My feminist response to Game of Thrones

The most problematic moment thus far, the one that made me  mutter “Martin, WTF is your deal with women?!” like I did so often in the books, was Daenerys “wedding night.”

In the book, Viserys is an unsubtle monster, and because we’re privy to Daenerys first person inner monologue, we know that she is deeply afraid of him, that his sexual handling of her is decidedly not consensual (unlike the Lannisters who each give as good as they get), but also that she is constantly reminding herself “I Am the Blood of the Dragon” in order to be brave. The book also gives Dany and Drogo a bonding moment over her bride gift, a beautiful horse, a moment we were denied here. More importantly, we learn the Khal might be a decent guy because of how tender he is with Dany, and how much he devotes himself – with no common language – to obtain her consent before they have sex.

HBO saw fit to give us none of that. Emilia Clarke’s Dany is…this is weird, but she is as emotionally locked down as Mia Wasikowska’s Jane Eyre. Though my mom had to ask “Was she upset by that?” after Viserys strips her and she walks into the scalding bath, I think you can definitely read Danys fear, and submission out of terror rather than out of docility. You could also read it as naivete or blankness.

And when the Khal leads Dany to the sea, all the pacing he does around her seems menacing, not reassuring. There’s no companionable hair-unbraiding, no moment when Dany decides to participate, no tingling or tenderness. Khal tells her not to cry and then pushes her down and takes her while she cries anyway.

Martin actually crafted a love story where Dany grows from a frightened child into a warrior woman through her own agency, and so far that’s the only thing I’m angry HBO took away.

There is a world of difference between a terrified girl finding empowerment at the hands of a good warlord and a terrified rape victim falling in love with the man who rapes her. One happens (Ok, it’s not always a warlord). The other…only happens in prison camps, male-authored melodrama or movies produced by Angelina Jolie, so I can’t say it doesn’t happen. But I can say that it is uncommon, poisonous, and any love you develop concurrently with Stockholm Syndrome is probably not love.

[ETA: Please keep reading the rest of my recaps of the Game of Thrones series! My understanding and appreciation for the feminist overtones and the depictions of misogyny is an ever evolving  process :) 

The rest of the episodes are: here (1.02),  here (1.03),  here (1.04),  here (1.05),  here (1.06),  here (1.07),  here (1.08) and here (1.09)]

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26 Responses to My feminist response to Game of Thrones

  1. Paul says:

    You hit it right on the mark, Drogo’s treatment of Dany in the books is vastly different the HBO has portrayed. Other thoughts: Drogo character needs some battle scars, oddly Ned has them and you’d think it would be the other way around as Ned fight’s in mail and armor. Drogo has perfect teeth and complexion, odd for a person who lives on the back of a horse. They could have messed up Tyrion a bit, he’s got the height down but lacks the misshapen, less then pretty way he’s described in the books. But perhaps this was omitted or toned down to make it easier for his character to be accepted by the general viewing audience. Back to Martin’s women, I personally find them all to be strong and intelligent, but to see this we’ll have to understand their circumstances their motives and options.

    • mkpheartsnyc says:

      Ha – agreed on the battle scars, except that I think Drogo is supposed to be pretty god-like, and since they’re not giving him the emotional appeal they needed him to at least be attractive.

      I also think they started Tyrion off pretty so that when he gets an axe to the face later in the series we uh, notice the contrast. I love Peter Dinklage so much I almost don’t mind.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Kim says:

      people had good teeth before sugar. so boo on that.

      • mkpheartsnyc says:

        hahahaha….wait, there was a time before sugar?!

      • Kimmy says:

        ya. the availability of sugar came when the Rus got sugar beets. Before then, you had maple syrup and honey, both of which were pain in the asses to make, and thus really rare.

  2. Nate says:

    Do you think the books are feminist?

    There are several feminist books where women are mistreated (Jane Eyre, Fried Green Tomatoes, Joy Luck Club, Matilda, etc). Typically there mistreatment is used a plot device for their empowerment. Or do think that the misogyny in these books is simply just that?

    • mkpheartsnyc says:

      That’s a really interesting question, and I agree that it’s possible to depict mistreatment/misogyny without endorsing it or glorifying it. I’m re-reading the books now for the first time since I was 18 or so, and I definitely notice more empowerment where I used to only see degradation of the main characters.

      However, I feel like there’s more misogyny at work in GRRM’s books as a matter of habit than as a device of empowerment. It’s not the trials and tribulations of Arya and Danys that are actually the most painful for me, because they manage to kickass despite their circumstances. It’s more the casual, flippant but hateful asides that make me feel unsafe/unwanted in his books. Some random guy calls Cersei a whore? She can probably have him killed. All of the peripheral characters being men who only even mention women when they’re thinking of whores? That’s ingrained. But! Those asides don’t really exist (thus far) in the HBO adaptation, so I’m enjoying it a lot.

      I would define a feminist book as one that advances, or depicts the advancement, of women’s interests, rights, POV, etc. Bronte’s Shirley is a tremendously feminist novel because female characters assert their rights as women to own property, to marry for love, to do everything men do and be prohibited from nothing simply because they are women. Jane Eyre is an individual’s search for those rights, and has overt emphasis of equality from both men and women – Jane asserts she is equal, Rochester declares he can only marry his equal.

      As I’m revisiting these books, my interpretation is coming up for review again and again – there’re definitely forces at work I didn’t notice the first few times through.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment!

      • Kim says:

        Can one be feminist without wanting equality? There’s a difference between respect (and equal opportunity), and needing to sand down everyone’s edges, so that everyone is equal.

        There are basic differences between men and women — some physical, some cultural, some inbetween.

        I think Brienne is a wonderful example of Martin turning feminism sideways. No woman without a hefty physique could fight with that much armor. And yet, Brienne gets her fair share — albeit having to fight for it.

        I LIKE that Brienne’s not a beauty.

      • mkpheartsnyc says:

        What do you mean by “turning feminism sideways?”

        Totally agree that Brienne is a standout – it doesn’t do anything for women if we’re all flaxen-haired dainty maidens or lost in the virgin-whore dichotomy…

      • Kimmy says:

        re: turning feminism sideways.
        Feminism does a lot to say “A girl can be anything she wants to be!”
        Martin says something different — he says, as long as you’re as wide and tall as a man, you can go be a brutish knight (n.b. Arya and the Dornish girls are NOT knights. they’re using significantly different tactics than hack-and-slash).
        It’s a different take on feminism, and what it takes to get out of gender roles in the first place.

      • mkpheartsnyc says:

        I like that point – logistically, tasks require physical ability. Bran can’t be a knight of the kingsguard but he can ride Arya has to learn special fighting techniques – they both have the opportunity to adapt

      • Kim says:

        Interestingly enough, medieval Japan/China had specific fighting styles for women and men, designed to work with the different physical characteristics. Women looked really stupid (and weren’t good at) the male ones, and ditto the other way around.

  3. Nate says:

    Thanks for replying. I am very interested in hearing the feminist perspective.

    I have a different opinion, but it could be because I am looking at the series as a whole rather than the first book by itself.

    My perception of Martin’s treatment of women is that he is intentionally exploring the mistreatment of women and the consequences that has on their character development. Certainly, a strong tone misogyny is established in the first book, and perhaps throughout the series. But I would argue that Danys becomes a strong independent heroin by the end of the first book despite her circumstances.

    As to the flippant asides, I think that is also intentional. Martin wants you to know that his characters are not safe. In spite of their achievements, they are not in a friendly world. But I see your points, and I worry that I am reading too much into my own interpretation. He is definitely pushing his audience to explore something ugly.

    I would like to read more about your opinions about this as you go further into the books. Thanks again.

    • MKP says:

      I’ve actually read the whole series before, though at a voracious pace, so I know there’s a lot of room for development with our heroines. Dany in particular goes from victimhood to a warrior queen and it’s not that GRRM doesn’t know how to give a woman a powerful role.

      I agree with you that GRRM wants us to explore the darker undersides of the world he has created, and I don’t know of any other author who is so willing to put every single character on the chopping block at some point (Catelyn Stark especially – I gasped aloud when…well, not everyone reading this has read that far, so I won’t give it away :) And while I think there’s merit to that approach, I experience these books very viscerally and I have to question why it was so important to GRRM that this misogyny is pervasive. Is he making a comment on the contemporary rape culture? Or is he reinforcing for his readers that it’s ok to talk about and think of women this way?

      • Kim says:

        Meh. he’s toned down the middle ages substantially. His 13 yr old brides aren’t in danger of their fathers, or fathers-in-law boinking them on their wedding day.
        Incest exists, but as much with Cersei’s consent as anything (and it’s not played for lust).

        “Realism” is a tough line to tread, and it’s worse when you’re in those time periods. But for all the girls being sold into marriage/prostitution these days, I say he does a good job of being realistic.

        Find the parallels with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo yet? ;-)

      • mkpheartsnyc says:

        Intruiging!! But who is Harriet Vangar in this scenario?!

        I think certainly the Stark and Barantheon kids are safe on their wedding days…but Danaerys? Less so… Not arguing that it’s not “realism” or that it’s not toned down from back in the day… it’s been really interesting to see what HBO plays for lust, and what’s so negatively hinted at.

      • Kimmy says:

        Harriet == Dany.
        But the important thing to grok is that they’re writing about psychopaths. The sort of people who like kicking helpless critters for fun. (this is documented in the real world).

        and I agree that Dany’s less safe… but the Dany/Viserys thing is played as a “special” case. It’s not “boy, we’d better marry off 13yrolds before their fathers impregnate them”… which it was for certain medieval cultures.

  4. Nate says:

    I don’t know. I have struggled with these questions myself thats why I came here :) . There are probably good arguments for and against whether or not ASOIAF is feminist. And I don’t want to think that I like a story that treats women badly to no end.

    That said, Brienne’s treatment is particularly difficult for me. But perhaps that is also intentional. I hope you continue to explore this theme in your reviews of his books.

    • MKP says:

      I think you can safely count on it – thanks so much for the conversation!

      I too hate to think that I’m willing to put by my feminist principles for the sake of enjoying a fantasy escape – I’ll keep you posted as I try to figure out where I stand too :)

      • Kim says:

        Bad Fantasy: “modern woman learns that women like to submit to men, and so too does she, set in a medieval culture” blah blah blah. horrid book.
        Blank Fantasy: Tolkien. Do dwarves even have wives?
        Dynamic Fantasy: Martin
        Blatantly mysandronical Fantasy: Jordan

        I prefer Martin, myself.

      • mkpheartsnyc says:

        Well said! I can’t stand Jordan either (btw thanks for all your great comments today – my browsers were acting up at work so I’m just getting back to you now:)

  5. Rey Fox says:

    If you watch the scene carefully, you’ll see she goes from crying to sort of enjoying the rape, in the actor’s expression. Disturbing.

  6. Pingback: Prostitution in Game of Thrones « A Funny thing Happened on the way to the Library

  7. nate says:

    I always check back here to see what you have to say…

    The Dany rape scene in the series was a directoral choice. In the books, it is handled much differently, as by no doubt you already know. I agree that was mishandled.

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