Trigger Warning: This post discusses violence against women that some readers may find distressing.
Have we reached the point of diminishing returns when it comes to the portrayal of violence toward women on television? Shows like Game of Thrones and Outlander are trying their darndest to find out.
For our purposes, we’ll be focusing mostly on GoT, but the Ronald D. Moore-helmed Outlander will provide a useful counterpoint toward the end of the conversation.
So how about it? In addition to being a cultural phenomenon, is HBO’s moody masterpiece Game of Thrones a feminist rallying cry — or is it a missed opportunity?
[Please note that several plot points get spoiled below this point. You’ve been warned!]
Are Strong Female Leads Enough Anymore?
There was a time in American cinematic history where simply portraying a “strong female” was itself groundbreaking. Take Ridley Scott’s magnum opus, “Alien.” Back in 1979, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley was a revelation, deftly portraying female grace-under-pressure and relegating the few, fleeting moments of overt sensuality to the last few minutes of the film.
“Quietly competent” is the phrase that best reflects Weaver’s interpretation of Scott’s now-legendary character.
For its part, Game of Thrones has featured some of the strongest leading ladies in recent television memory. Katelyn Stark, for example, was a put-upon matriarch who tried to hold her family together through strength and love.
Talisa Maegyr was the wife of Rob Stark, the King in the North, who stood against oppression and tradition alike, even amidst a bloody war for control of the Iron Throne. She was beautiful and fearless.
Incidentally, both of these women died brutally.
The surviving “strong female” roles are still hugely important, particularly in a genre that’s traditionally dominated by men and their broadswords, but the dwindling roster of the fairer sex is starting to look troubling:
Brienne of Tarth is the token women who’s frequently mistaken as a man, thanks to her stature and her knowledge of sword fighting. She frequently holds her own in hand-to-hand combat, which usually elicits outright scorn and surprise from her male combatants.
Sansa Stark, one of only two surviving Starks, has spent nearly two seasons as a perpetual punching bag, suffering rape and other brutalities and “dealing with it” in silence.
Cersei Lannister is a corrupt and conniving woman who has desperately tried — and now seems on the verge of failing — to dominate, in her own way, a role traditionally held by men. She, too, suffers rape at the hands of someone close to her. But even her eventual torturous incarceration at the hands of the Faith Militant isn’t enough to humanize her. She is evil first and competent second.
There are others, of course. Margery Tyrel deserves a shout-out for her quiet strength and for lending her young husband, King Tommen, better counsel than he’s gotten from any of the other women in his life. And young Arya Stark is managed to carve out a unique place for herself in an uncaring, hate-filled world.
The Game of Thrones showrunners prove themselves quietly capable of portraying women on equal footing as men — at least, in some respects. In this universe, although they face unfairness and inequality as frequently — and perhaps more so — than their flesh-and-blood counterparts, women of all stripes are portrayed as vital to the events unfolding in these kingdoms. They are every bit as flawed as the men who populate the narrative, and prove themselves capable of the same emotional response to duress — both the physical and mental varieties.
In a way, not portraying violence toward women would be deeply regressive.
Is There Value in Suffering?
Nevertheless, the women of Game of Thrones are some of the most tormented folks you’ll ever see on a television screen. I’m going to stray from the word “gratuitous” as much as possible here, since its meaning is both subjective and relative, so let’s put it another way: What is this violence toward women supposed to convey?
Consider, again, Cersei’s rape at the hands of her brother. Or Sansa’s long and brutal captivity by the Boltons. Or Brienne’s steely weathering of every single hateful, misogynous epithet ever dreamed up by a Westerosi man.
Is this a true egalitarian narrative at last, where suffering has no monopoly on either of the genders? Are men and women in Westeros equally likely to be victims?
The answer, after all that, is yes. Game of Thrones manages to be surprisingly progressive in the way it dispenses misery across its huge cast of characters.
But what’s the value of suffering? And is merely portraying suffering a good-enough tool for exploring the relationships between the sexes and creating a useful allegory for the feminist movement? Well — no. Game of Thrones only gets it halfway right.
Ronald D. Moore’s (of Battlestar Galactica fame — also a glorious piece of storytelling) Outlander, now in its second season at Starz, also makes a point of depicting sexual violence toward women and even men — and for my money, it does a better job of sorting through the inevitable emotional wreckage. Claire suffers attempted and actual sexual violence, as does Jamie Fraser, the tough but deliciously fragile leading man. The violence they suffer at the hands of their enemies very nearly kills them — not by inflicting bodily damage, but by destroying their very wills.
Consider, therefore, Sansa Stark. During a recent episode of Game of Thrones, I found myself wondering how she’s still able to get out of bed, or even stand. The brutality she’s been forced to weather — gratuitous brutality, of you like — would likely have destroyed a woman of lesser caliber. So, too, would Cersei’s. As viewers, we’re left imagining it’s merely her spite that allows her to carry on, rather than the strength of the female spirit.
Both Outlander and Game of Thrones have made a point to embellish their respective source material with additional sexual violence. But only one of these shows bothered itself with the follow-through necessary to give these terrible events the gravity they’re due. And when Game of Thrones goes to such obvious lengths to portray other aspects of medieval life accurately — down to the drinking vessels used by the characters — the lack of attention they pay to matters of the human psyche damages the show’s credibility. Will I ever stop watching it? Of course not; as fantastical stories go, Game of Thrones still manages to be one of the most visceral and grounded, despite its shortcomings.
But reflecting on the show’s missed opportunities does make me a little sad. The casualties of war go beyond blood and sinew — a fact that the showrunners would do well to remember before Winter’s end.
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