Gender roles in fantasy

The next season of the award-winning, epic fantasy series Game of Thrones is upon us. So I thought one specific issue in our society is up for scrutiny—gender roles, especially gender roles in fantasy fiction. Women are often in a somewhat subjugated position in medieval stories. But is this okay?

Game of Thrones is in most ways a great series. It has high production values and the story is intricate and interesting, with vivid, living characters. The show has great acting, (mostly) great directing, and (mostly) great writing. So why did I say it is great in most ways?

Of course one should build the story for the ending, but with that said, one may argue it is the journey that’s important, not the destination.

There are plenty of things I don't like about Game of Thrones. Well... actually, there are just three. The first, which is irrelevant, is that the story progresses too slowly. They have so many characters that each one only gets a little time, resulting in a slow pace. And worse yet, they mostly only build hype for the last episode of the season. This wouldn't be too bad, if the exciting event at the end of the season actually were built upon in the next season. But no. They start over with building hype for that season's finale. Of course one should build the story for the ending, but with that said, one may argue it is the journey that's important, not the destination. The second is that much of the story seems to be based on shock deaths, where a character people like gets horribly slaughtered only to shock the viewers. I’m definitely not against killing off characters, but to do it mostly for shock value is cheap.

The third and relevant thing I dislike about Game of Thrones is the sexual content. I know how it sounds. I'm a guy, so I must want to watch random women degrade themselves for financial gain, right? Sure, but there are some problems with that. First off, I don't watch the show to see that; I watch it to see an awesome epic fantasy show. But the people who make Game of Thrones seem to be more interested in setting a record for the longest ever pornographic film. And secondly, it doesn’t add anything to the story; it’s mostly just nudity for the sake of nudity, not unlike pornography. Though I suppose this makes sense, because much American culture seems to be very focused on senseless female nudity and promiscuity. 'Cus hey, it's fun, right!?

Fantasy is mostly a male genre, but Game of Thrones has become widely popular and is seen by both men and women. Yet, the only reason for the nudity, which is all too often inconsequential to the story, is to attract male viewers; that's the only reason I can see, because most of the time, it doesn't add anything. In doing this, they are probably alienating many female viewers. This is where two sides of this topic collide: gender roles in the real world and gender roles in a fantasy world.

One can degrade the character without degrading the actor or actress who portrays said character.

It is very likely that, in a medieval setting, women are, in fact, seen as lesser beings. Many women are probably exploited sexually in such a setting, many are probably raped, mostly during war. And from a story perspective, this is okay, because it shows the horror that is female oppression and how wrong it is, not to mention that it's just a story. What we need to remember is that the people who watch the show do not live in a medieval world; we are from the twenty-first century. How is that relevant? Well, even if the sexual content is a required component to the story and actually adds something, it is not necessary to show anything to the audience. In short, one can degrade the character without degrading the actor or actress who portrays said character.

The show wouldn't be any worse if they removed the full frontal nudity, because it doesn't add anything other than a few million boners (sorry for the image). So will I watch season four of Game of Thrones? Of course I will. I'd be stupid not to, if only to find out exactly how little the producers respect women. But it has come to a point where I like the series less and less, mainly because they focus more on tits than on the story. If you ask me, The Walking Dead and Hannibal are much better shows than the sorry excuse for fantasy into which Game of Thrones is turning (has turned).

GAME OF BONERS: This is a short comic strip from I Am Heretic #5: Game of Boners. Copyright © 2014 by Patrick Hall. All rights reserved.

My point is that showing how women are reduced to objects in a primitive setting is a good thing for feminist causes, but to at the same time reduce real women to objects is shallow and only detracts from the story. We watch it for the story, not the porn. Or am I mistaken? With that said, do I think Game of Boners should be censored by law? Of course not! That would be stupid! The women (and men) in the show are not forced to degrade themselves; they willingly do it for money. And some would argue that sexuality is empowering, though I think that's just a rationalization. So no, I don't think the show should be censored.

Degrading characters is a good thing; it makes the story better and also serves as a social commentary.

But let's put the notion that some content can be sexist (somewhat) behind us, for now, because gender roles in fantasy fiction (and all fiction, for that matter) is a relevant plot element. It adds a sense of realism and also lets us examine how stupid sexism and bigotry are; fantasy fiction could almost be called satire, because it takes a problem we have today and exaggerates it to criticize it. This is why it annoys me that some critics have complained that Game of Thrones has dehumanizing sexual content, exploitation, and torture; I feel they are missing the issue. It is the degradation of the actresses that is bad, but degrading characters is a good thing; it makes the story better and also serves as a social commentary. Like South Park, kind of.

We tend to be too sensitive, and take offense to just about anything.

I may be reading too much into this, because humans tend to do just that. We tend to be too sensitive, and take offense to just about anything. I can't say I take offense to the nudity in Game of Thrones, though; I just think it is stupid and juvenile, like composing the most lovely song ever, only to edit in fart sounds... or maybe pleasure moans would be a better analogy. However, one may argue that it isn't offensive to all women, but just the ones who appear in the show. And though they certainly lack integrity, they did agree to appear naked in the show, just like any pornographic actress agrees to the same thing (okay, not exactly the same thing, but it's getting close!).

No one should be able to dictate what is okay or not when it comes to behavior that doesn’t hurt anyone.

I do have one concern, though. It seems most of the really big female role models today don't set a very high standard, with the way they act and dress—or in the case of Game of Thrones, don't dress. They are free to do what they want, of course; I am not the overlord of the world, nor should I be. And no one should be able to dictate what is okay or not when it comes to behavior that doesn't hurt anyone. But should these women really be role models, over, say, intelligent women who have integrity? Should we teach young girls that their bodies are gold mines? I don't think so. And should Game of Thrones really be as critically acclaimed as it is? I don't think so either.