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.