Why do the Women of Game of Thrones Suffer So Much?
There is no doubt that Game of Thrones is one of the most popular television series currently on the air. Based on the series of epic fantasy novels, Game of Thrones is set within a fantasy world, and primarily follows numerous Great Houses as they fight for power over the continent of Westeros.
Although the series has received critical acclaim, it has received some criticism for its treatment of women, particularly its depictions of sexual violence against women. Some critics have accused Game of Thrones of being misogynistic, while others have argued that the series embraces feminism.
There is one fact that cannot be disputed: the women of Game of Thrones live within a patriarchal system, in which they are frequently subjected to intense emotional and physical pain. Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen and Brienne of Tarth are all women to be reckoned with, and all of them have achieved varying degrees of political success throughout the series, but they have undergone a lot of suffering, ranging from degrading public punishments to marital rape.
Even though the men of Game of Thrones have suffered throughout the series as well, some critics have argued that the showrunners exploit the suffering of the leading women for shock value.
Nevertheless, one cannot deny the fact that the emotional and physical pain that the women of Game of Thrones have endured over the first seven seasons is reminiscent of a key issue that affects women today: gender-based violence.
Just like our world, the world of Game of Thrones can be a very dangerous and violent place for people to inhabit, but more so for women.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 35% of all women around the world will “experience either intimate partner or non-partner violence” at some point in their lives. This means that 1 out of 3 women will suffer from gender-based violence, which is a horrifying fact. The showrunners of Game of Thrones have never been afraid to showcase horrific acts of sexual violence against its leading women. In fact, the four leading women that are mentioned above are all subjected to sexual violence at some point in the series.
One of the most horrific acts of sexual violence in Game of Thrones occurs in the third episode of the fourth season. Following the death of their inbreed son Joffrey, Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister share a moment of privacy in the Great Sept of Baelor, a place of worship in the royal capital city of Westeros. Jaime initially comforts Cersei as she mourns the death of their son, but Cersei backs away, declining Jaime’s advances. After calling her a hateful woman, Jaime aggressively forces himself onto Cersei, and proceeds to rape her next to their son’s corpse. Although the episode’s director stated in an interview that the ‘coupling’ becomes consensual by the end of the scene, nearly all critics of the series agree that Cersei does not give Jaime her consent.
In the first episode of the series, a young Daenerys is forced by her cruel brother Viserys Targaryen to marry Khal Drogo, a fearsome warlord. After their wedding ceremony, Drogo brings Dany to a private area on a beach to consummate their marriage. Having been ordered by Viserys to please her new husband, Dany allows Drogo to undress her. However, Dany is visibly terrified, and cries as she covers her breasts with her hands. Drogo removes her hands, and forces himself onto Dany.
Although she is a formidable knight, Brienne is repeatedly threatened with acts of sexual violence by several men throughout the series. During the third episode of the third season, Brienne has been captured by Roose Bolton’s bannermen while escorting Jaime back to King’s Landing as her prisoner. After setting up a campsite at night, several bannermen proceed to drag Brienne into the woods to gang rape her. Brienne tries to overpower the bannermen, but they beat her, and the bannermen continue to assault her while Jaime convinces the leader to spare Brienne. The bannermen might not have gang raped her, but Brienne is badly assaulted by them.
A very horrific act of sexual assault occurs in the sixth episode of the fifth season. In this episode, Sansa is married to Ramsay Bolton, the son of the man who conspired with Walder Frey to murder her brother Robb Stark and mother Catelyn Stark. After they get married, Ramsay brings Sansa back to his chambers, where he tells her to undress. Theon Greyjoy, Ramsay’s prisoner and former Stark ward, is ordered by Ramsay to stay in his chambers and watch Sansa “become a woman.” Ramsay then rips the back of Sansa’s dress open, and the camera focuses on Theon tearfully watching Ramsay rape Sansa as the episode ends.
These are just some of the brutal acts of gender-based violence that happen to the leading women on Game of Thrones. As the series’ Great Houses fight for power throughout the first seven seasons, lots of supporting women and unnamed women are subjected to gender-based violence as well.
Some of the most infamous examples are as follows: Stannis Baratheon allowing Melisandre to sacrifice his daughter to the Lord of Light in order to be victorious in his upcoming battle against House Bolton, Petyr Baelish handing the prostitute Ros over to Joffrey for him to murder after finding out that she was a spy for Varys, and several of Drogo’s men taking Lhazareen women to be used as sex slaves.
Despite the fact that the characters of Game of Thrones live within a patriarchal system, some of the leading men in the series have also been subjected to gender-based violence, especially Theon. After he is taken captive by House Bolton in the second season finale, Theon is repeatedly tortured by Ramsay throughout the third season. In the seventh episode of the third season, Ramsay castrates Theon after he mocks his sexual prowess. Following this episode, Theon is never the same man he once was. Theon remains a prisoner and servant of House Bolton for the next two seasons, in which he is forced by Ramsay to do his bidding out of fear of further mutilation, including betraying his fellow Ironborn to the Boltons. But after he witnesses Ramsay rape Sansa, Theon eventually musters enough courage to help the two of them escape from the Boltons in the fifth season finale. Nevertheless, Theon is still subjected to ridicule by others for being a eunuch, particularly by the Ironborn in the fifth episode of the sixth season. It takes another season for Theon to prove to the surviving Ironborn that he is still a strong person to be reckoned with.
What Critics Think
Critics that have defended Game of Thrones as embracing feminism argue that these acts of gender-based violence are part of the series’ realistic exploration of political power in a world that is reminiscent of the early modern period of modern history. They also point out that the leading women survive these horrific acts of gender-based violence and continue to drive the story arcs forward, which makes Game of Thrones feel fundamentally feminist.
Even though gender-based violence against most women on Game of Thrones has contributed to the advancement of the story arcs, critics that have accused the series of being misogynistic argue that gender-based violence against all women, especially rape, have become frequent, unnecessary occurrences that are just meant to shock viewers.
For example, a lot of people think that it was not necessary for Ramsay to rape Sansa because they already knew that he was a sadistic person, so they did not need to see him harm yet another person. Furthermore, Ramsay did not have to rape Sansa to persuade her to extract revenge on him, given that the Boltons betray the Starks and occupy their ancestral home before Sansa marries Ramsay.
George R. R. Martin, an executive producer of the series and the author of the novels that Game of Thrones is based on, has stated that gender-based violence against women has been a part of every single war in reality, and if it were to be omitted from the story arcs, it would undermine a prominent theme of his novels: that the horrors of human history are not derived from “orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves,” or, in other words, oppressive men.
Changes Made by the Showrunners in Game of Thrones
That being said, it is important to mention that the acts of gender-based violence against Cersei, Dany, Sansa and Stannis’ daughter Shireen Baratheon did not happen to their novel counterparts. This is another reason why some believe that the showrunners added these scenes for the purpose of shocking viewers, thereby exploiting the suffering of these characters for entertainment.
Unlike their screen counterparts, Jaime does not rape Cersei in the novel A Storm of Swords. Although Cersei initially declines Jaime’s advances, she changes her mind and gives him consent. So why did the showrunners change this scene in their adaptation? To cast a negative light on incest, to make viewers want to hate Jaime again after he started redeeming himself, or to ramp up the shock value of an already disturbing scene? It does seem like the showrunners were trying to ramp up the shock value.
In the novel A Game of Thrones, Dany gives Drogo her consent before they consummate their marriage. So why did the showrunners decide to make Drogo rape Dany in the series? To show the horrific truths of child marriage (which is of itself another serious issue that affects young girls and women today), or to just shock viewers that a husband would sexually assault his newly-wedded wife? Maybe both, but most likely the latter.
Ramsay does not rape Sansa in the novels, but he does rape another character named Jeyne Poole. So did the showrunners make Ramsay rape Sansa so that viewers would have another reason to hate him, or to shed a light on marital rape? As it is mentioned above, most people feel like it is the former.
Stannis never sacrifices his daughter Shireen in the novels. While some might think that this added scene shows just how desperate Stannis is to win the game of thrones, others think that the showrunners just wanted to shock viewers by showing a young girl get burned at the stake by her own father in a massive plot twist.
Regardless of how you feel about the gender-based violence in Game of Thrones, you have to admit that the series is reminiscent of statistics on violence against women in reality. It can be seen as a reflection of the suffering of women today, in which the most privileged and powerful women can still be subjected to gender-based violence, as exemplified by the Weinstein effect.
However, one cannot help but feel that the showrunners are willing to ramp up the violence against the women (and some men) in Game of Thrones for the purpose of shock value.
This does not mean that gender-based violence should never be incorporated into a narrative, but it should never be done with the simple intention of shocking viewers.
Fortunately, most of the characters who survive acts of gender-based violence in Game of Thrones still retain a human voice, and they emerge from these experiences with a sense of inner strength, except for some supporting women such as Shireen and quite a few unnamed women such as the Lhazareen women.
Although Game of Thrones begins as a series predominantly about the men of the Great Houses of Westeros, women such as Sansa and Dany slowly establish their political power, and by the end of the sixth season, they become the leading figures in the fight for power over Westeros.
Cersei, Dany, Brienne and Sansa are vastly different characters that hold various positions of power throughout the series, yet they all suffer from the oppressive patriarchal system of Westeros, which says a lot about the female experience within the world of Game of Thrones.
The eighth and final season is expected to return in 2019, and we will finally find out who survives the advancing Army of the Dead and emerges victorious in the game of thrones.
What do you think? Leave a comment.