A friend just asked about the violence, particularly the sexual violence, in Game Of Thrones.
Thrones is definitely not for everybody. It can be hard viewing. There is violence and sexual exploitation all through it. This portrayal has, I believe, a serious and worthy purpose, which I'll get to. But there's no doubt that it is hard to watch, even for a jaded viewer like me. There is no dishonor if one cannot watch that.
But if one can watch it, I believe that it rewards the attention and heartache. Thrones, like The Wire, is at once entertaining, harsh, and smart enough to be important. I'll be the first to admit that Thrones isn't so sophisticated as The Wire, but considering how sophisticated The Wire is, that Thrones gets itself into close enough range to merit the comparison is very high praise.
Thrones is especially rewarding and important for people like me who have a weakness for “genre fantasy”, the strain of literature which has emerged from generations of writers inspired by Tolkien. Part of the way Thrones works, part of why it is entertaining, is that it offers strong examples of the seductive allure of the feudal romance: heroism and honor and glory in battle and all that jazz.
But Thrones is ultimately a critique of why we should not trust the appeal of that feudal world. The villain in Game Of Thrones is not any of the rival houses of Westeros or any of the nasty characters or even the White Walkers of the North — the villain, instead, is the feudal social order itself. A while back I wrote that Django Unchained is laudable for making us unable to watch Gone With the Wind uncritically; I believe that Thrones is working similarly to make us unable to watch The Lord of the Rings uncritically.
As a proponent of liberal democracy and other Enlightenment values, I think this is important cultural work.
To achieve this, the show portrays the violence and sexual exploitation that are integral to the feudal world, and portrays it forcefully. Were it my show to make, I'd have been less explicit. A friend reminds me of the scenes between Theon and Ramsey, and I also think of Jamie and Cersi in the sept, some of the goings-on at Petyr Baelish's brothel, and so forth. There are moments when critics of the show who see it as exploitive rather than critical of exploitation are persuasive. What is wrong with us that we would watch these things as entertainment?
Well, it works hard at being entertaining, and succeeds handsomely.
And I suspect that in choosing what to portray and how to portray it, the makers of Thrones often have better judgment than I do. I've been noticing a number of fans online complaining that the show has taken the Westeros they daydreamed about traveling to when reading the books and curdled it into the unpleasant Westeros of the show. Perhaps the show needs to beat the drum that hard to ensure that, for all the charms of the feudal world, people register that it is not romantic but a nightmare. Were it less brutal we might miss its meaning, but were it less entertaining we might never watch it. To hold entertainment so close to brutality threatens to devolve into exploitation, but there may not be another way.
Update — answering a friend on Facebook who worries that the show allows for an audience who sees the show as normalizing the subjugation of women:
The strategy of both the show and the novels is unmistakable. It offers you the pleasures of classic genre narratives ... and then makes them increasingly uncomfortable. When we first encounter Petyr Baelish's brothel, we think we have been there before: giggling girls and palace intrigues and all the cheap thrills we have come to expect from a hundred genre fantasy novels. Then each time we go back, there's another, stronger reminder of what it really entails. The story asks us, “Does this still seem fun to you? How about now? How about now? How about NOW?”
Maybe I caught on to what the story was doing a little early, because I came in already thinking about genre fantasy in these critical terms. But the novels and the show are evidently fearless about escalating however far is necessary. (If anything, the show is more direct about its implicit criticisms of the genre.) I have a hard time imagining a reasonable viewer who will make it through without getting the point.
Another update — I'm reminded by another discussion that one of the key examples of the rape-y-ness of the show is Drogo's rape of Daenerys early in the series, which evolves into a close bond between the characters. This is one of the places where my defense of the show is at its weakest. The Drogo-Daenerys relationship plays more plausibly than the bare description makes it sound, but that doesn't make it okay. Repeating the love-born-from-rape trope is a problem for all the obvious reasons, doubly since it plays into the orientalism of the portrayal of the Dothraki with pale Daenerys acting as a “civilizing” influence on swarthy Drogo. Ugh.
I've let my viewing of the show get ahead of my reading of the books; at the moment, Daenyrs' story is awash in White Savior narrative tropes. I'm okay with that, since my reading that Thrones is an attack on genre fantasy tropes which works by showing us those tropes' seductiveness makes me very confident that a critique of white-savior-ism is just around the corner.
But that will come too late to serve as a critique of the racist way the show has already portrayed the Dothraki, who are almost completely offstage at this point.
Another update (May 2015) — I need to write a long reëxamination of this question, taking back my comment “the makers of Thrones often have better judgment than I do”. Later developments in the show have shown me that while I remain certain that some folks at Team HBO are working toward the purposes I describe here, there are others who are too incompetent, naïve, sexist, or deliberately exploitive to consistently deliver on them cleanly.
Alyssa Rosenberg says similar things in Game of Thrones Has Always Been A Show About Rape. And Brad DeLong tells us People: Game of Thrones Is Horror!
Meanwhile Daniel José Older has an interestingly ambivalent comparison of Game of Thrones to Penny Dreadful, Chuck Wendig's We Are Not Things: Mad Max versus Game of Thrones looks at developments after I originally wrote this piece and takes a dim view, and offers some good additional links, and Rhube's We Are Not Your Shield pointedly observes that the existence of female fans of the series does not excuse its problems.