If you set your story in a medieval-style world, are you obligated to treat your female characters like crap?
This is the question Game of Thrones struggles with, both on page and on screen. Westeros is unquestionably a male-dominated world, but George R.R. Martin has created more intelligent and interesting female characters than the average fantasy author, and for the most part he manages to treat characters of all genders terribly at one point or another.
But sometimes, the misogyny inherent in the world he created piles up too high, as it did in The Night Lands, the second episode of the second season. In it, we see the following scenes:
- The men of the Night’s Watch crack jokes about Craster’s daughter-wives, and rejecting a plea for help;
- Theon explains how awesome he is while treating a woman like crap;
- Littlefinger explains the fate that awaits one of his whores if she can’t cheer up;
- A pirate agrees to fight for Stannis as long as he gets to fuck Queen Cersei;
- Shae is made a pawn in the machinations between Tyrion and Varys;
- Theon arrives home in the Iron Islands and fondles a nice lady who offers him a ride to his father’s castle;
- Cersei finds herself increasingly powerless as Tyrion asserts his power and Joffrey does things behind her back;
- Melisandre fucks Stannis.
Not all of these scenes feature full-on misogyny, but even the strong female characters are poorly treated; at best, their more interesting characteristics are overwritten by the role they must play for their men.
When Theon’s would-be lover is revealed to be his sister Yara (Asha in the books, which is one of the more puzzling bits of re-naming), there’s little sense that she enjoyed the joke she was playing on Theon, and it’s left to their father to explain how badass and powerful Yara has become in Theon’s absence.
Yara was an opportunity for Game of Thrones to toss some of its cliches on their heads: She appears as yet another submissive plaything for Theon, another chance for him to boast about how awesome he is, but then – bam! - she’s not. She’s having him on, egging on his chauvinism only to emasculate him later – both my making him recant his own flirtations and by being the true, Iron-born “son” his father really wanted. But on screen, Yara merely moves from being Theon’s plaything to her father’s, never showing any personality of her own.
(Perhaps I should bet my prejudices out of the way here: I alternate between loathing and boredom towards Theon, and generally skim any of the Iron Islands chapters. The entire Greyjoy storyline has always seemed like a diversion keeping Martin away from the good stuff.)
Stannis and Melisandre is a much more interesting scene, and it might not have bothered me so much if not for the rest of the episode. After all, we always get the sense that Melisandre is manipulating Stannis in one way or another, and it’s strongly implied that they have some carnal knowledge of one another. But she’s barely been introduced into the series – though I must admit it was a hell of an introduction – and already she’s been turned into a woman who uses sex to get what she wants. Last week she had some mean mojo going, but this week her strategy is based around showing her tits.
The scene between Littlefinger and his whore is particularly egregious, since it’s a creation of the TV show and didn’t need to be present for any faithfulness to the book; at least, it didn’t need to happen here and now.
Todd VanDerWerf at the AV Club sees this all as a thematic issue: “The monarchy of Westeros runs through men, and in many cases, maybe that’s a terrible idea.” But that’s hardly a subtle notion that needs more emphasis in the series: From day one, whichever medium you choose, women have been treated terribly by men. In the very first episode, Daenerys is sold by her brother to a warlord who rapes her. (Then, largely off-camera, she falls in love with him. It’s one of the worst bits of characterization in the books, and it’s redeemed only by the fact that Daenerys becomes totally awesome and badass later on.)
More importantly, all these men-treat-women-badly scenes emphasize the point of view of the men. What are Yara, Shae, or Ros experiencing in these scenes? We don’t know, because they’re props for the men. The scene in Littlefinger’s brothel might have been an opportunity to reflect on the woman’s role in Westeros, but it was just another showcase for a man of power being ruthless and cruel.
The TV series seems to be supporting the male-dominated political sphere: It’s early yet, but I’m concerned by the rise to prominence of Robb Stark, and the corresponding demotion of Catelynn. In the books, Robb’s adventures and victories occur largely off-screen, explained by letters and word-of-mouth. It’s a clever way for George R.R. Martin to subvert traditional, male-dominated fantasy literature: Robb may be running around with his trusty pet wolf, winning battles, waging war, and falling in love, but the truly important work is being carried out by his mother: Forging alliances, negotiating deals, ultimately going rogue in her own fashion. And ultimately, Robb is the one that fucks it all up.
But so far in season two – that is to say, in the first episode, as neither character appeared in the second – Robb is calling the shots, and Catelynn falls into line. Robb’s confrontation with Jamie Lannister is far more generic, and more forgettable, than Catelynn’s similar scene at the end of the first season. Robb is being established as the new hero of the series, but the Action Hero was never meant to be the star of Game of Thrones.
(Granted, we’re only on the second episode, so I’m happy to be proven wrong.)
I really don’t know how The Night Lands came about, or what the writers were trying to accomplish. If VanDerWerf is correct, and the episode was a deliberate commentary on gender – and I suspect he must be, because it seems unlikely all the storylines would correspond like this by accident – it was a failed one. This isn’t an episode about male-female power dynamics or the flaws of a patriarchy. It’s an episode in which men treat women poorly-to-horribly with few repercussions and no attention given to the character of women themselves.
It’s all the more disappointing because we know Game of Thrones has some fantastic female characters and actresses. The first season had great scenes for Catelynn, Daenerys, Arya, and even Cersei; the second season has great promise with the debut of Melisandre and, at some point, Brienne. Martin has crafted an amazing tale of outcasts – cripples, bastards, broken things, and women – who rise above the roles society has chosen for them.
But for one episode, Game of Thrones decided to set all of those things aside. The Night Lands wasn’t just unpleasant; it was shallow and unimaginative.