Game of Thrones: All men must die?
HBO’s Game of Thrones has trod a fine line on the question of gender, often falling into age-old traps while undermining masculinity, but Season 6 gets some things right
Dhruba Basu Delhi
Much of the talk surrounding the ongoing (sixth) season of Game of Thrones has been about the transformation of the show’s female characters, from subjugated sexual playthings of rapacious males to decisive agents of change who are together mounting a serious challenge to the patriarchal power dynamics of Westeros. The signs, it is said, are unmistakable. Daenerys Targaryen has risen once again from the flames and is in command of the Dothraki tribes, whose chieftains she immolated. Sansa Stark, Yara Greyjoy and Margaery Tyrell have all attempted to galvanise their respective brothers; Sansa exhorts Jon Snow, back from the dead but singularly unexcited about it, to wrest Winterfell from the grip of psychopath extraordinaire Ramsay Bolton, Yara orders traumatised Theon to stop crying over the past and secures his support in her bid for control of the Iron Islands, and Margaery impresses upon a visibly broken Loras (albeit in vain) the need to resolutely bear the privations of their incarceration at the hands of the fanatical Faith. Meanwhile, Cersei Lannister has joined hands with Olena Tyrell in a plot to bring the Faith’s reign of terror in King’s Landing to an end and the Sand Snakes have committed regicide against Doran Martell for taking no steps to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of the Mountain.
In other words, women have come to the forefront of nearly all the show’s story arcs, talking the talk and walking the walk with chutzpah and determination. One reason this may not be surprising to some viewers is that it had been revealed before the season aired, with Michael Lombardo (until very recently the Programming President responsible for a string of wildly successful HBO TV shows) announcing that the women of Game of Thrones ‘are rocking...[and] power this season.’ He added that it was ‘a radical shift.’
Admittedly, the show has come in for a lot of criticism over its gratuitous use of female nudity and coarse treatment of rape. This reached climactic points in the last two seasons. When Jaime Lannister raped his sister Cersei next to the corpse of their dead son in the Great Sept in King’s Landing in the fourth season, the uproar was instantaneous from viewers and critics alike. The same scene in George RR Martin’s A Storm of Swords was one of complicated but unmistakable consent. Modifying it to do away with the female character’s agency was unnecessary and exploitative, reducing a highly traumatising act to a shock-value device which, instead of contributing to any kind of plot or character development, in fact jars with the relationship that has been established between the incestuous siblings, and is forgotten soon after.
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Seemingly undeterred by the backlash, the show took things a notch higher in the next season. The rape of Sansa Stark by Ramsay Bolton as Theon Greyjoy was ordered to watch in Season 5 was for many the last straw. Entertainment website The Mary Sue declared that it would ‘no longer be actively promoting’ the series and the reasons they cited were echoed on comment threads, forums and articles around the internet: not only was the relentless abuse meted out to Sansa lacking in any developmental value for a narrative that had already gone to some lengths to portray her as a survivor of abuse and Ramsay as ludicrously cruel, but making the scene about Theon’s ordeal as a witness seemed to suggest that rape was simply an all-purpose tool for the showrunners, limitlessly reusable for a variety of ends but never meriting an engagement with its effects on the victim. This callousness can be traced through all of the numerous rapes that have been depicted on the show, to the extent that Khal Drogo’s rape of Daenerys in Season 1, again an instance of complicated consent in the book being reimagined as outright violation, receded into insignificance because she fell in love with him and continues to invoke his name reverentially.
Not only was the relentless abuse meted out to Sansa lacking in any developmental value for a narrative that had already gone to some lengths to portray her as a survivor of abuse and Ramsay as ludicrously cruel, but making the scene about Theon’s ordeal as a witness seemed to suggest that rape was simply an all-purpose tool for the showrunners
Looking at the evidence, it is indeed true that Season 6 signals a departure for the show that was deemed by Vulture magazine to have the most devoted fan base in the history of pop culture. But it is misleading to say that the departure consists in the rise of the women. To any committed watcher of the show, there should be nothing surprising about the fact that they are coming into their own.
The list of male characters who have either died or been stripped of their virility, royalty or pretensions thereof in hyper-patriarchal Westeros is an instructive place to start. Robert Baratheon, fearsome warrior that he was, was poisoned by his wife Cersei and died a babbling drunkard who commanded little respect as king. Ned Stark, the righteous patriarch of Winterfell, was beheaded at the behest of Robert’s successor, teenage king Joffrey Lannister, who was later poisoned as well. Robb Stark, young, handsome and on the warpath to avenge his father’s execution, was ambushed at the infamous Red Wedding by the Freys and Boltons. Tywin Lannister, the kingmaker hell-bent on inflating his family’s honour at any cost, was shot on the pot with a crossbow by his son Tyrion, while his other son Jaime Lannister, considered to be among the finest swordsmen in the land, lost his dominant hand when he was held captive by a contingent of Bolton riders and endured a string of failures in all his ventures after. Oberyn Martell and Loras, flamboyant princes both, the former a bisexual, the latter a homosexual and both extraordinary fighters who leave Jaime in the shade, are (respectively) dead due to overconfidence and an imprisoned wreck. The Hound, a brute of few words, was defeated in combat by Lady Brienne; she also executed Stannis Baratheon, regarded as the best military commander in Westeros, who burned his own daughter at the stake in service of his aspirations to the throne at King’s Landing. Jon Snow, having won over the hearts of most of the men of the Night’s Watch, was killed by a young boy and revived by Lady Melisandre.
A pattern can be discerned, to put it lightly. Meanwhile, who are the men that have survived this curse?
The standout examples are Tyrion Lannister, a well-read, witty, frequently drink-sodden dwarf despised by his father and sister, and Varys, the eunuch spymaster. Neither is a whole man in the sense in which men are imagined in Westeros or the real world; both have pledged their allegiance to Daenerys. Also at her disposal are the sellsword Daario Naharis, who believes that the highest calling of men is to bed women who desire them and kill men who intend to kill them, Jorah Mormont, a Lord who was exiled from Westeros for participating in the slave trade and later banished from Meereen by Daenerys herself when it is revealed that he had fed Varys with information about her, and Grey Worm, leader of an army of Spartan eunuchs, the Unsullied. The first two are in love with her and the third is indebted to her for freeing him from slavery. Across the Narrow Sea, Theon Greyjoy lost his physical claim to manhood a long time back, and rotund, bookish Samwell Tarly, banished from the land that he was rightfully the heir to for not meeting his father’s martial requirements, continues against all odds with his unlikely Wildling lover, Gilly, and the son she bore by her father.
If the prevailing narratorial pattern is to be believed, it is not masculinity that has kept men alive and thriving in Game of Thrones; rather, it has in many cases been the absence of it and, more importantly, it has been their loyalty to driven women
There are some outliers to be found among the major male characters, namely Bran Stark, Jaqen H’ghar, the two ambitious Lords, Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish and Ramsay Bolton, and the King, Tommen Baratheon. None fit into conventional categories. Young Bran is on a path of magic, Jaqen H’ghar is a Faceless Man belonging to a secret guild of assassins whose motto is ‘All men must die’, Littlefinger works from the shadows with an information network that is rivalled only by that of Varys, and Ramsay, while most certainly a warrior, is primarily a lunatic or, in the words of his father, a ‘mad dog’. Tommen is devoted to his mother, Cersei, and wife, Margaery, and he makes all his kingly decisions under their influence.
That last point is particularly noteworthy because it may be what keeps Tommen alive yet. If the prevailing narratorial pattern is to be believed, it is not masculinity that has kept men alive and thriving in Game of Thrones; rather, it has in many cases been the absence of it and, more importantly, it has been their loyalty to driven women. All of Daenerys’ men (and former men) are the obvious flagbearers, and their numbers have been bolstered considerably by the addition of the Dothraki, perhaps the most virile people of all. The Mountain and Jon Snow have been revived and now serve Cersei and Sansa, respectively. Having been convinced by her to travel to Dorne on a failed mission to save their daughter and now to follow Tommen’s orders and lead the Lannister army in a show of force against Brynden Tully in Riverrun, Jaime is a functionary of Cersei’s whims save in stray HBO moments when his lust gets the better of him. Theon’s arc in this season is another case in point: his effort to help Sansa escape Ramsay’s lunacy pays off when they are saved from capture by Brienne, after which he returns to his home on the Iron Islands and pledges himself to his sister Yara.
There have been exceptions … but mainstream television has by and large constructed narratives of self-correcting masculinities. Game of Thrones, until recently an unabashed member of the club, has taken its first step towards setting the record straight
What materialises out of all this is a narrative within which masculinity, virility, and patriarchy are being consistently undermined in the very arena that has always been theirs: the arena of power, the game of thrones. And it has been a long con, very much a part of what makes the show so compelling: its unflinching commitment to subversion. Instead of damsels in distress, it gives us Daenerys, Brienne, Sansa and, dauntless, ever-enterprising Arya Stark. Instead of glorious kings and victorious warriors with beautiful women at their side, it gives us children, lunatics, incest, and gruesome deaths. It gives us a world gone freakishly wrong under the rule of war-mongering men obsessed with power and honour, a world that is in the slow and painful process of being restructured by strong women who are subjugating masculinity, not being subjugated by it, and less-than-manly men who are overcoming what they are perceived to lack.
In a sense, by having played to the galleries with its lopsided use of female nudity and exploiting the act of rape for oohs and ahs, Game of Thrones failed its own subversive standards.
The news is, despite a dip in writing that made scenes like the Kingsmoot between Euron and Yara a festival of dumbed-down demagoguery and Bran and Meera’s escape from the White Walkers a slice from the zombie apocalypse school of B-grade horror, Season 6 has bucked the trend on this front. It has largely avoided the sexploitation route, even attempting to strike a (questionable, almost farcical) balance by including a close-up of a penis; it has featured no rapes; and, in the confrontation between Sansa and Littlefinger in Episode 5, it has finally given a victim the chance to speak about the trauma of rape and its effects. “Would you like to hear about our wedding night?” she asks the man who handed her over to Ramsay Bolton. “He never hurt my face. He needed my face, the face of Ned Stark’s daughter. But the rest of me, he did what he liked with the rest of me.”
The dictates of the popular entertainment industry being what they are, representing the point of view of the victim has always been a difficult issue for networks to negotiate, one that they sidestep with ‘plots [that] are about the male avengers of rape rather than about the problem or crime of rape or the experiences and feelings of the victim’ (in the words of Lisa Cuklanz, from her 2000 book Rape on Prime Time). There have been exceptions, especially in recent times with shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder working with the Rape, Abuse, Incest and National Network (RAINN) to get it right, but mainstream television has by and large constructed narratives of self-correcting masculinities. Game of Thrones, until recently an unabashed member of the club, has taken its first step towards setting the record straight.
Perhaps, for the showrunners, this will not count as the biggest takeaway when the tumultuous journey ends. Perhaps it will. What is certain is that it is a victory for the vociferous critics and viewers. George RR Martin famously tweeted in 2013, “Art is not a democracy. People don’t get to vote on how it ends.”It turns out that sometimes, they do.