Game of Thrones: Gender Values and Reception

The award winning Game of Thrones (2011-) is an American fantasy television series, with an average of 4.8 million weekly viewers, and can be considered as a cross-platform media phenomena, due to its viewership and positive social media interactivity. Moreover, the text exemplifies media ‘in transition’ due to the way a television series has now evolved to working on multiple platforms, rather than being a stationary text. As well as many fan-made spoofs of the series, which have become viral via YouTube and Facebook, HBO has successfully created online platforms, whereby viewers can enhance their spectatorship and become active participants in the fantasy world of Westeros and Essos. However, the series’ frequent use of nudity and sexual violence has become a main attraction for criticism and debate. Therefore, Game of Thrones’ underlying gender values and, what appears to be, a heavily misogynistic outlook towards the female characters in the drama can initially be argued to be supporting a negative representation of women, which challenges the popularity of contemporary postfeminist texts. Despite the over sexualisation of women and the promotion of a phallocentric world, the fantasy drama still introduces strong female characters who do not subvert to gender stereotypes, such as Brienne of Tarth, as well as dynamic females who significantly drive the narrative. Most significantly, this debate raises concern as to how gender values are being portrayed and operated across multiple platforms and ‘space’, and how this is subsequently being received by users.

HBO’s Game of Thrones was first launched in 2011 by Dan Weiss and David Benioff, as an adaption of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire. Since the series’ first showing, the drama has become popular worldwide, which has enabled the producers to transfer the fictional world onto numerous platforms, whilst staying true to the original novels, which entices audiences to engage with the television series. As Jenkins notes (2006, 95-96), “a transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole”, which demonstrates the individual significance each platform has to building a functional ‘space’ for audiences to interact and engage with the television series. As well as the use of interactivity with social networks, such as an official Twitter and Facebook page, HBO’s website allows audiences to have more insight into the production of the series, with production diaries and interviews with the cast, although this breaks the verisimilitude of the series, it heightens the audience’s experience. Additionally, HBO’s integration with Sky Atlantic and iTunes means that audiences can access even more exclusive material through a variety of platforms, which led to the creation of an online podcasts series, called Thronecast. Furthermore, HBO commissioned music albums, such as Catch the Throne which consists of rap songs about the series, as well as the soundtrack albums, which includes music from the popular American indie rock band The National. Ironically, the fantasy genre or the series itself would not conventionally be associated with rap music; however thousands of people follow the mixtape on SoundCloud, proving to be a popular interpretation of the genre and the fictional world, demonstrating its cultural significance. Therefore, this effective use of synergy illustrates how Game of Thrones successfully operates amongst numerous cross-platforms, creating a cultural zeitgeist, which can be seen as a cultural phenomenon operating across ‘space’.

Firstly, it is important to understand the historical context of gender values and its role in contemporary media, significantly in television. Television presents entertainment and information for audiences to consume, and “as a discursive practice and producer of cultural meanings it is a major force in the production of dominant images of women” (Dyer et al, 1987, 6). Additionally, it has historically been considered that men control production practices and therefore inflict their image of traditional femininity, which has been argued to reinforce cliché stereotypes and remove ‘reality’. Furthermore, sexual identity and urges, which make up the ‘inner’ self, was initially reinforced by Freudian and psychoanalytic discourses, which reinforced gender values and gender as binary opposites.  Foucault (1977, 20-25) argues that discourses about sex soon became a popular idea in Western cultures, until it became a new social and political issue, with pornography and teenage pregnancy becoming recurring moral panics. However, Gauntlett (2002, 95) debates that “it is not necessarily the case that the mass media are adding these messages into society” and therefore it can be implied that media is only identifying issues which are evident in our contemporary day to day lives, rather than creating new discourses. Overall, it is clear that the battle between gender values and sexuality has been a prominent issue for centuries, which has not come about since the popularity of television. Although, it is understandable that television and cross-platform media enables these issues to be proliferated across ‘space’. However, as the digital age is helping the audience to not only be spectators, but producers themselves, women arguably now have more power behind the creation of the ‘new woman’, with traditionalist views being minimised.

On the other side of the debate, due to Game of Thrones having millions of weekly viewers and a worldwide fan base, this creates cause for concern, seeing as critics argue that negative gender values are reinforced by the narrative, as well as visually. Critically, misogynistic themes are portrayed across both the novel and the television series, which suggests that the audience is predominantly male and it can be argued that the audience are passively adopting these themes and ideas, which additionally rejects any attempt of the feminist movement in media. As Hall (1980, 60) argues, the audience may adopt the hegemonic and dominant values of the text, and then the audience member “operate[s] with ‘relatively autonomous’ codes of their own and… act[s] in such a way as to reproduce… the hegemonic signification”. This would therefore imply that the audience will encode these negative gender values presented in Game of Thrones and transfer them into everyday life, which has implications on cultural values. However, this is not necessarily true, as this would suggest that the audiences are completely passive and malleable, with no thoughts of their own.  Also, contrary to this, women make up approximately 42% of the audience (Watercutter, 2003), suggesting that either women themselves have internalised the negative portrayal of women, or contradictory, Game of Thrones does present women positively. Although it cannot be denied that sexual violence and prostitution are clear themes, the representation of the main female characters are arguably far more positive, seeing as the women can hold power in the kingdom equally intellectually or physically.

RosRos  and Tyrion (Source: http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2012/04/27/472485/a-partial-defense-of-nudity-in-game-of-thrones/)

As previously mentioned, a lot of criticism towards Game of Thrones is focused on the frequent scenes of nudity, which Ryan (2011), a television critic, addresses is mainly woman and not men, with excess use of “random boobage”, which subsequently contradicts any aspirations the directors have in representing an equal society whereby women are free from oppression. Furthermore, Game of Thrones actor Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon) compared the series to being similar to “German porn from the 1970s” (Frost, 2014), which highlights that a pornographic stylistic approach may have been intentional by the directors to create an appealing look for the male audience. For instance, Ros, a sex worker, has featured in many of the scenes where nudity and sexual violence has taken place, including a shocking scene where the king, Joffrey Lannister, encourages brutality between Ros and a fellow sex worker. However, Ros’ character is not featured in George R.R. Martin’s original novels and instead was a character created for the television series, which suggests that the directors wanted to visually intensify the disfiguration of women, as well as breaking the audience’s shock threshold, which in turn encapsulates the audience’s attention. Regardless of the negative themes and criticism raised, millions of viewers, both male and female, are still interested in watching the series, and the horrific scenes help to enforce empathy towards the innocent characters. Furthermore, Joffrey Lannister kills Ros by using her as a live target for his crossbow, which arguably suggests that Ros is a martyr, seeing as she risked her life to protect others, which therefore demonstrates the prominence of women within the series.

Ros Ros (Source: http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Ros)

Moreover, the series is arguably flooded in the male gaze theory, implying that producers are assuming the audience is male, and therefore they would be interested in seeing recurring scenes of naked women, which subsequently will please the audiences’ needs. As Mulvey (1999) states, “a woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude”. This suggests that scophophilia is a necessity in cinema and television, as well as enhancing the cinematic experience for the viewers. Not only is the narrative reinforcing these ideas, but the mise-en-scene and cinematography also plays a strong part in positioning the audience as a male spectator, even during scenes of sexual violence. For instance, (image below) a POV shot positions the audience as Tyrion Lannister, which subsequently places the audience as a male, therefore supporting the male gaze theory. Additionally, there is clear evidence  of women subverting to men by taking off their clothes, with the camera focusing on the women, rather than the men. The strength of this theory is that it explains the motives behind the directors’ approach towards the gender values depicted in the series, whilst simultaneously defending the series as misogynistic. Nonetheless, the male gaze theory is reductionist as it is assuming that all of the viewers are male, whilst excluding women as active spectators. However, women make up almost half of Game of Thrones’ viewership and therefore positioning the women as men would be futile, seeing as it would be isolating almost half of its audience, suggesting the theory is out dated.

Tyrion and Shae

Shae and Tyrion (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWT-HuJlXGo)

In contrary to the sexist debate, there appears to be a correlation between the likeability and success between the misogynist characters and the men who are more respectful towards the women in the series. For example, Joffrey Lannister and Craster are two of the most evil and hated characters, as well as being the most horrifically misogynistic. In turn, both of these characters have been murdered. Also, the more considerate characters, such as Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow, although not politically strong, are thriving and dynamic characters in the series. Furthermore, this closely ties in with Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, whereby the ruling class inflict preferred ideas and morals into society. Therefore, Game of Thrones is distributing a dominant idea that bad things will come to those who ill-treat women, which most significantly makes the fantasy drama a feminist text, rather than being heavily misogynistic. Alternatively, this addresses the issues of power and influence within the media industry, as it is suggesting that audiences succumb passively to information given to them. Nonetheless, the concept of hegemony has a critical limitation as it is challenged by the pluralist model. Unlike the hegemonic model, pluralism assumes that audiences possess the most power, seeing as institutions produce content which caters to the audiences’ needs. For instance, the directors and producers of Game of Thrones produce material which they believe the audience want to see, as this would make the series more successful. Due to this, the power is placed within the audiences’ hands, which also heightens the significance behind the variety of cross-platforms that the audience can engage with, as well as how these issues operate across ‘space’.

Moreover, it can be argued that the negative gender values portrayed across the novels and the series effectively enhance the faux medieval setting. Therefore, to keep the verisimilitude of the narrative, it is important to stay true to the historical context, even though the historical period in Game of Thrones is fictional. Due to this, ill-treatment of women and hyper-sexuality would be expected in this context, as this is how men would have exercised their power in a phallocentric period. In addition, Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon) argues that it’s a “truthful reflection of how power operates”, as well as presenting “a dark view of the human condition” (Frost, 2014). Furthermore, the novel and the series’ themes are parallel to those seen in the historic English monarchy. In a traditionalist society, the right to the throne is given by innate power and birth right, although it was still condemned for women to be the absolute ruler, seeing as women were not seen fit to rule. Due to this, this reflection of ideology is mirrored within Game of Thrones, which illustrates the cultural positioning and hierarchy of women within society in a pre-modern world, which suggests that the negative representation of gender values is appropriate.

Despite scenes of a sexual nature which can be considered as degrading women within the narrative, it is also important to take into consideration the diversity and individual strength amongst the female characters portrayed in the series. The majority of the women either exert some sort of physical strength or are intellectual equal to the male characters; therefore Game of Thrones is a feminist text as it illustrates women breaking free from negative stereotypes. Firstly, Arya Stark is a high born interested in swordplay, with short hair and a disregard for being a Lady, she proves to be a strong and dynamic character across the series, by representing intelligence, as well as physical strength. Similarly, Brienne of Tarth, a warrior of her house, is regarded as unfeminine for her strong build and unattractive features, and therefore is disrespected and misunderstood by many of the characters. As a result of this, her vulnerability makes her a compassionate and likable character, respected by the audience, as well as highlighting issues of gender inequality and judgement towards gender values. This is demonstrated in the clip below (0:23-0:37), whereby Jamie Lannister mocks her for her lack of femininity and states that “you’d love to know what it feels like to be a woman”, suggesting that her lack of sexuality deprives her of being a woman, despite her biology. On the other hand, Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen both use their femininity and social position to effectively manipulate and sustain power. Therefore, they rely on their house name and political knowledge to handle situations and achieve their goals. Furthermore, not only are these two women driven by personal ambition, but their role as a mother. For instance, Daenerys is determined to establish a woman’s right to rule Westeros, which if she succeeds, will be down to her position as being the Mother of Dragons.  Overall, the female characters, including the sex worker Ros, all hold powerful meanings and representations of women, individually taken on a different approach towards gender and its expectations.

Most significantly, if Game of Thrones is a heavily misogynist text with consistent negative gender values, why is the series received so well by the female audience? It could be argued that frequent exposure to misogynist texts, through a variety of media, has meant that women have internalised these views for themselves and are therefore conforming to what they believe society expects of them. However, this is far too simplistic, especially seeing as the basic viewing of a medium does not seem to co-exist with new media world, because the current digital age allows the audience, including the female audience, to explore Game of Thrones across multiple platforms, including social networking sites. Therefore, this makes the passivity of audience and reception theory far too over-simplified, as the conventional television viewing experience has been turned into a far more complex and active event. As the image below demonstrates, women and men interact with the series equally, suggesting that the portrayal of women provokes discussion, as well as sustaining the audiences’ interest. Furthermore, this shows that Game of Thrones is a cultural phenomenon and is popular across ‘space’, seeing as social activity has become a pivotal part of the series.

Moreover, Game of Thrones is also received well by audiences because it is an example of HBO’s trend of “Arc TV”, whereby watching a single episode out of context is not likely to reward the viewer, which therefore makes the series an arguably engaging experience. As Wilson (2013, 110-111) argues “tidy endings to every episode and static characters are out. Long arcs of character and plot development filmed in big- ticket productions are in.” As a result of this, Game of Thrones is perhaps received well by both genders, due to the positive portrayal of the leading female roles, which overrides any of the negative traditionalist stereotypes of women, as well as the exciting narrative which grips the audience. Therefore, HBO does not reject women as part of its demographic and intends to entertain them, as well as the male audience.

Statistics

 (Source: http://www.wired.com/2013/06/women-game-of-thrones/)

As an active, female viewer of Game of Thrones myself, it is interesting to position myself on both sides of the debate; whether the series portrays women negatively or positively. With no initial preference, I find myself watching the series because it’s so widely talked about that, that not watching it appears to be a cultural taboo, which demonstrates how a text can become so engrossed in the mass audience that it can be argued to be a cultural phenomenon. Additionally, the anchorage of the text and its complex plot, makes the series very enticing to me personally, even with the occasional themes of sexual violence and rape. Due to my personal spectatorship and engagement with the case study, it is interesting to note how passively I consume these sexual discourses, which has been highlighted to me from the research I have carried out. As a result, it is interesting for me to reflect on my own consumption of media and how the series’ cultural significance shapes my own passivity towards these themes. However, an in-depth look at the female characters, demonstrates that they are individually dynamic and the text is not necessarily misogynist.

Most significantly, my research will impact my future media consumption as a user and a viewer, because I will take into consideration the different approaches and theories towards engaging with a text. As well as this, my understanding of what makes a popular text will hopefully help me to produce something appealing to a wide demographic, which importantly should operate across multiple platforms and ‘space’, which is an area I have not considered, and from my research, this is significant in the digital age for consumers and producers.

To conclude, Game of Thrones is a contemporary cross-platform media phenomenon, which effectively shows how media is moving rapidly into the new digital age, whereby audiences can engage with a text across ‘space’. From the original novels to the video games and social networking, Game of Thrones can be engaged with across numerous platforms, due to its popularity from HBO’s television series. This text exemplifies the way audiences are changing their consumption habits, which heightens the series’ internal debate of gender values, because they can now be discussed and transferred in numerous ways. Although, the series undoubtedly has frequent scenes of a sexual nature, the series arguably represents women in a diverse way to demonstrate oppression of women in a historical context, as well as creating strong and dynamic female characters to demonstrate how power can be influenced in a patriarchal society. Nonetheless, there is evidence of Mulvey’s male gaze theory in the series, supporting the debate that the series is aimed dominantly at men, however the way in which the text is received by women contradicts this theory.

Word count: 3,362

Bibliography

Baehr, H and Dyer, G. 1987. Boxed In: Women and Television. New York: Pandora.

Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Frost, C. 2014. Game of Thrones’ Star Stephen Dillane Admits the Nudity Is Like ‘German Porn from the 1970s’ [online]. Huffington Post. Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/01/14/game-of-thrones-stephen-dillane-the-tunnel_n_4595628.html

Game of Thrones. 2011- . [TV Series] Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. USA/UK: HBO.

Gauntlett, D. 2002. Media, Gender and Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Hall, S. 1980. Encoding/decoding. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, H. 2007. Transmedia Storytelling 101. Available from: http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html

Mulvey, L. 1999. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ryan, M. 2011. ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 1, Episode 7 Recap. Available from: http://www.aoltv.com/2011/05/29/game-of-thrones-season-1-episode-7-recap/

Watercutter, A. 2013. Yes, Women Really Do Like Game of Thrones (We Have Proof) [online]. Wired. Available from: http://www.wired.com/2013/06/women-game-of-thrones/

Wilson, H.W. 2013, Television’s New Golden Age. Washington: Wilson Quarterly.

 

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