Sex & Thrones: Four Christian Views on Sex in “Game of Thrones”
There are two things you should know about Game of Thrones (otherwise known as the epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire). It is among the best epic fantasy stories ever written (sorry, Wheel of Time) and it is for “mature” readers/viewers only, really.
Ever since HBO premiered their adaptation of the first novel last April, the popularity of the series has grown tremendously. The first episode of Season One attracted 2.2 million viewers (Wiki). By the season finale of the second season, the show had nearly doubled its viewers at 4.2 million. The adaptation also sent the novels up the New York Times bestsellers list for paperback fiction, and at the beginning of 2011, the series had sold 4.5 million books (Wiki). And with good cause.
Where most epic fantasy succeeds on how interesting the lore is, Martin’s stories are captivating because his characters are so interesting. Martin’s world is filled with psychologically complex, broken, mortal, very-human characters. They feel far less like epic heroes and more like pathetic souls who are tossed into epic situations. In portraying their humanity in all its ugliness, Martin includes many, very sexually explicit scenes, but, as our own Jason Morehead note in his introduction to the series, “the sex and violence are not gratuitous, exploitative, or titillating. Especially in the case of the sexual content, Martin rightfully portrays it as disgusting and perverted, for it is often not an expression of love, trust, and intimacy, but rather, yet another tool for achieving and maintaining power.” (For more, see Winter Is Coming: An Introduction to “Game of Thrones”)
This mature content raises some questions for Christian readers and viewers: is this edifying to read or watch? Can I see or read this in good conscience? It’s also important to question the ideas and ideals that are promoted in the story. How is sex treated in the books? What does it say about love, human intimacy, beauty, procreation, etc?
In light of the tremendous popularity of the series and the pressing questions it raises for believers, we asked several of our writers who have read the books or watched the TV series to explore how sex is treated in A Song of Ice and Fire. What follows are four Christian perspectives on sex in the series. The differences between these perspectives demonstrates how complex the process of discernment can be and the value of communal dialogue about these issues. We hope that through these perspectives you might be encouraged to think critically about how sex is portrayed in the series and how Christians might react.
Carissa Smith: “Glorifying Rape” (HBO Series)
I spent months eagerly anticipating the arrival of our first Game of Thrones disc from Netflix; I spent approximately 70 minutes watching it before stuffing the disc back into its envelope and returning it, unfinished, to the mailbox. This was a big deal for me: the law written on my doorpost since childhood is that I must finish anything I begin. What would cause me to violate this moral imperative? In large part, the depiction of sex in Game of Thrones (the other, even more influential, factor was impending animal death, but that’s another issue). Up to a certain point, the gratuitous nudity and exclusively doggie-style sexual positions just made me laugh, because they contributed nothing whatsoever artistically and were clearly there just to make the show “edgy” (AKA trying too hard). The sickening turning point for me came when, after several scenes depicting marital rape of Daenerys Targaryen by her husband Khal Drogo, Daenerys suddenly gains curiosity about how to please a man. Cue her tutoring in the ways of love by one of her serving maids. The lesbian overtones of the scene and its blatant pandering to classic porn scenarios would also have merely provoked a derisive snort from me, if it weren’t for the sinister underlying message that rape turns out okay if the woman just learns to enjoy it, a message borne out in the next sex scene between Daenerys and Drogo. I felt physically ill at this point and almost ejected the DVD right then and there. I should have. While some might argue that Game of Thrones is merely showing Daenerys taking charge within the limited options available to her, I don’t buy it. There’s no way around the fact that the show glorifies a woman’s education into the “joys” of rape, and that’s inexcusable.
Luke Larson: “Fantasy Feminism” (HBO Series)
I suppose it goes without saying that whenever I recommend Game of Thrones to someone I know, it always comes with a staunch warning. And it’s not the kind of warning that comes lightly — there would be plenty of reasons to avoid the show, even if you were to cut out the copious amounts of female nudity and sex. But the show’s relationship with feminism is an interesting one that the its received a lot criticism for. After all, not only does the show display female nudity in almost every episode, it also puts women in positions of societal submission to power-hungry men and the things they desire.
I was talking to a co-worker of mine who is a big fan of the show the other day and we were sharing other shows that we were into. Surprisingly, when I asked her if she liked Mad Men, she quickly responded saying that she just couldn’t watch that show because of its negative portrayal of women. Despite the incredibly strong female characters and the fact the show is written almost entirely by women, Mad Men‘s portrayal of women’s struggle for equality still hit a little too close to home for my co-worker. (Also see: The Suicide of Character in Mad Men)
Maybe Game of Thrones‘ fantasy setting allows some people to relate more to characters like Daenerys Targaryen or Arya Stark. It’s not that I think more people need to suck it up and watch the show. Unlike a lot of shows I have really enjoyed in the past, I am not a Game of Thrones evangelist. However, if you can stomach the show’s gritty portrayal of reality, there is wealth of issues the show has been able to address with stunning intrigue — gender roles and sexuality included. (Also see Luke’s column, The Televangelists: Game of Thrones and the Postmagic World)
Brad Williams: “Sex without Love” (Novels)
If I could describe the Song of Ice and Fire series in one word it would be “despair.” That is the over-riding emotion that this series left me with as I soldiered through the five published novels in the span of about two weeks. A good novel, no matter what kind of fiction it is, should strike a chord with the reality in which we live or else the work will not move us. One of the subjects that caused me to despair is how Martin handled sex, and I think that a look at this topic can give an overall idea of why the series itself moves me to despair. Sex in the book is depicted quite crudely, as almost revolting, and sometimes even animalistic. In Scripture, sex is not merely for pleasure and procreation; it is a union of profound intimacy where two become one. The only married couple in the book that have something close to a loving relationship, the Starks, have children who are themselves “wargs,” which are people who can connect to the mind of beasts. Interestingly, the most ‘loving’ family in the series also has the ability to dominate the animal world, perhaps making them less bestial in their personal relations as well?
But even in conceding this one example of a “loving” family, there is little real love in this series. I do not mean that some characters aren’t infatuated with one another, or even care for one another, rather they can never become truly intimate, and this is evident in the sexual relationships. Even Jon Snow’s lover continues to tell him over and over, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” All of the characters remain disconnected, distant, and unfulfilled in their relationships. That makes for a cold, lonely world. In death, the dead remain as a sort of spectral presence. It seems, at times, that they are trying to connect with the living, trying to help perhaps, yet even in death they seem doomed to frustration in being distant from their loved ones. For those who remain, the spirits are an intimidating presence, not evoking a sense of comfort and love, but generally unease and fear. The baseness of sex in Martin’s book reflects the reality of life in his world, it is fleeting, primal, and nearly devoid of any loving intimacy.
Alan Noble: “Impoverished Intercourse” (Novels)
When I got to the first few sex scenes in Game of Thrones, I was surprised at how graphic and detailed they were. There is a focus on the physicality, the materiality of the act, which contributes to its “animalistic” tone. Yet. somehow, Martin manages to describe passionate, wild sex in a way feels both dirty and petty.
The scenes are detailed, but not really alluring. And I suspect that they are not alluring precisely because Martin does such a crack job of describing the physical and physiological aspects of sexual intercourse. It is merely an intense, physical act with accompanying hormonal reactions. But part of the beauty of sex is its incommunicability. You can’t really get at the intimacy, the significance, the beauty of sex by describing what goes where and how good it feels. The result of Martin’s writing is an impoverished vision of sex, one which is base, material, and purely biological.
As I progressed in the novels and the sex scenes kept appearing, I went from surprise over Martin’s candor to annoyance and having to slog through these tedious passages. How can you make kinky sex tedious? Treat it as a biological function.
Here’s where things have gotten difficult for me. Just because these scenes are tedious and the sex is impoverished does not mean that Martin has failed at his craft or that these passages don’t contribute meaningfully to the themes of the series. As Jason Morehead has already argued, “Martin rightfully portrays [sex] as disgusting and perverted, for it is often not an expression of love, trust, and intimacy, but rather, yet another tool for achieving and maintaining power.” In that a major theme of the series is human depravity, cruelty, and brokenness, it is appropriate that one of the most sacred and beautiful experiences in life should be depraved, cruel, and broken.
Of course, even if the explicit sex scenes do contribute to the themes of the series, that still doesn’t make them less tedious or explicit. For me, this means that I’ll be skipping as many of these passages as I can, since I think I’ve already gotten the message. And since I am more affected by visual images than written ones, I don’t plan to watch the HBO series.
Join the discussion! How do you think Martin treats sex in the series?
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.
I think by focusing on the sex in the series we’re missing the bigger picture, such as the loss of a true epic, the death of good vs. evil, the death of fantasy really.
But let’s talk about sex (baby).
It would appear that Martin is simply presenting sex as it is in that world and really how it is in our world. There is no ‘ought’ to his presentation, just an ‘is.’ But is this any different from the Biblical presentation of sex when placed in a narrative? We have Judah paying to have sex with his daughter-in-law (though he didn’t know that’s who it was) and we’re given no moral judgement on this other than Judah being irate about being tricked. Oh, and this encounter is part of Christ’s lineage. There are instances of rape where there is no moral outcry from the author, he simply presents the “is” of the society.
Now, that’s certainly not to compare the two as parallels. As a word of art, the Bible is leaps and bounds ahead of Martin (not to mention that it’s true). While the sex is superfluous in many senses, Martin needs to have it because he’s ruined everything that is good about fantasy writing.
Why is it that series like Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, the Iliad, Dante’s Inferno, and the like can still move us today? What made the original Star Wars so popular? It’s the sense of an epic, that life is more than the mundane, that really ignited something within humans and still does. We like the idea that there’s more to life than what we see, whether that be a magical ring that is the cause of evil, the Force, the gods controlling our destiny, or something else (the Pascalian in me would say this is proof that God has invested His image in us). Martin takes this and robs us of any sense of the epic; the story he tells is no different from our world (which is fine), but still lacks hope or a sense of greatness (which is not fine).
So how do you get people to buy your book? You exploit sex. Sex is one of the few acts that, though spoiled by modern treatment, still contains a great deal of myth around it. Thus, sex is powerful and when you put it into a book that is a faux fantasy novel (series really), it helps to create a gilded image of greatness.
I should add that while I’m critical of Martin’s overall approach to writing, I do think the story is interesting and the characters are fascinating as well. It’s just not a good plot (that we’ve seen), at least not one that will withstand the test of time. That’s why he has to have sex; think about it, without it would his book(s) be all that appealing to you?
Actually, yes. I find his depiction of sex rather disgusting and not titillating in the least. I guess I keep reading because I have what the book seems to thoroughly lack: hope. I keep hoping that things will get better, so far I am still clinging to hope!
I must admit that after the last book I was like, “Okay, this is actually getting worse. Why am I still reading this depressing series again?” I think it is the same reason I stuck with the new Battlestar Galactica…which I was kind of rewarded for sticking with. A little bit. Well, it still ended kind of dismally. Crud.
I think the commenters and the participants have described several of the reasons I took a pass on this series after book 1 and will take a pass on the televised version. The quotes around “mature” in the opening graf nail the series’ problem as the four writers describe it here: There’s nothing particularly mature about the show’s presentation of sex or of women but a great deal about it that’s adolescent.
As for the books, if I want that much bleakness and depravity without any context of redemption or hope, I’ll watch C-Span.
My opinion of sex in A Game of Thrones is that Martin offers rather immature answers to very mature and sophisticated questions. That is, he understands the way that sexuality was radically different in past ages. Whether we’re talking about the ambiguities of legal prostitution, the public undressing of women as part of a wedding ceremony, the political need to distance marriage from ideas of free choice and voluntary affection, or the ability of certain powerful men to exert their will locally with far less resistance than one might expect, Martin has done his homework, and seems to legitimately try to understand life at the extreme moral fringes of medieval society.
But unlike many of the top fantasists, Martin isn’t able to imaginatively inhabit the emotional world that surrounds sex for his protagonists. This is partly because he is trying to show such extreme situations (in Dany’s case, at least) that too much subjective realism would nauseate his authors. But it is also his one great failing.
Compare him to Robin McKinley’s graphic yet hopeful portrait of incestuous rape and the slow, incomplete psychological healing possible in Deerskin. Compare him to Cathryn Valente’s sometimes sexual robotic dreamscapes in the warmly posthuman novella Silently and Very Fast. Compare him to the intimate awkwardness of an androgynous strain of humanity in LeGuinn’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Compare him to the immense psychological realism of the rare, graphic, and exceedingly different sex scenes of Joe Abercrombie’s slyly nihilistic The Sword Itself trilogy. For that matter, compare him to Jane Yolen’s magical treatment of the holocaust (Briar Rose), which depicts a homosexual character’s transition from identifying himself as an artist and reformer to thinking of himself as a “sodomite” at the vicious hands of the Nazis.
In all these books, human sexuality is related intensely to both the human heart and the social institutions we inhabit. These depictions of sexuality may be graphic, but they are never merely physical–they recognize sexual guilt, pleasure, intimacy, desire, and passion as deeply tied to the characters souls and personalities. Sex isn’t a matter, in these works, only of obtaining pleasure or power–it is a part of the fabric of society, whether twisted, broken or whole. Martin hints at this–but his primary reaction to non-contemporary sex is of horror or cinematic fascination. His sex scenes are about bodies more than people, I think, because he finds it nearly impossible to imagine how someone could have a healthy form of sexuality in a culture other than his own.
Of course, sex is by far GRRM’s greatest weakness. His treatments of honor and duty are spectacular, and more hopeful than people give him credit for. His view of politics is darkly Augustinian, but in a complex and thoughtful manner. And as an echo chamber of almost every previous fantasy of the Middle Ages, he is unparalleled. Brutal-yet-dumb hunks of knighthood rub shoulders with late-Roman masters of court intrigue; little girls are empowered by mysterious sword-masters to survive multiple thrilling adventures; war-weary Franciscian monk analogs wander from town to town caring for the poor; honorable bastards survive exile while repeatedly resisting temptations to compromise their values.
So it’s unfair to judge Martin only by his worst quality. That said, he may give us the rare opportunity to judge the history of medieval fantasies, and question just why it is that the current figurehead of contemporary fantasy is so incapable of imaginative sympathy for humane and understanding romantic unions.
I’m tracking with you, I think. For my part, I don’t think this critique was meant as a general critique of the books. Just this one glaring aspect, which in my opinion, is indicative of what is wrong with the entire world that Martin’s characters live in.
I would like to know what you mean by his treatment of honor and duty being spectacular though. Do you mean that he is able to show the difficulty and danger and sorrow of doing the right thing? Because, so far, almost every honorable action has led to death and/or dismemberment.
In my reading of Martin’s novels–which extends beyond the Game of Thrones series–there is a consistent respect and adulation given to those who do the right thing. If you want this in its most distilled form, check out his novella “The Hedge Knight,” which is set in the Game of Thrones world but has no sex (except possibly for a very brief dream sequence.) The way he draws these characters, shows their temptations, and shows them resisting so many temptations is structured so that I actually root for his characters to do the right thing, even though I know they will pay an immense price for perserving their honor.
(And yes, even his honorable characters are not without flaws–but can you tell me you would rather be Tywin Lannister than Robb Stark? Can you honestly say that you feel Martin wants a moral equivalence among the two? I think any sane reader would rather be Robb, even if some spolierifically bad things may happen to him.)
This contrasts with other authors of contemporary dark fantasy, notably Joe Abercrombie. One trilogy of his is enough–he’s simply too cynical for my taste.
Now admittedly, this has deep resonances with my childhood reading of Lewis and Tolkien, both of whom glorified “the long, slow defeat” that they felt faced Christians living in our corrupt world, before the eucatastrophe of resurrection. Maybe I’m particularly sensitive to accounts of heroism that ends poorly but is the right choice nonetheless. But it does make sense both of my reading, and of Martin’s avowed love for and endorsement of Tolkien’s works.
I started watching it, and I didn’t get too far in before I had to stop watching. The sex and rapes were too much. Since I knew that television always changes the original books, I decided I’d try to read the book. There was sex in the book, but the rape scene right after the marriage wasn’t a rape at all, but gentle and caring. It makes me sick to think that Hollywood has changed such a small simple scene to a rape! I didn’t read much farther in the book. I’m sure it would be great, and I love fantasy, I just couldn’t read/watch anymore.
I also skip most sex scenes in the novel, for the above mentioned reasons. And i kerp reading in hope things get better! I’d be interested to read something similar from CAPC about the various religious beliefs Martin toys with in GoT.
Having read the books and not seen the show I would have to say that my biggest problem with these 4 “perspectives” is that they are all incredibly Western. I am a Christian and I see the issues that these people raise, but not a single person offered a perspective that transcends modern American values of sex, feminism, and love that we label (right or wrong) as “Christian.” Show me in the Bible where two people find love the way we assume it should be done in our culture (romantic love). If you can find an example I can show you a hundred more of arranged marriages where in many cases I highly doubt sex was a “loving” act, at least in the beginning. Martin actually highlights this cultural pluralism problem in the issue of Daenerys and Drogo. They come from two completely different cultures and their ideas of what sex is and means are completely different (or even what age is appropriate for sex, remember most “experts” believe Mary was a young teenager when she had Jesus). I am not arguing that everything should be relativized, but he is not endorsing rape! In fact, I would say that saying so is a gross oversimplification and misunderstanding of what happens in one chapter of a incredibly long and elaborate story. It is like saying you should not read the Bible because in it Tamar is raped and therefore the Bible endorses rape.
Matt, a couple things:
1) Do you think we should expect four individuals who are American Christians to have perspectives that are wildly out of sync with Western Christian norms? Your judgment is that this is problematic, but I’m not sure (even from your explanation) what you’d want. A Ancient Near Eastern perspective would be odd to forward—and wouldn’t necessarily be either appropriate or more Christian.
2) Nobody said Martin endorses rape. To clarify, Carissa does suggest that the utilizing the cliched Learn To Enjoy Your Rape tutorial glorifies marital rape by making it encumbant on the victim to turn rape into a good and healthy thing—and then pursues the theory by having Daenerys do this very thing.
I was not quite clear what I wanted to say, but basically I have a problem with condemning other cultural practices before we even have any clue what is happening. We see/read something and react. It is what I did above. We turn ourselves off. We do not want to ask what is going on. We do not want to engage other people. We simply want to cut it out. Cut ourselves off from the world.
It is a serious issue that has confronted the church ever since global missions and evangelism was so deeply tied to Western imperialism. It is simply a fact that cultures were wiped out by Western Christianity because the “civilized” Westerners saw something they did not like and force people to change and become Western.
I feel that in American many Christians see the church’s grasp on the moral compass of society and culture slipping away and they react. We either revert to our old practices of forcing people to be like us. But that is working less and less. Now we are starting to react by cutting ourselves off more and more from the world around us. That is a very general statement, but I felt like these perspectives were more reactionary and had very little critical substance.
My statement about the two cultures of Daenerys and Drogo is more apparent in the books. What I was hoping for and was trying to point to in my comment above is that every culture views sexuality and sex different. It may not be right just because it is different. My point in referencing the myriad of sexual encounters and marriages in the Old Testament is to show that even in our own Christian tradition we have very little, if any, Western relationships that are based purely on romance. Yet, this is the lens through which the perspectives above chose to look at the sex in Game of Thrones. Therefore, my conclusion can only be that they were not offering a Christian perspective, but a Western perspective.
That does not mean that a Christian perspective allows rape. Far from it. My point is that these four perspectives were in the end all the same thing: a conservative, American, Evangelical Christian perspective. Maybe I am wrong, but I think a better way to approach the relationship between Daenerys and Drogo would have been to look at a Biblical story that comes closer to this marriage than anything that any American will ever experience. Maybe a good example would be the story of Esther. Esther and the king must have had sex. Did she enjoy it the first time? Did she learn to enjoy it? Was it rape? Or was there more going on there than a sexual act between a man and a woman?
Finally, that gets to the heart of the matter. All four people looked at this from the perspective of a typical marriage sexual encounter. However, it was an encounter between a king and a queen from two different nations. There is far more going on in the story just as there is far more going on in the Bible when sex is involved. To use the old adage, these four people missed the forest for the trees. That is what happens when we are reactive and quick to judge.
Well the sex is very kinky in this show, sometimes a little disturbing. (lesbian scene in the brothel) The Game of Thrones leaves no one out in its explicit sex scenes Gay, Lesbian, and Straight. If these things bother you then I would strongly suggest avoiding this series. However You should be aware that the sex is not put in the show to look appealing, rather the opposite. Martin’s whole series is about one thing, POWER! He goes into great detail on how the characters try to grasp that power. Sex is simply one of the ways that the characters try to further their quest for power.
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