HBO's new fantasy series is filled with brutal sex scenes. Why? And why do they make viewers so uncomfortable?
"Kings traveled across the world for a night with Eragenia. Magisters sold their palaces. Khals burned her enemies just to have her for a few hours. They say a thousand men proposed to her... and she refused them all."
Let's talk about sex.
There were a wide range of responses to the sexual content of last week's Game of Thrones series premiere, "Winter Is Coming," with some writers defending the show as realistic and frank, and others arguing that its sexual dynamics were simplistic and offensive. Those who were bothered by the sex scenes in "Winter Is Coming" aren't likely to feel any differently after this week's episode, "The Kingsroad."
I suspect that the main reason Game of Thrones has drawn so much criticism for its sexual content is that it's a fantasy series. The Sopranos regularly featured sex scenes every bit as explicit (and sometimes as discomforting) as the ones in Game of Thrones—but that was a gangster drama. For decades, viewers have been conditioned to expect fantasy to be fantastical. But unlike previous fantasy series, like the whimsical Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, or films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Game of Thrones is every bit as gritty and troubling as the real world. That takes some getting used to.
Daenerys Targaryen was the primary victim of Westeros' lopsided sexual politics in last week's episode: She was nakedly appraised and traded off like an animal by her brother, Viserys, then raped by her brutish new husband, Khal Drogo. ("The Kingsroad" features another scene of Drogo callously raping Daenerys, which raises disturbing questions about just how much sexual violence she's been subjected to since her wedding night.) It's worth noting that all of the sex in Game of Thrones has consisted of a man taking a woman from behind while she's on her hands and knees. There's something animalistic about the ways in which the men treat women in Game of Thrones in general, and sex is the most obvious signifier.
It's important, however, to note the difference between depicting misogyny and endorsing misogyny. Game of Thrones is set in a world in which sex is the primary means by which women can assert their power. But it invites us to sympathize with women like Daenerys—not with her simpering, misogynistic brother or her stoic husband. It's by design that virtually all the women in the series can be divided into two categories: noblewomen and prostitutes. For women without money or a bloodline to protect them, sex is the greatest means of survival.
Lest I praise the honesty of the series' sexual dynamics too much, it's also worth noting that Game of Thrones sometimes toes the line between genuine plot advancement and Skinimax-style exploitation. Last night's bedroom scene between Daenerys and her handmaiden Doreah is a perfect example. Doreah's story, about the sexual prowess of Eragenia (quoted above) is absolutely essential to the development of Daenerys' character. So is Doreah's ultimate advice: "Are you a slave, Khaleesi? Then don't make love like a slave." Later that night, Daenerys insists that Drogo look at her face as they make love, and for the first time, both seem to enjoy it. It's the first sex scene in the series that could genuinely be described as romantic, and it depicts Daenerys' increasing confidence and inner strength.
But Doreah gives Daenerys this advice as she straddles her in a softly-lit bedroom, while the camera pans lovingly over her well-toned abs. Is Doreah, as her parable might indicate, using her sexual power to win favor with Daenerys? Is she merely demonstrating what the inexperienced Daenerys needs to know to overcome Drogo's brutality? Or is this scene just unabashedly, unnecessarily titillating? In my opinion, it's shades of all three—all plot relevance aside, HBO is clearly hungry to replicate the success of erotic horror series True Blood—but in the end, it's up to each viewer to decide whether this much explicit content is necessary, or worth sticking around for.
Though Daenerys is the most violent and explicit example of Westeros' queasy relationship between sex and power, she's not the only one. If you want to see the indirect, long-term consequence of sex in Game of Thrones, look no further than Ned's bastard son, Jon Snow. In "The Kingsroad," we learn a little more about the circumstances that led the honorable Ned to stray from his wife, Lady Catelyn. Ned's abject refusal to joke about his affair—and his decision to raise Jon Snow, the son born of it—makes it clear that it was more than a meaningless tryst, and he clearly loves the son it bore him. As Snow rides off to join the Night's Watch, Ned assures him, "You are a Stark. You may not have my name, but you have my blood."
Unfortunately for Jon Snow, Ned's name would be worth a lot more. In a world ruled by seven noble families, the price for being born an outsider is steep. Snow is every bit as adept and brave as any of the members of his family, but the circumstances of his birth precludes him from the glory of the Starks. He leaves his family at the castle of Winterfell to toil in obscurity in the Night's Watch, alongside weaklings and criminals, because of his father's sole indiscretion more than a decade earlier (one shudders to think about the countless Jon Snows that Tyrion is sowing on his prostitute-heavy tour of Westeros).
And, of course, there's poor Bran to think of. In last week's cliffhanger ending, Jaime pushed Bran out of a high castle window after Bran witnessed Jaime having sex with his sister, Queen Cersei. At the end of "The Kingsroad," Bran awakens from his coma. If he reveals what he saw, the incestuous affair between Jaime and Cersei could lead to all-out war between the Starks and the Lannisters—a war that could topple the increasingly tenuous hold that King Baratheon has on the iron throne of Westeros, and change the balance of power for good.
Ultimately, Game of Thrones is about power, and the consequences of sex—both immediately and years down the line—can mean the difference between gaining and losing it. Westeros is not a modern or progressive world, and sex and violence remain its primary trades. Viewers who find either untenable should steer clear.
Read all of The Atlantic's Game of Thrones coverage.
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