Welcome back to our continuing analysis of sex and gender issues in HBO’s Game of Thrones. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the first article in the series, focusing on Arya Stark, read it here and make sure to tell us what you think. While this article isn’t a direct continuation on anything covered there, we do plan on building upon what we discuss each week. Besides, we really think you’ll like it.
As always, we’re going to steer clear of spoilers and information from the Song of Ice and Fire series that hasn’t been covered in the television series yet. Everything that has been aired so far, up through episode four, however, is fair game, as are comparisons between how things are handled in the television series as opposed to the original George R.R. Martin novels. Ready? Let’s go!
The world of A Song of Ice and Fire, while fantastical, is very clearly rooted in a romanticized version of the Western European Middle Ages, so it should come as no surprise that Game of Thrones has more than its fair share of prostitutes. In fact, thus far in the series, named female characters have been limited to nobility, clergy, religious figures or slaves.
It’s temping to use this as a launching point to discuss how the common women in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire must be holy, whores or literally in chains to get by, but that’s an unfair read of the material. I say this partially because of developments later in Game of Thrones as well as in the subsequent novels, but also because it’s a reductive and misguided view that simply equates the viewpoints of fictional characters with those of the author. Most importantly, however, there’s a much more interesting and rich approach to take here than a tired “virgin or vamp” duality.
While it’s true that prostitution is seen as a vice in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s a legal and even acceptable one, with brothels spread throughout the kingdom of Westeros — from Mole’s Town near the Wall in the north, all the way down south to King’s Landing. What’s most interesting about the sex trade in Game of Thrones, however, is who it ultimately exploits and weakens.
Already we have both seen and heard about several male characters’ bought-and-paid-for sexual adventures, but the first, and one of the most prominent brothel patrons is Tyrion Lannister. As a dwarf in a world that values strength and physical prowess in its men, Tyrion has but little choice to resort to prostitutes for his sexual desires, and in keeping with the character, he has little shame in it. His family, however, doesn’t feel the same way, as seen in brother Jaime’s gentle, but still prevalent disapproval of “the Imp’s” behavior.
Tyrion’s brother-in-law, King Robert Baratheon, is just as voracious in his sexual appetites, indulging them with multiple women while forcing his wife’s twin brother, Jamie Lannister, to stand guard. Robert does this as a jab at his cruel, frigid wife, Queen Cersei, who unbeknownst to him is carrying on an incestuous affair with her twin. But just as the king’s overindulgence in food and wine has made him fat, his carnal exploits render him similarly weak. The obvious blow comes to Robert’s effectiveness as a king, as it’s difficult to rule an entire continent when participating in orgies in the middle of the day, but his sexual vices also weaken the king in another, more subtle, manner.
Lord Petyr Baelish, also known as “Littlefinger,” is Robert’s Master of Coin, in charge of the finances and treasury for the entire kingdom. To pay for the elaborate feasts and festivals put on by the king, Baelish must take out frequent loans and make use of “creative” accounting to keep things running smoothly, impoverishing the government in the process. But meanwhile, Littlefinger has found a way to line his own pockets, purchasing a number of brothels within King’s Landing and profiting from the vices of the city’s inhabitants, presumably including the king himself.
The third man we know to have frequented prostitutes is Theon Greyjoy, who discusses his favorite redhead, Roz, with brothel-enthusiast Tyrion Lannister. In the same conversation, Tyrion pours salt on a very old, but still very raw wound of Greyjoy’s. Years ago, Theon’s father Lord Balon Greyjoy led a revolt that was ultimately put down by the Starks and others. Though Balon was spared, his son was taken as a Ned Stark’s ward, a euphemism for hostage, and raised in Winterfell.
Though there will certainly be more, we have seen one additional Game of Thrones character indulge in the services of a prostitute: the rightful king of Westeros, Viserys Targaryen. The “Last Dragon” is more openly cruel than any of the other men mentioned above — in fact, he’s one of the most despicable characters in the series — but he has one important thing in common with the rest: He is weak and powerless.
A dwarf, a drunken lush, a hostage and an exiled king. These are the men in Game of Thrones that visit the brothels of the Seven Kingdoms. In a very real way, their dependency upon prostitutes is both a weakness in-and-of-itself as well as a way of coping with some other more central failure. Tyrion is seen as a deformed freak, Robert is an addictive cuckold, Theon is a captive and Viserys is a refugee, but all four of them take solace in the purchased caresses of Westeros’ working women.
By way of contrast, Jon Snow, in conversation with Samwell Tarly, explains why he remains a virgin, even though he was once about to enjoy the services of the same Roz frequented by Theon Greyjoy. Snow is a bastard, born out of wedlock to Ned Stark and a mother he has never known. As a result, there has been no place for him in Winterfell, where he suffered under the constant scorn of Ned’s wife Catelyn, who saw his mere existence as both a threat and an insult.
Snow knows that if he were to impregnate a prostitute, the resulting child would be a bastard, just like him, and even worse, a second-generation bastard, even further removed from a legitimate noble birth. He refuses to engage in sexual activity with prostitutes because of the failing his father once had, and the pain and suffering that came about as a result. While Tyrion, Robert, Theon and Viserys are shown to be weak, even craven characters, Snow’s defining characteristic is his honor, the thing that compels him to stay celibate as well as respect his commitment and promise to the Night’s Watch.
What first looks like a negative, even disdainful portrayal of women in Game of Thrones is more an examination of the weaknesses and failures of men. Importantly, the series always casts these downfalls as the men’s fault: There’s no Eve giving Adam the apple here, and nowhere have we seen blame for fornication or adultery placed at anyone’s feet but the man walking into a brothel.
In Game of Thrones sex outside the proper societal boundaries is often seen as a sin for the man indulging in it, which might lead some to see the work as essentially sex-negative. However, doing so grafts 21st century situational morality upon a very different world. Without effective, reliable birth control, prostitutes run a constant, very real risk of having an illegitimate child. Such an occurrence would render the prostitute unable to work while costing her money in the process, and perhaps most devastatingly, it would result in the birth of a child that would have no choice but to become a perpetual outsider.
While not the most sex-positive piece of fiction, Game of Thrones does a tremendous job of engaging both the ramifications and implications of sex outside of marriage in its fictional world. What is most bracing, however, is the impressively progressive ground the work stakes out by holding the men of the series accountable for their sex acts as opposed to casting the female characters as seductresses.
Do you have something from the show that you’d like to see discussed? Then let us know in the comments below. Then, make sure to check back in the coming weeks as we continue to look at sex and gender in Game of Thrones, airing Sunday nights at 9pm on HBO.