Game of Thrones concluded its fifth season this past Monday, with a finale that encapsulated all that the show has got wrong as of late. The wheels have fallen off the show’s well oiled machine, with it foregoing political intrigue and personal conflicts in favour of gussied up expedition. At the same time, as the show’s story has become increasingly disinteresting, the show runners have instead chased spectacle, usually in the form of either visual effects, or harrowing, cruel, and tone-deaf scenes of shocking and misogynistic sexual violence. This has been the first season without a single female writer or director, and boy has it showed. Would we have spent so long over the last few seasons on Daenerys’ meandering, aimless, plot if she and her wig were not the young, of-age, nubile, female face of the show?
Already this season, two women have been raped in order to advance male bystanders’ narrative arcs, and now in the finale another, Cersei, is publicly sexually abused. It’s handled with all the nuance and restraint one would expect from the show that only one episode before utilised the imprisonment of a female assassin as an excuse for a needless prison cell striptease. That is to say, almost none. And so Cersei is coerced into admitting to sleeping with her cousin. In her horrendous fall from grace and consequent humiliation she is stripped, shorn, and forced to walk, naked and bleeding, through the streets of King’s Landing. The scene encapsulated Game of Throne’s fraught relationship between female characters and their sexuality on screen. The show features a vast array of wonderfully complex, fascinating and genuinely innovative female characters, in a world where being a women is to carry a target on your back. Yet for all the respect the show’s scripts afford to the show’s female cast, the camera’s lascivious glare tells a different story.
To rehash discussions of the show’s narrative misogyny, and to offer anything new is the prerogative of someone with a far more enlightened perspective than I. Instead, what I find so irritating about Game of Thrones is the way in which the show systematically and deliberately panders to its straight male audience, at the expense of its huge female and gay audiences, hiding behind a paper thin argument that they’re illustrating a patriarchal world. The systematic use of male-on-female sexual abuse as a narrative device conveys this just fine thanks, we don’t need, and don’t want, you to set every other political scene in a brothel, with disembodied breasts as frame filling set dressing to labour the point.
And so returning to Cersei’s walk of shame, we see the show’s conflicting interests perfectly, frustratingly encapsulated. The sequence cuts between close ups of actress Lena Heady’s visage, as she precisely plays a progression from determined pride through embarrassment, resolution, humiliation, violation, relief and finally rage. Compounding this emotional tour-de-force (Heady is surely a shoe in for a second Emmy nomination come awards time) are point of view shots which allows us to experience the venom and invasiveness of the amassed crowds from Cersei’s perspective. But then there are the unnecessarily frequent wide shots, complete with dodgy face replacement effects, where the composition instructs us to stare upon her naked body, sharing in the crowd’s ogling, even as the sequence, and human decency, suggests one should look away (the uncomfortable class dynamic where we’re to look upon the “othered” hordes of the great unwashed whilst sharing in their disgust and leering gaze is also somewhat uncomfortable).
That the show also used a body double for Cersei’s nakedness, choosing to give her the body of a 20 year old glamour model, says everything about the show’s privileging of certain audiences and the heterosexual male gaze, even over the quality of storytelling. Would a more realistic, 40 year old woman’s naked body not have far better brought home the feelings of vulnerability and exposure so central to the scene and to Cersei’s dramatic arc? Would this not have avoided reinforcing unreasonable expectations of women’s bodies, particularly ageing ones, in one of the few times they’ve been represented on screen in the show? Instead, some 12-year old’s first boner has been prioritised over the effectiveness of the entire season’s denouément, whilst at the same time encouraging the sexualisation of a systemically victimised woman.
What’s worse, the show can’t conceive of her struggle outside of its own raging madonna-whore complex. Cersei is caught between the earthly realities of her public sexual identity, and the idealised, elevated maternity represented by her son, holed up in the Castle to which she frequently gazes skyward, as her source of strength. Only a select few female characters are awarded convincing characteristics outside of this simplistic dichotomy.
Whats more, this is not an isolated incident, and it’s not an equal opportunities thing. There’s a gross imbalance between male and female nudity, and this isn’t just a numbers game. It’s about the way these scenes are shot, the perspective the audience is invited to adopt, the narrative contrivances taken to get attractive characters in the nude. I’m glad Hodor got to flash his junk and all, but why wasn’t it Daario’s instead? It’s not like the straight male audience are being served anything outside of 2015’s gym honed, juice cleansed and almost hairless ideal of the female form. Or how about we just stop wasting precious minutes on serving the base interests of a specific audience, when that time could be used to unfurl a narrative that already strains against its hour-long runtimes? If you want to stare at tits, go on Google. Audiences tune in for adventure, not unnecessary areola.
I want to keep watching the show. I’ve invested 50 hours into it, and countless more reading, talking, and thinking about it. But, as a gay man, this becomes increasingly difficult with every lingering shot and leering pan over a rogue boob serving as a reminder that the show is catering to a demographic into which I definitely don’t fit. And when this titillation comes at the expense of the storytelling, it’s incredibly frustrating. Surely we can all be a little more discerning, than to demand our pathos with a side of good-looking genitalia.