Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Flesh, Shame, and Feminism in Game of Thrones

My first encounter with the Game of Thrones series was an episode in which women seemed to take their clothes off in every other scene, which was more than a little off-putting. I have since been enticed into the series by a fan, and halfway into the first season find it a worthy popcorn-munching epic soap, full of intrigue, entanglements, and fun characters with gripping trajectories. I also acknowledge the plethora of strong, interesting female characters, although – as the New York Post's comparison with “the supposed second-class citizens” of Mad Men suggests – I wonder what it means that it's so much easier to portray progressive women in a macho retro setting, whether “historical” or fantasy. Having supposedly won most of the battles of feminism makes it that much harder to portray women of remarkable agency, the staple of not only The Faerie Queene (Game of Thrones's ultimate ancestor) but all of those great 19th century novel heroines, from Elizabeth Bennet to Jane Eyre to Dorothea Brooke. Popular fiction seems to have always known this secret: although one could hardly call the battles of feminism won in 1936, Margaret Mitchell produced one of the strongest and most unorthodox heroines of all-time by writing an historical epic in which a spoiled Southern belle has to learn how to survive in a war-torn society. It's as if we can't recognize an interesting female character if she's neither the victim of a patriarchal society nor fighting to make her way in it.

More disturbing from a feminist standpoint than this need to set strong female characters against the relief of a retro backdrop, however, is the series' notorious reliance on female nudity. The female geek audience has risen in visibility thanks to the internet even as fantasy has found a general audience at the movies, and GoT's eagerness to court a female audience is evident not only in its spotlighting of female characters (which may also speak to the series' ultimate grounding in the values of soap opera, like Mad Men's) but also in its clever, post-Orlando Bloom casting of more pretty male actors than you've probably ever seen in one show before (and for the most part with bodies that have evidently been worked on much more than the women's have). But why, then, does the series assume the male gaze when it comes to the depiction of nudity?

For some feminist viewers, such as the pseudonymous “Louis Skye” at Week Woman, this has been a deal-breaker. Skye's analysis of the use of nudity in GoT, however, is even less subtle than the series itself. Early in the first season, Daenerys Targaryen is essentially sold to the pseudo-Mongolian Dothraki warrior Khal Drogo by her creepy, rapey brother, who spells out for her that she is a pawn in his game of getting back his throne as he strips off her robe to assert his power over her – and offer her for the assumed male viewer's delectation. Drogo proves equally rapey, taking his wife without regard for her consent or pleasure. The effect is to make Daenerys an object of pathos and, consequently, strong dramatic interest, and while the series may achieve this by creakily Victorian means, we should pause to consider that four of the other most important characters in the series at this point are also “disempowered”: the bastard Jon Snow; the dwarf (and obvious Author Avatar) Tyrion Lannister; the tomboy child Arya Stark; and her brother, the paraplegic child Bran Stark. Clearly Martin has a soft spot for misfits, outcasts, and underdogs and prefers to generate dramatic interest with maximum efficiency by putting his characters at severe disadvantages.

The pathos of Daenerys's situation is in direct conflict with her exploitation as a sex object on the show, which weirdly repeats her exploitation within the show. To be fair, this conjunction of porn and sympathy in relation to female characters has a pedigree in fantasy that goes all the way back to The Faerie Queene, while also being reminiscent of the attitude to women in Jacobean tragedy, which the series resembles in its swirling sexual/political intrigues; the difference is that the 21st century feminist viewer at least expects the men to get the same treatment. (Although for all I know, so did the 16th century feminist reader of The Faerie Queene.) And there is one scene in the first half of the first season that shows what such equally distributed exploitation might look like.

I was initially incensed that Daenerys barely even has any dialogue in the first couple of episodes, as if to emphasize her passivity and objectification. In my feminist fume I initially failed to notice that her husband, a hunky silent type who doesn't speak “the common language,” is not given any subjectivity in these early episodes whatsoever. Drogo, with his own shapely breasts hanging over the top of his girdle, and with more eye makeup and better cheekbones than any woman on the show, gets the brunt of Martin's/the series' writers' hilariously unreformed Orientalism: the “exotic” warrior is an Other who is at once more masculine, brutal, and potent than the other men on the show and more perversely feminine. And this is perhaps why – as Skye fails to note – in the scene where Daenerys starts to gain agency by teaching her husband how to make love to her properly, the golden globes of Drogo's comely bottom are displayed for the viewer. The big lug has to learn to be vulnerable if he is ever to pleasure his wife and fall in love with her, and in the series' language of nudity, nudity – and objectification – mean vulnerability.

Doubtless the main reason why the men of GoT are not objectified as drastically as the women is the American media's Phalliban, to use Mark Simpson's term. The erect penis, after all, is what makes the difference between softcore and hardcore, while the flaccid penis is not erotic at all. GoT may seem porny, but, like The Faerie Queene (as analyzed by Leslie Fielder in Love and Death in the American Novel), it's at least equally puritan, with a seriously messed-up relationship to nudity. Nudity could signify female power, except that it is explicitly used, at least early on, to signify vulnerability. Does this bring a note of shame into the assumed male viewer's enjoyment of all this flesh? Even in the early 21st century, it seems that the pornification of entertainment isn't accomplished as easily as saying “Let's let adults look at naked adults for pleasure, like adults.” The culture has far too many hang-ups concerning sex and gender for nudity to ever signify pleasure as a single meaning.

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