'Game of Thrones': Sexist or Feminist?

Many criticize the popular HBO series as sexist and even misogynistic - but in reality, it portrays an ensemble of strong and impressive female characters.

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Game of Thrones.Credit: Yes/HBO

One common criticism of “Game of Thrones” — HBO’s most popular series ever, which concluded its fourth season yesterday — is that it is sexist, if not downright misogynistic. The basis of this charge is that women are depicted nude in almost every scene. So much so, in fact, that this has given rise to the term “sexposition” (a combination of “sex” and “exposition,” coined by blogger and television critic Myles McNutt, referring to the use of sex scenes to provide information to the viewer about character motivation and plot). Of course, the criticism that the series is sexist has to do not only with its general portrayal of sex and nudity, but also with the unequal manner in which masculine and feminine nudity are presented.

Yet “Game of Thrones” is not at all sexist. It contains the most impressive female protagonists that have ever been seen on the screen. We need to remember that this is a medieval fantasy that depicts a certain imaginary culture based on realistic elements. In this culture, the feminine body is fair game in bed, just as the masculine body is fair game on the battlefield.

When we look at women through the mirror of “Game of Thrones,” we should examine the series’ women protagonists. Daenerys Targaryen, one of the major characters, is a good example. Daenerys, who had been sold into marriage as a girl by her brother and raped by her husband, eventually becomes the most powerful force in the entire kingdom.

Out of the bleak situation of women in Westeros arises an ensemble of strong women who rule the world. Cersei, Shae, Margaery, Olenna, Melisandre, Sansa, Brienne, Yara, Lysa Arryn, Ygritte are courageous, independent survivors,who fight for one another. One need only compare the women of “Game of Thrones” with those of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to grasp the difference in how women are presented.

“Game of Thrones” turned the women — including those forced to work in a scorned profession such as prostitution — into heroines. The series’ women are extraordinary not only in the defined territory of the fantasy genre, but extraordinary by any standard of television. They are strong, dominant, complex and drive the plot. While women like Sarah Linden in “The Killing,” Saga Noren in “The Bridge” and Carrie Mathison in “Homeland” are also strong, independent female characters, the series in which they appear seem content to have only one powerful woman character, in contrast to “Game of Thrones,” which has a whole cast of them.

Natalie Dormer, left, and Diana Rigg in a scene from "Game of Thrones." Credit: AP