Girls can play too: Why Game of Thrones isn’t sexist

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After accusations that HBO’s Game of Thrones is demeaning to women, one writer argues that the claims are unfounded.

Thanks to its source material and the fact that it’s produced by HBO, there is an awful lot of nudity in Game of Thrones. It’s gotten to the point where one of the actresses on the show has reportedly refused to do any more nude scenes. Game of Thrones has come under a lot of criticism for its depiction of women, with online commentators branding it as sexist and “threatening”.

In a world heavily influenced by Medieval England, it’s no surprise that Game of Thrones’ women are treated as second-class citizens

The world of Westeros is an incredibly sexist, patriarchal one, and there’s no denying it. The male characters frequently treat the female characters with indifference or outright cruelty. In a world heavily influenced by Medieval England – the series is basically a fantasy version of the Wars of the Roses, and George R.R. Martin has referred to French historical saga The Accursed Kings as “the original Game of Thrones” – it should come as no surprise that women are treated as second-class citizens. But this doesn’t mean we should agree with how they are treated or find it amusing, and it certainly doesn’t mean Game of Thrones is a sexist TV show.

Take Daenerys, played by Emilia Clarke, who many have assumed is the actress who refused further nude scenes. Of the principals, she is the one with the most nude scenes – her first one occured within her first five minutes on screen. She was frequently naked during the first season, and was raped by her arranged husband on her wedding night. Should we see her as a sex object, as someone who exists only for our titillation? Of course not.


Her nakedness in the first season informed her characterisation, as a scared, vulnerable young girl lost in a hostile world, at the mercy of her vicious older brother and indifferent husband. But, as she grew in strength and will, using the only advantage open to her – sex – to get her husband to treat her as an equal, she was naked on screen less and less, illustrating her growth and development into a person of power and influence. We shouldn’t see her as a victim (and she’s never depicted as a damsel in distress), but as someone who is determined to make something good come of her terrible situation. Plus, the girl tames dragons. That’s pretty badass.

Game of Thrones has one of the best female ensembles on TV

It’s not all about power, though: Game of Thrones’s success in striking a balance between weakness and strength is what makes its female characters so compelling, and I would argue that it has one of the best female ensembles on TV right now. The usual trap for making a good female character is to make her ‘strong’ and define her solely on her strength, but generic ‘Strong Female Characters’ are boring: it’s the fact that Daenerys is allowed to be weak and frightened when it’s appropriate that makes her so interesting and believable.

This is even more the case for Brienne the Beauty, ridiculed by all the other characters on the show for her plainness and status as a warrior woman. The character was never in danger of being a sex object, but she could easily have become a Strong Female Character, disdainful of men and interested only in fighting. But she’s also a hopeless romantic at heart, utterly devoted to Renly Baratheon and determined to be a true, noble knight in a world where nobility gets you killed. And while she does probably merit the status of damsel in distress when being mauled by a bear, she was only rescued because she allowed herself to bond with a man she had every reason to hate. Again, it’s that emotional vulnerability that makes us believe in her as a character.


So yes, Westeros is a world where women are treated pretty terribly. But that only gives Game of Thrones the opportunity to show their struggles against adversity, which is what leads to interesting drama and engaging characters. Game of Thrones passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours, and never under-represents its women, unlike some other popular genre properties.

Game of Thrones passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours, and never under-represents its women

There’s nothing inherently exploitative about nudity, even if there’s as much of it as there is in Game of Thrones. Oona Chaplin’s nude scene in the third season, where we saw her in bed with Robb, was presented as a touching portrait of intimacy between husband and wife, and made their later tragedy all the more horrific. But supposing there is too much female nudity – is the solution to have fewer nude scenes? I don’t think so. The solution is to have the male characters get their kit off more often. That way accusations of sexism can be countered, and the fanservice becomes equal opportunities. It’s win-win.

And no, full-frontal Hodor doesn’t count.


All images: HBO

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