Saturday, September 13, 2014

The sexism of "Game of Thrones": Why it matters

For the purposes of this discussion, I will be mainly considering the television show and its portrayal of events, though I may bring in details from the book where relevant.  Consider it SPOILERS ALL.

The misogyny that runs rampant throughout Westeros is no secret, and has been discussed thoroughly in numerous places.  No one ever seems willing to pursue the question as far as it needs to go.  Instead we get articles like this one, documenting all the crimes and injustices that the female characters face in the story, and ending with a limp call to "imagine more".  Invariably someone responds along these lines:

We're talking about a world that has multi-year seasons, 700-foot ice walls, giants, zombies, warging, blue-lipped warlocks, ancient men fused to magical trees, *dragons*...  Why is it possible to contort the laws of nature and physics every which way in the name of fantasy, but not possible to imagine a world in which women are not trapped in their society as sexual objects?

If that's a more implacable fact than the rest of, then the real question is why that should be.

There are two points that people fail to grasp when they make these sort of statements.  The first is that the violences that the female characters in the show endure still happen to women today, and frequently.  I'm not sure when a man in America last had a rat eat its way into his viscera, tortured by roving mercenary bands looking for gold in the village, but women, even in developed nations, are raped; economically exploited; degraded, even by the men who claim to love them; prostituted; made to endure forced reproduction; abused.  To have people blithely write off the violence depicted in Game of Thrones, to hear them speak about it as some "historically accurate" fact from the past, is insulting and offensive.

The other, more important point is, the violence that men endure on the show does not have implications for the rest of the male characters.  When Jaime loses his hand, that does not mean that men's natural purpose is to have their bodies mutilated.  But when Shae is murdered for--what? trying to survive in a world that hates her? there is an enormous gap between the wedding and her murder, and that thundering silence is one of the story's great failures--that is simply what happens to women who displease the men who have owned them.  Honestly, we don't even need to know what happened for us to condemn her and for Tyrion to be justified in murdering her.  She does not exist for us as a real character when she's not getting fucked by a man, be it Tyrion or Tywin.  Cersei endures years of marital rape with Robert because she's his property and that is what she is for.  That is what all women are for.  In this; class does not matter, nor does race.  Women are a sex class, and the violence that one suffers tightens the chains on all the others.

Rape: the threat of it is constant in Westeros.  It's so common, in fact, that we barely recognize it when it actually happens.  As discussed above, Cersei is both a domestic abuse and a multiple-rape victim, yet we never speak of her in those terms.  Maybe because she's too much of a bitch.  Maybe because we think she deserves it.  There we see our pretensions to modern enlightenment skewered: "everyone knows rape is a bad thing!" we cry, but it doesn't take much for us to start making excuses. It doesn't take much for us to decide we can ignore it all together.  Whatever Cersei might be, it's irrelevant to our topic, since as we established before, Cersei is not raped because she is a bitch.  She is raped because she is a woman and as such, the limits of her body were violable.

Tellingly, men's bodies are not similarly at risk.  Jaime and Brienne are captured together.  Jaime, we know, is quite beautiful--he is referred to as "Pretty Man" by Greatjon Umber when he is first captured by the Northerners--while Brienne, we are repeatedly told, is huge, hulking, unfeminine and unattractive.  In the books, Jaime's captors are wild, depraved, and have no loyalty to any particular side.  The leader Vargo wants to "thend a methage" to Tywin Lannister.  In the show, they are Bolton bannermen, who seem to be somewhat out of Roose's control--or perhaps given more freedom to do the dirty work that Roose does not want to be personally seen to do.  In both versions, Brienne's rape is a foregone conclusion.  In the book, Jaime has no such worries--the possibility of him being raped never comes up.  How odd: surely, a bunch of lawless raping madmen would make no particular distinction?  An rectum is as easy to rape as a vagina, and we know Vargo is trying to send a message.  In the show, Locke cutting off Jaime's hand is presented in a "rapey" way: bent over some sort of table, with a threatening knife brandished in his face. 

Despite the undertones, though, there is no actual threat of rape for Jaime.  Both Vargo and Locke want to hurt and humiliate Jaime.  Why wouldn't they rape him, or have him raped?  The show isn't particularly interested in portraying that realistically either.  Really think about this.  It's got nothing to do with sexual attraction: these men would not be interested in Brienne if they met her in other circumstances.  They want to rape her because she is vulnerable and because they can.  In those circumstances, she and Jaime are no different.  What is different is: Jaime is male and Brienne is female, and GoT--like most media--is reluctant to treat its male characters the way it treats its female characters.
Do not fuck men as if they are women; it is an abomination.  The imperative in communicated, in the blank spaces as it were, to fuck women as if women are women: carnal chattel of men; proper objects for the lust of domination.  The abomination is to do to men what is normally done to women in the fuck: the penetration; the possession; the contempt because she is less, lower in standing before the law or God; the right to use her, which is, inevitably, a right over her.  Both Augustine and Mailer describe the lust of dominance in not dissimilar terms: an ecstasy, a frenzy, cruelty, all-encompassing, dominance in the fuck as a supreme and superb pleasure.  Men are not supposed to have to endure being the victims of this lust; perhaps because there is an implicit recognition that the subordination itself, the carnal experience of it, would change them--create in them the incompleteness, the low self-esteem, so commonplace in women under male dominance. (Intercourse, pg 195-196)
The one form of violence that men do seem to be vulnerable to is castration.  We know Varys was castrated for some sort of magic ritual; Littlefinger repeatedly calls him "not a man".  Theon comes the closest to being treated as female character of any male in the series---and tellingly, there are people who eroticize that relationship (as with Brienne, it's not women per se that are sexy, it's the domination).  He is castrated; he is forced to take part in the sexual abuse and rape of another female character (in the books, not yet in the TV show); but even he is not himself raped, as far as we know.  Somehow, in the midst of all the other awful horror that Theon endures, rape must remain something that is carried out on and in female bodies.

Patriarchy relies on keeping men and women separate.  Women are a sex-class; their bodies are penetrable; fucking is what they are for.  Men are the default human; the borders of their bodies are respected; fucking is what they do.  Of course, reality doesn't bear this separation out so well: men have anuses that can be fucked and raped, just like women, and men have mouths that can be fucked and raped, just like women.  Really presenting that fact upsets the whole patriarchal structure, which relies on men being the fuckers of women.  It makes people uncomfortable in a way that depicting the rape of a woman does not (like when people freaked out about Raoul Silva threatening Bond with sexual assault in Skyfall).  However, if you want to claim that depicting in detail each rape of a woman is necessary to the realism of GoT, then you must also necessarily demand to see the threat of rape against male characters addressed--and you know what, I just don't see that happening.

I suppose I have to underline this, because I'm sure people will misconstrue the point I'm making otherwise: I don't actually want to see Jaime raped on television.  However, I don't want to see Craster's wives raped, either; I don't like seeing Daenerys being raped from behind while she cries; I don't appreciate watching one prostitute being made to finger-fuck another so that they can convincingly pretend to enjoy their rapes later on.  You can build a world without staging every single act of sexual violence against women that takes place--but if you are going to argue that those acts must be shown in the interest of "realism", then why aren't the rapes of men shown or even considered?

People often make the claim that the depictions of violence are in the name of the story's trademark gritty realism.  The way the show depicts the lives of women is, however, anything but gritty and realistic.  With moon tea, GRRM has essentially invented a way to include all the sexy bits of prostitution and a sex-class without having to face the less attractive sides (for men, that's generally pregnancy and birth, with the associated complications).  Moon tea might be one of the most fantastical elements of the story: a perfect contraceptive that is apparently 100% effective, with no side effects.  It almost sounds wholesome, really.  Surgical abortion is apparently non-existent.  The deaths from improperly performed, unsanitary abortions are similarly not a problem in Westeros.  What a golden utopia for women!

The fantasy contraceptive serves to keep things hot.  The prostituted women are invariably young and perfect.  Where are those who have had their bodies ravaged by multiple pregnancies?  In the real world, 4% of women who give birth vaginally suffer 4th degree tears: the skin, the back of the vagina, the muscles of the perineum, the anal sphincter, the rectum.  What happens to those 4% of Westerosi "whores"?  Most women experience some tearing that requires stitches.  Those inconvenient realities get swept away.  What happens to the "whores" covered in stretchmarks?  The silver lines catching the candlelight in Littlefinger's brothel would be quite striking.  It would certainly be realistic.  But it would also be a total boner-killer, which is why it's not presented.  Dany similarly seems to have been basically physically unaltered by her third-trimester pregnancy.  Do we just chalk that up to Targaryen-magic?  Why are we inventing magics to keep the women conventionally fuckable?  The "realism" that is so important when it comes to showing women in pain, showing women getting fucked goes out the window when we look at how their actual lives, their actual bodies are depicted.

The story does touch on the mortal dangers of childbirth, but the way this side of the female experience is presented is frankly Disney-level.  There are two women who we know died in this manner: Daenerys' mother on Dragonstone and Joanna Lannister in Casterly Rock.  It happened in the distant past, off-screen for us.  A sad thing from long ago.  It's practically an abstraction.  We're never confronted with the reality of human beings dying in droves.  Consider this:
Studies by Roger Schofield, B. M. Wilmott Dobbie, and Irvine Loudon estimate that maternal mortality rates between 1400 and 1800 were between 1 and 3 percent. Most often, women died in childbirth due to protracted labor caused by a narrow or deformed pelvis, fetal malpresentation, postpartum hemorrhage, or puerperal fevers. The health risk was renewed at each pregnancy. Since a woman averaged five pregnancies, 10 percent of these women died during or soon after childbirth. (quote taken from here, not an ideal source, but based on reputable studies which are, unfortunately, behind a paywall for me.)
Futhermore, the use of the disturbing phrase, "I pulled you from your mother" suggests more Maester intervention than there might really have been in Mediaeval European births, in which case the maternal death rate in Westeros might soar, as it did in the 18-19th century Europe as doctors became increasingly involved in delivery.  It also indicates in a sense that the writers either don't really understand how birth works or have chosen to center a figure other than the mother: in a birth that proceeds normally, there is no "pulling".  Indeed there is little intervention of any kind; the work is done by the woman.

Let's get back to Queen Rhaella and Joanna Lannister.  These women didn't just "die".  They labored, probably for hours, in tremendous pain, and then died in tremendous pain.  Perhaps Joanna hemorrhaged to death, with an unstoppable flow of blood pouring out of her.  Perhaps Rhaella caught a pelvic infection that spread up the fallopian tubes and developed into peritonitis, inflammation of the thin tissues that line the abdomen.  She would have been feverish, perhaps vomiting, her stomach in agony.  And then, at length, she would have died.

That is gritty realism, but we never see it.  We don't want to look at the pain and the blood and filth and fear.  We don't want to see what fucking does.  Daenerys conveniently blacks out for the delivery of her stillborn son--lest sensitive viewers be forced to confront the reality of a beautiful woman being female.  We enjoyed watching her get fucked and we enjoyed watching her learn to like it, but we're not interested what that really entails, what it really means for these women.

By contrast, let's look at Downton Abbey. Broadly speaking, Downton is inferior to GoT in almost every way: it's soapy, sentimental, filled with lazy coincidences, loaded with clunky writing.  It did, however, gave us this:

There's your gritty realism.

Now, don't mistake me here: I'm not arguing that Downton is a "better" or "more feminist" or "less sexist" show that GoT, because it's not.  No one, however, constantly blows smoke up the Downton writers' collective ass for showing women so "realistically"; in this one scene, though, those writers showed themselves more willing to really portray women's stories than GoT ever has and probably ever will.  To borrow a phrase from the comment screencap'd at the beginning of this post, Downton is "on point", in a way that GoT refuses to be.

The violence against women in GoT is not "on point": it is pornographic, and a pornographic portrayal of women is by definition a sexist one.  This violence is not present in the interest of portraying the reality of women's lives in a mediaeval world: if that was the goal of the writers, the story would necessarily include all aspects of those lives, instead of just those aspects that happen to line up with common pornographic images.  There is nothing pornographic about Sybil Crawley's death.  There is nothing pornographic about Joan Holloway's rape on Mad Men.  Game of Thrones isn't sexist because it portrays rape, nor because it shows women in a socially-inferior position to men, nor because it shows them as victims of a society that forces them to be a sex-class.  If it showed those aspects of women's lives honestly, feminist critics would be all about it.  It's sexist because it portrays women and their experiences pornographically.  You could fap to that. 

The treatment that women receive in the name of story is the fantasy.
"Chains are sexy when women wear them, prisons are sexy when women are in them, pain is sexy when women hurt."  (Right-Wing Women)

Game of Threads: Costume Analysis (S2E1: The North Remembers)

There was no chance that I was just going to crap out on this after I finished the first season.  I actually haven't rewatched Season 2 since it originally aired.  Anyway, as is usual with episodes in which we go to new places and meet new people, this one's pretty packed, so let's get going.