Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Girls On Film

I watch a lot of TV. Like…a lot. It’s not the ONLY thing I do at home, but compared to other hobbies, I do put a LOT of hours into it. According to a Roy Morgan survey done on behalf of Free TV Australia (the body that represents all the free to air stations in Australia), on average my fellow Australians are watching 20 hours a week.

 Speaking for myself, I’m almost always doing something else while I’m watching TV (most likely my nails) and I haven’t watched free to air other than Eurovision in YEARS. However, TV is still a big part of my life, and a big influence simply because it’s THERE so much of the time, seeping information into my brain. Between my boy and I there is approximately 3TB of TV and movies in our house, and we watch at least one full length TV episode or movie every weeknight. 

The point I’m trying to make is that I watch a lot of TV, and I think it’s impossible to imagine that a form of entertainment I spent this much time in front of doesn’t affect how I see myself and the world around me. So it bothers me when I read articles accusing Game of Thrones, one of my absolute favourite shows on TV at the moment, as being primarily created for titillation, not to mention accusations of straight up misogyny. There was also a ridiculous article insisting that Game of Thrones is only "for boys", but that bit of link bait is too stupid for me to even respond to. The accusations of misogyny though? That bothers me. It just doesn’t feel like a fair assessment to me – I would like to think I know misogynistic TV when I see it, and this doesn’t feel like that. Game of Thrones feels more like Buffy The Vampire Slayer to me – watching it makes me feel bolder, more confident, and to get all excitable about it, proud to be a woman. In my experience, it feels definitely feminist.

I love this picture almost as much as I love the show itself.
But “it doesn’t feel like that” is a piss poor argument when it comes to media analysis. I’ve been trying to nut out exactly WHY I would define Game of Thrones as feminist, or at least egalitarian, in rational terms. I found, to my surprise, that when I tried to define what I mean by “feminist TV” it’s actually quite a slippery concept to pin down.

At first I thought my feelings in favour of Game of Thrones despite the admittedly excessive nudity and ludicrously anachronistic body hair might be due to the male to female ratio in the main cast. One of the things that has really jumped out at me about the most recent season of Game of Thrones is that the main cast is FULL of women. And all sorts of women too – mean ones, kind ones, powerful ones, na├»ve and powerless ones…they’re everywhere, and there’s all kinds! It’s a cornucopia of female characters! It seemed logical that the sheer volume of female characters might be what made Game of Thrones feel so much more feminist to me than other shows of similar popularity. After all, my favourite feminist TV of all time is Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and they maintained an either even or female heavy ratio throughout their seven seasons. 

Of course, I’m not the first person to think that numbers of female characters in media might be part of what constitutes feminist media. The Geena Davis Institute has done some fascinating research comparing the ratio of women to men in family movies, and the results were pretty depressing – by their count men outnumber women three to one. THREE to ONE. And you don’t want to know how many of those female characters were in any sort of full time employment. (spoiler alert – it’s not a high percentage) I was curious to find out whether these upsetting statistics translated across to TV as well – if they did, it would follow that the number of women in Game of Thrones is very likely to be what makes it feel feminist to me.
Because I’m a nerd, I sat down and devised a method to crunch some numbers. I got a list of the top 5 rated shows on Tv.com, and compared the promo shots used for each show. This seemed to be the best way to get an idea of who counted as “main” cast for shows I don’t watch like…well, all of the ones of the list apart from Game of Thrones. I wouldn’t really pick out any of those shows as being particularly feminist, so it seemed like a good point of comparison. Maybe you watch these shows and the results I came up with won’t surprise you – but they surprised the hell out of me.

Grey's Anatomy cast

Big Bang Theory Current Cast
It is worth noting this was the original Big Bang Theory cast.

Criminal Minds cast

Game of Thrones cast - if I thought you had infinite patience I would love to talk about how
there are at least three female characters I can think of that are more important characters this season than
some of the male cast shown here, and how perhaps the marketing people are trying to make it look
like there are less women in the show than there are, but that's another rant for another time.

How I Met Your Mother cast
It seems I was actually pretty wrong. It’s quite possible to have a reasonable proportion of female characters in the main cast without a show turning out particularly feminist. In hindsight, this should have been obvious given my annoyance at shows like Sex In The City that have an almost entirely female cast, and yet still manage to feel horribly patronising to women. So if it’s not numbers, what is it about Game of Thrones that makes it feel feminist to me?

A piece of the answer came to me while reading this fantastic article – What Fast & Furious 6 Could Teach Star Trek IntoDarkness About Half Naked Women. Not only is it a BRILLIANT headline, the article also contains a really clever observation I’ve not seen often enough in media analysis – when asking whether something is sexist or not, context is always crucial. Nakedness isn’t always automatically sexist, and having lots of women isn’t always automatically feminist. It’s all about the context in which these things are shown. In the article, this point is used to illustrate why people got so angry about the totally pointless and gratuitous underwear scene in Into Darkness, and why Fast & The Furious comes across as more feminist despite having way more eye candy. It basically boils down to the role women play in context – in Star Trek, they are unfortunately almost entirely “emotional cheerleaders” and other assorted support staff. In Fast & The Furious, they’re independent, intelligent, skilled characters whose actions contribute to the momentum of the plot. Not ALL the female characters unfortunately - there is still a great deal of jiggly bouncy eye candy in the background. But at least the main female cast have relatively interesting characters. At least there ARE women who have motivation outside making the male characters happy, even if it's not all of them. This context makes a huge difference in the way these two films feel to a female audience. 

Star Trek Into Darkness

Fast & Furious 6
Personally, I think the same logic could be applied to Game of Thrones. Yes, there are a lot of tits, and not nearly as much peen as some of us would like. But the female characters are crucial to the plot – just as Buffy could not have continued had she decided to give up being a Slayer, Game of Thrones would be a hollowed out, boring shell without the female characters and their actions. Imagine if there was no Danerys. There is a whole chunk of the plot, half the geographical world, and an entire race just wiped out of the story. What if Catelyn Stark hadn’t decided to free Jamie Lannister? Another HUGE chunk of plot would be gone, not to mention an enormous amount of character development for several previously sketched in characters. What if Brienne wasn’t so determined to be a knight, and had just stayed at home and had babies with some guy? Jamie Lannister would be dead, for a start. These women are crucial to the forward momentum of the plot, and that I think is a big part of what makes it feel feminist to me. They don’t have as many choices as they would have in a modern setting – they don’t always get to choose who they marry, or fuck for instance – but the choices they do have come with real consequences, and have real weight. It’s more a show about the things that women do, instead of just the things that happen to them.

Another aspect of the female character in Game of Thrones that encourages me to define it as feminist is the sheer range of women depicted. Let’s use our Star Trek comparison again to show how having a range of different kinds of women being portrayed makes something friendlier towards women.
In Star Trek: Into Darkness, there are only two women in the main cast – one Caucasian women, one Latino woman. Both characters are approximately the same age, very conventionally pretty, and have pretty much the same personality. Both are intelligent and intellectual, approaching problems with largely rational restraint. Both are aware of their attractiveness, but would never dream of using it in order to get their way. It’s true that they’re both Starfleet officers, so a certain amount of similarity is to be expected, but seriously, Uhura and Carol are almost palette swaps of each other. This means the depiction of women as a gender is MIGHTY narrow. There’s nothing TERRIBLE about either of these characters – but there’s nothing particularly interesting about them either. They could add four more female characters to the cast for the next movie, but if they’re all the same as well, it would make little to no difference to the sexism overall.

In Game of Thrones however, there are a veritable cornucopia of female characters – all ages, several races, all with a wide variety of personalities and motivations. All the female characters are of a very similar physical build, it’s true. Unfortunately TV land apparently isn’t ready for a fat female character just yet – not in a drama anyway. But personality wise, I find the female characters in the show the most engaging, and the most fascinating. Danerys is young and beautiful, and uses her sexuality when it suits her. But she’s also a brilliant tactician, and more often uses her brutal, steely determination and razor sharp wits to prevail. Cersei started off as the standard scheming bitch character, but as the series has gone on her motivations have become so much more complex – it’s shown how much of what she does is to spite the father who never thought she was good enough, how much is to protect the children she loves above everything else, how much she does just to survive. Brienne is a fascinating examination of the implications of not fitting into a traditional gender role when you’re living in a society that has very fixed ideas on how women should be, and what they can and cannot do. Some of the women of Game of Thrones are awful – scheming, cold, manipulative, and even outright evil. Some of them are kind, and gentle; others are doing their best in a bad situation. Well, actually, to be fair, MOST of them are doing their best in a bad situation. 

This is how women are – some of us are awful, some of us are kind, most of us are just doing what we can. Hell, this is how PEOPLE are, and this realistic depiction is why I feel like Game of Thrones is much kinder to women than it’s made out to be sometimes. In terms of plot, it treats the female characters in much the same way it treats the male characters – they are equally complex, nuanced, varied, and necessary to the plot.

This, I think, is the key to what makes a show feminist. You have to write the female characters the same way you do the male characters – they have to be contributing to the overall plot in a meaningful way, they need to have plot points revolve around them, parts of the show that would not exist without them. There needs to be enough of them in the cast to allow for a nuanced portrayal – while having lots of women in the cast doesn’t make a show feminist, it does give it the opportunity to be feminist that you simply don’t have when you’re trying to boil down an entire gender to one or two characters. And that’s why I’m willing to live with the gratuitous tits, the totally unnecessary lingering shots on perfectly toned female buttocks – I think that what Game of Thrones has to say about the hearts and minds of women is valuable enough to make it worth the occasional squirm.


  1. This was a great post! I cannot understand the argument that GoT is misogynistic? The female characters in the series are not there merely to advance the male's interests (either sexually or in terms of the plot), but like you said, they all have their own complexities. They are treated as PEOPLE.

    yeah, there's a lot of naked women, and very few naked men. I think if they can show vulvas, they should also show penises, but I do not think that this in itself screams sexism. Again, it's about context. Considering the societal setting, it fits to have naked women being used merely for sex, or being there to be raped. This world is barbaric and this just helps set that scent. Sure, the nudity / sex is gratuitous at times and I'm sure it's there to help publicity of the show but like you mentioned the overarching message about women is not that they are merely sexual creatures. Women can lead armies, and hold their own in a male-dominated world and that is awesome.

  2. My husband and I are re-watching Buffy and Angel since a couple of months now and I am constantly explaining to him why I love Joss Whedon and Buffy - because Joss Whedon obviously makes a point in having strong female characters. There is a whole season where Buffy struggles with being a strong leader (aka The Slayer) AND being female at the same time - she struggles with society who wants her to be small, blonde and weak while she is small, blonde and strong. I loved that.

    I haven't watched Game of Thrones yet, but I've read the books (highly recommend it!) and that someone could find it misogynist is beyond me. The female characters are all in their own way strong leaders, not attachments to some males. It makes the whole series highly believable and I think this is what contributed to the massive success of it (not only the TV show, but the books before it). They obviously never read the books - it is actually one of the "main" things of the book, the massive nudity and depiction of violence. It comes across differently when you read it, and has nothing of a misogynist touch, as it does not differentiate between genders.
    Do you know "The Wheel of Time" book series? It is similar in setting and scale, but the female protagonists, while also being strong leaders in most cases, were simply SO STUPID. It outraged me to the point where I had to stop reading it. It's not enough having females in a prominent and strong role, they need to act like the actually have a brain.

    As a side note about Star Trek - I've always felt that the original series which aired in the 60ies (!) made a feminist point by adding Uhura into the show. As far as I am aware, Uhura is african-american (not latino) and while she didn't belong to the leading three (Kirk, Bones, Spock), she WAS a starfleet officer - female AND black and belonged to the main cast (they also had a russian officer in spite of the cold war!). It caused a riot! I've always loved Star Trek for doing that. Also, after the second instalment (the one with the bald Picard guy) and I think another one, they had a spin-off (Voyager) with a female captain (Janeway). I loved that show to pieces.
    Your assessment of the recent Star Trek movies is right, of course. I still love them, though, but I feel that Uhura is enough of a strong character for me to not go crazy about it. I disliked the addition of the blonde girl though - she is based on the character in one of the movies (the second one I think? Can't remember). where she actually had a somewhat more prominent role as the leader of a science team. The movie was done in the early 80ies I think. Comparing her role there to her role in the movie now feels like a step backwards.

  3. if u're not sure, then it must be....humanist, which is even better.

    1. A humanist, in a world in which women are disadvantaged in a range of ways, namely our world, must by definition be a feminist.

  4. I was pretty sure that the producers of "24" hated women, (though I did end up falling in love with Chloe) - the female characters were always written as helpless, neurotic, hopeless, messes - frustrating :s


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