Criticism over sensationalized nudity, violence, and rape has long dominated the discourse around the hit series, so I decided to conduct my own research to see if women characters are treated differently than men in Westeros.
Photo by Helen Sloan
Broadly counted every instance of rape, murder, and nudity in "Game of Thrones." This post is an introduction to the data and methodology, and includes total numbers across all seasons.
I've been a ravenous fan of the Game of Thrones books and HBO show for years, devouring the universe's amalgamation of Tolkien-caliber expansiveness and detail, medieval lore, and supernatural phenomena. I'm only one of the millions of avid viewers of the most-watched show on television—its first season averaged 2.52 million viewers, and its numbers have since grown exponentially, exploding with the most recent season's record-breaking premiere.
It's hard to succinctly describe the plot of Game of Thrones: It's an incredibly complex tale of intrigue involving over 100 principal characters and numerous fully realized civilizations. The show accordingly gives us wedding massacres, Byzantine plots devised by silver-tongued rich people, women killing witless and cruel men with fire, a dozen pairs of star-crossed lovers, repetitive incest, gouged eyes, gorgeous vistas with ancient castles, and disgusting morbidity. It's a dizzying spectacle, one that's nearly impossible to look away from.
Despite its Shakespearean ambitions and enthusiastic reception, the television adaptation of Game of Thrones has been widely criticized for the amount of superfluous female nudity as well as its depictions of violence and, specifically, sexualized violence against women. This has posed a challenge particularly for feminist and female viewers, despite the inclusion of compellingly powerful women characters such as Brienne the knight, Arya the moral assassin, and Daenerys the dragon queen.
The Atlantic called the show's "tendency to ramp up the sex, violence, and—especially—sexual violence " its "defining weakness." The Washington Post pointed out that the show's nude scenes were meant to titillate straight men, making them alienating to other viewers. These gratuitous tendencies were even parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch about the show consulting a 13-year-old boy on the plot, whose primary objective is to show as many boobs as possible.
The Season 4 depiction of Jaime raping his sister and lover Cersei triggered a national conversation about the show's treatment of sexual violence and women. The controversy around the scene—which did not appear in the books—made the front page of the New York Times, where Dave Itzkoff said, "Rape has become so pervasive in the drama that it is almost background noise: a routine and unshocking occurrence." The Season 5 depiction of Sansa's rape by Ramsay was widely panned as well, with Vanity Fair , Salon , The Atlantic , and The Daily Beast calling it unnecessary and poorly done. After the scene's airing, pop culture site The Mary Sue announced it would stop covering the series, and even US Senator Claire McCaskill said she'd quit watching. Jeremy Podeswa, who directed the episode containing Sansa's rape, responded to the criticism: "It is important that (the producers) not self-censor. The show depicts a brutal world where horrible things happen. They did not want to be too overly influenced by that (criticism) but they did absorb and take it in and it did influence them in a way."
With sensationalized nudity, violence, and rape dominating the discourse around my favorite show, I decided to conduct my own research to see if numbers supported or refuted the claims that women have it much worse than men in Westeros. I thought a quantitative approach would help add larger analysis to the show's treatment of women and elucidate the whirlwind of feminist and antifeminist discourse that's surrounded it. So I counted every instance of death, rape, and nudity by gender to see how the numbers stacked up. Because I've also watched some of my favorite women characters' plot lines suffer in recent seasons, I also wanted to examine scenes between women more closely, determining whether or not each episode passed the Bechdel Test. I hoped that all of these tallies, pulled together, would give me a more comprehensive look at the depiction of women characters across all seasons of the show, and the ways in which men's and women's representations and story arcs might be treated differently, influence one another, or change over time. To get these numbers, I watched all 67 episodes of the show so far at minimum three times each, totaling approximately 200 hours of Game of Thrones.
While the show highlights far more men's deaths than women's, the killing of men feels more routine, as hundreds occur during and even after battles, whereas women's deaths, while more rare, are also more often used to illustrate the maliciousness of evil men. I also found that there were fewer instances of rape, nudity, and violence against women on the show than I had expected, with the most egregious offenses taking place in the first four seasons. After Seasons 4 and 5, the creators may have listened to critics, using nudity and sex more thoughtfully, and writing what they believed to be more convincing portrayals of women's sexuality and power.
However, this change in approach revealed that the show's mishandling of rape and nudity was symptomatic of a bigger problem: When instances of gratuitous nudity and rape decreased, women characters suffered, highlighting the inability of showrunners to deploy other tactics to showcase complex character development or invent convincing, creative plot lines for women characters.
Here's how it breaks down, by the numbers:
Breaking Down Seven Seasons of Data
By not confronting women's narratives head-on or with sufficient depth, Game of Thrones creators failed to completely work out the inner lives of their female characters, in particular when the show diverges from the original source material. As the data shows, this problem is exacerbated—especially in early seasons—by the overwhelming amount of female nudity onscreen. With the exception of Season 7, every nude scene in Game of Thrones features more naked women than men, with Season 2 showing no naked men at all. The first two seasons so sensationalized the nudity of peripheral female characters, that it even inspired TV critic Myles McNutt to coin the word "sexposition" to describe the show's unnecessary use of sex to keep viewers titillated during expository scenes.
But it does seem that, after five seasons, Game of Thrones creators heeded critics' call to cut back on unnecessary instances of women's nudity. Season 7 even stands out as egalitarian: In all three sex scenes, each contains one nude man and one nude woman who are all main characters (making their nudity seem less about pure shock value). This improvement is in part due to story arc—jam-packed with battle scenes, there's less time for narrative exposition scenes set in brothels—but perhaps it's also a sign that Game of Thrones creators are listening to their fans and critics. (After criticisms of Sansa's rape in Season 5, for example, Seasons 6 and 7 contained no rape scenes.)
In contrast to the show's nudity numbers, women's deaths are used sparingly in Game of Thrones, with an overwhelming majority (more than 90 percent for every season, except 81 percent in Season 6) of onscreen deaths belonging to men. This makes sense, considering all of the male armies dying on battlefields. However, women's deaths are typically used to further plot points for other characters. Catelyn, Talisa, Shireen, Osha, and Ros endure brutal deaths to prove that the men who murdered them (Frey, Stannis, Ramsay, Joffrey) are evil. Myrcella's death—which happens immediately after she reveals and accepts the "secret" that her uncle is also her father—is largely about traumatizing Jaime and addressing his internal contradictions. Shae and Ygritte served as love interests whose deaths served as character development for their conflicted lovers (Jon and Tyrion).
The data made it clear that most criticism against the show's depiction of sexual violence isn't about the fact that they're showing the act of rape on the show (George R. R. Martin himself has dismissed that idea, calling rape "part of war"), but rather the manner in which the show handles rape. Considering how much the topic has dominated the show's cultural criticism and conversation, I actually expected more rape scenes in the series. That there are 17 instances across 67 episodes to me illustrated the impact of these scenes on viewers.
The reverberating effects of sexual violence on the show highlight the false and inconsistent understanding of rape. For example, the much-criticized Season 4 scene in which Jaime rapes Cersei (she repeatedly tells him to "stop it") is emblematic of this problem: Director Alex Graves claimed the sex was "consensual by the end," although there was no evidence that would lead a viewer to this conclusion. (Advocates have repeatedly said that there is no such thing as rape that turns into consensual sex, and this idea only perpetuates dangerous rape myths.)
When Shae delivers the savvy Season 1 line, "A girl who is almost raped doesn't invite another man into her bed two hours later," she's scolding the show's smartest character, Tyrion, for not questioning or understanding women's sexual motivations. It has an immediate, profound impact on him, and you can see in his eyes he's reexamining all of his past relationships with women. Four seasons later, though, showrunners seem to forget their own advice: Gilly has sex with Sam mere hours after several other men attempt to rape her.
The final few seasons of the show depicted significantly fewer incidents of sexual violence and graphic nudity, but when the show no longer dispensed these tactics to define and build their women characters, their story arcs fell flat. While it's true that a lack of focus is a more universal problem afflicting characters of both genders—especially when the source material is left behind—it doesn't seem like a coincidence that the story arcs that suffer are overwhelmingly those that involve female characters.
With Game of Thrones already devoting less screen time to women than men, much of our understanding of female characters' motivations must be developed in intimate conversations, which is why it's particularly damning that only 18 out of 67 episodes passed the Bechdel test.
There's a wealth of source material that could be used to inform the inner lives of women in Game of Thrones—in the books, female protagonists are fully developed and complex, and showrunners could consult any number of literal scholars dedicated to the universe, or even Martin himself. (The books, for example have 58 point-of-view chapters from the perspectives of Arya and Sansa— and those who have read them would definitely deem the sisters' Season 7 plot nonsensical as a result.) By the time I finished my analysis, I was left with the distinct impression that the creative team behind the show had neglected this fact, consistently undervaluing the viewer's memory, understanding, and investment. It may help to get more women in the writer's room: Of 67 total episodes, only three were written by a woman, Vanessa Taylor.
Game of Thrones is compelling and often beautiful, and the Season 7 finale payoff was possibly the best we've seen so far. But it's important to understand that there are still moments in which the show feels deeply male-centric, sometimes to the point of sacrificing its leading female characters. If criticism of the show's earlier use of excessive rape and nudity contributed to the more measured depictions we've seen in later seasons, then calling on Game of Thrones creators to hire more women writers, pull more from the source material, and consult often with Martin to show more thoughtful insights into female characters' inner lives could help.
Even after undertaking this massive project, I'm hopeful that Season 8 will improve upon the show's shortcomings. I don't think I'll ever be able to stop watching—as Melisandre said, "I have to die in this strange country, just like you."