For feminist readers, the George R.R. Martin book series A Song of Ice and Fire — the source material for HBO's Game of Thrones, about a fantastical, brutal world in which wannabe kings and queens are at constant war — is a mixed bag. Martin has created some truly great and complicated female characters: Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, Catelyn Stark, Melisandre of Asshai, Sansa Stark, and Margaery Tyrell are fully rendered human beings, and all of them (except for poor, luckless Sansa) are also incredibly cool. I'm not a huge fan of Asha Greyjoy (renamed Yara in Game of Thrones), Ygritte, or Arianne Martell (yet to be seen on the show), but that's a personal preference, not a feminist position. And I reserve the right to change my mind about them! Particularly Arianne, who is relatively new to the books and seems to be a major character going forward.
Despite its strong female leads, Game of Thrones has gotten considerable criticism for what is undeniably a lot of nudity, which has been called extraneous, and for its use of sex as a plot device. To quote only a small selection of the ongoing outcry, Mary McNamara wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "maybe it's time to tone down the tits"; TV writer and academic Myles McNutt invented the word "sexposition" to describe the show's tic of underlining expository speeches with nudity or sex; and, during Season 2, xoJane's executive editor, Emily McCombs, wrote a post with the headline "I Think King Joffrey Is Activating My PTSD" after a particularly hideous (and not-in-the-book) scene during which Joffrey forced one prostitute to beat another while he watched.
The over-sexed/nudity critique clearly gets to show creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. During a conference call with reporters before Season 3 began, I asked them about that thread of commentary, and they both sounded frustrated in their responses. "I don't know why sex and violence get highlighted so much," said Weiss. "You don't hear people talking about gratuitous punch lines and gratuitous politics: It's all about what belongs in any given scene. We put in the show what we think belongs in the show."
And Benioff is particularly rankled that the criticism sometimes suggests that the show is more sexualized than the books. "That's just patently untrue," he said. "I think that people, because they're seeing things on screen, you're actually seeing someone's body, so it's much more in your face than when you're reading it on the page." He cited a specific example from the fifth novel, A Dance with Dragons: a sex dance with full female and male nudity. "That scene would never been on that show. It couldn't be. And there are scenes, graphic sexual scenes, with 14-year-olds in the books, which would have us all thrown in prison, justifiably so. So we, actually, I think, if anything, shy away from some of the more sexual material. That's the only criticism, I think, that I would get defensive about."
Their answers, unfortunately, don't address the part of the criticism that I tend to agree with: that there's a Skinemax edge that creeps into Game of Thrones once in a while that at best cheapens the show, and at worst advances the persistent idea that women's naked bodies — even in the best of storytelling — are garnishes. While the show aspires to lure viewers who consume the best, smartest television, it also panders to the True Blood audience drunkenly yelling "boobs!" from the back row.
If that's the show they want to make, that's fine with me; I still love it.
But I do think it's too bad that Game of Thrones's softcore diversions prevent viewers from noticing how feminist the show often is, especially in Weiss' and Benioff's increasingly noticeable and sweeping changes to A Song of Ice and Fire. Obviously, Weiss and Benioff can't criticize Martin's books and point to changes they've made, other than to point out that yes, in his feudal, male-dominated creation, the characters in sexual situations are often very young — Daenerys leaps to mind here especially — which would not only be horrifying for viewers, but actually illegal to film.
I, however, can totally criticize the books. So in that spirit, I offer in celebration the following list of the nine feminist changes Game of Thrones the series has made to the novels. Though I am obsessed with the books in all their gripping, overly long, where-is-it-all-going/please-tell-me-George-you-know-where-it's-going glory, I would go so far as to say that if they were filmed as written, there would be outrage. (Note: There are vague spoilers of future events below that are based only on what happens in the books. But only vague, I promise.)
I'm starting with the worst from the books, and therefore the best improvement: Shae is a misogynistic caricature in the novels. As Tyrion's beloved concubine, she is astoundingly stupid, greedy, and whiny. There are a number of female characters in Martin's books that are just non-people. They have no agency, inner lives, personalities, or charm; Shae represents the nadir of those (I'll name a few others further down). Tyrion's love for her and inability to say no to her in the books makes you think he's a fool, which then makes you agree with Tywin, his father. And who wants that?
On Game of Thrones, however, the writers have transformed Shae. She is intelligent, multidimensional, and loyal (or appears to be, anyway). She seems to have true affection for Tyrion — at the end of Season 2, she begged him to leave King's Landing with her — which in the books she fakes. (Badly.) It's not only Tyrion she's good to; she tries to help Sansa as well, becoming her confidante. As played by Sibel Kekilli, she is shrewd and worthy of Tyrion's love.
These are all such welcome changes. The only downside is it makes me dread what's to come for Shae (and for Tyrion). But maybe that will play out differently too.
My biggest quibble with Season 2 was Daenerys' story line, which too often left her weak-seeming and shouting, "I am the Mother of Dragons!" in a desperate way that Dany never is to me in the books, even under the most dire circumstances. Season 3 is blasting away those disappointments, though; Weiss and Benioff have given the Dany character purpose coupled with humanity and even some humor, and actress Emilia Clarke is eating the screen alive as a result. The first four episodes of this ongoing season were sent to journalists, and the fourth episode coming this Sunday is Clarke's/Dany's best yet. You'll want to join her army and conquer Westeros behind her. She is the motherfucking Mother of Dragons!
3) Margaery Tyrell
Yes, Margaery is pretty great in the books too. But the show has made her formidable sooner, abetted by her wily portrayer, Natalie Dormer. Because A Song of Ice and Fire relies on specific point-of-view characters as third-person narrators — the story jumps among them and them only — and Margaery is not one of them, it takes readers a while to see how strong and smart she is, and how wary she is of the Lannisters. In the books, we also don't know whether she's aware that she married a gay guy in King Renly; soon after her Season 2 debut, her clever and pervy acknowledgment that Renly was actually into her brother, Loras, was an early moment when we saw Margaery's ambition. An heir at any cost! Not that it worked. Poor, dead Renly.
In the premiere of this third season, we got a glimpse at Margaery's larger strategy with her fiancé, Joffrey, and it is ripped from the Princess Diana playbook: She jumped out of her carriage and won over the orphans of King's Landing while Joffrey cowered.
Margaery is a friend to beleaguered Sansa, and she makes Cersei nervous. We should cheer her on for both.
4) Talisa Stark
With Robb Stark's wife, Game of Thrones has strayed so far from the source material that the show renamed the character so book fans wouldn't get confused. In the third novel, A Storm of Swords, Robb brings home Jeyne Westerling — a shy mouse of a person — as his wife. They had sex, so he marries her, even though he was promised to one of the Frey daughters as part of an alliance. There's just nothing to Jeyne, and the decision makes Robb seem insane (if gallant). On the show, on the other hand, Robb met Talisa (Oona Chaplin) in Season 2; she was a healer helping wounded soldiers on both sides after his battles. She's formidable and smart, and he fell in love with her, marrying her. They're partners worthy of each other.
Hannah Murray, the actress who plays Samwell's wildling friend, Gilly, hasn't had a lot to do yet, but I'm already hopeful. In the books, she's one of Martin's blank girls; there's just so little to her as a person. Gilly is such a potentially fruitful character: She's the daughter of crazy, north of the Wall Craster, who "marries" all of his daughters, impregnates them, and then, if their babies are boys, he leaves them as sacrifices to the White Walkers. Gilly has some baggage! She's going to be around for a while, and I'm excited to see how the writers give her more of a voice.
6) Brienne of Tarth
My virtual hat (I don't wear hats!) is off to Martin for having created Brienne, a totally original invention. A gender-bending, fierce knight who has to fight 10 times as hard as her male counterparts, which she welcomes. I don't want to criticize this character as written in the novels, but I will say this: Because the books can be so repetitive, and Jaime Lannister is a narrator, I don't miss hearing Brienne called ugly over and over (mostly in his head, but out of his mouth too). So who would have thought the show could enhance such an awesome character? Yet by casting Gwendoline Christie, it has. Season 3 will be huge for her.
Martin works hard in the books to make Cersei's grievances feel real and poignant. She was forced by her father to marry Robert, who didn't love her, and has been denied real, direct power because she's a woman. She therefore lives through her son's power — and refuses to recognize that the son, Joffrey, is a psychopath. Yet somehow, making Cersei's motivations clear on the page didn't click with me in the way it did immediately from Lena Headey's nuanced, arched-eyebrowed interpretation. Beginning in Season 1, the writers added multiple scenes that filled Cersei out, especially an exchange between her and Robert (Mark Addy) during which she told him that she had loved him when they first married; it was sad and lovely. Headey's high-water mark was the "Blackwater" episode toward the end of Season 2 during which she delivered one sinister monologue after another and ended up almost mercy-killing her beloved (and genuinely sweet) son Tommen when she thought they had lost the war.
A wholly invented character not in the books, Ros co-starred in the Season 1 scene that is considered the pièce de résistance of sexposition: a brothel scene during which Littlefinger instructed two prostitutes (Ros is one of them) how to simulate sex ("play with her ass," etc.) as he also told them the sad story of being in love with a particular woman — Catelyn, though he doesn't name her — his whole life. (You can watch it here and add to this single YouTube clip's 4.3 million-plus views.) Ros was also in the horrifying Joffrey-with-prostitutes scene from Season 2. And the role does call for actress Esmé Bianco to be naked a lot. Yet despite being the embodiment — literally — of the Game of Thrones-has-too-many-needlessly-naked-women argument, Ros has evolved into a shaded, badass character. She wept for the murdered baby in Season 2 (one of Robert's bastards, all assassinated); she warns Shae to protect Sansa from Littlefinger in Season 3. Since she's not in the books, you never know what's coming for her or from her. Team Ros!
9) Fewer rapes
Like, almost none. And, I mean…thank god. There is so much rape in A Song of Ice and Fire. There's the rape of Dany on her wedding night, who is 13 in the first book; Gregor Clegane is — to use an anachronistic phrase — a serial rapist; rape is constantly mentioned as part of post-war plunder; Jon Snow is surrounded by "rapers" in the Night's Watch who have been sent to the Wall — and I'm leaving many instances out. I guess it's realistic in the world Martin has created in which the worst-case scenario is pretty much always what happens? It's wearing to read, regardless. But if we were to see all of these rapes, say, after a battle, or even to hear about them as often as they come up in the books, Game of Thrones would be an unwatchable nightmare. So, whew!