Sexism and racism in Game of Thrones

***SPOILER ALERT: This post is about the Game of Thrones HBO TV show up to Series 4 (Ep.3) so may contain spoilers up to that point. I haven’t read the books, so I can’t comment on them.***

Game of Thrones is currently my favourite tv show – and it seems the same can be said for much of the rest of this country’s population! What’s not to like about a historical fantasy show with a stunning range of characters, exciting plots, and a couple of dragons thrown in for good measure? Well, over the past few days I have been reading quite a bit on the internet about Game of Thrones, and it’s been making me feel rather uncomfortable about my favourite show. In fact, the more I delve, the more problematic many elements of the show seem to be – I don’t think I could cover all the reasons why in one article, so this post will only touch on a few issues, but I’ve tried to include plenty of links so that you can look into it further if you’re interested. I’d recommend reading a couple of them if you’re a fan like me – I strongly believe that it’s possible to enjoy something like Game of Thrones even if large swathes of it ARE problematic – so long as you think about it a bit and acknowledge why and how it’s problematic. (There are some interesting articles on this topic here at Racialicious and here at Social Justice League.)

Women in Game of Thrones

It was the variety of “Strong Female Characters” in Game of Thrones that first made me fall in love with the show, as I’m sure is the case for many other female fans. It made me happy to see the show thrive, as I thought it might persuade other tv show commissioners to realise that producing shows with a strong and interesting female cast might actually be good for attracting modern viewers (shock horror I know!). The number of decent films and tv shows with women who play parts other than sexy prize for the hero or eye-candy for the viewer is shockingly low – you only have to look at the Bechdel test results for proof of this. (NB: I’m not saying the Bechdel test is the perfect test for whether a film has decent female characters, but it’s not a bad start for a test that is quick and easy to apply to any film).

My favourite character is Arya Stark. I love how feisty she is, how she sticks up for her friends, and how she can fend for herself a lot of the time. She reminds me of Alanna from the Tamora Pierce books that I used to love as a kid: more interested in learning how to use a sword than sewing and pretty dresses. She’s also pretty smart. Some of my favourite scenes from the early series involve her (see this youtube clip for a great scene of her and Tywin Lannister, where Arya also talks about some of her own heroines – Rhaenys and Visenya, the sisters of Aegon Targaryen, who fought on dragons too and had Valyrian swords with great names such as “Dark Sister”). I’ve found that her character development has slowed down slightly in more recent episodes, but I’m still hoping that she grows up to be a fearsome fighter in her own right, continuing to lead the banner of the Starks now that most of her male relatives are dead. Or I can see her becoming a pretty good assassin, that would also be cool.

Coming close after Arya in my list of favourites is Daenerys Stormborn. Particularly in the first series, she put into a lot of difficult situations which she manages to turn round: she is determined, brave and cunning. Also, she has dragons – you have to admit that’s pretty cool. Then there’s Catelyn Stark, a mother figure – but not one who conforms to normal mother stereotypes. Yes, her children’s welfare is of utmost importance to her, but no, she doesn’t sit around baking cakes for them – she is a skilled negotiator in her own right. Cersei Lannister is a bit of a trickier one as I don’t particularly like her: she is often cruel, and continues to support her evil son Joffrey despite the fact he’s a maniac. However, you can’t deny her power, or appreciate how difficult it must be for her seeing her father consistently favour her twin brother over her, when she knows that she is the smartest sibling. She also talks to Sansa Stark about what it’s like being on the marriage market as a woman, being sold off to whoever her family needs (she says “I was sold like a horse to be ridden whenever he liked” about her marriage to Robert) – it’s important to hear such female voices in a show that’s set in such a patriarchal world. (There’s an interesting article on her here which also touches on how although her and her brother Jaime are very similar, fans often love him and hate her, for example blaming her not him for the incest. Not sure that will be so clear-cut after the last episode though!) We musn’t forget Brienne of Tarth, a female warrior who will do anything to defend those who she is protecting and frequently defeats men much bigger than her: she’s one of the most moral characters in a fairly immoral world. What’s interesting about her is that most of the other female characters combine being strong/clever with being stunningly beautiful – Brienne is the exception. You grow to love her despite the fact she doesn’t look like your stereotypical woman. I’d say having a popular female character who isn’t also beautiful is also a big plus for the tv show. I’m also a fan of Margaery Tyrell (who is able to manipulate even evil Joffrey) and her grandmother Olenna Tyrell. Both of them know that as women they’re in a disadvantaged position, but Olenna particularly is a perfect example of the wise older female who often understands the complexities of court life better than any other character. Yara Greyjoy isn’t a lead character, but damn is she a good leader, strategic and intelligent, and certainly much better than her brother.

I hope this demonstrates well that it’s not just the presence of “strong female characters” that drew me into the show, but the fact there are just so many of them, and that they are all different to each other. It’s not like they included just one as a sort of female power token – they are consistently some of the show’s most interesting characters.

For a more detailed look at these fab characters (and many others who I haven’t included!), see:

1) Feminspire article with more analysis of many of these characters. (Interestingly they include Sansa who I wouldn’t normally put on this list!)

2) Decent telegraph article on women in Game of Thrones which also acknowledges problems

3) Flick through these photos for some more examples – they include Melisandre and Shae too, which is cool.

Sexism in Game of Thrones

However, now that we’re in the fourth series of Game of Thrones, I’m starting to think that the show has a rather more complicated attitude to women. Firstly, there’s all the female nudity. While I have no problem with nudity in tv shows, I do think it’s a bit odd that in almost every episode there will be at least one woman on screen completely naked and plenty of boobs flashed around in other places, but men rarely get their kit off. When they do, the shots are carefully composed so that you don’t see anything too private. Why is it ok to have fully naked shots of women, but not of men? Have we become so used to using women’s naked bodies as props on shows that they’re not shocking in the slightest, while male penises must for some reason be protected from the audience’s view? Are male actors just more fussy about what goes on screen? I really hope that the latter is NOT the case as it would suggest that for female actors to get successful, they have to be prepared to get naked, whereas for male actors it’s fine to sign a contract that says ‘bum shots only please when I need to be naked, no penises’. Kit Harrington (who plays Jon Snow) agrees with me here, so maybe we’ll see some changes at some point. Using women’s naked bodies to spice up scenes (now known as sexposition) can be nothing but problematic if men’s bodies aren’t used in the same way.

Then there are the rape scenes, which are very gratuitous. It often seemed to me that the camera lingered far too long on these shots, as if you were supposed to enjoy them or something (erm, no thanks). Often you could get a scene just as powerful with the threat of rape, rather than showing it so graphically on scene. Furthermore, the prevalence of rape in the show has a normalising effect – you learn to think that rape is just normal in this world. That may be the case, but why did the writers have it like this? Seems a bit fishy to say ‘oh it’s just based on the medieval period when rape was commonplace’ given the other ways the historical period is distorted. Tv shows normally reflect the time they are written in just as much as the period they are set in, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that there’s so much rape given today’s strong rape culture. (See here if you’re confused about rape culture).

Then, there is the particularly horrible scene last episode, where Jaime rapes his sister Cersei. On the one hand, it’s perhaps helpful that the show does present rape not as always done by strangers in dark alleyways, or by soldiers when they’ve sacked cities. In the real world, most rape is committed by a person the victim knows, a fact that many people are unaware of. Only a small amount of rape happens when a woman is walking home late at night on her own – which is why advising women to cover up and not go anywhere alone after sunset is not realistically going to sort the problem of rape in our society. So it’s a good thing that Game of Thrones shows audiences that often rape is committed by those that you know – and that you’ll have to see them afterwards. What I objected to is the way they showed Cersei objecting vehemently at the start, and then starting to look like she might be enjoying it by the end. Come on guys, that is a rapist’s fantasy! (And the fact that the director said it was one of his favourite scenes is pretty worrying too.) It’s particularly interesting that I’ve been told that in the books the sex was consensual – so the tv writers specifically decided to turn it into a rape scene. And let’s not even get onto how Daenerys seduces Khal Drogo, the man who bought and raped her repeatedly, by learning some new sex tricks. And then she falls in love with him… Sick? (Again, this scene is apparently consensual in the books.) One of many many instances where women can only get power in the Game of Thrones world by seducing the right man… This is a particularly good article on rape in the show, I highly recommend it, particularly its comments on how rape is used as “exploitation for shock value”.

Further articles I recommend on sexism in game of thrones:

Valerie Frankel – a decent analysis of GoT sexism

The Mary Sue – about whether the patriarchy in Game of Thrones can be defended just by saying that the historcal period it’s based on was patriarchal.

The Downdeep Downdeep – on how GoT can be feminist and sexist at the same time

Blogpost on gender in GoT Season 1

Racism in Game of Thrones

I’ll admit right out that racism is something I know a lot less about than sexism. However, once you start looking into the show, it’s pretty appalling how race is depicted. To start with, there aren’t that many people of colour depicted in the show full stop, giving a very white-centric view of the world (in a fantasy world inhibited by many different races, why centre in on the white one?). The first main non-white race you meet are the Dothraki, whose favourite activity is raping and pillaging. When Robb Stark talks to his men before battle, he talks of honour and glory. When the Dothraki attack a village, it’s for slaves, and women to rape – the distinction couldn’t be much more clear-cut. The whole depiction of the Dothraki as barbarians plays very much into the stereotype that black people are hypersexual and uncontrolled. What’s more, the issue isn’t even problematised, as the gender issue is. While we see women struggling against their oppression, race just isn’t really mentioned, despite the uncomfortable racial undertones. Also racist is the fact that the Dothraki are played by people of a complete mixture of races (Arab, African, Asian). It’s as if (to the directors) anybody that isn’t white is one jumbled sort of Othered race: I find it pretty offensive.

Some people have tried to defend the depiction of the Dothraki by saying that they are based on the Mongol hoard, who genuinely DID do a lot of raping and pillaging. However, I’d say it’s worth noting that as the first non-white race to be depicted, it’s significant that they are based on the Mongols (why not choose a different historical coloured race?), and secondly that it’s not the historical Mongols that they are based on, but a western stereotype of the Mongols. I don’t know much about that period of history, but I’m certain that there is more to the Mongols than raping and pillaging (see here).

And let’s not even start on Daenerys as a”White Saviour”. For me, this has completely ruined her storyline. I no longer enjoy the scenes which she’s in, they just make me feel really uncomfortable. In the last episode there was a particular bit that made me squirm when Daenerys catapults in opened manacles, and one slave picks up one and compares it to the closed one on his neck as if he had never even considered the idea of freedom before Daenerys rocked up. I mean, talk about patronising.

But as I said, I’m no expert on this, so here are some much better articles:

Article by Aamer Rahman that has been doing the rounds and is REALLY WORTH READING.

The Downdeep Downdeep – I linked this article above but it also covers racism.

Is GoT racist? – more sceptical article, with some interesting quotes from the books’ author on the matter.

Smoke and Stir on the White Saviour issue (again, interestingly it seems that the books were more careful about the issue). Also interesting points about whether the slave cities are darker-skinned just because they were shot in Morocco where most of the local extras have dark skin. Still strikes me as silly that the directors didn’t think about what impression the visual imagery was going to give, and how it might be offensive.

Saladin Ahmed on how race issues in GoT can be traced back to Lord of the Rings, which is even more problematic 😦

Well, that’s what I have to say on the matter. If anyone has any more interesting links etc I’d love to read them!




  1. Hey — thanks for the shoutout. I actually expanded my post into the book Women in Game of Thrones, out this week from McFarland Press. Certainly, I agree that Cersei and Daenerys’s rape scenes (no, no, wait yes yes, hmm now I’m in love with you) give a creepy message. Among other things, it teaches watchers that the word “no” can be ignored and the woman will eventually be grateful for it. Cringe. In the books, both encounters are unambiguously consensual. The books show lots of rape but also lots of punishment — Stannis for instance orders his men castrated as punishment, sending a clear message that he won’t tolerate it. Monster rapists like the Mountain and those who cut off Jaime’s hand are reviled and eventually suffer. The show lacks this sort of balance. Well, at least here on the web we’re discussing it.

    Brienne’s and Sansa’s near-rapes on the show (fully clothed with an emphasis on the trauma and threat) are less glamorized and exploitative compared with say Daenerys in her second episode. However (back to this week), Sam’s acknowledgement that everyone on the Wall is a rapist is followed by his dumping Gilly in a whorehouse so no one will touch her seems like an unrealistic baaaad idea. More sexual violence may be coming.

    1. Yes that was definitely a bad idea of Sam’s – that seems to have been overlooked slightly in the explosion that has erupted over the Cersei-Jaime scene. Though I am glad that most of what I have read about the episode has found that scene problematic, so at least it’s being talked about as you say, and not blithely accepted. It sounds like reading the books would help me get back to actually enjoying the plot rather than being pissed off by one after another sexist and/or racist scene in the tv show… and I will definitely look out for your book too!

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