My thoughts on last night's Game Of Thrones episode are coming together ahead of schedule this week, so I hope they'll be up before the weekend. Right now, though, I want to take a little time to discuss one particular scene, because it made me so utterly furious that including it with my other thoughts would derail the entire post. So let's have a brief break from the ongoing storyline, and talk about sexism in Game Of Thrones.
TV spoilers below.
Martin's masterwork is not always easy reading for anyone who could be even vaguely described as a feminist. An awful lot of very bad things happen to women in these books, things which by and large don't or can't happen to men. It's tough going. Some of Martin's reputation as a sexist/misogynist has been overblown, certainly. Not enjoying books that highlight the horrors of the Dark Ages (or Middle Ages; the books draw heavily from both) is entirely reasonable, but holding the writer responsible for them strikes me as ridiculous. This becomes no less true when unstinting examinations of hideous periods in history then get dragons added to them, and arguing anyone who chooses not to romanticise the past - in books that criticise romanticising the past, no less - must be endorsing that past is profoundly foolish.
But the fact that Martin's reputation on this score is overstated does not mean it is inaccurate. There are valid reasons to criticise his books on feminist grounds, and frankly such criticisms become easier to make as the series goes on, cumulating in a scene in Dance With Dragons which - no spoilers - exists for seemingly no reason than to make a character everyone knows is horrifically vile seem horrifically vile again, this time through the sexual degradation of a woman. In other words, it serves no dramatic need, and anything as unpleasant as this is - and even if I weren't avoiding spoilers, I wouldn't really feel like talking specifics - needs to be easily justifiable, otherwise it's the worst kind of gratuitousness.
So much as the books are concerned. Feminist criticisms of the TV show are far easier to understand, if only because of the sheer amount of naked female flesh on display. The language lover in me would almost be willing to say this has been worthwhile if only for gifting English with the term "sexposition", but it should be taken as axiomatic that if you can find an astonishingly gorgeous and perfectly proportioned redhead and make this writer feel he has seen her naked too often, then something has gone astonishingly wrong.
With the occasional notable exception, the show's second season seemed to take some notice of this, but the last two episodes of Season 3 have managed to utterly destroy any progress the show might have made, and fall further into the pit as well, by extending the problem beyond the amount of flesh being shown on the screen, and into the realm of sexual myth and fantasy.
I've already criticised last week's scene in which Pod returns the money Tyrion gave him for his foursome in Littlefinger's brothel. The idea that whores might enjoy their job so much that they'd do it for free struck me as deeply problematic (as my friend JJ pointed out, this would be seen as a ludicrous idea for any other profession - proof-readers don't check even the most absorbing novels for free, even the teachers who utterly adore children still want to get paid for looking after them, etc.), but at least the show left us enough space to hypothesise that the entire episode had been concocted by Tyrion as a way to build Pod's confidence.
Alas, last night the show felt compelled to explicitly spell out that, no, it really is just that Pod is that good. Turns out that sometimes objectified and oppressed women secretly really do deny being denied control over their own bodies.
There's at least three problems with this idea. JJ's point above is the first; swap "whore" for any other line of work and the story immediately becomes entirely unbelievable. The second also involves a hypothetical alteration to the plot. Imagine Pod, all shy glances, awkward movements and quiet consternation, were a girl. Imagine she spent some time having sex with three men at once. Do you think any of those men would report back that Podette was surprising in terms of quality?
No. She'd just be a dirty slut. A slut, at best, who surprised in that she proved "a real goer".
Whilst I can't read the minds of my female friends, I'd struggle to believe any one of them has a secret fantasy in which they sleep with three gorgeous rent-boys and they love it so much they don't feel inclined to pay. If the whores-for-free idea isn't an exclusively male fantasy, then the ratio is overwhelmingly on the side of those with a Y chromosome.
Which is not to say that sexual fantasies don't have any place in fiction - though if you're going to go down that route, some gender balance might be nice, and with all due respect to the man, I don't think catching a glimpse of Alfie Allen's floppy member really counts on that score. But you cannot - you simply cannot - combine a show exploring the horribly exploited position women suffered in for centuries in myriad historical societies with modern-day wish-fulfilment for adolescent men. As I argue above, I think people dismissing the value of - and impuning the motivations for - such bleaks works frequently badly overstate their case. But at a bare minimum, you have to be consistent. You cannot sneak in a scene that amounts to "of course, sometimes the dirty sluts really loved it, amirite, lads?". Because now you're not portraying the hideous treatment of women despite how unsettling that portrayal might be to some. Your using the desperately sexist nature of those societies as an excuse to revel in that sexism. You're arguing that the hideous treatment of women might not actually have been so bad, if only you were one of those guys. You know. Not one of the bad dudes who slap women around and who hookers would hate to service. One of the special ones, that a whore secretly yearns for anyway, who'll probably give the money back after because of how great you are.
Seven Hells, Littlefinger even points this out himself in the series, somewhere around the time he tells Esme Bianco to play with a naked woman's arse so we know how horrible and bad the sex trade is except sometimes it turns out it's not.
And if Littlefinger can work it out...
(Actually, so did Mitchell and Webb:
Pro tip, TV writers. If you're trying to push a storyline torn to pieces in a sketch show four years earlier, it might be time to re-think your approach to drama. )