When I received my shiny new edition of Entertainment Weekly last Friday I was struck with two very different thoughts. “WOMEN ON TOP” the cover loudly declared over an image of the dragon queen, herself, Daenerys from one of my former favorite shows Game of Thrones. Aside from wishing I’d gotten the cover with Arya featured on it, I felt both excitement and dread. I blogged about this issue on a different site last year, but to reiterate – I am one of those “picky” feminists who took great offense at the way in which several television shows, especially GoT, had decided to make its female characters more interesting by having them raped and/or sexually threatened, and therefore had decided to stop watching the show.
The first of my aforementioned reactions, excitement, can then be understood. “They heard us!” I thought. The writer’s have taken to heart what the feminists have been saying and are going to make changes going forward. The simultaneous dread I felt spoke to my exhausted familiarity with the type of window dressing people in the entertainment industry like to apply to an issue that seldom results in actual change. I fear, as I read the articles, the dread became the dominant emotion. Nowhere do the writers acknowledge any wrongdoing, which is to be expected. But even worse, in the spirit of pink washing and green washing, the EW writers have taken to turning what is clearly anti-feminist and making it sound feminist.
First, though, let me address some of the issues that EW and others have said in response to the criticism.
- It’s realistic for the time period. Women got raped. To which I usually ask, what time period is this, again? Where is Westeros? Where are those waring families and castrated slaves, again? Of course, the rote response is usually something like, it’s based on a real time period. Far be it for me to state the obvious, but it has always baffled me how authors of such fantastic worlds of wizards, dragons and zombies fail to have enough imagination to create a world where there are no gender inequalities, but I digress…
- There’s a lot of rape and violence in the books, so why are you picking on the TV show? True. ASOIF does have quite a lot of violence, and even rape, in its pages. But it’s the reason these women are being raped – to make them more interesting or sympathetic – that is at issue in the show. No one liked Cersei, nor could they feel any sympathy for her until she was raped by her twin brother at their son’s funeral. Everyone thought Sansa was boring until she was given over as the abused bride of Ramsay Bolton and had to be raped in front of her step-brother Theon, no less, in order to earn her any sympathy. Never mind that the novels make it fairly clear that Theon (rechristened Reek) was almost certainly brutally raped over several months by Ramsay, which the television series makes no allusions to at all.
- But, Game of Thrones has some of the strongest, best female characters on television. Yes, this is also true. Which is why these tactics are so appalling, not an excuse to let them off the hook. This is a straw person fallacy – misrepresenting the criticism of this one aspect as criticism of every circumstance of women in the show. The criticism of the way GoT has portrayed women with regard to rape is particularly important because it is praised so often for strong female characters. If you’re going to take the praise for your strong female characters, you’re accepting being held to a higher standard, so own it when you make sexist mistakes.
“One by one, these strong and commanding men have suffered tragic turns of fate that have cleared the way for a fleet of heroines who have learned new strategies to survive and conquer in a brutal world.”
This last point is one that EW staff writer James Hibberd makes in his cover story when he writes “The ascension of Thrones’ female characters isn’t a new strategy” because “One by one, these strong and commanding men have suffered tragic turns of fate that have cleared the way for a fleet of heroines who have learned new strategies to survive and conquer in a brutal world.” And in the print edition he follows this with the statement “You could say that behind every great woman on Thrones there’s at least one dead or maimed man whose downfall factored into her rise.” This line, again, gives the male characters credit for the strength and rise of the female characters. That seems pretty sexist to me.
And as to the question of these rapes making characters more interesting, they can dispute that claim all they want, but, according to Sophie Turner, the actress who plays Sansa Stark, the tactic clearly worked. She claims “I’ve had more people saying, ‘You’re my favorite character’ than ever before, which is amazing, because I used to get ‘You’re my least favorite character.’” Good for her, but I liked her pretty well beforehand, especially the way Martin writers her in the novels. If she wasn’t accepted by audiences of the show, that’s a result of poor writing, not a need to rape her.
“I can literally say that not one word of the scripts this season have been changed in any way, shape or form by what people said on the Internet, or elsewhere.”
Most infuriatingly, just today EW ran a story that expresses that not only are the producers not taking responsibility for their treatment of women in season 5, but they are vocally rejecting the idea that these “stronger female characters” in season 6 are a response to the criticism. EP Dan Weiss is quoted as saying “I can literally say that not one word of the scripts this season have been changed in any way, shape or form by what people said on the Internet, or elsewhere.” Right. Because that would be the worst thing ever – to take criticism to heart and change accordingly. That would require actually acknowledging an error in judgment, something unlikely to happen anytime soon.
“You are either a normal person or a sexist. People get a label when they’re bad.”
There was one bright spot to the magazine’s female-centric edition. Maisie Williams, who plays my favorite character, Arya Stark was also asked about the controversy in the print edition and had the best answer that shows exactly why she’s the perfect person to play such an iconic and wise character. She says, “I feel like we should stop calling feminists ‘feminists’ and just start calling people who aren’t feminist ‘sexist,’ and then everyone else is just a human. You are either a normal person or a sexist. People get a label when they’re bad.” Amen!