This speech, perhaps one of the most (in)famous to yet appear on HBO’s Game of Thrones, shows the ambitious Petyr Baelish (Littlefinger) speaking of the nature of politics in the fictional world the characters inhabit. Though fictional, George R.R. Martin has pointed that many aspects of this world, its events, and its people (or at least their worlviews) are drawn from and based on those in the one we inhabit. As a result, though GoT appears as fantasy, it in fact urges its viewers to understand the world it represents as a quasi-historical one in which violence, especially against women, is both normalized and expected.
Simmering beneath the surface here, I think, is the series’ implied argument regarding its obvious violence against women problem. As the exchange between Varys and Petyr makes clear, women in this society are in almost every way not only easily manipulated, but also utterly expendable. Furthermore, the shot showing the prostitute Ros pierced by Joffrey’s arrows, highlights the series’ vexed relationship with many of its female characters, especially “common” ones. While we as spectators are invited to identify with many of the female leads, all too frequently it is the women who occupy the fringes of society who suffer the most, even while they are denied the full characterization that would render their lives more grievable and meaningful. The camera’s lingering gaze over Ros’s dead body, so much like that of Saint Sebastian, renders this scene a variant of GoT’s near-ubiquitous sex-position, aestheticizing violence against women. Just as importantly, however, this moment also highlights the series’ attempt to use authenticity to explain the ubiquity of the representation of violence against women in this world.
It is no secret that GoT, both the novel and the HBO series, utilizes many of the conventions of recent representations of medieval history to add texture to their imagined world, privileging a gritty and edgy realism—often involving sex, violence, and a combination of the two—over a sanitized image of the (pseudo)medieval world. Indeed, these tactics have long been used by HBO in its specific brand of historical representation, as evident in such series as Deadwood, Rome, and Boardwalk Empire. While such strategies reveal the brutality that has characterized many cultures’ treatment of women, it remains unclear to me just how condemnatory of such violence GoT manages to be, as the line between critical awareness and titillation becomes ever thinner.