The Misogyny of Weiss and Benioff Is a Dark Cloud Hanging Over ‘Game of Thrones’
Normally, at this point between episodes, we would make predictions as to what’s going to happen next on Game of Thrones. These predictions are usually based on the things that influence good writers: history, character arcs, foreshadowing, realistic human behavior, and a smattering of fan service. This week, with season eight, episode four, “The Last of the Starks,” all those things have been thrown out the window, and I don’t know how to make predictions without recourse to logic, or even to the story’s structural integrity.
So, instead, gather round: we’re having circle time. Let’s talk about how this clown parade ended up coming to town. We all know that, in its final seasons, Game of Thrones has been forced to depart from its source material, given that the book series is incomplete. Still, even before the show overtook the books, there were telltale departures that foreshadowed how the show would end as well as any of Melisandre’s prophecies ever did. So let’s talk about the dark cloud that hovers over the show: the creators’ misogyny.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ll never argue that George R. R. Martin is a perfect feminist, or even a role model for men who are trying to unlearn misogyny. His writing shows an overall respect for women that is ultimately muddled by deeply ingrained negative attitudes about sex and gender. Martin’s Cersei Lannister is a complex and compelling character, but she is also the intellectual inferior of most of the men that surround her. Martin’s Sansa Stark is not raped by Ramsay Snow, but instead, she is forced by Littlefinger to rewrite her entire personality and literally become a different person to survive. And Martin’s Daenerys, even more than the show’s version, lets her ruthless ambition undermine all her interpersonal relationships until she is completely isolated. These are problematic tropes…but they’ve got nothing on the show.
Does anyone remember season one? I know it’s been several years, plus an additional two million Trump years, since then, but let’s go over a few details. Remember how Dany was forcibly married off to Khal Drogo, who raped her on their wedding night? This is a telling moment when compared to the scene in the book, wherein Drogo seems aware of Dany’s vulnerability and goes out of his way to gain her explicit consent, a touching moment that immediately separates him from the brutal men of Westeros in the most positive of ways. You may remember other details: background “lesbians” in Littlefinger’s brothel, for example, or the original character Ros, a prostitute who was eventually killed by Joffrey. Why add these things, when there was plenty of rich material with ample shock value that was cut from the books? Why replace an emotionally satisfying and titillating sex scene from the books with a lazily written rape scene?
Because D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have been telling us who they are from the beginning. They’ve been telling us that their interest in Martin’s fantasy world lies not in its expansive complexity, not in the way it explores human nature within a sprawling adventure narrative, but rather in its appeal to a very specific, very dull kind of cishet male fantasy. Sex and violence: particularly, a world in which men express their power through violence, the gorier and crueler the better, and are rewarded by the use of women, which are objects that exist for their aesthetic and sexual gratification. Ros tried to rise above her station as a prostitute and become a political player, and was brutally murdered for it, her naked corpse displayed for Joffrey’s enjoyment. Missandei, a character Martin created, was able to escape imperialistic male control with the help of another woman, and flourished with access to freedom and power. Then, on the show (where she was the only surviving female character of color), she died in chains, killed by a man on the orders of a woman who fears Daenerys as the “younger and more beautiful” Queen that was prophesied.
And yes, that prophecy is from Martin’s books. That’s what allowed Weiss and Benioff to hide their hateful attitudes toward women for so long. “How can you criticize the show when the books do the same things?” defensive fans often ask. But they don’t do the same things. Martin certainly has his share of misogynistic moments, (Jon Snow ‘inventing’ cunnilingus; Lysa Arryn’s whole arc; bisexual female characters feeling guilt about lesbian sex and fantasizing about men; Bronn’s wife Lollys, whom he married for her money after she was driven insane by the trauma of a gang rape), but he also gives us shades of gray. He finds spaces where his female characters — at least the main ones — can flourish. He builds a background history of Westeros that includes numerous powerful and revered female figures. He gives us large portions of the story from Cersei’s, Daenerys’, Sansa’s, Arya’s, and in the early books Catelyn’s, points of view. He stumbles, sometimes unforgivably, but he tries. And, because he’s a good writer, he doesn’t mistake women’s trauma at the hands of men for real character development.
So let’s get to the scene from this week’s episode that people are angriest about: Sansa’s conversation with the Hound. In it, the Hound observes that if she had left King’s Landing when he offered to help her escape in season two, she would not have suffered at the hands of Ramsay and Littlefinger. Sansa responds that, if she had not been subjected to that trauma, she would still be the “little bird” the Hound once named her. The implication is that Sansa could not have become the strong and intelligent woman she is today without having been the victim of horrific crimes. While some have pointed out that abuse survivors often turn to this logic to comfort themselves, and that there’s nothing wrong with that, the framing of the scene undercuts any complexity it might have had. In a word, the scene frames Sansa’s statement not as a coping mechanism, but as the objective truth. Sansa was always strong, and the Hound was in a perfect position to say so. He knew her at one of the worst times in her life, when she was a captive and abused child, and he saw the dignity and self-respect with which she conducted herself. So did we all, yet we easily forget that and demonize Sansa for her rigidness in the face of constant pressure to submit politically to Jon and, through him, Daenerys.
We don’t have space to go into much detail on how Brienne’s character has shrunk in the face of male attention, how the flattening of Daenerys’ character makes her current arc feel cheap and forced, or how even Arya’s refusal of Gendry — one of the few in-character moments in the episode — came off as a callous dismissal. You were all there. You know you left the episode feeling as though you’d barely been in Westeros at all. And that brings me to our updated prediction for how the show will end.
We spoke last week of how many of the show’s prophecies and instances of foreshadowing were undercut by the method of the Night King’s death. There is still, however, one thing that has been foreshadowed from the beginning and still seems likely to bear out: that, when it comes to female characters, the showrunners are destined to let us down. The production quality of the show, its excellent acting and juicy political drama, have led us all to be fooled into expecting what the show never promised to deliver. Game of Thrones will have enthralled us all for years, and it will have made ample money, but when all is said and done, it won’t have changed a thing. While Martin’s books focus on subverting fantasy tropes that have been and continue to be harmful to society, Weiss and Benioff will end the show with a firm reinstatement of a patriarchal status quo.
The only thing left to predict is how they’ll do it, and frankly, we’re not all that interested.