Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Women.

6 Jun

I’ve just watched the first two episodes of Game of Thrones, the wildly successful HBO series set in faux Medieval times in what is now the UK and “across the Narrow Sea” in what we call Europe.  I was enthralled. I can’t wait for this evening when our household gathers to watch the next episode and in the words of Laurie Penny in the New Statesmen “enjoy the shit out of it,” despite its unexamined ‘racist rape-culture” ambience, and its appalling representation of women.

Life in Medieval times was not good for women, you might argue, and you would be right. There is no way of cushioning this reality, nor should anyone attempt such falsification. Women were for breeding and fucking. Relationships of all kinds evolved, because that’s what happens between humans regardless of class and circumstance. However, male allegiance is primarily to the King, or he who would be King. Women may not interfere with this requirement. No man would consider staying home from the slaughter because his woman asked it of him.

The wars fought between these opposing Medieval forces demand sacrifices from the top down, unlike our modern wars in which politicians dispatch the sons and daughters of others to do their killing while themselves remaining comfortably removed from trauma and death. This is only one of the differences between wars then and now, but that’s another story.

Reading Penny’s piece I found myself making comparisons between Game of Thrones and that other HBO success story, The Sopranos, in terms of their representation of women. The Sopranos is set in a very different world, that of organised crime in the US state of New Jersey in the present day. They have in common a ruthless hierarchical structure that demands total obedience from its male members to the King or the Captain. Mob women who do not comply with this requirement don’t last long, either in the family or in some instances, in this world. There is a divide between business and family that women may not cross.

That is not to say women in both series are entirely powerless, because they clearly are not. However, there are limits to the expressions of their power, and they exceed those limits at their peril. Overstepping the mark frequently results in physical retribution, sometimes death.

As in Game of Thrones, there are the women men marry and breed with, and the women men fuck. Occasionally there is confusion, and a “bastard” child results.

Sex is usually represented in both narratives as primarily for male gratification, urgent, hydraulic, and frequently performed from the rear, though in The Sopranos women are allowed to be on top a lot more. Women men fuck are generally less clothed in Medieval times and the present day, while wives and legitimate girlfriends get to wear expensive stuff.

In spite of this blatant and offensive sexism, and the highly aggravating madonna/whore complex that we just can’t seem to escape in our narratives, I was and remain enthralled by The Sopranos. In this and in Game of Thrones I’m willing to suspend my hard-won feminist critical faculties, and instead of righteously loathing the unreconstructed males who populate both worlds, I can’t stop myself enjoying the shit out of the shows. In particular, Tony Soprano remains a character of Shakespearian magnitude to me, his at times terrifying complexities holding my attention like a helpless deer caught in his headlights.  This series is littered with powerful characterisations, and I have not yet seen enough of Game of Thrones to judge if it achieves a similar standard.

At first blush, I suspect not. As Penny argues, Thrones is not subtle. After two episodes I feel I’ve got a decent handle on the characters and how they’re likely to behave. Be that as it may, I’m still enthralled.

There’s a critique of Penny’s critique here, written by Sarah Ditum.

What does intrigue me is my willingness, a willingness shared by millions of other women apparently, to suspend my outrage at the portrayal of women in both HBO masterpieces, and enter deeply into these created worlds, emerging at the end of each episode with a sense of having been transported to another reality and for better and for worse, being somehow embiggened by the experience.

I tentatively put this down to the difference between creativity and ideology. Ideology tells me things should be this or that way, and must be made to be.  Creativity tells me anything is possible, and while I might not like it, it exists and must be understood.

As Laurie Penny says: a piece of art doesn’t have to be perfectly politically correct to be fun, or important. We’re allowed to enjoy problematic things, as long as we’re honest about their problems.

Well, I’m honest about the woman problem in Game of Thrones and The Sopranos. The way we’re portrayed in both sucks, and is likely an accurate representation of  life for women in both those cultures.  Will that stop me watching, enthralled? No way.

27 Responses to “Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Women.”

  1. Sam Jandwich June 6, 2012 at 11:18 am #

    Hmmm, as a man I feel as though I should chime in and say that I’ve never found hydraulic sex particularly gratifying, and I hope my fellow bretheren don’t seek to advance the idea that this is all we’re about – otherwise we’ll never get laid!

    But anyways, I’m very interested in your perceptions on this matter Jennifer. I don’t know if you’ve picked this up, but elsewhere a trend has been noted recently that women are seemingly becoming increasingly interested in seeking out BDSM relationships, and most often in a submissive capacity. I think largely this has been written about in relation to the book “Fifty shades of grey”, and the fact that it has been selling in such large numbers. But it’s not just there… in fact I keep noticing evidence of this phenomenon in more and more places,.. including here!

    I remember earlier this year one of your commentators Rebecca Randall seemed to be the resident expert on this subject. Are you still reading Rebecca?? What do you or others think of this proposition?


  2. gerard oosterman June 6, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    Call me rotten to the core but when I read that many women have lost their jobs and been jailed for sex with male students I can’t but wish some older female would have taken advantage of me at The Hague high school that I attended. If you include me having been tied up as well and I probably would have uttered ‘ja graag’ (yes please).
    I just can’t imagine a pubescent boy being upset with introduction to sex by a mature person. Do they run to the police and complain?
    Anyway, that is the law as it stands but I pity all those jailed women with their lives ruined…
    I might just be one shade of grey.


    • Trevor Melksham June 9, 2012 at 6:46 am #

      The prosecutors believe the female teacher is in the position of power here, but that is not what I have seen. It is the teacher that is the victim of our laws. The male has not been molested, corrupted or damaged. These women are positive elements in our struggle through those awful teenage years


  3. Hudson Godfrey June 6, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    As a critic the cliche you were probably looking for is that the characters are all one dimensional. Not that I’ve seen it but most medieval dramas are fairly escapist and we like our heroes and villains one dimensional.

    The idea that that, with people expecting you to scale walls and rescue maidens with regular monotony, too much heroism could become tiresome would be anathema to escapist fiction. Nor should ageing tyrants grow weary of their evil schemes and mellow too much in their declining years. And a medieval setting makes a great backdrop for escapism because if we’re given to believe that life was short and brutal then we can allow ourselves to imagine that it could also have been quite dramatic.

    Needless to say it probably comes as something of a relief to those of us who may be getting over the spate of other dramas about self centred 30 something’s looking for love in all the wrong places. In medieval dramas all you have to do is cross the mountains, slay the dragon, win the war and claim your rightful throne then bingo your 14 year old bride awaits!


    • Jennifer Wilson June 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

      It’s actually little more complicated than that Hudson! I’m not so easily absorbed!


      • hudsongodfrey June 6, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

        I’m sure it’s not you. It’s me!

        If it were anything less than the full body enveloping experience of politically incorrect escapism then after the past 10 years of reality TV I think I’d exercise my democratic right to be disappointed… Damn it!


      • Nick June 6, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

        Yep, and it gets better too, Jennifer. The writing and characterisations are great (and have a long way to go). I love it. Wait until the second series, and then you really see get to see how that kind of male thinking in all its forms doesn’t exactly do the male characters any good…it becomes outright funny at times watching them struggle with their natures and pride and bizarre self-justifications, and the women (though not all of them, a few reveal unexpected weaknesses of a different kind) slowly but surely become more powerful! IMO, it’s a lot more about female empowerment than the Sopranos ever was.


        • Jennifer Wilson June 6, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

          I don’t think the Sopranos was about female empowerment, Nick, I just loved the intricacy with which the female characters were drawn. And I still question the notion of female empowerment in a misogynist culture such as GoT, but I’m open to changing my mind if necessary as I watch the series unfold.


          • Nick June 7, 2012 at 1:06 am #

            No, I could have phrased that better…I didn’t think you did! Some of the portrayal of violence toward women to come is just brutal btw…but, you know, I don’t think it does any harm. I can’t imagine any man watching those scenes and not cringing at what’s taking place or ever wanting to be like that. I like to think so anyway. That’s the power of violent art when it’s performed well. It acts as a warning. It lets us experience things we haven’t in real life. We get to test our responses in a given situation…have a mental practice run and see the consequences, the blood and the bruises on a woman’s face. Learn how not to act!


            • Jennifer Wilson June 7, 2012 at 6:46 am #

              Yes, I agree with you on this. I’ve always argued for the cathartic purpose of good drama.


      • Nick June 6, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

        I should add there’s also a healthy dose of Welles-esque “damn it, why won’t you just get your come-uppance! I know they’re going write it in sooner or later…” Some of the worst male characters just refuse to see the error of their ways, and somehow, miraculously, keep narrowly escaping the fate they deserve…it’s lots of fun 🙂 At this point, I’m gonna shut up and let you enjoy it…


      • hudsongodfrey June 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

        Ah the fine line of difference between the dream of an egalitarian society and a mob that has no class!


  4. doug quixote June 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    The notion that warfare then was between those of the nobility is interesting. The idea was that the nobility was the warrior class : they were superior to the peasants right up to recent times because they were better fed throughout their lives. Peasants were lucky to get the occasional good meal, especially as children, whilst the aristocrats always ate well. The boys and young men received physical training and arms training from age 6 to 18 or so, and of course education in the classics rhetoric and the like.

    A typical nobleman of 1600 was nearly six feet tall, whilst the typical peasant was about 4’10” or so – 180cm to 145cm, and about double the weight. Hardly surprising that the peasants looked up to them!

    Only in the last 300 years or so have they become degenerate, as the French Revolution showed; the British warrior class was devastated in World War I and it has been in a sorry state ever since. Modern nutrition has wiped out most of the remaining differential, as has education.


    • Hypocritophobe June 6, 2012 at 7:24 pm #

      Things have changed alright, DQ.
      What was once the average height of a peasant has become the modern average width of the ‘noblemen/women’.
      Mining magnate anyone?
      I see Newman is determined to accelerate the demise of the QLD ecosystem by channelling Joh.
      Hope his subservient missus can knock some equally worthy pumpkin scones.

      I hope the tourists like big black holes,fluoro clothing and marine dead zones.

      I vote we rename QLD Shithole.
      After all, the populous have stated emphatically that’s what they want.


    • Jennifer Wilson June 6, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

      So we now have an underclass, a middle class and no working class?


      • paul walter June 7, 2012 at 6:19 am #

        Manufacturing was off shored and this decimated the local industrial working class, altering the political balance in western countries. Labor was actually put together in response to depression,poverty and violent industrial conflicts in the1890’s; the masses realised they were going to have to club together for any actual existential survival and the Harvester Settlement of the following decade indicated that progressive Deakinite liberals were also pleased to see much social conflict averted.
        So we got a basic wage and over the years various bolt ons were added, involving education, health and welfare, to spread opportunity.
        I’m not getting into an argument as to whether the western system ended up feeding to much into social infrastructure or not, that depends on your values.
        The point is, from the seventies onwards the jobs were sent over seas, weakening organised labour’s in put as a bulwark for conditions previously hard won.
        What we have actually done is move from being a country to being a suburb in the Global Village in which we live, what’s more in the equivalent to a green and leafy Eastern subs type suburb, by global standards.
        But I think as a cost, we have lost our self determination and appear into a genteel decline.
        Finally, therefore, I suspect that like Classical Athens, we have had our day as a democracy and are becoming like the Athens of Hellenistic times, no more than a provincial satrapy of someone or other else’s empire and like Athens or the India of the Moghuls, we will find our way back to feudalism, in the fullness of time
        We are a society out of balance again, alienated and anxious; atomised; a sort of internalised Israel determined to shoot first and ask questions later, As the refugee saga has demonstrated, the same tendency is here, even tho the circumstances look different. We are like the timid citizens of Wisconsin,USA, who are now so paranoid, ill informed and fearful that they couldn’t muster the intestinal fortitude to get rid of a tycoon’s stooge of a governor, caught with his fingers in the till and out to union bust, to the point that the grounds for future feudalism are established there.

        Sam Jandwich.
        My advice, should you be interested in learning more of the value of “hydraulic sex”, is that you should consult with Julian Assange. He is banged up to rights presently awaiting his eventual transportation to GITMO, via the kind politicians of Sweden, as a guest of President
        Obama. so no chance he won’t be around when you drop in.
        .Am sure Julian has developed any number of thoughts on the merits and draw backs of robust rumpy-pumpy; “hydraulic sex”!


        • Jennifer Wilson June 7, 2012 at 6:51 am #

          Also, I was thinking that the middle class used to be defined by access to education that allowed them to enter professions. Now education isn’t the determiner, income seems to have replaced it, with so called blue collar workers (previously regarded as working class) often earning far more than a “professional” and defined by that as middle class.


          • doug quixote June 7, 2012 at 6:56 am #

            Yes, and with that wealth they are ‘aspirational’ and eat up all the propaganda the Noalition puts out.

            “You think you’re so clever and classless and free,
            But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see”

            John Lennon , ‘Working Class Hero’


            • Julia June 8, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

              best version is Marianna Faithful’s…played loud


            • Julia June 8, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

              so the troll doesn’t bust a pedantic hernia…Marrianne’s*…


            • doug quixote June 8, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

              I’m with you Julia – Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Broken English’ is one of my favourite albums.


          • paul walter June 7, 2012 at 10:40 am #

            Cultural atrophication.


            • Hypocritophobe June 8, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

              @ DQ

              Yes Broken English was definitely a stand-out album in its time.


          • Julia June 8, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

            but the Working Class is all unemployed…and I notice more and more professional classes seem to prefer blue collars…there’s gotta be something Freudian going on.

            Oz is supposed to be a classless society…whether you”re a bunch of mates on the club dance floor spilling bundies or in a tinny fishing out on Bass Strait…singlets, stubby’s & stubbies and thongs…playing with their worms…the person on your left is a Millionaire tycoon and the bloke on the right is on the dole….egalitarian social interaction.

            There is less class distinction here in Oz than in, say, pommieland where it’s still a capital offence to cross the class divide…intermarriage is still not-at-all encouraged….nor inter-fishingmates.

            There’s some up-themselves snobs around…they’d like to pretend to being better than everyone else…

            …but they’re just up themselves any how


  5. Trevor Melksham June 9, 2012 at 6:49 am #

    Back to the story. I’ve seen the first series of Game of Thromes and am totally hooked. I was really disappointed with Sean Bean’s character, but for those looking for women to come out on top and reflect the role of oppressor they now play in society, keep watching. In the meantime, the leprachaun gets shagged a lot…


  6. Wolf & Rhys (@WolfandRhys) June 13, 2012 at 2:38 am #

    Just found this website through the objectification article.

    Unless it really transforms itself, Game of Thrones is never reaching the level of The Sopranos.

    While it’s fun, it seems to try a little too hard to be “bawdy” and characters aren’t very complex – they are either scheming or depraved or noble.

    I don’t know if we’ve exported it yet but Breaking Bad reaches the brilliance of The Sopranos.


    • Jennifer Wilson June 13, 2012 at 6:07 am #

      Yes Breaking Bad is exceptionally good. Just started watching the first series for the second time. Much more complexity than GoT


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