Support Hos: Game of Thrones

by Maggie Mcmuffin on June 26, 2014 · 7 comments

in Reviews, Support Hos, Television

Well, >i>Game of Throne viewers aren't ever allowed to forget (gif created from screenshots of Game of Thrones)

Well, Game of Thrones viewers aren’t ever allowed to forget (.gif created from screenshots of Game of Thrones)

Warning: Major spoilers below.

Game of Thrones, HBO’s biggest show, is bringing the fantasy genre to the masses in a major way. Featuring a sprawling cast and storyline that’s been pared down from George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s full of fantastic performances, high production values, international sets and scenery, and some of the most exciting and tense moments on television.

It is also filled with violence against women, particularly, the sex workers who inhabit the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

Westeros combines traditional medieval fantasy lore (think knights and dragons) with the history of feudal Europe. Brothels are everywhere. There are half-naked women running about ready to please whichever male character needs pleasing. But, since it’s a vaguely historical setting, these women must be sad and put upon because as every fan of Moulin Rouge has told me, there were no happy sex workers in the past.

Critics and fans agree that Game of Thrones subverts many classic fantasy tropes. Ned Stark, the noble hero, dies at the end of the first season instead of prevailing. His daughter Sansa Stark is set up to be a damsel in distress, but learns to manipulate her abusers to her advantage. Yet the show still falls prey to many predictable sexist tropes. And of course, many of those tropes extend to mistreating sex workers.

Ros (Esme Bianco) on the wagon ride that will take her from a brothel in the North to a much more well to do establishment in King's Landing (screenshot from  Game of Thrones)

Ros (Esme Bianco) on the wagon ride that will take her from a brothel in the North to a much more well to do establishment in King’s Landing (screenshot from Game of Thrones)

In season one we meet two sex workers who end up playing supporting roles to mostly male characters. The first is Ros (Esmé Bianco), a migrant sex worker who eventually ends up working in one of the high-end brothels in King’s Landing for court advisor Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. Through the first two seasons, Ros is set apart from the background sex workers by merit of being given agency, lines, and a personality. When King Joffrey sends guards to kill his recently deceased father’s potential bastards, the child of one of Ros’s coworkers is slain. Ros comforts and grieves for this younger woman, so much so that in the next episode she is unable to work due to her constant crying.

Bianco brings a deep sense of humanity to Ros, and it is refreshing to see a sex worker sympathizing with another worker during a traumatic event that isn’t sexual assault at work. This isn’t a sex worker simply being sad over her work or her life or even over something that singles out sex workers in the narrative. It isn’t a tender-hearted “hooker with a heart of gold.” This is a sex working character reacting with sympathy over a truly terrible thing–reacting with more humanity over the event than the main cast. Because most of the main cast does not care when harm comes to sex workers. They, like most people in the real world, consider it to be an everyday event or job hazard.

In the following scene Littlefinger tells Ros the story of a sad girl he once purchased who “was not making me any money.” He sold her to a man who wished to “transform her in ways that would never occur to most men” and in the end “I did mitigate my losses.”

Littlefinger, having clarified for Ros that she is owned and worth only the money she earns him, gives her the rest of the day off to mourn the murdered child.

Several episodes later Ros and another woman, Daisy, are sent to Joffrey. He points a crossbow at Ros and tells her to beat Daisy or he’ll kill her. This scene was not in the books and when it first aired many women and sex workers were upset about it. The offended parties argued that this was going too far. There are plenty of scenes of sexual violence against women within the books without adding more to the show.

arosjoffreyThis scene is especially hard to watch since it is not Joffrey carrying out the physical violence but him ordering one woman to hurt another. I have always felt safer working with another person, whether it be at a private residence or in a club. A scene in which one sex worker is commanded to nearly kill the other or die herself is clearly awful but the male producers could not possibly have realized how terrifying that prospect would be for sex workers in the audience. We are people who must do what we can to remain safe and combat violence, and Game of Thrones is presenting a world where that is never possible. Now, I can’t speak for everyone, but when I sit down to watch a show featuring dragons and smoke babies I would like some escape from the harshness of reality, not a heightened reminder of it.

Later we see Ros and Shae (Sibel Kekilli), the other recurring sex worker, bond watching Sansa Stark and Littlefinger speak. It is a good moment for sex workers in this show. Shae is seeing Tyrion Lannister exclusively under the cover of being Sansa’s handmaiden. While Littlefinger speaks to Sansa in a way laced with inappropriate overtones, Shae and Ros watch and share the opinion that this man should never be left alone with this girl. Ros knows what Littlefinger is capable of. Shae, having worked primarily around military encampments, knows what men are capable of. It’s a knowing exchange between the two of them, sharing the ability to size up that a man is dangerous. There is no hatred between the two women, no mention of one of them being better than the other because of their differences in station.

Every other group on the show has infighting. But not the sex workers. They are only ever shown being kind to each other or, at the worst, indifferent in the way that all people can be towards coworkers.

(Screenshot from Game of Thrones)

(Screenshot from Game of Thrones)

In my dreams, Ros and Shae open their own brothel in the Free Cities, but we never see them interact again. By the end of season three, Ros is dead. After discovering Ros has begun to sell his secrets to another spymaster, Littlefinger sends Ros to Joffrey again. Joffrey ties her to a bed and shoots her full of crossbow bolts. The shot of her naked body lingers just long enough to show that not only did he hit vital organs, but he also shot her breasts and vulva. All the while, Littlefinger describes the scene, and honestly his monologue is enough to make it clear that he gave Ros to Joffrey to have her killed. There was no real need to show a naked woman strung up and filled with crossbow bolts.

I would like to stress again that this scene was not in the books and had been foreshadowed since season one. Which means that aside from all the extra rape the producers added to the show, they also made the choice to create an intelligent, emotional sex worker character who is eventually killed for having agency and going against her boss. They made no effort to make a statement that the treatment of Ros and other sex workers was wrong. When people list Joffrey’s evil deeds they never mention these ones.These events are framed as power plays between the male characters, not as the loss of women’s lives. Ros was killed by Littlefinger because he needed to make a don’t fuck with me statement to Varys. Ros was forced to beat her co-worker because Joffrey wanted to make a don’t fuck with me statement to Tyrion. And of course, Littlefinger also made good on his promise to Ros that if she stepped out of line or hurt his business in any way, he would sell her to be tortured. Ros was remarkable, and had she just stayed in the background like nearly every sex worker on this show she might have survived.

This episode premiered the night after my first job at a private party. What I took from it was that I was worthless and that no one would care if I was hurt at work. This isn’t true of courseI have a great support systembut I believed it after I made the mistake of reading internet comments on articles about the episode. Again, commenters said the show went too far. But so many other people offered up this same statement as defense: “She was just a whore. Get over it.”

I cannot tell you how many comments I read on Tumblr, on feminist sites, and nerd sites, saying that Ros’s job made what happened to her less horrific. And the same sentiment prevailed after the most recent season finale, in which Shae was murdered by her client/lover Tyrion.

(Gif created from screenshots of Game of Thrones)

(.Gif created from screenshots of Game of Thrones)

Shae, like Ros, was set apart from other sex workers on the show. She laughed, she loved her work, she defended herself and she defended the very young Sansa. She lashed out at Tyrion after his marriage to Sansa but still professed love for him. She fought to stay with him.

I have been told that in the books, Shae only sees Tyrion as a client. But in the show, actress Sibel Kekilli gave Shae more nuanced motivations. In every interview she spoke about how Shae loved Tyrion while also admitting that being his did grant her a safety and a grand lifestyle that was not available to her before. Kekilli said that Shae was a survival sex worker, but not a victim because of her profession. Read any interview with her and it is clear that she has a great understanding of and respect for the characteran understanding and respect that the writers lacked.

Throughout this past season, the writers began to make Shae less consistent. She would bounce back and forth between unconditional love and jealous outbursts. She began ignoring danger she’d been aware of for two seasons. From season two onward, Shae goes from understanding the need to live in secret to insisting she and Tyrion run away to refusing to leave King’s Landing and constantly risking the exposure of her and Tyrion’s relationship. When it is exposed, Tyrion drives Shae away. He tells her she means nothing, that she is simply a whore, that she is unfit to bear his children, that she is beneath him. She resists but in the end Tyrion’s henchman leads her away to a ship. A couple of episodes later, though, Tyrion is put on trial for regicide with Shae testifying as a witness against him. The show does not reveal what has happened to her since we last saw her, but she is dressed far more conservatively than she has ever been, and she has gone from being unabashedly ‘not afraid’ to stuttering and looking at the floor.

Tyrion Lannister—fan darling, perfect boyfriend, and sex worker killer (Gif created from screenshots from Game of Thrones)

Tyrion Lannister—fan darling, perfect boyfriend, and sex worker killer (.Gif created from screenshots from Game of Thrones)

Despite all of this, fans once again chose to hate a female character. Even though we are never told that Shae was tortured and forced to give false testimony, it’s hard to believe that people could conceive of any other interpretation. Then again, Tyrion is a fan favorite character and Shae is, as commenters say, as characters in the show say, “just a whore.”

Kekilli defended Shae’s actions here saying that she was a wounded woman doing what she could to hurt Tyrion. If she was being forced to testify against him anyhow, at least she could retain a bit of her own agency by including some harsh words for him. After all, he gave her plenty of those.

In the finale, Tyrion is broken out of prison and makes his way to his father’s chambers with a crossbow, seeking vengeance. He finds Shae there, lying in his father’s bed. We are again given no explanation as to how she came to be there. Instead, we see her grab a knife to stab Tyrion because, seriously, it looks like he’s going to kill her. A lot of people online opined that she was acting out of spite, but if I helped get a guy sentenced to death and he showed up in the middle of the night with a crossbow, I’d be afraid too.

A fight ensues and Tyrion strangles Shae with the gold necklace she’s wearing. Tyrion apologizes tenderly to her corpse and then goes off to confront his father. He delivers a monologue about loving Shae but never expresses remorse over having just strangled her. Again, this isn’t really about her. It’s about his father making his life miserable and trying to kill him, about the two men in the room. Tyrion eventually shoots his father Tywin when he keeps calling Shae a whore instead of by her name. Because it’s more romantic to murder someone else for saying mean things about your girlfriend than it is to not murder her in the first place.

ashaeneverSince Tywin and Shae are both dead at season’s end we don’t get any further explanation of the characters’ actions. The show depicts Shae as making a spiteful, petty choice. I saw one recapon a feminist site, by the wayrefer to Shae being strangled by a new gold necklace as “poetic justice.” Because sex workers just hop from payment to payment without realizing how much they hurt men, don’t they? Perhaps these commenters should consider the possibility that Shae, a character who once said that she uses sex to get out of trouble, is sleeping with Tywin Lannister to survive. This is a man who had a song written about that time he slaughtered an entire high-born family for disrespecting him. If he’s capable of that, what wouldn’t he do to a sex worker whose name he doesn’t seem to know?

Tywin isn’t the only one who puts Shae’s job before her personhood. Tyrion and those closest to him do it too. Shae is never allowed to forget her status as a sex worker.

This is a case of art imitating life as the actress who plays Shae, Sibel Kekilli, has a history working in porn. Her porn work was revealed without her consent to the public shortly before the premiere of her first film. Her parents stopped speaking to her and the tabloids had a field day. She referred to the outing as “media rape.” Even now, in most of her interviews in AmericaGame of Thrones is her first foray into American productionsthe topic is eventually brought up. Despite the fact that in all of these interviews she states that porn is in her past and she doesn’t wish to talk about it, people keep asking. Kekilli is a skilled actress who has won the German equivalent of a Best Actress Oscar twice in a fairly short amount of time. She breathes life into Shae, a character who, I am told by book readers, is not much more than a caricature in the novels. She performs in multiple countries and languages. She does activist work. But all people want to hear about are porn films she did over ten years ago.

Game of Thrones has hired other porn actresses as well. This past season cast three porn actresses as extras. Samantha Bentley played a sex worker in a comedic scene. Aeryn Walker was cast as one of Craster’s wives. Jessica Jensen was an extra. The second season saw Sahara Knite and Maisie Dee playing two of the women who work in Littlefinger’s brothel. Knite was able to take part in a lighthearted scene in which she and Ros, both new to King’s Landing, are instructed by Littlefinger on how best to please wealthy men. Dee was cast opposite Esme Bianco in the aforementioned beating scene as well as a few other brothel scenes.

Could a non porn actress do this? (Screenshot from Game of Thrones)

(Screenshot from Game of Thrones)

Hiring porn actresses to play nude brothel workers makes sense. You need actresses who are comfortable being naked on camera and engaging in real or simulated sex acts. It’s rare to see mainstream directors treat porn stars as actual performers who have talents beyond looking hot and having sex.

But I find it more than a little distasteful that one of those porn actresses was hired to be in a scene where a sex worker is abused at work. That scene would have been difficult for any actress, but to hire a sex worker to play a sex worker who is nearly murdered for being a sex worker seems crass. Particularly since this scene was not in the source materialwhich means that multiple people decided that having real sex workers portray fictional sex workers exposed to brutal violence was a good idea.

Admittedly, Maisy Dee seemed to enjoy working on the show. She blogged about how fun her ‘spanking’ scene was and how wonderful everyone she interacted with was. So if the narrative is not always kind to sex workers, at least the production staff is.

Game of Thrones is capable of lighter, even happier moments. As the show goes on these have become rarer as the narrative is crushed beneath the weight of a cynical world view. Game of Thrones forgets more and more with each passing season that life is full of both ups and downs. It feels like in the pursuit of realism, the writers think they need to depict a consistently harsh world and a near constant parade of pain for all their charactersparticularly for sex workers, who rarely see popular stories where we are able to triumph. Every sex worker on the show who has been given more than a handful of lines has been violently killed or assaulted. If Game of Thrones truly wishes to go against the tropes it claims to subvert, perhaps it should include sex workers who are given more than one scene and not killed almost immediately after being granted agency.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

John Punter June 26, 2014 at 9:29 pm

Apart from being boring, cliches are almost never historically accurate. Sex workers were not inevitable loser/victims, even in societies heavily influenced by Christian anti-sex hyteria: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodora_(6th_century)#Early_years .

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Amanda June 27, 2014 at 11:58 am

I haven’t seen the show and am not interested, but I’m glad to have a sex worker’s view of the show.

Assorted comments:
People always like to use brothels as settings for stuff because they see them as dangerous (and sexy). They always seem to forget the danger and violence comes from men and is not inherent to brothels just because women gather there to make a living. The violence is created by men, not by women having sex.

The prostitutes who have speaking lines and some agency get killed because men don’t like uppity women who have opinions or hold the men accountable for their very bad actions. I can personally attest to this (well, not the killing part).

Hmm…so feminists who write about the show can’t seem to recognize survival sex work when they see it, there’s a non-shocker.

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Alina June 27, 2014 at 3:19 pm

This makes me want to stop seeing a client who’s been encouraging me to check out Game of Thrones, because now I’m scared of him. Jesus.

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Sina June 28, 2014 at 11:34 am

I think you wrongly interpreted what Tyrion said to Shae to drive her away. He said hurtful things because he loved her and because he knew exactly that she was in great danger. She wouldn’t listen to him while he rationally tried to keep her safe (this again is a shame-shae from the book was everything but naive and careless and would have listened). In the book, it would have made more sense that he killed her, as she betrayed and deeply humiliated him without him having been anything but kind to her. I didnt see any indication that she had been tortured and forced to give false testimony, on the co trary, it seemed that she didnt have anything to gain from him anymore as soon as he was accused and so she did what profited her more. Also in the series its clear that shes wasnt tortured but betrayed him because of vengeance. She wasnt shy and silent while giving testimony because of torture, but because she is a good actress and knows how to appear pityable.

Still, it’s disturbing how much violence against women the producers added that wasn’t even in the book. I really would have liked to see the strong, independent madam of the brothel instead of littlefinger.

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Domina Elle July 3, 2014 at 6:34 am

The producers of game of thrones are fucked up. PERIOD.
There were so many things that I couldn’t believe I was seeng I lost count. Never mind the incest, children killing children, lots of children playing roles involving sexual violence.

In season one there is a scene where Kalisi (sp?) and a slave girl (dear to her heart of course) are talking about dragons- and the queen wants to know how the slave happens to know so much about dragons. The slave girl smiles and says “men talk when they are happy” she goes on to explain how she was nine when her mother sold her to the ‘pleasure house’, to which the queen appears shocked, however the slave girl LAUGHS and with a huge smile assures the queen: “oh Kalisi! I wouldn’t service men for another three years!” PHEW. At least she was twelve when she started fucking in the ‘pleasure house’. It almost comes off as the punch line of a sick joke.

Then there’s the kiddie porn. We have parents getting arrested for taking innocent photos of their kids in bubble baths, but HBO can present what amounts to kiddie porn during an episode of game of thrones. The scene opens with a view of what seems to be the backyard of the brothel. We see whores and their naked babies bathing. The producers presented a fully naked frontal shot of a little boy about 2 or 3 years old. Camera pans upwards and we now see the brothel owner looking out of the window down towards the whores and babies. His look gives us the distinct feeling that he is viewing ‘his property’. Camera now pans with him into the room where we find him coaching two of his whores in the fine art of ‘faking it’ to clients. Because we all know that whores ‘fake it’. During this part of the scene we also get to see a simulated pussy fisting between the two women. I don’t know about YOU, but my mind doesn’t like naked babies edited directly into a scene with adult sexual content. They damn well knew exactly what they were doing.

NO NO NO. I have to ask myself how many people watched this scene and didn’t blink. Hollyweird is renown for its pedophiles. If they simply used bad judgment in editing, I must seriously question the mind set of who wrote, filmed, produced and edited that scene.

Game of thrones is garbage of the lowest order. The really sad thing is how many kids watch this show. When I did research regarding what parents thought about this show, I found that lots of kids were reviewing it. Ages 13 on up. Some admitted their parents did not know they were watching. Seasons one and two featured numerous episodes with children killing, being killed, or killing each other. With shows like this, hunger games, etc., no I’m not surprised to see cases on the rise involving 12 year olds killing each other.

Shows like this don’t help us. Not as sex workers or or as human beings.

P.S. MUCH LOVE

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Ms. Pris July 7, 2014 at 11:31 pm

I think GOT is in a completely different category than “Hunger Games”. “Hunger Games” is rated PG-13, it is a dystopian science fiction tale rich with political commentary, and frankly, it’s very realistic, except for the fact that it contains NO sexual violence at all.

All over this planet, 12 year olds are forced into war and violence. This long predated “Hunger Games”. In most parts of the world, 12 years old is almost adult. If you are unaware of that, you’ve been living a very sheltered life.

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Alexandra July 6, 2014 at 3:46 am

Wow. I am a pro domme and escort, and I LOVE your site. But Game of Thrones is one of my favorite shows, and I completely disagree with you about its treatment of sex workers and women in general.

The world the show depicts is dangerous and brutal, a place where it’s very easy to be killed for what’s in your pocket or for no reason at all. It’s also a sexist patriarchy, in which women have to gain power by manipulating men (unless they have dragons) and a woman has to be an exceptional warrior to be treated as anything resembling an equal. I think it is a completely intentional choice to link the sexism with the high level of violence. Women are in general physically weaker than men, and a world where physical violence is omnipresent is never going to be a happy place for females. The widespread existence of sex workers, and the fact that they are sometimes treated callously, fits in with the totality of that world.

I do not think the especially brutal scenes were meant to be degrading to the sex worker characters but to show you that the males perpetrating the violence are monsters in a society that is often monstruous. I don’t think Joffrey torturing whores shows that the writers think whores are worthless; I think it is a really dramatic item in the accumulated evidence that Joffrey is a psychopath. I think Littlefinger’s sending Ros to be killed is not evidence of her worthlessness but that he is a ruthless, untrustworthy worm who would sell out his grandmother for a good enough price and cheerfully kills people who get in his way.

Yes, some of the male characters are using women as pawns to attack each other, because they are horrible people and the women don’t have the power to prevent it. That does not equate to the authors or producers making a statement that this is OK. The way the male characters treat women is meant to tell you something very meaningful about them. In the world of GOT, male characters who treat women with respect are generally depicted as honorable, and that is one of the things that contributes to their being honorable.

On to Shae and Tyrion. Shae is a complex character and Tyrion is the most complex character in the whole story. I think their story arc is meant to be seen as a horrible, ironic tragedy. The idea that his killing her demeans her or their relationship, or that the show is implying that it was “OK,” is SO completely wrong!

I have not read the books, so I can’t comment on that. But my interpretation is that Shae first saw Tyrion as only a client, but eventually came to have real affection for him, and possibly actually loved him. Unfortunately, she was delusional in thinking she could ever be anything but his secret and in dismissing the danger she was in. I think that’s inconsistent with the practical and intelligent woman she was supposed to be. I found myself screaming, “Take the money and go, you idiot! Varys is trying to save your goddamned life!” Making her act stupidly was the element of the plot that pissed me off, not her ultimate fate. Sibel Kekilli is a terrific actress, but no matter how she played this, Shae was going to look stupid. She played it as if Shae was acting out of jealousy and unable let go, which was probably the best choice she had.

There is no question in my mind whatsoever that Tyrion loved Shae, desperately. It is obvious in the dialogue and even more obvious in Peter Dinklage’s performance. He said hateful things to her because nothing else he tried was successful in getting her to leave and he knew Tywin was going to kill her to spite him. He didn’t believe a word of it and it devastated him to say it. If he wasn’t who he was he would have married her in a heartbeat.

I think the circumstances of Shae testifying against Tyrion are ambiguous. We are never told how it came about, but my reaction when I watched is that she probably had no choice to cooperate to save her own skin … but she was angry at Tyrion anyway and because of that twisted the knife more than she needed to. I didn’t immediately assume that she purposefully offered to betray him, but she didn’t have to be as spiteful as she was, and THAT was indeed a betrayal. Regardless of her motives, seeing her there was heartbreaking for Tyrion.

Was Shae in Tywin’s bed because she chose to be, either for monetary gain, to get back at Tyrion or both? Or did she really have little choice other than to cooperate with Tywin’s desire to hurt Tyrion as badly as he possibly could? It could be either or both. Regardless, they were both shocked and horrified to come face to face with each other.

Shae draws a knife because an angry man who has good reason to be really pissed off at her walked into the room with a crossbow and she doesn’t have any other options, not because she WANTS to kill Tyrion. It’s obvious he didn’t come there to kill her, because he had no idea she was there. But if you were her would you take the chance that he won’t? If she interprets his intentions wrong she’s dead. If she yells for Tywin, she’s also dead because Tyrion will have to shut her up. If she does nothing and lets it play out, Tywin will probably kill her either for doing nothing or to spite Tyrion. She’s fucked and they both know it, and as soon as she pulls the knife she has doomed at least one of them to die.

At first Tyrion doesn’t know what the hell he is going to do, but once Shae pulls out the knife he knows he has to kill her, both to keep her from killing him and to keep her from warning his father of his presence. He is also really angry, and seeing her in his father’s bed feels in his gut like the biggest betrayal possible. She may have been coerced but he hardly has the time to think it through intellectually. It adds to the white-hot ball of rage inside him that made him pick up the crossbow in the first place. His anger makes it more possible to kill her, but he does it because he has to.

That scene is horrible and heartbreaking, one of the most emotionally wrenching things I’ve seen in a long time. If you think Tyrion kills Shae with little thought or remorse, I think you are blinded by your ideology.

Does Tyrion walk in there intending to kill Tywin? I think he does, but if Shae hadn’t been there, and Tywin hadn’t disparaged her, he might not have been able to go through with it. Tywin’s using someone he really loved against him, twisting one of the few truly joyful things in his life into something nasty, sealed the deal. Tyrion doesn’t tell Tywin he is sorry because he doesn’t want to give him that satisfaction, not because he feels no remorse.

And now I’ll get off my soapbox.

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