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.
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.
This 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.
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 course—I have a great support system—but 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.
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 character—an 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.
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.
Since 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 recap—on a feminist site, by the way—refer 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 America—Game of Thrones is her first foray into American productions—the 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.
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 material—which 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 characters—particularly 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.