The first video game console (I use the term loosely) my family ever owned was a VTech Video Painter — a form of electronic entertainment so forgotten it doesn't even have its own Wikipedia page, but, damn, that thing was wonderful. My younger brother and I would spend hours glued to the TV set watching our drawings come to life on its grainy, lo-def screen. A few years passed, and we somehow (I'm guessing my brother asked for it?) wound up with a Sega Genesis. There were three games we worked to beat as a team: ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (if you haven't played it you haven't lived), Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse, and Ecco the Dolphin (for a good time, read its plot summary).
My point of entry into each game is fairly obvious in retrospect. Toejam & Earl was colorful and fun, like stepping into a Nickelodeon cartoon, which were my favorite shows at the time. I grew up knowing and loving all things Mickey, and had already met the mouse in person at Disney World by age five, so I was pretty much set to enjoy elements of that game no matter what. And I owned and read The Island of the Blue Dolphins in elementary school, which—perhaps mistakenly—made me interested in the underwater world of Ecco.
But video games were never a thing I played by myself, only in partnership with my brother. To me it was an evening activity we would do together. My brother, on the other hand, had lots of games he liked to play alone, starting with Sonic the Hedgehog, continuing through years of Halo, and on into Dark Souls 3 in 2016 (I had to ask him what games he's playing now because I honestly don't know what's up). As we both grew older, the video game industry knew how to pull my brother in for more, but didn't care if I, a girl, was playing at all. As a result there wasn't really much for me to play, so I had (and continue to have) no interest in the whole thing.
To me there is little difference between my childhood experience with video games and HBO's megahit Game of Thrones. On paper there's no reason GOT wouldn't interest me. I went to film school and earned an MFA in TV Writing; Game of Thrones is a TV show. My favorite entertainment includes Kurt Vonnegut books, Bruce Springsteen albums, and Steve Martin movies; media made by men, and media my brother and lots of other guys also like. I'm already an HBO subscriber and regularly watch and love many HBO shows. But when Thrones premiered in 2011, it wasn't made nor marketed for me. I wasn't part of a demographic the show cared about reaching.
The 2011 trailer, watchable here, features images of men fighting each other in various ways while clips of male voiceover say vague things about duty. A woman tearfully chokes out, "That's what men always say when honor calls." A large-chested woman with her shirt open appears twice while a guy says, "All desires are valid to a man with a full purse." Okay, cool, she's a whore, got it. There are, like, ten more clips of swords being drawn and then a bunch of black crows fly away.
What's being advertised is a show whose female characters are secondary to its male characters. We see right away we're in a world we've seen many, many times before in pop culture, one where men must learn to fight and rule and women are there for sex and emotions and stuff, but are never the primary focus. We also see that prostitution is a big deal, which eludes to women being viewed and used as sexual objects often in the world of the show. And so my feelings toward GOT were and have been hard pass.
Just like with Starcraft 2 and Heroes of the Storm (again, I have no idea what I'm saying) there was no point of entry for me with Game of Thrones. So, like all women I know who do watch the show and read the books, I entered the fanbase by recommendation from a man already watching the show AKA the only GOT point of entry for women.
My boyfriend is a sweet and loving person who might not classify himself as a feminist, but I would. He's got nothing against anybody. Of the things he loves most in this world, Game of Thrones is at the top of his list. So when he came to visit me on the same weekend as this season's premiere episode, I knew we had to watch it. I wasn't going to deprive him of the show he loved so dearly...
No, instead I did something much messier. I watched the first season of Game of Thrones in preparation for the season six premiere, and, try as I did, I couldn't make it long at all before doing what so many viewers have already done. I called out the show's misogyny.
There are already a bunch of articles and think-pieces on how the show is misogynistic, so I won't waste too much time pointing out the obvious. I hated the way the first season ended with a long, lingering shot of the "powerful" dragon queen's boobs. I didn't like that Lady Catelyn was an intelligent and strong woman who also had to be scorned and humiliated by an affair she knew very little about. There was an evil, manipulative queen. There was a girl who wanted to be a princess and a girl who wanted to be anything but a princess. It all felt very two-dimensional to me. Also, wedding night rape. Also, women becoming powerful because of sex. Also, whores and handmaids. Also, hot whores and handmaids having lesbian sex!
Reading the previous paragraph, you might get the impression I think the show is bad. That's the thing, I don't. It's a pretty interesting premise with great production value. But...it is misogynistic.
Calling out its misogyny started a dialogue between my boyfriend and me I don't think either one of us were anticipating nor were fully prepared to have. Like I said earlier, my boyfriend is a great person who is very socially aware and is not at all sexist. But as a long-time fan of both the books and the show, he'd already read all its articles and fan-theories; he knew the show's marketed and fan-created defenses.
My natural thought watching GOT was one so many other women (and men) have already had: If this is a fantasy show, why are we being forced to watch women struggle through the sexist bullshit we've already seen and lived through so many times over? Why not create a new world, where both dragons and equality exist?
George R.R. Martin himself has already addressed my question, with his best answer being that watching women struggle creates dramatic conflict, stating, "If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book."
But there are ways to show women living through conflict that are not sexist. Why not look to other HBO programing, like Girls and Veep, for examples of such three-dimensional female characters in interesting, conflict-ridden worlds? Or even to Mad Men, a show George R.R. Martin calls out himself in the Entertainment Weekly interview — an actual period piece that features rape, prostitution, and workplace discrimination, but is always three-dimensional and never pornographically sexy for the sake of being pornographically sexy.
To say sexism is the only way GOT could work is simply ridiculous, but it's the best possible defense for a machine already in motion. How strange it must be to be the writer, showrunners, network who have put the epic on air only to realize after the fact that its audience is not as sexist as they thought it was. Or that they are more sexist than they realized.
The best thing about talking to my boyfriend about GOT is that he listens to me. He's been able to take in my thoughts, understand them, and sympathize with my viewing experience. But Thrones PR does no such thing. From Martin to the actresses made to work the press junket after being raped or nude on screen, everyone on the HBO GOT team discusses the show's misogyny from the stance of denial and defense. One actress recently went so far as to call the show "on the forefront of feminism." This is the show's worst form of misogyny in my opinion. Don't create a sexist world and then try to tell me the act of watching it is a feminist act. Don't be a man responsible for making this show and tell me watching women being oppressed on screen will make the world a more feminist place.
All we've seen on screens so far in the history of entertainment is programming made by men where women are oppressed and struggling through sexism. And where has that led us? To another hit show made by men doing the same thing.
When it comes to the entertainment industry, we are all stuck in a vicious cycle of misogyny. Taylor Swift, who once wrote, "Romeo, save me, I've been feeling so alone..." spoke out last year on behalf of feminism, saying, "Misogyny is ingrained in people from the time they are born. So to me, feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace." Yet her early songs that perpetuate sexist stereotypes remain in rotation at her concerts and will always be available for download. They will influence a new generation of songwriters who will romanticize the same sexist tropes Swift fell for early in her carrier. They will create new songs based on this outdated way of thinking. The sexism will live on.
In that same way, George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, and D.B. Weiss fell for a misogynistic time period and willingly chose to keep it alive by recreating it the twenty-tens in a sexed-up way — with good mood-lighting and hot young actresses. We are seeing women oppressed on the same screen where sex is being used to sell this show to the pornographic video game-loving male audience.
This is not a feminist show.
Pointing out these things (and more, I'm sad to say), to my boyfriend over the past few weeks has, it seems, changed the way he views the show. When Dany Targaryen walked away from fire naked again at the end of Sunday night's episode, my boyfriend was annoyed, echoing my feelings about the last shot of the season one finale. "You're right, they couldn't have just shot the scene from a different angle?" he said. "Shown her from the neck up?" (I just watched the news scene and also don't understand how Dany's clothes burned of so cleanly in just a matter of minutes? Also, why are her clothes sometimes fireproof and sometimes not?)
(Oh yeah, because we sometimes have to see her boobs.)
In waking up to its feminist shortcomings, my boyfriend has offered to stop watching the show altogether (though I'm not sure how serious that offer was). He feels guilty for liking a show I have so many problems with. And I feel guilty for making him dislike, if even just a little, his favorite show.
This is another part of the misogynist cycle we're all stuck in. We recognize sexism in front of us, but we're afraid to call it out for fear of ruining the fun of things. We see sexism all around us, but our first instinct is to defend it, not step away from it, nor stop it. This resistance to addressing the sexism of a TV show is an indicator of how people will resist addressing social injustice in real-life situations. For how much longer will we be afraid to call out things, or step away from, or stop, what we know is wrong?
I spoke with a female friend who works in the industry last week about the show, and how interesting it is to watch HBO and all involved attempt to make it less sexist as the seasons progress, while denying it was ever sexist in the first place. "I think it's a really great show," she said, "But because of the way they've portrayed women, five years after it goes of air, it will only be an okay show. Whereas if they would have recognized its misogyny and addressed that before it aired ...Well, it might have been the best show."
Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where a show that writes women well is the best show? If we want to move forward as a society, we can't put that off too much longer. As President Obama said, "You can judge a nation, and how successful it will be, based on how it treats its women and girls." What about how it treats the women and girls on its TV shows?