On Game of Thrones and Violence against Women

Prompted by: Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series

I am certainly not the first person to comment on the discrepancies between George R.R. Martin’s writing and the choices made by the front-runners of the show. I watched the first four seasons of the show back when they came out but stopped watching after the season four finale. But I just read all of the released books this fall, and then re-watched the first three seasons again. And boy oh boy do I take issue with some key elements.

Content Warning: violence, rape

Season 1, Episode 1: The rape of Danerys by Khal Drogo. In the books, Dany’s wedding night was overwhelmingly tender and consensual. Drogo asks her repeatedly what is and isn’t okay, he is considerate and slow and waits until it’s something that she is sure she wants. While that doesn’t change the fact that she was a child of 13, it sets a completely different tone for her well-being and their relationship overall. Instead, we get to start the entire show with an explicit act of sexual violence.

Season 2, Episode 7: Dany’s dragons are stolen. One of her maidservants is killed and the other maidservants turn out to have betrayed them both and given up the dragons. In the books, Dany’s handmaidens are unequivocally loyal. There is no bickering between them or conflict or jealousy. They are as kind to each other as they are to the Khaleesi, never making snide comments over the terminology the other might use due to their differing countries of origin. This plot point in the show really left a bad taste in my mouth. Why was it necessary for a close female confidant to betray the trust of the Khaleesi? Why did they have to paint a strong and brave female in such a negative light? Why did the handmaidens have to bicker in the first place? Why are the creators of the show so determined to eliminate positive female interactions?

Season 3, Episode 6: Arya comments that she doesn’t like Melisandre and the response of her male companions is that she feels that way because she’s a girl. Yay, more girl-on-girl hate… because the only conceivable reason a twelve-year-old girl wouldn’t like a grown woman is due to jealousy. Scenes like this only serve to teach girls not to listen to their intuition and to chalk up their feelings to combativeness between females. It’s a reinforcement of the tired social commentary that girls can’t get along because they’re too busy competing with each other.

Season 4, Episode 3: Jamie rapes Cersei after Joffrey’s death. I don’t have to rewatch this episode to remember how utterly nonconsensual the moment is, especially in comparison to the book. Time has a good summary of what’s wrong with this scene, particularly in the light of director Alex Graves saying that it wasn’t rape.

Ros’s entire arc: so this starts off in pretty sex-positive way. A prostitute from Winterfell heads to King’s Landing to seek her fortune. When she starts working her way up in the ranks at one of Littlefinger’s brothels, it feels a bit gratuitous– “oh look how accepting we are, even a sex worker can be successful!” But it still feels positive and empowering– until it becomes clear that they established her as a character just for the sake of putting her in numerous horrible situations. She’s threatened by Littlefinger over her emotional distress after seeing a baby murdered, forced to partake in sadomasochism with another prostitute by Joffrey, beaten on Cersei’s orders, and finally she is brutally murdered by Joffrey. And out of all of those atrocities, only one even took place in the books.

These are only the scenes that stood out to me before I stopped watching the show. It’s been impossible to not hear about Sansa’s rape by Ramsay, or about Arya very  nearly being sold into sex slavery– two more overt and off-book instances of sexual violence.


The show features seven writers (five of which are men) and five directors (all of which are men). I’ve previously expressed my frustrations with male writers creating contentious and unsavory female characters in regards to the way Dave Eggers writes his female characters in The Circle. For me, the show takes this to a whole new level by not only including such moments, but also by including these moments that weren’t even in the books in the first place.

Complex has a must-read discussion on their site featuring a panel of female TV critics, and most of their thoughts on the series run parallel to mine, especially these two:

got violence against women

One of my biggest issues with the show in comparison with the books is that the show makes violence the centerpiece. It treats violence as a spectacle rather than focusing on the emotion that the violence results in. For example, in the books we are introduced to so many people who were survivors of war, and we hear the stories of what they saw and experienced. We connect with these people, many of them without names, because we are unavoidably faced with their outrage and pain and loss. Martin manages to make us feel with a sentence what an entire scene in the show fails to elicit. The same can be said for Theon’s transition to Reek. In the show, this character arc is nothing more than an entire season of torture porn. I don’t sympathize with Theon, I only mute the scenes so I don’t have to hear him screaming. In juxtaposition, book Theon disappears for a very long time, and when we finally see him again, he’s scarred and changed in more ways than one. The books make the torture utterly haunting and stomach-turning by alluding to what happened rather than shoving it in your face. Martin has discussed in interviews that he attempted to make his storyline historically accurate by writing in things like rape as a normal part of war. While I don’t entirely agree with the execution, I can understand his perspective on the choice. However, my qualms are not with how Martin treats women, my issues are with how the show treats women.

What it comes down to is that the show handles violence in a way that feels like it’s for shock value rather than emotional impact. The problem with this is that after being repeated over and over again, the shock diminishes but the violence doesn’t– and there still isn’t any emotional impact. Caroline Framke sums it up perfectly:

“The problem I have with Game of Thrones is less that horrible things happen to women than when horrible things happen to women, they’re filmed for shock value, and there’s often very little use in that story beyond how horrible it is.”

-Caroline Framke, Complex’s Female TV Critics Discuss the Violence Against Women on ‘Game of Thrones’

Predictably, the comments section has nothing but charming men saying that no one cares what women think and that feminism is garbage. There is also a comment that expresses a sentiment I’ve seen elsewhere: there’s plenty of violence against men in the show– so why is that not being discussed? But here’s the thing: sexual violence against women is a rampart part of our society. You need only look at the most basic of statistics (or the recent #MeToo movement paired with the massive amount of assault allegations currently being leveled at public figures) to see that women have and are suffering copious amounts of violence at the hands of men. To compound the issue, it is only in the past year that more women have started to feel safe enough to speak up about their experiences without overwhelming fear of being silenced. To what extent is it excusable or justifiable to continue portraying this excessive violence against women as a normal part of being a female?

The Lord of The Rings, much like Game of Thrones, takes place during a time of war. There is violence against all those involved, and the scathing effects of battle is not avoidable, nor is it shied away from. But unlike Game of Thrones, Lord of Rings doesn’t make a spectacle out of it. There are ways to shock viewers and keep them on the edge of their seat that don’t involve on-screen torture and rape.

Pet Peeves in Female Characters

Prompted by: The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas, and Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

If there’s one thing I really appreciate in a book, it’s a strong female lead. Give me a dynamic girl who has character flaws and hard decisions to make and realistic personality traits, and I’ll sing her praises to kingdom come. Sadly, it seems like I’ve come across more and more poorly written female leads lately. Maybe part of that is because my reading list this summer was largely composed of fantasy and romance novels so the odds simply weren’t in my favor.

Half of me is happy that writers are even making an effort to create female leads at all, but the other half of me is feels as if a poorly written female lead might be worse than no female lead at all.  So with that being said, here are my top 5 pet peeves when writing female characters.

Giving a character no redeeming qualities… but somehow everyone gravitates towards them anyway.

This is Alina from Shadow and Bone through and through. She’s surly, she’s self-depreciative, and every description of her paints her as an unappealing and unattractive person. One of her wards at the orphanage described her by saying: “She’s an ugly little thing. No child should look like that. Pale and sour, like a glass of milk that’s turned.” She’s short with her best friend, rude to people she meets for the first time, negative about her own abilities, and unwilling to meet anyone halfway. And yet, people fawn over her, follow her, fight for her, and profess their love for her. There’s a line between a believable character and an unappealing one. Everyone has shortcomings, and it’s a mark of a good writer to include those. But it’s also a mark of a good writer to make sure their characters have redeeming qualities as well. We have to understand what it is about them that inspires affection and admiration, and it has to be believable.

Overemphasis on looks.

I don’t need or want a page about the exact details of someones physical features. I don’t need to know about their bone structure and the precise shade of their skin and the way the grey flecks in their blue eyes shimmer whenever they turn their gaze upon you. Instead, provide a few grounding details and let the reader flesh out the rest. One of the most magical things about a good book is that the reader can imagine themselves as the hero. Hermione is a perfect example of this– her first introduction describes her as having “lots of bushy brown hair and rather large front teeth.” That’s it. All of her other interactions and descriptions revolve around her intelligence and personality, not her appearance. This allows readers to envision Hermione as someone they would want to emulate and someone they can relate to.

hermione
Artist: mariannewiththesteadyhands via tumblr
Girl on girl hate.

I have zero patience for automatic negativity between girls. I hate the frequency with which it shows up in media because it perpetuates a hugely unhealthy social norm. We see it in Game of Thrones (more on that in a future post) and Stranger Things and Shadow and Bone and so many other books and shows and movies. A glaring example of this can be found in The Circle by Dave Eggers– and it’s even more infuriating because it’s written by a man. Honestly, I could write an entire post about what’s wrong with The Circle. (For me, it was comparable to The Hunger Games in that it’s a brilliant idea but it was poorly executed.) The Circle is a good example of a situation where an author simply shouldn’t have written a female lead. The way Eggers writes his main character, Mae, makes it feel like she’s what he thinks women are like, rather than how they really are. She’s one-dimensional, contentious, emotional, easily distracted, extremely sexual, and consistently gets jealous of/mad at her female best friend. The relationship between the two young women is fraught with shallow behavior and poor communication. Rather than writing a healthy relationship, he crafts a vindictive and negative one. A good example of the opposite can be found between Celia and Isobel in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. Celia and Isobel are two strong and dynamic females who end up involved with the same romantic interest. Normally, this would be the perfect situation for an author to write in snarky dialogue and overt jealousy. Instead, both women handle the situation with grace and class, and even have respectful and constructive conversations with each other. It’s positive and uplifting and more books should follow suit.

Making romance seem like the most important thing that could possibly happen to a woman.

This goes hand-in-hand with insta-love in a lot of ways. Girl ventures into the great big world, girls meets boy, boy shows interest, girls falls head over heels. The trope of writing in adoration over the first man to show interest in a female is tiring and not very believable. Sure, it’s nice to feel desirable, but there’s more important things in life than infatuation.  Romance has its place in the literary world, but insta-love implies that romance is the most important thing there is. Romantic relationships are not a judge of character and the worth of a woman shouldn’t be weighed based on her relationship status. Kelsea provides a very refreshing take on this in Queen of the Tearling. She is a young woman (and queen) surrounded by strapping men of all ages, but get this– she doesn’t instantly develop romantic feelings towards any of them! Erika Johansen handles it in a very realistic way by not pretending that people aren’t attracted to each other, but rather keeping the focus on the more important things that require our main character’s attention.

Excessive indecision or an inability to make up her mind.

Let’s be real, decisions are hard, and sometimes they take up a lot of mental real estate. That is normal and natural and it can definitely be a difficult thing to convey in writing when we aren’t spending every second inside a character’s head. With that being said, ceaseless indecision is annoying to the max. Nyx in Rosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty is an all-too-excessive example of this. She hates her sister one minute, the next she’s crying over how she didn’t treat her better. She hates the Gentle Lord, then five minutes later she’s stroking his hair and watching him sleep. She’s plotting to save her world but then decides to just do her own thing a few pages later. It’s exhausting and ever so unnecessary.


At the end of the day, I just want to believe in these characters. I want to read about women I would be friends with and women that I can see myself in. I want more Hermione Grangers and Blue Sargents and Septembers and Arya Starks. I want girls and women who are beautiful because of their bravery and special because of their strength. They shouldn’t be perfect– they should be real.