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GAME OF THRONES is arguably the biggest television phenomenon in mainstream media. The series finale raked in 19.2 million views, making it the most watched episode of any show in HBO’s history. Its 32 just announced Emmy nominations represent an all-time high for nods in a single year. In fact, it smashes the previously record, held by NYPD BLUE, by six noms.  In light of all this critical and commercial success, it becomes even more startling how poorly the show’s writers treat the female characters. With an audience of that size, with a supportive critical mass of that level, the way writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss portray THRONES women can only be called irresponsible. 

GAME OF THRONES Women and Violence

Missandei makes a strong initial example of how the show mistreats women characters. Daenerys saved her from a life of slavery, befriended her, and respected her as one of her most trusted advisors. During her travels, Missandei fell in love with Grey Worm, and they had one of the few genuinely healthy relationships on the show. She grew into her own person, and was the only strong woman of color left.

Until Season 8 that is.

She died at the hands of Cersei Lannister, in chains. It reduced her to solely a catalyst for the further development of Daenerys, a white woman, and Grey Worm, a man. Her death wasn’t there for her own story. It was a cheap plot trick to keep things moving, done without having to give much thought to something more meaningful.

While Missandei may be one the most recent and grievous example of this, she hardly stands alone. It is worth mentioning that every single THRONES women was abused in some way before growing into herself. Viserys sold Daenerys into a marriage, and Khal Drogo raped her. The Waif beat the ever-loving crap out of Arya. Littlefinger gave Sansa to someone who repeatedly beat and raped her in her childhood home, only for Season 8 Sansa to say that her abuse was necessary for her strength. Not only did the show assert, in essence, that rape was good for Sansa, but Benioff and Weiss have referred to her rapist as a love interest in public statements.

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Missandei before The Mountain beheads her. (Courtesy of HBO Entertainment)

Sexual Violence as Plot Devices

Speaking of Sansa, her case is the show’s worst example of gendered violence, and obviously written by men. While no one would want to watch Sansa be the victim of sexual assault, the show’s choice on how to frame the scene was galling in its thoughtlessness. When Ramsay raped her, the scene cut to a close-up shot of Theon. This centered him in the moment even though it was not his body being violated. In essence, the choice implied that his suffering witnessing this terrible act exceeded the actual victim of the act. Once more, as with Missandei, THRONES chose to utilize a woman’s pain to tell a story about a man. While it’s still awful to rely on sexual assault as a narrative device at all, it is even lazier and more harmful to use it to further a man’s characterization instead that of the actual victim. 

Beyond the obvious issues of adding to the imbalance of sexual violence in media and the noted use of it to tell the stories of men, we are left with several further questions. Chef among them is what exactly do Benioff and Weiss intend to say with their choices? What messages do they hope the audience takes away from THRONES? That women can only be strong if they are abused first? That women’s lives only serve to inform and guide the lives of the men around them? In a society riddled with rape culture and misogyny, those messages are dangerous and need to stop.

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Sansa’s wedding night. (Courtesy of HBO Entertainment

A Difference of Loss Between Men and Women

This violence extends past the obvious physical variety, as well. Even if there weren’t countless scenes of gratuitous gendered violence, there are tropes that keep GAME OF THRONES women below the men. Specifically, that of loss.

When men lose something important, they grow as people. Davos learned that Melisandre burned Shireen at the stake, and he steeled himself and vowed to avenge her. Jaime lost all of his children and a hand, and — despite raping his sister next to one of their dead children — became a more empathetic character through it all. When the women lose something important, though, they also lose their sanity.

It would have been one thing if it had only been Cersei that went completely mad. It fit her character — the show had been hinting at a mad queen for years, and constantly put parallels between her and Mad King Aerys II. But when it came to Daenerys — losing two of her dragons, a large portion of her armies, and her best friend — not only did it not make sense for her character, it robbed fans of a powerful woman to root for. For seven seasons, she did nothing but fight for the good of the people. She even put off her quest for the Iron Throne in order to keep the peace in Meereen. However, in just two episodes Benioff and Weiss destroyed all her character development and turned her into a villain, seemingly to make Jon Snow look like a better person.

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Post-rampage Daenerys.

Daenerys’ Destruction of Character

The biggest problem with changing Daenerys so quickly was the show writers’ justification for it. In the “Behind the Episode” portion after THE BELLS, Benioff says that we’ve seen Daenerys’ dark side since Season 1 when she watched Viserys die. “There is something kind of chilling about the way that Dany has responded to the death of her enemies,” he said. He made it seem like her reaction to her brother’s death was inhumane,

However, take a step back and look at how he treated her. He sexually assaulted her, then sold her to others who did the same. He did some without an ounce of remorse. Quite the opposite. He would even tell told her at one point that he’d let his entire army and their horses rape her if it meant putting him on the Iron Throne. Then, to top it all off, he threatened to kill her by cutting out her unborn child. With context it becomes understandable why she wasn’t exactly distraught over his death. If anything, it suggests that signs she was grief-stricken would be strange.

Even if we do accept the showrunners’ explanation why does this not apply to other characters who had similar responses? Sansa attempted to push Joffrey off a bridge and smiled when Ramsay’s dogs ate him alive. These both ended up painted as justified reactions. As a result, Sansa continued on as a fan favorite.

Perhaps Sansa did not go mad because she wasn’t a Targaryen. Jon Snow is a Targaryen, though. Ygritte died in his arms, Rickon right in front of him. Still, Jon kept his sanity.

This all comes together to suggest her unraveling mental health is neither nature nor nurture but rather only a cheap ploy.

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Viserys sells Daenerys to Khal Drogo. (Courtesy of HBO Entertainment)

Women Needed In All Aspects

It does not seem beyond the pale to suggest that the some of the blame needs to be leveled at not only what Benioff and Weiss did but also what they did not. Chiefly, in the entire run of the series, the duo failed to tap one woman writer to join their writers’ room. Additionally, they never saw fit to hire one woman director to step behind the lens. Not for even a single episode.

Given how successful THRONES proved to be, there can be no excuse for this. They no doubt had their pick of collaborators. Certainly there would have been women looking to write or direct one of, by nearly all standards, the most successful cable shows of all time. And yet, THRONES could not find even a single woman to hire in those roles.

This, of course, is not to suggest THRONES was completely devoid of women. If anything that makes this all the more frustrating. It suggests that Benioff and Weiss had women on-set and in the offices helping them to realize their vision. Moreover, it suggests that despite working in close capacity with at least some women, the duo never really checked in. They never asked if the content they were creating was not excessively harmful to a large portion of the audience.

Or perhaps they did. But if they did, well, it is difficult to find any evidence of it in the resulting work.

All in All?

GAME OF THRONES has been a cultural force since 2011. We’ve grown attached to different characters and felt their hardships with them. There are plenty of strong characters, and a lot of them are women. However, this all feels possible thanks to the groundwork that George R. R. Martin laid.

When it came to how to bring the action alive on television screens, Benioff and Weiss often took these characters and completely disregarded their development. Far worse, when it came to women, the duo created a show in GAME OF THRONES that repeatedly chose to brutalize women. Moreover, they often went on to suggest that that brutality was either necessary for the women to develop or, more often, to stir the men to action.

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