Nasty, Brutish, and Short: "Game of Thrones," History, and the Violence of Women's Lives

Curator's Note

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.


Really great points, Thomas. While I think that violence in GoT gets enacted in gruesome ways on men as well, often I wonder what socio-cultural phenomena motivate the narratives of violence produced in various media genres at specific times in history, particularly against women. Arguably, white male anxiety could be a motivator for the narratives of violence against women that pervade film and TV. Criminal Minds, Law and Order, and NCIS frequently feature violence against women as recurring themes, usually opening with a scene in which a woman, half-naked and bound, is about to experience some horrific act of violence at the hands of a male captor and antagonist. And this is prime-time television. GoT is no exception and even takes it up an ante as your post effectively points out. Perhaps, these programs offer the modern viewer a sense of catharsis whereby they are able to indirectly/subconsciously work-out feelings of anxiety-induced aggression toward current social trends and political actions in regard to gender equalizing. To this point I'm mainly referring to white adult males being the most affected demographic in the recent economic recession coupled with more women becoming bread-winners, heads of household, and being able to negotiate new levels of socio-economic, -political, and -cultural power (even though legislation continues to threaten female agency, particularly reproductive rights). We still have a long way to go in achieving gender equality, however socio-economic, -political, and -cultural changes with regard to gender are happening. These changes work to destabilize white male hegemony (which women can also espouse and support) and makes those who have historically benefited from it uneasy, hence the phenomenon of white male anxiety. As such this anxiety can work its way out into socio-cultural expression and even more sadly, into direct domestic violence - a current hot topic in media. Therefore, the modern viewer gets subjected to Ros being penetrated by Joffrey's phallic arrows (a lot more literary, theorical, and rhetorical analyses could be done here). However, an instance in GoT which exemplifies white male anxiety-motivated violence is when Cersei is raped by her brother-lover, Jaime. She is forcefully penetrated by his phallus just as she gains new levels of power as Queen Regent (in that Tommin is too young to rule alone) and Jaime's socio-political phallic power and status are being destabilized by the loss of this fighting hand. As an interesting aside, this scene received a lot of public backlash as it is unique to the GoT adaptation and was not in Martin's original text.

Really interesting arguments and observations all around. I wanted to pick up on something Sarah said in her reply regarding adaptation. You mentioned that the rape scene that got a lot of coverage was not in the original books and I was struck by how prevalently that point and the point that the stories are meant to reflect history and its brutality factor into discussions of abuse on television. What are we to make of the excuses of "fidelity to the novels" and "attempts at realism" for storytelling decisions? I was particularly interested in the idea that was suggested that due to the restrictions of television, as compared to novels, the show had to skip through the nuance of the relationship between Jaime and Cersei and give a reason for their temporary falling out. As if to say, that because the showrunners only have an hour sexual or domestic violence is the easiest and most visually captivating shorthand to move the story along. Is there no better way to accomplish these narrative necessities?

Great comments all around. I am thinking much on the issue of gender and violence. The scene with Ros and with Joffrey's conflation of lust and blood lust is rather interesting. This contribution and Garrett's yesterday actually have me thinking about Jaime and Brienne as they travel through the wilderness back to Kings Landing. Brienne is this strong character who is threatened with both rape and being attacked by a bear. We talked a little of Arya yesterday and her relationship with violence. I suppose I also want to think of Theon as a representation of where sexual violence leads to disfigurement, though his circumstance comes with a kind of retribution we don't see with the female characters. When these characters are outside of the city walls, chaos seems much less like a ladder. Characters are confronted with traumas that lend themselves to neither reason nor advantage, unless we consider advantage not being eaten by a bear. Men thrown into these circumstances routinely lose physical body parts. Women instead seem to lose some notion or innocence or idealism. Do we see Sansa making this realization at the end of Season 4 and adapting? If so, can Baelish's idea of chaos translate into this less regulated world?

Really interesting point, Ethan. I hadn't thought about the argument of fidelity that undergrids the Jaime/Cersei rape scene objections. Much of what I read, namely from Slate, Jezebel, and The Huffington Post, stated that the decision to throw in a rape scene was unnecessary and less than helpful to feminisms' aim to create strong, non-objectified and victimized female roles in popular culture. Is Cersei a good representative of the embodiment of this aim? Probably not, seeing as she is misogynistic herself. However, the points made about gratuitous violence as short-hand for a time limited cinematic narrative is thought-provoking and could be traced through so many genres.

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