Game of Thrones’ Sexposition and Race Quandary

by Guest Contributor GeekMami, originally published at Geekmundo

I sat on this post for a long time, because I really wanted to get my thoughts together on this and wait until a few episodes into the season. However, it’s painfully clear that I am not the only in the ‘Game of Thrones’ fandom to take issue with the sexism and the race issues being brought up in the show this season.

From ONTD to well-written essays on the topic, it seems like one or both of the aforementioned issues I am wrestling with regarding the show are being discussed, whether people like it or not. Does ‘Game of Thrones’ have a race and sexposition problem?

Sexposition is defined as the using sex to give the characters something to do, or grab the audience’s attention, as opposed to really contributing something major. Don’t get me wrong, sex scenes can be quite vital, but in this season of Game of Thrones, there tends to be a trend to add sexually graphic scenes to grab our attention, not develop the characters I mean, in season two, there were women wiping some man nectar from their mouths in a flagrant show of sexposition. What was the point in that?

Sex in The Seven Kingdoms: Where’s the Beef(cake)?

Sex in HBO’s version of the Seven Kingdoms seems to be a primarily male pastime, with the women on the fringes or on the receiving end of a piping down.

As a fan of the ASOIAF books, I know that sex is not taboo but isn’t as prevalent as in the series. Sexist and misogynist men are, but that’s natural because that’s keeping with the time and attitudes of the world. For example, Brienne of Tarth encounters grief for having the nerve to be a woman in armor and mail because she’s actually very good at fighting, seems vastly uninterested in sex—even though she was in love with Renly, she wanted to protect and defend him by force, not by providing him a womb and her bosom—and she’s rejected the idea that only men are powerful and in control of their destinies while other women in Westeros just have children and hope for the best.

Yet, it seems like the series adds lots of boobs and lady parts just to titillate the audience. My question to the producers, the writers, and the HBO honchos who approve this is who in the audience are you trying to tantalize? It doesn’t titillate me at all, but leaves me wanting to go smoke a cigarette or post on Twitter because it’s like watching a Divas match on the WWE (the TNA Knockouts are much more enjoyable, by the way)… It’s just there for the people who, for whatever reason, need to see tits and ass (and more) and get all hot and bothered for it. I have plenty of sex in my own life. I don’t need an already built in plot from the books usurped by sex scenes that don’t make sense or waste time. We wasted time on Roslyn and the man nectar scene when we could’ve learned more about Catelyn, Robb’s trials as a new king, Tyrion, Sansa, even Arya… Game of Thrones’ doesn’t need to be softcore period porn for me to enjoy the show.

Then again, I don’t think the producers or the writers are catering to me. I think they are courting a male demographic that they believe will enjoy that kind of thing. Sex is not taboo to George R.R. Martin when it comes to writing it into the books. We’ve got all manner of incestuous relationships going on, along with hetero and non-hetero relationships. I was and am able to enjoy the books easily. The problem is the series is clearly doing too much. It’s the TV equivalent of girls who kiss each other in a nightclub, not because they enjoy it, but because they think it looks “hot.”

To add insult to injury, we see women’s bodies constantly on display for the male gaze, but what about the female gaze? NEWSFLASH: We like seeing cute guys with nice bodies. Yeah, we got one to two episodes where there was one scene with Theon and Gendry showing their well-built bodies off. We saw Theon topless in episode one—but then again, we also got a whole lot of naked wench in the bed with him… But what about Jon Snow, Robb Stark, and Tyrion Lannister? Hell, even the Kingslayer at this point. I’d even take Littlefinger. We are watching too, and we are legion. If we are going to be flagrant with the sexposition, then we could at least make it equal. We don’t even get that much of Renly and Loras, and they are canon characters who are (although implied in the books thus far) a couple, albeit a forbidden one.

Sometimes the sexposition goes into very brutal territory, which seems to be an extreme effort to really distract the reader, as we saw in the “Garden of Bones” episode. In “Garden of Bones” (read my recap here), Joffrey enters his room only to find two prostitutes, one of them being Ros (of course!) and the other named Daisey. Tyrion had sent them to his room so that they could maybe loosen up Joff sexually, and then maybe he’d be a softer person. Why? There’s really no way that the Tyrion I know from the books would’ve have made such a misstep because he knows Joffrey is a rat bastard and the worst human being alive, aside from Cersei and Littlefinger. He’s Joff’s uncle for God’s sake. Yet, the writers opted to put that in there for reasons I really can’t understand or get behind because it was obvious pandering.

While I don’t agree with everything, Myles McNutt from Cultural Learnings explained my issues with Ros going down on Daisey for Joff’s “enjoyment” more eloquently than I could parse:

Without perhaps getting into the whole conversation, I do agree that sexposition often says something about sex. However, I’d also argue it says something very problematic about sex, at least in its most common manifestation. There is a logic to using sex as a space for exposition, as it’s an environment which takes place in private and shows people often at their most vulnerable, thus making them more likely to open up. The sequences also often reveal something about the sexual politics of Westeros, which are a key part of Martin’s books even if he explores them through language more often than through the carnal act in and of itself.

The problem is where that lesson about sexual politics actually lands. Scenes between characters who are both tied into the story, like Renly or Loras, end up developing those characters in relation to those sexual politics. By comparison, scenes in which Ros or another prostitute are effectively tools to be used to reveal information doesn’t allow for that lesson (about the power dynamics of Westeros as they relate to gender and sexuality) to develop within the female party. Ros was featured in countless exposition sequences, but we never really learned anything more about her character even through her cumulative – oh jeez, that unintentional pun is too terrible to delete – appearances would create that potential. Ros was being positioned as an object within this world, but the fact that she was simultaneously functioning as a narrative object seemed to devalue any larger political statement that could be made here.

He’s more generous than I. I didn’t really find Ros necessary at ALL because she was not necessary in the books. She’s not a canon character. Ros was a prostitute that Theon was fond of before she left for King’s Landing to service richer clients. That is the last we should have seen of Ros according to the books. I certainly don’t remember much mention of Ros because she was just a character mentioned here and there to illustrate the sexuality of the male characters like Theon and Tyrion and their ability to do whatever they want sexually. We could’ve gotten an idea as to what was happening to the common folk through Arya or maybe even Davos (or others). Instead, we get a medieval/TV equivalent of a Girls Gone Wild scene that did nothing but state the obvious. We get it. Joff is a punk.

Where’s Chataya and Alayaya?

In A Clash of Kings, the book that this season is *loosely* based on, Tyrion deals with Chataya and Alayaya. Chataya, a Summer Islander, is implied to be a woman of color. In fact, she’s quite clearly black and so is her daughter, and employee, Alayaya. Where Ros caves and bends to the whims of men and alternately hates, then enjoys her job, Chataya and Alayaya own the brothel, they own their sexuality and they like sex. We can argue how this could be potentially problematic, but that is best for another post.

I wonder if the producers and writers on the show were worried about how the viewers would deal with the fact that Tyrion was not only attracted to Chataya, but extremely attracted to Alayaya (he pitched a tent in his pants in the book). Were the producers and writers afraid that people would run from an interracial attraction? If so, who cares what those people think?

I found the excuse to get rid of canon POC characters for Ros (Esmee Bianco) utterly unacceptable. We met Salladhor Saan very briefly and we were fine. And I wasn’t the only person to find their exclusion from season 2, but the addition of Ros, to be irritating and extremely disconcerting.

I don’t even want to get started on Salladhor Saan’s foaming at the mouth for Cersei. Yes, he definitely wanted to get it in with Cersei in ACoK, but he was foaming at the mouth in the scene where he talks with Davos Seaworth, enough for me to cringe because the implications and the way most people–regardless of race–understand the scene are far less innocent and a lot more racially charged.

So either they are completely oblivious to what’s going on with the viewers and the fans (especially readers of the books) or they don’t care, which is a problem for me. I love GRRM, but the way sex and race are being executed in the show is troubling and a disservice to the books.

Will there be changes in the next few episodes? I don’t think so, but hopefully they will learn for next season. But as long as these issues remain ignored, the show might find itself creating a rift within the fandom, as well as losing those who would remain loyal without having to use sex as a tool to bring in views.

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  • http://twitter.com/dezzerdez Desiree de Jesus

    i stopped watching GOT after my husband noted that the presentation of women’s bodies (or women, for that matter) was sexist & didn’t serve story development in any meaningful way. i’m glad to see that someone has finally caught on and said something about it.

  • Anonymous

    Been a while but I could have sworn that the Irri in the books was blonde, not brown at all.  I know at least one of Daenarys’ handmaids was.  In the show, none.
    …Which would be ANOTHER example of a character having color added.   And while white, gay, Xaro was pretty peripheral in the books, the strong black Xaro of the series is a major character and an increasingly important player in Quarth’s own, beefed-up-for-the-series, game of thrones.    Looks to me like the producers have actually gone out of their way to add MORE diversity where it was feasable and where it would make sense in the story.    

  • spacechampion

    In what way was the scene with Joffrey, Ros and Daisy sexposition?  The important part of sexposition is the expository information being given.  No backstory at all was given in that scene.  It was a character moment to show again what a brutal monster Joffrey is, but more importantly that no effort by Tyrion would turn that kid around.  We didn’t exactly learn about the history of the Targaryen great-bastards in it, or the about various Valyrian steel swords, or the history of the Kingsguard. 

    “In visual media such as film and television, sexposition is the practice of providing exposition – that is, background information required for the viewer’s understanding – against a backdrop of sex or nudity.”

    True sexposition has actually happened very few times in the series.  One was the scene with Viserys and Doreah, where he talked about the names of various dragons.  Another time was Littlefinger in the brothel talking about his motivations, but even that is borderline.  Showing sex or nudity and having characters talking is not enough to be sexposition.  Without that element of background information, it is just characters moments (the majority of them) or titillation (none in this series).

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  • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

    A very thoughtful and thought provoking article!
    I have not seen any of season 2 as of yet, but when I do I will keep what you have said in mind and will refer back to it.
    But I will say this I do agree with your assessment that the females and their gratuitous nudity of and on the show are mostly for the male gaze.  I find that really peeving and a tad gross (especially the image you suggested about men jacking off to it).

    • http://twitter.com/SeattleSlim Sword of the Morning

      Yes, please do, Rhonda!  I would LOVE to hear your thoughts as well because I’m always open to a different perspective.  I hoped I was wrong when the season first started, but every episode, minus one or two, has been problematic.

  • Violetta

    Chataya and Alayaya were two minor characters in the books who I was very curious to know more about. They were successful businesswomen AND sexually confident, turning the whole idea of prostitution as degrading to women on it’s head. 

    Elsewhere on the internet nobody has been able to bring up the idea that there may be just a little more T&A than is necessary to provide exposition without being howled down as a sexually-repressed prude by defensive fanboys who obviously didn’t even read the articles. Testament to the high standards of commenters on this website. :)

  • Violetta

    Chataya and Alayaya were two minor characters in the books who I was very curious to know more about. They were successful businesswomen AND sexually confident, turning the whole idea of prostitution as degrading to women on it’s head. 

    Elsewhere on the internet nobody has been able to bring up the idea that there may be just a little more T&A than is necessary to provide exposition without being howled down as a sexually-repressed prude by defensive fanboys who obviously didn’t even read the articles. Testament to the high standards of commenters on this website. :)

    • http://twitter.com/SeattleSlim Sword of the Morning

      This is exactly why I wanted to share this with the Racialicious readers.  I’m a long time reader myself and I knew I would be able to find some sanity here!  

  • http://www.facebook.com/galiotica Nejasna ちゃん

    Well that’s what happens when you write people of colour as just side characters,  they will always look like an afterthought, will always be the first ones to get axed, and developing their roles will mess with screen time needed for the main story. 

    Could have mixed up races instead of having stereotypical white civilised north/dark wild tribes in the south, had a few or at least one important family of non-whites instead of all of them white.  I doubt that would have made books unpopular, Earthsea series did just fine. 

    Nudity wise, the brothel was supposed to cater to all tastes, meaning there would have been boys/men, trans people, more services than just appealing to straight men – what about rich women of the city or people of different sexualities? But the only thing shown, in either books or on tv was girls being available to men/ girls being taught to preform lesbian sex for men. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/galiotica Nejasna ちゃん

    Well that’s what happens when you write people of colour as just side characters,  they will always look like an afterthought, will always be the first ones to get axed, and developing their roles will mess with screen time needed for the main story. 

    Could have mixed up races instead of having stereotypical white civilised north/dark wild tribes in the south, had a few or at least one important family of non-whites instead of all of them white.  I doubt that would have made books unpopular, Earthsea series did just fine. 

    Nudity wise, the brothel was supposed to cater to all tastes, meaning there would have been boys/men, trans people, more services than just appealing to straight men – what about rich women of the city or people of different sexualities? But the only thing shown, in either books or on tv was girls being available to men/ girls being taught to preform lesbian sex for men. 

    • http://twitter.com/SeattleSlim Sword of the Morning

      True.  I hate to admit it because I love the books so much, but I agree with you.  Aside from Renly and Loras, which was thinly veiled and vaguely implied, any other deviation sexually is either viewed as something perverse or as a character flaw or it’s just kind of an accident.  I don’t want to spoil it for non-readers, but Dany comes to mind. 

    • http://twitter.com/SeattleSlim Sword of the Morning

      True.  I hate to admit it because I love the books so much, but I agree with you.  Aside from Renly and Loras, which was thinly veiled and vaguely implied, any other deviation sexually is either viewed as something perverse or as a character flaw or it’s just kind of an accident.  I don’t want to spoil it for non-readers, but Dany comes to mind. 

  • Lewis3748

    Soft core porn has become the new paradigm from the raped and broken bodies of female victims on network police procedurals to the wink nudge of cable programming. Men and women now right this crap endlessly and without shame. 

    Interracial relationships have to be downplayed or avoided altogether.  How can you have a relationship with WOC characters? They are ciphers, fetishes – without agency, history or desires of their own. Allowing them to have desires rocks the boat too deeply.

    The relationship between the adaptation of Games of Thrones and the racist backlash against the Hunger Games casting makes it clear how much is at stake, in the imaginary and at the box office.

  • Greg_G

    The pilot had a shot of Robb, Jon, and Theon topless while shaving one another’s hair.  And there have been shots of many male Dothraki bodies in various states of undress, not to mention Loras and Renly bare-chested.  So it hasn’t been completely one-sided.  But, the male gaze is certainly prioritized in this show to an extreme extent.  I wasn’t surprised by this in Season 1, as I’m sure HBO assumed males would make up an overwhelming percentage of the audience, but the subsequent ratings numbers indicating the massive popularity among female viewers should have given them cause to reconsider this issue of the male gaze.

    As for getting Joffrey laid, in the books Tyrion considers this solution after Joffrey has Sansa disrobed before the court in the throne room.  The thought was that maybe his extreme dickishness was a result of repressed sexual urges.  I think the television scene involving the outcome of this strategy was important in that it illustrated that Joffrey is rotten to the core, and not as a result of any burgeoning sexuality.  It strengthens the idea that his family and advisors have little control over him, directly or (in the case of trying to get him laid) indirectly.

    The character of Ros is indeed problematic though.  She has no agency.  She has only but the most vaguely defined goals – to make it to the big city (King’s Landing).  To devote so much time to a character that has no purpose but to be the audience stand in as other characters plot and scheme or as the target of occasional physical and emotional abuse is curious at best.  I hope that this character, for the most part original to the tv series, is given a story arc of some sort.  She’s earned it.  I can, however, understand combining the various brothel characters to streamline the storytelling.  Chataya and Alayaya are great characters, but hardly important to the story.  Having Tyrion lust for them in the show would diminish what they’re trying to do with Shae.  Of course, part of this is logistical necessity – the books have more time to differentiate between his relationship with Shae and his attraction to Chataya and Alayaya.  A sad loss – along with Jalabhar Xho – and hopefully one that can be counteracted in later seasons with further adventures across the sea and north of the wall.

    • Kat

      “Chataya and Alayaya.  A sad loss – along with Jalabhar Xho”

      Since I haven’t read the books, I had to check it up:
      http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Jalabhar_Xho
       
      Okay, so they axed not two, but THREE PoC characters?! Any more? Da fuq?!

      • http://twitter.com/SeattleSlim Sword of the Morning

        They offed Rakharo and Irri and kept Doreah (I will let people read the books before I go into detail on that but these changes are wrong and pointless if you ask me) and I don’t know what happened to Jhiqui, another POC.

    • http://twitter.com/SeattleSlim Sword of the Morning

      I disagree in that Chataya and Yaya were unimportant but I think that much can be argued as being subjective.  I definitely liked these two and wanted to see a diverse King’s Landing, especially as it relates to other places other than Westeros.  One thing though is I can see streamlining it but the streamlining really didn’t make sense to me because it became less streamlined in adding Ros and not even having her be the brothel owner.  Petyr is still the brothel owner but in the books, he’s supposed to be somewhere else plotting his own schemes.

      • Greg_G

         I completely agree that seeing a diverse King’s Landing would have been great (I wonder what the producers will do with Dorne, as it has a very Mediterranean feel to it…).  I can’t help but to think that if Chataya aand Alayaya were included in the show, they would have been reduced to background characters – and that would have almost been worse than not including them at all.  I think the nature of the brothel scenes in the show have been changed enough (for better or worse) that their roles have been rendered unnecessary.  It’s an unfortunate reality of the time and money constraints, but I’m hopeful that the lack of color in Westeros will continue to be made up for in Essos across the sea as Dany continues her adventures.

    • http://twitter.com/SeattleSlim Sword of the Morning

      I disagree in that Chataya and Yaya were unimportant but I think that much can be argued as being subjective.  I definitely liked these two and wanted to see a diverse King’s Landing, especially as it relates to other places other than Westeros.  One thing though is I can see streamlining it but the streamlining really didn’t make sense to me because it became less streamlined in adding Ros and not even having her be the brothel owner.  Petyr is still the brothel owner but in the books, he’s supposed to be somewhere else plotting his own schemes.

  • Tomás Garnett

    I’m so glad other people noticed this crap! 

  • Anonymous

    I really feel like this season has been better about using sexposition in ways that advance story and character, not worse. I did think the Joffrey torture scene was an important one for illustrating the specific ways in which Joffrey is sick and evil, but I also take your point and Myles’ point about how using Ros and Daisy for that scene and then just sort of dropping them made it all about the male character’s cruelty and not at all about the female victims’ reactions to that cruelty.

    As for Chataya and Alayaya, while I agree that it’s unfortunate they got dropped, I get the decision from a narrative economy standpoint. I think the season has shown that the TV writers are much less interested in what’s going in King’s Landing than GRRM was, and much more interested in, say, what’s up with Robb. Plus, they’re adding a bunch of Arya-Tywin stuff which is great but non-canonical. That means cutting, and from a certain point of view you can see how cutting the whole “Tyrion has to hide Shae” subplot makes just as much sense as dropping, for example, the part where Arya avoids Clegane’s men before being eventually captured and taken to Harrenhal.

    But I agree that the writers should have been more mindful about the way it would impoverish TV Westeros to cut two of the few women of color depicted in the books. I guess I don’t see a perfect solution–I really don’t see the subplot that involves Chataya and Alayaya as being particularly critical to the overall plot, since (SPOILER) Shae ends up getting discovered anyway, and I think it was a logical part to cut.

    Are there other prominent women of color depicted in the books? I’m thinking of Taena Merryweather, who’s from Myr… don’t remember what GRRM says about Taena’s appearance or Myr, but either way, that would be one casting opportunity.

    • http://twitter.com/SeattleSlim Sword of the Morning

      Good points, Anon.  Someone else on Twitter told me the same thing about Joff, and it was able to soothe my rage lol.  Excellent points about Arya and Tywin as well.  Taena appears to be a woman of color, by the way she is described so we will see.  I know the Sand Snakes would be a really great opportunity in Season 4 most like.   I cannot wait to see them.  These women are strong, ready for intrigue, deadly, sexual… Love them.  

    • http://twitter.com/SeattleSlim Sword of the Morning

      Good points, Anon.  Someone else on Twitter told me the same thing about Joff, and it was able to soothe my rage lol.  Excellent points about Arya and Tywin as well.  Taena appears to be a woman of color, by the way she is described so we will see.  I know the Sand Snakes would be a really great opportunity in Season 4 most like.   I cannot wait to see them.  These women are strong, ready for intrigue, deadly, sexual… Love them.  

  • Kat

    GREAT article! And as someone who watches, but hasn’t read the books yet, thanks for letting me know that the book has at least two PoC more than the show. I had no idea.

    I would like to point to Emily Nussbaum’s article in the ‘New Yorker’:

    “But there is something troubling about this sea of C.G.I.-perfect flesh,
    shaved and scentless and not especially medieval. It’s unsettling to
    recall that these are not merely pretty women; they are unknown
    actresses who must strip, front and back, then mimic graphic sex and
    sexual torture, a skill increasingly key to attaining employment on
    cable dramas. During the filming of the second season, an Irish actress
    walked off the set when her scene shifted to what she termed “soft
    porn.” Of course, not everyone strips: there are no truly explicit
    scenes of gay male sex, fewer lingering shots of male bodies, and the
    leading actresses stay mostly buttoned up. Artistically, “Game of
    Thrones” is in a different class from “House of Lies,”
    “Californication,” and “Entourage.” But it’s still part of another colorful patriarchal subculture, the one called Los Angeles.” Read more http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/television/2012/05/07/120507crte_television_nussbaum#ixzz1uxCaxRMq
     

  • Kat

    GREAT article! And as someone who watches, but hasn’t read the books yet, thanks for letting me know that the book has at least two PoC more than the show. I had no idea.

    I would like to point to Emily Nussbaum’s article in the ‘New Yorker’:

    “But there is something troubling about this sea of C.G.I.-perfect flesh,
    shaved and scentless and not especially medieval. It’s unsettling to
    recall that these are not merely pretty women; they are unknown
    actresses who must strip, front and back, then mimic graphic sex and
    sexual torture, a skill increasingly key to attaining employment on
    cable dramas. During the filming of the second season, an Irish actress
    walked off the set when her scene shifted to what she termed “soft
    porn.” Of course, not everyone strips: there are no truly explicit
    scenes of gay male sex, fewer lingering shots of male bodies, and the
    leading actresses stay mostly buttoned up. Artistically, “Game of
    Thrones” is in a different class from “House of Lies,”
    “Californication,” and “Entourage.” But it’s still part of another colorful patriarchal subculture, the one called Los Angeles.” Read more http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/television/2012/05/07/120507crte_television_nussbaum#ixzz1uxCaxRMq
     

    • miga

      As an unknown actress  I say: WORD!!!!!!