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)
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?