Last Sunday night, HBO premiered its hotly anticipated quasi-medieval fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” Television’s critical community is already up in arms, but not about the way the series is paced, shot or acted. Rather, a review of the show by the New York Times’ Ginia Bellafante has set off an uproar concerning the issues of gender associated with the genre.
To recap quickly: Bellafante’s review essentially blasts the series for rampant and consequence-free depictions of sex and violence. It then goes on to insinuate that the series includes such sex scenes only as a blatant attempt to win over female viewers, whom Bellafante can’t imagine would want to watch the series for any other reason.
Bellafante’s review, which fails to address even a single shot of the actual show, in fact seems to be a blanket response to television shows from the fantasy genre. It posits the entire genre as a patriarchal utopia.
But if Bellafante is attempting to make a feminist critique of the fantasy genre, let alone “Game of Thrones,” she’s picked the wrong show to target.
If she had actually watched the episode — and I’m not convinced she did — she might have realized that there isn’t that much about “Game of Thrones” that inherently appeals to men. Regardless of its fantasy trappings, the show is at its core a family melodrama, a genre traditionally targeted at women. Relationships between characters and families are positioned as the driving narrative force of the show. Most prominent within the premiere episode are the relationships within the Stark family. The marriage between Eddard Stark and his wife, Catelyn, is immediately tested by their impending physical separation as Eddard is called to serve the king in the capital, hundreds of miles south of his home. Meanwhile, tension exists between Catelyn, who clearly loves her five legitimate children, and Jon Snow, the bastard son her husband brought home from war 15 years earlier.
The sex scenes Bellafante takes issue with are indeed graphic — and, in the premiere episode, numerous — but always serve a purpose for the story. In particular, the rampant sex shown as part of the wedding ceremony between Daenerys and Khal Drogo, the barbarian horse lord, subverts fetishization by the camera. Swiftly intercut with shots of Daenerys, stoic as she takes the ceremony, these sex scenes are coded through her feminine gaze, witnessed with overwhelming terror at Daenerys’ thoughts of her impending night with her new husband.
Bellafante also ignored a scene in which three young male characters appear shirtless and incredibly buff, which only barely manages to serve a narrative purpose.
If anything, it appears the creators of the show have to work harder to create situations of violence in order to appeal to men. That above all says something about the way “Game of Thrones” subverts the perception of fantasy as a masculine genre.