All Men Must Die

Why this girl is done with Game of Thrones.

*Contains some Game of Thrones Season 5 and Orange is the New Black Season 3 spoilers.

It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly when the shift occurred. Game of Thrones has always been a show that revels in violence and frequently uses women’s bodies and sexuality as mere props. But for a while it seemed easy enough to excuse this as a means to help tell the story. “This was a different time, women didn’t have the same rights and privileges that we have today,” I would think to myself. “Women’s bodies were used as currency then, this is just accurate storytelling.

But there isn’t a “then” in Game of Thrones. This isn’t a historical drama. It is a fantasy drama— a show with a made-up timeline and overlapping imaginary genres that include dragons, zombies, and giants. Somewhere along the road, that fantasy changed from one about imaginary lands and age-old wars for power, to the fantasy of sick, depraved men: a fantasy that includes rape without consequence, sadistic rulers, and horny female prisoners.

“I was able to overlook the violence in small part because it wasn’t the main device of the show, and in large part because in the beginning, Game of Thrones seemed to balance that violence with storylines that included complex, powerful, and capable women.”

When I was first introduced to Game of Thrones by a friend, I was slightly apprehensive — I just simply wasn’t a fan of the genre. Fantasy was never really my thing. I’m not a huge fan of violence and I was acutely aware that the show featured violence as a creative device. But nonetheless I was convinced to give it a shot. What I found, to my surprise, was a show that showcased strong, empowered women.

Photo © Helen Sloan

I was able to overlook the violence in small part because it wasn’t the main device of the show, and in large part because in the beginning, Game of Thrones seemed to balance that violence with storylines that included complex, powerful, and capable women.

I loved young Arya Stark and her defiance against the status quo. She wanted to forgo arranged marriages and all feminine ideals in exchange for sword-fighting and holding her own. I respected Catelyn Stark for her inner and external strength of character. She had respect for others and was respected in return. Upon the death of her husband, she didn’t slink quietly into the night, but instead rose to greatness, fighting with every last breath she had for resolution and justice.

Daenerys Targaryen rose from a woman sold into sexual slavery by her own brother to a ruler in her own right: the Mother of Dragons and a Khaleesi. Then there’s Brienne of Tarth, Ygritte, and even Cersei — who despite being a terrible person on the surface, is a complex, multifaceted character who makes no apologies for being who she is. Each of these women are strong and capable characters with physical and mental strength to match their enigmatic personalities.

But somewhere along the line, Game of Thrones lost this foundation of strong women. Catelyn Stark and Ygritte through the death of their characters, Brienne through the increasing irrelevance of her character as season five progressed, and Cersei, who was all but a shell of her former self by the end of season five.

It became more difficult for me to watch Game of Thrones and halfway through season five, I declared enough was enough.

There’s been a lot of talk about the Ramsay Bolton character and his seemingly never-ending presence this season. After the death of Joffrey Baratheon last season, it seemed as if the Game of Thrones audience would have some reprieve from sadistic psychopaths. It didn’t take long to conclude that the writers appeared to be making more room for Bolton who crosses the line of even the most sick and deranged characters of modern pop culture. His violence isn’t restricted to women, as we’ve seen with Theon Greyjoy/Reek, but his violence toward women is almost exclusively contained to sexual violence. His rape of Sansa Stark and insistence that Reek watch was too much to bare. The audience didn’t need to watch that scene to understand the danger of his character.

“Why must we watch these scenes again and again? And why must these scenes exist if only to promote the hero trope of male characters?”

Moreover, it wasn’t just that scene that crossed the proverbial line for me. In the following episode, which brought no sort of justice or consequence for Bolton by the way, we are then subjected to watch as Men of the Night’s Watch assault and threaten Gilly. The discomfort of watching this scene unfold was heart wrenching enough, but to deduce that the purpose of this scene was nothing more than an attempt to make Sam look like a hero (to of course be “thanked” via sexual intercourse with Gilly) felt like a punch to the stomach. Why must we watch these scenes again and again? And why must these scenes exist if only to promote the hero trope of male characters?

From the would-be rape scene of Gilly, we move to a prison scene in Dorne in which one of the Sand Snakes seems to have forgotten that she, along with her sisters, fought and took down male intruders and held their own against Jaime Lannister and Bron. Now that she is behind bars, she is reduced to a horny prisoner, desperate for the sexual attention — and moreover, the validation of Bron. She exposes her breasts, attempts to seduce, and begs for affirmation in a way that I’ve only otherwise seen in softcore porn. The scene lingers on, unfolding slowly and awkwardly as if we’ve left the complexity of a television drama and stepped inside a sexual fantasy meant to titillate the twelve-year old versions of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

“The scene lingers on, unfolding slowly and awkwardly as if we’ve left the complexity of a television drama and stepped inside a sexual fantasy meant to titillate the twelve-year old versions of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.”

As the final episodes unfolded, it would seem as though Benioff and Weiss would test the allegiance of their audience once more, pushing the boundaries even further from the objectification and sexual abuse and violence against women, to the sexual abuse and violence against girls.

These men wrote a scene in which Meryn Trant visits a brothel and requests the sexual company of a young woman. As the Madam parades her best women for the job, Trant’s only response is “younger.” While after the first two times, it’s very clear to the audience that Trant is a disgusting pedophile of a man who doesn’t desire the company of a young woman, but instead that of a child, we are still subjected to another round of a paraded prostitute who is still not young enough for Trant’s perverse desires.

Aside from this being an incredibly disgusting and disturbing scene, it is also bad writing and a sign of not knowing or trusting your audience. It’s not necessary to exploit each and every scene to make sure the audience “gets it”. The audience is already there — and we get it. Milking a scene for all it’s worth (especially one of such depravity) is just bad, lazy writing.

Photo © Helen Sloan

Aside from this excrutiating scene, we are also subjected to the murder of Shireen Baratheon at the hands of her own father. A father, who chose to heed the religious advice of a manipulative, seductive, Melissandre and burn his daughter alive while his army looked on.

Even the scenes of justice or retribution are exploitative. While the audience was undoubtedly thrilled to see Arya Stark make good on her promise to kill Trant, did we really need to watch him beat three young girls beforehand? While it felt like poetic justice to see Cersei thrown in prison for her transgressions, it felt like exploitative slut-shaming of the worst kind to see her walk the streets of King’s Landing naked and shamed while citizens threw food, dirt, and filth on her, while men and women exposed themselves to her and shouted “cunt”, “bitch”, and “whore.”

“I know that sex and violence, and moreover sexual violence is a part of the everyday world we live in and I don’t believe that we should shy away from these topics in art.”

I don’t know where exactly we got off course, but that’s not entertainment to me.

And I’m not a prude either. I believe that real, authentic storytelling is fantastic, and I’ve been thrilled to see these kinds of stories unfold in this so-called “Golden Age” of television. I know that sex and violence, and moreover sexual violence is a part of the everyday world we live in and I don’t believe that we should shy away from these topics in art. On the contrary, art (including television and film) can be a tool to highlight these injustices to those who aren’t aware of them, as well as be a form of catharsis for those who have experienced these atrocities firsthand.

But there is a line between creative device and exploitation.

When you compare Game of Thrones with another popular show with a cult following, Orange is the New Black, you’ll find that both shows feature violence, rape, power struggles, misogyny, classism, and racism. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Photo by JoJo Whilden, © Netflix, 2105.

While Game of Thrones has had exactly two female writers during the course of the show — and none since season three, Orange is the New Black’s team of writers and producers is full of women. Perhaps that is why that show has managed to discuss difficult topics about complex and multifaceted female characters without exploiting them or their audience. Season three of OITNB featured rape (even multiple times in a single episode), violence, and even good old fashioned girl on girl prison sex, but it managed to do so in a way that shaped and developed each character’s story and maintain more than a shred of dignity.

There appears to be consequence for even the most vile of characters on Orange is the New Black: Vee got what was coming to her in season two and Mendez is behind bars. Was Chang’s backstory compromised because we weren’t subjected to viewing the actual gruesome removal of that man’s gallbladder? No. Somehow, the writing staff of OITNB managed to show as much violence as is necessary to the story and leave the rest to be projected by the audience’s own imagination.

That kind of nuanced storytelling seems to be lost on the Game of Thrones showrunners along with any sort of female perspective. For a show that boasts the biggest production budget of any show on television, you would think that they would be able to find value in female perspectives and a more diverse writer’s room.

Perhaps all men mustn’t die, but they should at least make some room for women.