Game of Thrones continues to be weird about gender

… and though I still enjoy it very much, what’s the internet for but to complain?

[Spoilers, spoilers everywhere. –Ed.]

I’ve noted before that Game of Thrones is a little screwy in the way it deals with gender issues.  That tendency has increased markedly in the first two episodes of Season 2, which — perhaps to compensate for the fact that the early chapters of A Clash of Kings are relatively light on blood — have ramped up the tits considerably. I have no problem with nudity in and of itself.  I don’t really even have a problem with over the top nudity, if it doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the show. What makes this nudity problematic, though, is the degree to which what the show is actually saying about gender is undercut and made ironic by all of the flesh on display.  That is, by the way that its outer form (hurr, hurr) conflicts with its inner content.

I didn’t really mind the random prostitute they threw in to the first episode, although I did joke about her on the podcast.  Transparent pandering is always obnoxious, but a certain amount comes with the territory, especially in a season premiere. Shows have to find new viewers somehow, and more power to them.  What’s weird about it, though, is that so much of the rest of the episode was about the way that women are seen as disposable bargaining chips by the men running the show. Joffrey, having babies ripped from their mother’s breast and slaughtered. Robb, shoo-ing his mother off on errands, and coldly admitting that Sansa and Arya aren’t worth exchanging for Jamie. Craster, of course, which is almost a whole other issue.  Even within the brothel scene alone, though:  if we accept for the moment that the naked actress was an erotic display intended to bring in additional revenue for HBO, isn’t there something ironic about the fact that she’s being coached through the process of putting on an erotic display in order to bring in additional income for Littlefinger?

Are we meant to enjoy this sex scene?

Something similar goes on with Theon’s would-be salt wife in the second episode.  Again, I don’t object to her nudity in principle. It was a deeply unpleasant scene, but it was unpleasant in the book as well, and Theon’s an unpleasant guy. Their interaction is an important illustration of that fact, and whether or not it was actually important to show the actress with her kit off, it did drive the point home nicely. (Hurr hurr.)

But when you start thinking about what’s actually going on in that scene, it gets weirder and weirder.  The girl desperately wants to escape her current life of drudgery, and she sees performing sexual acts on Theon as the easiest way to make that happen.  She likes him, a lot, and is overawed by him, but she essentially views the sex as a contract:  she’ll do X, Y, and Z, and in return, not only will she get good treatment from him in the short term, she’ll escape to a more pleasant job in the long term. It’s made more explicit in the book that her goals are modest. She doesn’t expect him to marry her.  She’d be quite content with a job in his kitchen at Pyke. Theon, for his part, knows what she wants, and doesn’t plan to give it to her. Nevertheless, he continues to have sex with her, and to let her think that something will come of it.  It’s our first real look at the character’s dark side:  he still seems to want to do the right thing for his friends (at this point), but he’s incredibly callous towards anyone who falls outside of that circle. He takes what the girl offers, and then casts her aside.

Now put yourself in the shoes of an actress who goes in to read for a part in a high-profile HBO series. She knows that it’s a one-episode gig, but careers have begun with less. It’s a speaking part! She gets a whole scene! Clearly, this is a stepping stone to bigger and better things.  And so what if nudity is required?

Are we meant to enjoy that sex scene?


The ludicrous, painful-looking sex scene between Stannis and Lady Melisandre is the most problematic from an aesthetic point of view, just because it looks so ridiculous. It’s also a big departure from the book — not that Stannis and Melisandre don’t make the beast with two uncomfortable backs, but in the book their relationship is treated obliquely, and if I remember right, it’s something Stannis goes through with less because Melisandre is so seductive and more because its necessary for a magical assassination ritual.  That’s Stannis for you in a nutshell:  willing to cheat on his wife in order to horribly kill a man, but not willing to cheat on her for fun.   The show’s version of Stannis is less interesting.  He’s a saint on the surface, but a dog deep down.  Just like Theon, I suppose, and even a bit like Littlefinger, the man who I suppose is ultimately responsible for the nudity in episode one.  Two points to HBO for thematic resonance!  But at the cost of range and breadth of characterization, which is a shame.

The scene is also a broader departure from the way that Martin had used sex in his books more generally. You get the feeling from the books that sex can either be grim and kind of tawdry, or cheerful and kind of tawdry, or — only within the bounds of a society’s particular version of matrimony, which is kind of interesting — a genuine and profound connection. But you never get the sense that it’s grim and deadly serious. This is… I dunno, a Clive Barker solution to a J.R.R. Tolkien problem?  Something like that.

And once again, the use of nudity is oddly ironic.  The TV version of Melisandre is evidently using her seductive feminine wiles to blind Stannis to the fact that his quest for power is leading him to darker and darker places. “Okay, I’m going to have to cheat on my wife, and eventually assassinate my brother, but who cares, because boobies!” And sure enough, Carice van Houten is being asked to use her feminine wiles to blind the audience to the fact that the series has flattened out yet another of Martin’s more interesting psychological creations. “Okay, this is completely gratuitous, and wasn’t in the book, and Stannis wouldn’t — Holy God she’s going to be picking splinters out of her back for the weeks — but who cares about that, because boobies!”

One could argue that HBO is playing a canny game.  By always making its use of gratuitous nudity ironic, it can insulate itself against the charge that its gratuitous nudity is gratuitous. Maybe half the audience will just thrill to the nudity, while the other half, uninterested in gratuitous nudity, will dissect the ways that it problematizes the audience’s subject position by implicating the male gaze, or what-have-you.  I’d be happier, though, if they just saved nudity for cases where it’s not gratuitous. Surely that would make everyone happy?

21 Comments on “Game of Thrones continues to be weird about gender”

  1. Valdaglerion #

    Your essay is about sex, not gender.


    • Genevieve #

      I dunno. I think there’s a lot here about the ways in which sex *problemitizes* gender (or perhaps, more frustratingly, *normalizes* it) that goes mostly unsaid, and is really only glaringly obvious to people with a distinct sense of just how baldly GRRM undercuts the relationship between sex and gender in the book.

      The Stannis/Melisandre example is a perfect one, because, unlike skeevy Theon, he really is in a very simple, concrete, diplomatic relationship with her. They are business partners, in the way any two men would be, which is odd for a modern audience used to conventions of the genre, but not at all odd to Martin’s readers, who are well used to the wedge he throws up between the sex of his characters and the gender assumptions about them.

      Melisandre is female sexed, and quite capable of using that if necessary, but ultimately has a deeper connection to power that is doled out irrespective of sex (but not of gender—Sansa didn’t seem to have the same magical connection to her dire wolf, for example, that her siblings have). The television show undercut that division between sex and gender by reducing Melisandre to her sex, even in a relationship that is almost exclusively about her other powers. (& it’s been a long time since I’ve read the early books, but I always assumed that the “rumored” relationship between her and Stannis was just something they let people believe, because the average person would better understand (and be less frightened of) it. Stannis is kind of prudishly perfect in that way, probably to distinguish himself, in his own mind, from his “undeserving” brothers…)


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      @Valdaglerion, that’s an interesting point. I’ll say this: I wrote the title last, and I wrote it quickly, and I’m not very attached to it. Maybe “Game of Thrones continues to be gratuitous about nudity” would have been better.

      I do agree with a lot of what Genevieve says above. And there’s also a big implicit point in my essay about gender, not within the world of the book, but in Hollywood. (Or in… where are they filming now, Iceland?) When we were watching this episode, my wife said “I guess ‘nudity required’ must be part of the casting call for these women, huh?” This post was sort of my reaction to that. The show is trying to use the sex scenes to make a point about how messed up the gender heirarchy is within the world of the show, but as it does so it also tries to titillate, and recapitulates the messed up gender heirarchy of the entertainment industry.

      But as I wrote, I got sidetracked, and ended up talking a bit about the function of sex qua sex in the narrative. That’s a fine topic, but it’s not the same topic, and I don’t do enough here to develop it. The space might have been better-used talking about other interesting gender stuff, like the subtle changes to the relationship between Balon and Asha/Yara, or the Arya’s whole deal. So your criticism is definitely fair.


      • Valdaglerion #

        For what it’s worth, I agree with all your points, both of you. We all know how overthinking something can lead to massive digressions – we listen to the podcast after all :P

        The nudity in the show is indeed often gratuitous (although I maintain that The Shaving Scene between Renly and Loras in season 1, was entirely necessary). I haven’t seen any of season 2 yet (though I am now reading book 5) and I’m disappointed to hear that the relationship between Stannis and Melisandre has been written this way in the TV version. Genevieve is 100% correct in her description of Melisandre as a beautiful woman whose power just so happens not to depend on her beauty. She’s an “incidentally” beautiful woman in the novels, and to hear she’s been gratuitously sexualised in the show is a cause for concern!


  2. Adam #

    Mostly I couldn’t agree more. I found the whole Melisandre/Stannis thing incredibly jarring and just really very unlike the book. Coming at it from a directors point of view I can see that it could be quite tricky to portray the cagey, rumour based, relationship that they’re supposed to have but I’m fairly certain that it could have done it better then it was.

    P.S. Val is right, this isn’t so much about Gender as it is about gratuitous boobies.


    • Luiz Mello #

      I agree that it probably could have been done better, but as a general rule I suppose we’re just have to live with the fact that the show won’t be able to match the books’ complexity and subtlety, regarding plot and characters alike.


  3. ghostspce #

    The scene is meant to be symbolic having the pair fuck on a scale recreation of Westeros as the many figurines representing its people and its lords fall to the floor in a clatter – the choice to foreground Melisandre’s sexuality can’t be totally dismissed.

    I stole that from here where quite a bit of overthinking has been done could be an interesting read if that’s your thing.


  4. John Perich OTI Staff #

    I had a similar reaction to Californication. In S4, Duchovny’s character is sitting in on the film adaptation of his magnum opus. The early production meetings involve negotiations with a young starlet, Sasha Bingham. When the director says in the meeting (crowded room, dozen or more people) that he wants to cast an actor who’s willing to appear topless, Bingham obliges by lifting up her shirt.

    Titillation, yes, of course, but it struck me as almost Brechtian, since an identical conversation must have happened between the writers, directors and producers of Californication. “We need to find an actress with nice breasts who’s willing to appear topless in this scene about an actress with nice breasts who’s willing to appear topless.”


  5. Tulse #

    In the show, Stannis succumbs to Melisandre’s obvious charms because she explicitly says she will give him a son (which he does not have). This is a vital point in the world of Game of Thrones, since the whole current kerfluffle is largely around the issue of lack of issue (so to speak). Stannis is fighting for the throne because he believes that Joffrey is not really Robert’s son, and thus not entitled to inherit the throne. Almost all of Robert’s bastards have been murdered, and Renly is not particularly constituted to produce children. A son would indicate that a Stannis reign would have continuity, and avoid this succession mess in the future.

    (And consider in general the problem of heirs in GoT, with Dany pursued by Robert, Theon effectively disinherited by his father, Jon as the son but not heir of Ned, etc. etc. etc.)

    To be clear, I agree that the scene is a bit jarring if one knows the books. And I also get the sense that the show may try to mitigate Stannis’ participation in the assassination by making him an unwitting partner in the generation of the shadow thing, rather than having sex with Melisandre specifically to produce one. (That is, I think that is the “son” that Mel means, fooling Stannis.) But I don’t think that the idea itself, of Stannis having sex with Mel to produce an heir, is problematic thematically.


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      Would Stannis care about having a son to legitimize his reign, though? For the most part, his attitude seems to be that anyone who questions his legitimacy can go piss up a rope. He’s got nothing to prove to them. Same for the idea of wanting to ensure an orderly succession after his death… the Stannis in the book, at least, would be perfectly happy to pass the throne to whichever lesser Baratheon cousin is determined to be the rightful heir, and would expect everyone else to fall in line. (Where by “perfectly happy” I mean “no more joyless and petulant than he is about everything else.” But you get what I mean.)

      I think you’re dead right on Mel tricking Stannis about the “son,” by the way! Interesting stuff.


      • Luiz Mello #

        I agree with you that Book Stannis is not necessarily concerned about generating a male heir (especially in the light of something that was said in the The Winds of Winter chapter preview on George R. R. Martin’s website).

        However, it seems to be the case that Show Stannis is not quite the same person from Book Stannis. At least this one motivation (having a son) has been explicitly established in the show, while being completely nonexistent in the five first books.

        I believe the differences between show and books will become bigger and more explicit from now on.


  6. Redem #

    “Are we meant to enjoy this sex scene?”

    Isn’t the enjoyement of uncommendeable thing a fundamental of exploitation cinema?

    I mean a lot of times exploitation cinema would go on about such and such evil of society (drugs, prostitution, violence etc. etc.) and say “those things are bad!” but in a way there is unspoken thing about how the movie maker basicly show you all those things and make sure they are as over the top as possible because this is what you pay to watch.


    • Rob #

      I approve of this lens. Game of Thrones (the TV show and the books) is perhaps better approached as exploitation literature than Serious Art.

      On a related note, I can’t really agree with the suggestion that all of this is being introduced by the TV adaptation — there was a lot of icky gender stuff in the books too, which was kind of patched over with “Well in the mideival period it was really like this”. And in the books the sex is also written as titillating to at least some extent — just compare the way the scenes with Danaerys and Drogo are written to any given piece of erotic fiction.


      • Valdaglerion #

        I think the erotic scenes between Daenerys and Drogo in the novel are a very interesting way of displaying Daenerys’s character development as she begins to accept and eventually enjoy her new life with the Dothraki. Her sexuality allows her to win real respect from her new husband – both of them enjoy their sexings more when she asserts some control – and to escape her brother’s dominance. Titillating these scenes may be, but also justified, I feel.

        Your comment also makes me wonder if it’s possible to wrote a sex scene (either in a novel or a film/TV show) that isn’t titillating, even if the intention behind them is related to some other reason (like I claim in the case of Drogo and Dany). I can’t think of any examples. Perhaps a question for a different thread anyway.


  7. Johann #

    Re: enjoyment

    The show is full with moments which are not really enjoyable. Violence, scheming, gore, slavery, incest, you have everything. I think it is somehow fitting that the sex scenes are not particularly enjoyable either.
    On the other hand, I share the feeling of uncomfortableness when I watched the latest episode. The sex scenes just seemed too deliberately “inserted”.


  8. Weevilbits #

    I know this is somewhat tangential to the post, but when I saw the Stannis/Melisandre scene I was thinking less about the show’s use of sexuality, and more about its use of narrative explicitness. Way back in season one, when the show first introduced Renly and Loras, my wife commented that she was surprised that HBO had decided to make the characters homosexual. I pointed out that they were, in fact, homosexual in the books and when she went back and reread them later, she realized she’d failed to pick up on that particular subtext.

    One of the freedoms the show seems to be taking with the books is to foreground and make explicit a lot of what was in the background and implied. Instead of somewhat subtly hinting that Loras was in love with Renly a season or two after the characters are introduced, it introduces the characters in the midst of a love scene.

    And just like that scene adds some dimension to characters who we really only glimpsed at a distance in the books, I can see how foregrounding Stannis and Melisandre’s sexuality could at least theoretically add some depth to our understanding of the characters. Already we have a new motivation for Stannis (begetting an heir) that was never really touched on in the books but certainly makes sense given what we know about him.


  9. Spankminister #

    “The ludicrous, painful-looking sex scene between Stannis and Lady Melisandre is the most problematic from an aesthetic point of view, just because it looks so ridiculous.”

    Overuse of the word “problematic” in academic literature is a 10/10 troll for me. I’ve not yet seen a sentence that wouldn’t be better off without it.

    Saying a scene is “aesthetically problematic” is a little roundabout, right? More descriptive substitutes might be “ludicrous,” “painful-looking,” and “ridiculous.”


  10. babacaman #

    Thousand-page book(s) often more interested in their side characters than their ostensible narrative-drivers – think there’s gonna have to be a few major changes in the TV adaptation. It still could be a better TV show but I think it shows a lot of love for the books. As for the post, it contains the perfect summary of the show’s portrayal of sex you could possibly need in its final paragraph. Why not show the sex as it appears in the books? There’s enough of it, even for HBO!


  11. Mario Parise #

    Personally I’m a-ok with gratuitous nudity. That doesn’t bother me so long as it doesn’t take away from the story.

    HBO gets this wrong all the damn time, and youve captured alot of that here, especially regarding character depth.

    2 things I hate about HBO-style titillation:

    1) it’s almost always women. Male actors seem to get away with not being naked for the most part, but not the women. That’s distracting and unfair to the actresses and to the audience. If you’re gonna tackle nudity and sex, do it right.

    2) it’s never interesting. Just like car chases get old and require innovation, so do nude scenes. Just because boobs are on the screen doesn’t mean the job is done. Almost every nude scene ever plays out the same, is shot the same, with the same framing and lighting…

    Here’s an example: when Thora Birch went topless in American Beauty, it was shot from a hand held camera on the second floor window of her neighbors house. Not only am I unaware of any other nude scene shot that way, it added depth to both her character and the boy filming it. You know, like it was part of a narrative or something.

    Come to think of it, Mena Suvari staring down naked from a ceiling of rose petals was iconic enough to warrant multiple parodies. It also juxtaposed perfectly the fantasy of her with the reality of her when Kevin Spacey’s character has her topless underneath him and realizes she’s a real girl.

    There’s nothing even remotely approaching this level of depth and intrigue on any HBO show (in terms of sexuality), which is really sad when you consider hot GRRM used sex in the books, and how they tend to do storytelling so well in virtually any other context.


  12. Tom P #

    As far as I know, it’s never really addressed HOW Melisandre entices Stannis in to sleeping with her to create the shadow monster. That bit of creative license was fine with me.

    As for the Theon/salt wife exchange — it’s the show really addressing for the first time a major theme in the first few books. Life -really- sucks in Westeros for commoners.


  13. Tom #

    Oh dear Stokes,

    You Americans are so cute with your prudish hand-wringing about whether scenes showing people in their birthday suits are “gratuitous” or not.

    Your paradigms are showing. M/W isn’t the only way to view the world.


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