Sound the trumpets! HBO’s sexist “Game of Thrones” returns Sunday for its sixth season.
Since the beginning, the show has come under fire for its depiction of women. It has often used rape and prostitution as a backdrop, like the episode where Craster’s wives are literally raped in the background while men debate their attack. Even supposedly consensual sex scenes — like the one between Jamie and Cersi, who protests physically and verbally before she’s overpowered — minimize and dehumanize female cast members.
It’s gotten so bad that many female fans have pledged not to tune back in. One fan, Justine Juel Gillmer, tweeted last year, “so that’s THREE main female characters raped on #GameOfThrones who weren’t actually raped in the books. I think I’m done with the show.” Or Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) who wrote, “OK, I’m done, Game of Thrones … Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable. It was a rocky ride that just ended.”
Critics also voiced their objections. As Joanna Robinson wrote in Vanity Fair, “the last thing we needed was to have a powerful young woman brought low in order for a male character to find redemption. No thank you.”
“Game of Thrones” reflects a broader problem with HBO’s line-up: its male-centric programming treats women as plot devices to serve a male protagonist. In the first season of “True Detective,” Michelle Monaghan’s character was mostly a carrier pigeon for its two male leads. In the second season, there was only one female lead; three male ones. “Silicon Valley” has few female characters except for the stray stripper or cute girlfriend. And in the channel’s most recent addition, “Vinyl,” men are full of macho swagger and women are sexual wallpaper. Even “Togetherness,” a family drama, is so focused on its two male leads (both creators of the show) that it can feel like a buddy dramedy (or as one reviewer called it “The Ballad of the Beta Male.”).
Of course, HBO isn’t totally devoid of female-led programming. “Girls” and “Veep” both showcase female leads. But these are the exception, not the rule.
The problem extends behind the camera too. In 2014, TV critic Maureen Ryan published a piece on Huffington Post taking HBO to task for its almost exclusively male show-runners. “With one exception over the course of four decades, HBO has not aired an original one-hour drama series created by a woman,” she wrote. In 2015, the Directors Guild of America gave HBO the worst marks for hiring female directors, noting that four series had never once hired a woman or minority. At this point, little has changed, and HBO’s shows continue to be created, produced and directed by men. At last tally, female creators and producers for the shows above were hovering around the 12 percent mark.
To defend their choices, “Game of Thrones” show-runners point to author George R.R. Martin’s argument that these stories are historically based on the Middle Ages, and reflect the sexism and sexual violence of that time. “The show depicts a brutal world where horrible things happen,” director Jeremy Podeswa said in a Forbes interview. That approach has the full support of HBO’s president for programming who told the New York Times, “the choices our creative teams make are based on the motivations and sensibilities that they believe define their characters. We fully support the vision and artistry of [the show-runners’] exceptional work.”
But just because a show is set in the past doesn’t mean it has to be divorced from a female perspective. “Outlander,” a Starz show set in 1743, features a time period where women have little agency and must seek marriage in order to be legally protected. The protagonist, Claire, faces many of the same issues as women on “Game of Thrones.” Yet, it’s so clearly driven by its female lead—with her experiences and her sexual desire as the driving narrative force—the viewer sees the world through Claire’s eyes and identifies with her struggles. When her character is almost raped by deserting members of the British Army, we see the attack through her eyes. After it happens, we see her hands tremble. Unlike “Game of Thrones,” the audience sees the attack as if it were happening to them.
This focus on a women’s perspective has paid off. In its first eight episodes, “Outlander” averaged about 5 million viewers and an audience that’s 59 percent women. It’s achieved critical success with positive reviews and Golden Globe nominations too. Other female-focused shows, like “Orange Is the New Black,” “Transparent” and “Jessica Jones,” have garnered rave as well. Vulture called “Transparent,” “damn near perfect.” And Hank Stuever of The Post called “Orange Is the New Black” “brilliance behind bars.”
HBO, meanwhile, is struggling. Though “Game of Thrones is a cable hit, “Vinyl’s” premiere’s ratings were low enough to be newsworthy—just 764,000, one of the lowest on record for an HBO show. (Its creator Terence Winter was just given the boot.) “Togetherness” was canceled after averaging just 405,000 viewers. And “True Detective” was a critical and commercial flop in its second season, dropping 22 percent in its viewers. And as a recent Vulture piece pointed out: “Fact is, HBO hasn’t come up with an undeniable drama hit since ‘Game of Thrones’ bowed in 2011.” Here’s the message HBO should be getting: Tune out half your audience, and they tune you out in return.