Game of Thrones: Bad Romance

Kristin Devine

Kristin has humbly retired as Ordinary Times' friendly neighborhood political whipping girl to focus on culture and gender issues. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of

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42 Responses

  1. InMD says:

    Another good piece Kristin, and I must say I’m finding these very interesting even as someone who did not watch or read GoT.

    You touch on one of my pet peeves, which is faux realism in place of real realism for the sake of exploitative cruelty. To the extent Westeros is a stand-in for medieval Europe the sexual practices and mores are ridiculously off. There are numerous reasons that a pre-contraception, pre-modern medicine, and pre-sexual revolution society could not look like Skinamax. Making it so is the height of unreality. To be ‘realistic’ I think you end up with something closer to Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood, not that I think that would satisfy anyone’s romantic cravings. There are also some interesting and comedic meditations on where women fit in that kind of world in a book I read called the Sot-Weed Factor which takes place in 17th century colonial America, though not sure it would be your thing.

    I also have noticed a tendency in modern fiction to punish a certain type of traditional female character and uncritically celebrate a shallower girl power archetype. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this but it’s hard not to get the impression that makers of pop culture have traded one set of constraints for another. There certainly isn’t much room in that for something complex and hard to do well on screen like romance, particularly when we’re in the land of big budget spectacle. I’m sure there’s a great essay somewhere in all this on how these things reflect our cultural schizophrenia right back at us.Report

    • Kristin Devine in reply to InMD says:

      Thank you! I have basically used the “Game of Thrones” theme as an excuse to talk about several things in my writing notebook anyway (including the constraints inflicted by the girl power archetype, which I find very limiting and misogynistic) that didn’t feel “big” enough for their own post. It was my hope that people who haven’t read the books could appreciate them on their own merits.

      I completely agree with your point about the faux realism to excuse cruelty, and that it’s our mores that are reflected in GoT not medieval ones. For instance, two of the main characters in GoT are disfigured and experience a lot of angst over it, but the truth is in that world tons of people would be walking around with terrible scars and it probably would not even have been particularly remarked upon – both of them were still accomplished people in their own ways and would have been considered one of society’s winners, so this notion that they were perpetual outsiders never quite played for me. And then one of the (female) characters’ virginity is treated as a joke or an affliction that she needed to rid herself of. That would NEVER have happened in medieval times!! Unmarried women were supposed to be virgins, and she would have been seen as moral and desirable for that.

      So the “realism” goes precisely as far as (as you say perfectly) our cultural schizophrenia allows, and any claims towards “realism” are silly.

      Thank you for both those recommendations, I find them both very appealing.

      And thanks for reading!Report

      • Damon in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        I’ll second IMDB. I don’t watch GOT, don’t care to, and I have no problem with girl power and kick ass chicks owning the dudes. I just realize that it’s in now way REALITY. We talked about this in John Wick 2 where the female bodyguard of the bad guy fighting John Wick in the “hall of mirrors” is out of ammo, and uses what she has (flexibility, surprise, and a knife) to try to kill him. She knew it was unlikely but that was her job. Wick had 50+ pounds on her and odds are she was gonna die…and she did. Other than a few outliers, that’s always going to be the case.

        So, an occasional kick ass chick is kinda refreshing but when it’s the norm, i’m like “yeah, not believable….gonna go play witcher 3”Report

        • Kristin Devine in reply to Damon says:

          Yeah I wouldn’t have minded at all if it was occasional, it was that the writers skipped over more interesting themes and characters in favor of girl power, while simultaneously being in most ways very much not empowering.

          It was enough to give you whiplash at times.Report

  2. LeeEsq says:

    This is was before movies, amusement parks, miniature golf, wine bars, and fine dining establishments so of course romance was bad. Hard to have good romance with limited dating options. You can only take your girl to the siege or the pillage so many times.Report

  3. Great piece. It’s kind of funny that people say, “Well, it’s REALISTIC! There wasn’t romance in medieval times!” Which is both BS and ignores the fact that … this is fantasy series. So killing ice dragons is OK but having even a basic courtship is not?

    There’s a larger point here too which is the lack of joy in GoT. The only time people get something that makes them happy involves either sex or killing. One of the few great scenes in season 8 was when Brienne was knighted. It was like, “Oh, someone good happened to someone besides killing a person they hated!”Report

    • Yeah, anyone who says “there was no romance in medieval times” does not know much about medieval times. Romance as a literary genre was in fact enormously popular at the time (which George RR represents in the books by having the genre also popular in Westeros) . Now, did it look like a Harlequin, of course not, but the notion that romantic love was Not Actually A Thing is just completely untrue. Let alone the dragon end of things.

      As I see your word “joy” there I realize I am using “romance” as a code word for a lot of positive emotions and joy is definitely one of them. One of the reasons why the Red Wedding hits so incredibly hard is that it’s a moment of joy turned into a moment of utter despair. Same with Jon having to betray Ygritte and then her dying – you could just FEEL the loss there.

      In the later seasons, all there is is despair, and so it’s hard to care very much. “Oh, you’re miserable?? How is that any different from how you felt last episode?”Report

  4. DensityDuck says:


    One of the things that’s really disappointing about GoT having such a rotten ending is that there was a whole ’80s canon of Romantic Fantasy that was begging to be turned into Prestige TV, and now that’s just not gonna happen, because GoT died in the ass.

    Like, Tarma and Kethry? Darkmage? The Deed of Paksennarion? The Steerswoman? Pern, they could have got a dozen seasons out of Dragonriders alone! All strongly-plotted female-fronted (and female-written) long-running series that could practically be filmed right off the page, and we’re not gonna get them now, because everyone’s gonna say “oh, well, GoT flopped, so, nope”…Report

    • Agree 1000000%. This should have been the fantasy genre coming into its own, instead it died on the vine. It’s a pity because it has everything people like about superheroes and then its own unique set of narrative strengths, and really could have been something special (and lucrative!).

      Interestingly, Netflix is replete with girl-power teenybopper fantasy shows that are basically unwatchable.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to DensityDuck says:

      I find it interesting that GOT happened, and Pern didn’t. Tons of material, and it’s all complete, and we easily have the tech to do it (if Dany can ride a dragon, we can have Lessa riding a dragon).Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    Okay. So let’s talk about the sex for a minute.

    I have not seen the show.

    Here is my question: What percentage of the sex scenes could be replaced with a card that read “and then they had sex” with no loss of fidelity of storytelling?

    I mean, if a movie had a card that said “and then the hero beat up the villain”, I could see being upset that we cut immediately to the hero still standing while the villain is down on the ground.

    It could be a comedy bit, even. “I can’t believe you jumped to that rock, did a spinning backflip, and then kicked him in the face! That was awesome!” “Well, I’ve worked years to become this acrobatic.”

    But, for the most part, I’d rather see the fight scene.

    When it comes to sex scenes, the majority of them could be replaced with a card that said “and then they had sex”.

    I mean, sure. There are benefits that come from seeing bodacious ta-tas. For those who prefer the male lead, perhaps they will see a particularly happening backside. BAM! The audience could yell. WUBBADA!!!

    But beyond the titillating, I rarely see a story *ADVANCED* through anything that happens with a sex scene.

    Which brings me to the question: did the sex scenes in Game of Thrones advance the story? Or could they have easily been replaced with a card that said “and then they had sex”?Report

    • North in reply to Jaybird says:

      In fairness to GoT it was absolutely egregious in season 1 when the show makers felt a strong fear about drawing in audience attention and then trended sharply downward from there. That being sex as the sexplanation scenes declined alternative forms of porn presented and grew. The entire character of Ramsay Bolton was basically a long running, thinly veiled snuff scene.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to North says:

        Well, I remember Schilling telling me about one of the scenes in the first book that they re-did for the show and, in the book, it was a bunch of people sitting around a fire and telling a story and, in the show, it was a bunch of people sitting around a fire and telling a story and chicks were in the background showing off boobage.

        Which isn’t exactly what I’m talking about. I mean, you could have the big boss talking to the heavy and they have a conversation about some dastardly deed. You could put it in a bar in a booth in the back and communicate that they have enough stroke to feel safe talking about that in a bar. You can put it in the back part of a restaurant and you can establish that they’ve got plenty of businesses and this restaurant is one of them. You can put it in a topless joint and demonstrate that they are in a place designed to have men look at women as objects and these two guys don’t even care that they’re in a place designed to have men look at women as objects. They’re talking about the job and they’re not even looking at the dancers!

        So you can put boobs in a scene and have it be vaguely meaningful to establishing characters. In theory. I mean, sure, you’re getting the ‘R’ and if that’s the goal then that’s also a goal. But, if done right, it can establish a character.

        When it comes to The Deed? There are only a handful of scenes involving sex that have advanced a story more than a card that read “and then sex” and the majority of them that come to mind are morally abhorrent (Rob Roy is first to come to mind as a scene that advanced the story more than a card would have… I’m not inclined to try to think of others).Report

        • Blake in reply to Jaybird says:

          There’s a critically important (and awful) sex scene in the critically praised (and awful) “Out of Africa”.

          There’s a lot of sex in (the 2016 Korean film) “The Handmaiden,” and it’s all pretty critical.

          Mostly, though, I’m thinking of B-movies. Things like “The Howling” or “Cannibal Holocaust” or “Humanoids from the Deep,” where (as Joe Bob would say) it’s absolutely essential to the plot.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Blake says:

            Dana Stevens reviewed “Lust, Caution” for Slate back in 2007.

            Here’s the part of the review that stuck with me:

            Their first encounter is a dizzying shell game. First, Wong’s calibrated performance as a coy seductress crumbles when Yee takes her with a violence bordering on rape. Then, even more disturbingly, the scene finishes with what feels like a mutual erotic surrender. Is Wong, the consummate actress, faking submission to ensnare her prey or experiencing real sexual abandon for the first time? Does Yee already suspect that his new mistress is a spy, or is his taste for sexual cruelty just an inevitable byproduct of his days spent torturing prisoners?

            The mere fact that a sex scene can raise questions this complex points up the boldness of Lee’s project in Lust, Caution. Most on-screen sex scenes could be replaced by a title card reading, “And then they had sex.” But when his two leads go at it, Lee doesn’t pan away discreetly to a lamp or show close-ups of their faces; he lets their savagely entangled bodies do the talking, and we (and they) emerge from the scene with a completely changed sense of who these characters are. Whether the NC-17-rated sex scenes are “real” or simulated has been the object of much speculation, but whatever Leung and Wei were up to on that closed set (where the 10 or so minutes of on-screen sex reportedly took more than 100 grueling hours to film), they’re doing something very real as actors.

            I still haven’t seen the movie but: dang.Report

        • Kristin Devine in reply to Jaybird says:

          The sex scene in Coming Home is both necessary and culturally important, without being abhorrent. That’s one that always comes to mind when this subject comes up. “See, this one time they actually did it right!”

          Do you think it’s the nature of the scenes themselves or the way we are using them in the here and now?Report

          • blake in reply to Kristin Devine says:

            I often wonder, if not for the Hay’s Office, would Hollywood’s Golden Age been able to broach the subject of sex in a way that was less trashy than the the post-studio-era boomers ultimately handled it?

            Maybe. But then I think of how incredibly hot those movies were with the restraints on, and I’m okay with how it worked out. We watched this silly little Gary Cooper/Merle Oberon picture, “The Cowboy and the Lady” and there’s a scene on a boat where they HAVE to get married because of what Coop plans to do with her before the trip is over.


            • Kristin Devine in reply to blake says:

              That is an intriguing notion. As I watch older movies I honestly think we lost out on so much wisdom about a lot of subjects in the rush to encapsulate the Sexual Revolution on film, and I hope it isn’t completely lost forever.

              Aside, something very interesting I have long meant to explore in a piece is my lifelong adoration for plots where two people have to get married on some flimsy pretense (just as you’re describing there) and then end up falling in love after the fact. For reasons I can only guess at, I adore that plot whenever I encounter it.

              The most interesting part of it is my daughter, who is a much more protected child than I was and has never read or seen anything involving that plotline, started writing her own books lately and she played that card right from the very start!! I couldn’t believe it.Report

              • blake in reply to Kristin Devine says:

                Oh, kids are so great creatively. They don’t know what they’re not “supposed” to do and end up with just amazing things.

                Also, if they don’t go to school (and aren’t indoctrinated by YouTube, et al) they seem to evolve a kind of tolerant arch-conservatism, but I digress.

                That is a great plot element and an =important= one. Because it’s a very common story and it shows the agency in romantic love. (I think it was Fromm who pointed out that if you “fall” in love, your claim that you’ll love someone forever is baseless, since you have no agency in it.)Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Kristin Devine says:

            Well, part of it is the whole cartoony aspect of depicting it.

            When two people who are not in a movie kiss, they can do the thing where they just go for it. Follow the rules of the road, tilt to the right, OH NO THEY’RE FROM ENGLAND and mash their noses together, that’s alright.

            When two people who are in a movie kiss, they’re no longer going head on but at a slight angle from true. You need more lip topology in the shot!

            So, too, for acts more intimate than that.

            A movie scene will probably want to, erm, take advantage of… erm. Well, given the goals of the scene, director, story, expectations of the audience, and so on… well, you can’t have the actors just go head on. There are topological elements that you will want to obscure (or show, I guess) to the audience.

            While people in their own bedroom without a camera do not have to take these things into consideration.

            Using the old formula “acting is acting like you’re not acting”, when applied to these scenes gets you people acting like they’re not acting even as they are at an oblique angle to each other, holding their arms like *THIS* instead of, you know, comfortably.

            And so even as no one would ever put their arm *THERE* because it’s so awkward, well… the cinematographer has a goal. And the goal of the cinematographer is not what two people would do in the same situation and so the characters are stuck doing stuff that no two people would do.

            And that artifice gets in the way.

            There. That’s my attempt at being tasteful.Report

    • Kristin Devine in reply to Jaybird says:

      Far be it for me to come riding to the aid of sex scenes but I DO think there are legit uses for them (and I get that’s not what you’re saying at all). I mean, it’s such a huge portion of human existence surely it bears exploration just as much as other elements of life do. I wouldn’t want to forgo them in my toolbox, even though I don’t use them much.

      It’s just that we’ve stopped using them in any insightful way and most creators go for the Wubbadda!

      There are so many outstanding movies from the 60’s and 70’s that have sex scenes that accomplish something, I hate to write them off (and again, I know what you’re saying is NOT THAT)

      I honestly find myself equally bored with cookie cutter fight scenes that aren’t interestingly choreographed and could be as you say, replaced with a card that reads “and then they fought!”Report

  6. Blake says:

    I’m so glad I stopped watching this show. I think it was the last regular series I tried to watch. I dropped out when they burned the little girl. (And you knew from, like, Season 1, that what’s-his-name was going to have to do it, to sacrifice the only thing that he loved and that made him human, and then when it finally happened, it all felt so phoned in. I thought to myself, “You’re just trying to shock me. You don’t really give a crap about any of these characters.”) I watch some grisly stuff. But I don’t find rape (or child murder) entertaining.

    Good piece, as always. I’ve skipped too many of your essays because I don’t care about GoT, but you’ve been known to pull me back in more than once. (Just when I got back out, usually.)

    So vis-a-vis the larger point of romance being for women and not welcome in dick flicks, I say, pish-tosh. Pish-tosh, I say! (“Dick flicks” comes from my late friend, Mary Ann Madden, who said if there were “chick flicks”, there must be…)

    “Casablanca” literally doesn’t exist without the romance part. I’d be hard pressed to think of great film noir where romance wasn’t a powerful part. Humphrey Bogart says he’s going to WAIT FOR Mary Astor until she gets out of prison in 10-20 years! C’mon! How romantic is that? I guess when you get into Spillane (e.g. Kiss Me Deadly) it gets a lot less romantic.

    But “Die Hard” also doesn’t exist without romance. And, let’s ignore all 47 of the sequels and pretend that Holly & John have their HEA. You think calling “Die Hard” a Christmas movie is revisionist? Any thought that H&J didn’t work things out would’ve been blasphemy in 1989.

    I look at all this promotion of sexual perversion (of which the elimination of romance from male/female relationships absolutely is) from the viewpoint that TPTB are neo-Malthusians and anything they can do to discourage reproduction, they will.Report

    • Kristin Devine in reply to Blake says:

      BLAKE! I missed you, buddy! Hope you’re well.

      Most of these I am writing on general subjects and using GoT as a springboard for that. I don’t think you need to have watched the show to appreciate most of them but don’t worry, I’m coming to the end of it now LOL.

      I guess where we’re diverging here is that I don’t consider Casablanca a “dick flick”. There are tons of movies from a male perspective, male viewpoint that are speaking to MORE than just the lowest common denominator as it sits here in the 2000’s. (including the book version of GoT). But over time the vast majority of narrative storytelling has degraded into this dichotomy where there’s Captain Marvel for women, and Game of Thrones type stuff for men, and I’m not seeing anything even remotely LIKE Casablanca being made (or at the least, entering the public consciousness in the way that GoT did at first.)

      And as to your last point which is decidedly a controversial one round these here parts, I couldn’t agree more.Report

      • Blake in reply to Kristin Devine says:

        Missed you, too, Atomic.

        “Casablanca” isn’t the best example, though if it weren’t The Greatest Movie Of All Time™️, it’d be a fairly typical war/spy/gangster B-movie, and it got me thinking about noir, which =I think= skews male and at the same time very frequently has romance central to it.

        “Double Indemnity” doesn’t exist without the romance element. (Take the romance trope “does s/he love me?” and add “and is s/he going to kill me?”) I mentioned “Maltese Falcon”, already. But there’s also “Laura”—he falls in love with the dead woman. (Which is not so impressive considering I fall in love with Gene Tierney every time I see her, too.)

        #3 child is on a Western kick, and I ended up putting together a short list of more female tilting Westerns ( but the truth is romance is a huge part of most great Westerns, even though the genre as a whole is masculine.

        You might say, well, women like those genres, too, and I couldn’t agree more. Because movie studios used to want to attract as many people as possible! And I think there was some artistic pride in making a film that everyone loved. (We love this trailer for “Miracle on 34th Street”: which kind of illustrates the point.)

        But as usual, we don’t diverge THAT much: Your point about storytelling degrading is spot on, and I’m painfully conscious of the fact that my examples are all 60+ years old. (“Art forms peak early,” saith #3.) Watching even lesser old Westerns really brings home why we’ve been watching all these Korean and Chinese movies: They don’t make you feel bad, they don’t degrade you, they really just want you to be entertained, and their primary messages are simple ones (even if delivered in complex ways): Be kind to others, be proud of who you are, love and romance and family are the building blocks of life, etc.

        And they’re aimed at as broad a demo as possible, which is something aggressively shunned in Hollywood today, and then complained about. (*kaff* Captain Marvel)Report

    • KenB in reply to Blake says:

      Wait, the Mary Ann Madden?? Was every conversation with her littered with puns and wordplay, or did she keep that for her contests?Report

      • blake in reply to KenB says:

        She was a modern day Dorothy Parker.

        Srsly, tho’, she was a fine conversationalist, and a kind person, though one who did not suffer fools lightly. By the time I “met” her, she had been online for over a decade (due to a recurring cancer), and I took a lot from her about how to behave in chats. If the world had taken those cues, the ‘net would be a much better place.Report

  7. I got some interesting and IMO undeserved pushback on this article, and I did a more in depth exploration of the reasons why on my blog: