood determine power, sex is the biggest weapon of all. Rape, or the threat of rape, or antiquated fantasies about rape, are present in every single episode.

There are some familiar tropes: the Pretty Woman scenario, where the prostitute falls head over heels in love with the rich man who pays for her services. I was half-expecting a scene in which Tyrion literally snaps the lid of a jewelry box on Shae’s fingers. Then there’s the General Hospital Luke-and-Laura situation, in which a woman (Danaerys) falls madly in love with the man (Drogo), who for all intents and purposes raped her. And then there are the less romantic cases: the man in the North who kills all his sons and fucks all his daughters, the psychopathic king who beats and/or kills prostitutes, the royal bodyguard who takes his meetings with naked women writhing on his lap. This is a show in which Cersei Lannister, the most conniving villainess in King’s Landing, has a moment of earnestness and advises young Sansa Stark that the “best weapon is the one between your legs. Learn how to use it. If the city falls, half of these women shall be in for a rape.” Later we’re supposed to be impressed when Cersei’s brother Tyrion refuses to rape his child bride.

I get it. By the end of season three, Danaerys Targaryen appears to be the strongest, most powerful and morally upright character on the show. Tables are being turned. The gropees are becoming the (metaphorical) gropers. We see the emasculation of many of the show’s fiercest characters, including the unfortunate former scoundrel whose penis is savagely cut off by a psychopathic torturer (one of the few moments of violence viewers don’t get to see). But we cannot unsee all of the humiliating, degrading moments that have come before.

So I try to reason with myself with a little historical perspective: There was indeed a time when women were treated as chattel. When raping and pillaging were encouraged after a battle. When, if you could bleed, you could breed. Game of Thrones is so brave to show what it was like back then. You know, in the time of dragons. When white walkers zombied around the kingdom and direwolves saved adorable children from murder. Oh, right. Game of Thrones doesn’t need to be historically accurate because it’s a fantasy, a fantasy that includes scenarios in which women fall for men who treat them like property and are confronted with the threat of rape at every moment. This is the world that George R.R. Martin chose to build, and this is the way the HBO series chose to portray it. It’s compelling, and it’s beautiful to look at, and it’s addictive, but it’s a twisted, threatening fantasy nonetheless.

Written by

Host of The Maris Review, a literary podcast. Writing in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York, Vanity Fair, and more.

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