Game of Thrones and the Paradox of Female Beauty

The HBO show’s sixth-season premiere taps into a longstanding (and sexist) trope: anxieties about women being something other than they seem.

Melisandre, the "Red Woman" (HBO)

Warning: Season 6 spoilers abound.

It’s the scene the entire Season 6 premiere of Game of Thrones—and in some sense the series up to this point—has been building toward. There stands the Red Woman, Melisandre, the goddess behind so much of the show’s deus ex machina, in her bedroom. A fire crackles. A candle flickers. Music, at once sharp and flat, plays. Melisandre, regarding herself in a foggy mirror, unbuttons her dress. It falls away. All that remains is her necklace—a choker made of metal, completed with a red stone. The tension builds. The notes swell. She gazes at herself. We gaze along with her.

And then—a gong rumbles into a dramatic crescendo—she is transformed: An old woman, naked, stares back in that mirror. Melisandre’s glossy red hair has been replaced with sparse, white strands. Her eyes have sunken; her breasts have sagged; her back has hunched. The camera lingers on her naked body; we linger, too. She seems small and shriveled and weak. More than that: She seems sad. Melisandre slowly folds her frail body into her bed. She covers it with a blanket of animal furs. She sleeps.

So: The Red Woman is also an old woman! The scene is, all in all, the most satisfying type of plot twist: the kind that is shocking and also that you kind of anticipated the whole time. George R.R. Martin’s books, after all, have long suggested Melisandre’s age; the show based on them, for its part, has teased audiences with her very big secret. Outside of the Winterfellian world, too, there have been hints. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop points out, Carice van Houten, the actor who plays Melisandre, has for years given interviews suggesting that the character is much more than 100 years old—and a fellow actor has mentioned, off-handedly, that she is in fact closer to 400.

But the shock-not-shock of the big plot twist was only partially due to the revelation that Melisandre is not what she seems (a revelation, as Spencer Kornhaber notes, that is a longstanding trope in fairy tales). The greater surprise—the real, visceral shock of the big reveal—was the manner of the revelation: the way the show announced the Red Woman’s age via its light-flickering, tension-building, music-accompanied strip show. Through Game of Thrones’s candlelit twist-cum-cliffhanger, viewers saw something that is almost never depicted on television, or for that matter in movies or in most other visual media: the starkly naked body of a very, very old woman.

In that, Game of Thrones is tapping into another kind of trope, and a much more pernicious one: the woman who has not only pretended to be something other than she is, but who has pretended to be more desirable than she is. The woman who has appeared to be young and beautiful in a society that treats those things as interchangeable—and a women who is in truth, according to that society, neither. A woman who fully embodies the regressive notion of “feminine wiles.” Melisandre, earlier in Game of Thrones’s TV run, seduced Stannis Baratheon. She tried to seduce Jon Snow. Her character has repeatedly used sex to get her way. And now we learn that she has done all that while being the one thing the culture beyond Game of Thrones’s universe has deemed antithetical to sex: an old woman. Twist!

George R.R. Martin, in the books, has a notably distinctive word for Melisandre’s particular brand of magic: glamor. “Call it what you will,” the Red Woman tells Jon Snow in the most recent Song of Ice and Fire book, A Dance With Dragons. “Glamor, seeming, illusion. R’hllor is Lord of Light, Jon Snow, and it is given to his servants to weave with it, as others weave with thread.” Later on in the same book, Arya Stark’s mentor offers a similar explanation, this time with “glamor” as the instrument, rather than the effect, of the magic:

“Mummers change their faces with artifice,” the kindly man was saying, “and sorcerers use glamors, weaving light and shadow and desire to make illusions that trick the eye.”

Martin is employing the historical definition of glamour—as a brand of magic that specializes in deceptive appearances. Which is also to say: a brand of magic that has long been associated with the feminine. Up until the 19th century, the writer Virginia Postrel notes, “glamour” suggested “a magic spell, an illusion cast by Gypsies and witches.” It suggested artifice and duplicity, particularly when it came to sex. “When devils, wizards, or jugglers deceive the sight,” went a 1721 glossary of poetry, “they are said to cast glamour o’er the eyes of the spectator.”

In that sense, the thing being revealed in Melisandre’s big reveal is much more than age, and much more than simple artifice. It is deception in the name of seduction. Melisandre’s illusion is an extreme form of the kind of practical magic that many mortal women are expected to engage in, every day: to do everything in their power to appear young and beautiful, for as long as they possibly can. But her reveal—and the schadenfreudic delight the show takes in its pans, in every sense of the word, of her body—also suggest the other side of the Melisandrian trap: the judgment women will face for the effort. To attempt to appear youthful is to conform to one social expectation and to violate another. It is to assert and to acquiesce, both at the same time.

So Melisandre’s reveal—the public artifice versus the private reality—is also the sort of thing that is called to mind when, say, sitcoms make jokes about the horrors of women being seen (by men) without makeup. Or when Us Weekly gleefully revels in catching stars in the same state. Or when a Redditor responds to a before-and-after picture of a woman wearing makeup with the comment “This post shows to not trust one’s looks.” It is tied to the retrograde assumption that women—via makeup and hair dye and Spanx and the Bombshell! After Dark Lace Add-2-Cups Push-Up Bra and what have you—ritually and routinely deceive by way of pretending to be something other than what they are.

Which is also to say that the discord of that jarring goooong in Melisandre’s age-reveal is uncomfortably harmonious with the culture beyond Game of Thrones—one that is awkwardly negotiating what “graceful aging” actually entails. It’s a culture in which the privileged have access to plastic surgery and Botox and anti-aging serums and potions. A culture in which shows like Younger explore what age actually means when technological advances have made one’s actual age less immediately obvious, and in which shows like Cougartown and Hot in Cleveland and their many, many counterparts wrestle with the complicated collisions of “women” and “age” and “sex.”

It’s also a culture that found a character on another of last night’s HBO season premieres, Veep, firing an employee with the explanation that “you’re as useless to me as a 40-year-old woman.”

The “woman” there, coming from the guy it did, was redundant. Because what Melisandre’s reveal also suggests is how gendered aging—that otherwise extremely universal human activity—has become. If you enter “old woman” onto, the dictionary first helpfully suggests, as a synonym, a “female marriage partner,” or “bride”; a few clicks away from that, though—if you’re trying to find a word for an older woman on her own terms, rather than a guy’s—you get “bag,” “battle-ax,” “biddy,” “crone,” “harpy,” “shrew,” and “vixen.” You get the whiff of the same thing Game of Thrones suggests with its gong-and-fire-laden presentation of Melisandre’s real, wrinkled body: the suggestion that age is not just a stage of life, but a state of mind. That age—for women, at least—is a personality trait, and a distinctly negative one. That an “old woman” is only slightly removed from a harpy/shrew/vixen. ( on “old man,” on the other hand? Suggested synonyms include “head of the house,” “parent,” “patriarch,” and “lord.”)

So while the final scene of “The Red Woman” was subtly orchestrated on a human level—“maybe it was the sad, tired expression on her face or how suddenly vulnerable she looked,” my colleague Lenika Cruz points out, “but the unexpected pathos I felt for her outweighed any revulsion”—the assumptions it made were more revealing than the Big Reveal itself. She’s old! the episode shouted, triumphantly. She’s been lying the whole time! it suggested, teasingly. And, with that, the show that has reveled in all manner of boundary-pushing imagery, from the violent to the sexual, found a new way to shock its viewers: to present them with a woman who is at once naked and old.