Pop quiz: Who is the show Game of Thrones “made” for?
C. All people
Answer C, “All people,” seems like the obvious choice, right? No one involved with the show – not HBO, the network that broadcasts it, not showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and certainly not George R. R. Martin, author of the books upon which the show is based – has ever said that the show is intended only for a certain gender demographic.
And yet, some critics seem to be under the impression that Game of Thrones is a “man’s show,” and that it does not appeal to women. In one of the earliest reviews of the show, New York Times television critic Ginia Bellafante argued that the showrunners include romance plots and sex in the show “out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.” Ms. Bellafante goes on to state that women are uninterested in fantasy and that Game of Thrones is “boy fiction.” Yesterday, in one of the worst-argued pop culture pieces I’ve ever read, Renata Sellitti of Thrillist, made the sweeping generalization that women don’t like the show because it caters solely to men. Ms. Sellitti’s arguments were made without citation to any evidence and were insulting to both women (one of her arguments was that the plotlines are too complicated to follow) and men (they only like the show because it’s “gross” and features lots of naked breasts).
This idea that television shows, or, for that matter, any work of popular culture, is meant to be consumed by only one gender is one that needs to be eliminated. It is not only insulting, as Ms. Sellitti’s article proves, it is bad for our culture. Many people who would otherwise enjoy a work will dismiss it based on a silly prejudice, and many potentially great works will go unproduced out of fear that not enough people will consume it because of said prejudice.
What makes a work “for women” or “for men”? And why is it such a big deal to cross gender lines? There exists a blog called “Guys Watching Girls,” which posts reviews, written by men, of the HBO series Girls. It’s very existence indicates that it’s strange for men to watch a show about women in their 20s. A quick Google search for “guys watching girls” not only turned up the blog’s Twitter account, it returned multiple articles examining why men watch the show, whether men can watch the show, or expressing surprise that male viewers of the show outnumber female viewers. The article about viewership states that many will “dismiss this stat as more evidence that Nielson ratings have about as much credibility as a Lindsay Lohan vow of sobriety.” And the one about whether men can watch Girls (or New Girl or Don’t Trust the B__ in Apartment 23, or Cougar Town) tries to make its case by saying that men should not feel threatened by these shows because they are not “about Cosmos, tampons, manicures or feminism. They’re not particularly about ‘lady issues’ at all…” I’m sorry, what? How is feminism a “lady issue”? How is demanding equality across the genders something that affects only women? And even if it were a “lady issue” (a very dismissive term), do people truly think that men are only interested in things that directly affect them and women only interested in things that directly affect them? The article’s author concludes that he hopes men will get onboard with these shows, but he has make his case by downplaying the feminist aspects of the shows in question and distinguishing other shows with the “for women” stigma. The notion that men are “threatened” by “lady issues” is sadly pervasive, but it reinforces how immature and hateful men can be toward women. For a man to dismiss a work because it centers on women and things that are stereotypically associated with women indicates a prepubescent lack of understanding of women at best and a total lack of empathy at worst.
Things do seem to be getting better, little by little. In the previous decade, Nickelodeon produced a show called Avatar: The Last Airbender that became a big hit for the network. The show followed the adventures of Aang, a young boy who was the reincarnated spirit of the planet, as he tried to stop a war that threatened to destroy the entire world. The network was so happy with its success that, in spite of the fact that the film adaptation of the first season bombed at the box office, it asked the show’s creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino, to make a sequel series. Koneitzko and DiMartino came up with The Legend of Korra, which would center on Aang’s successor Korra. In an interview with NPR, Koneitzko revealed that the show nearly didn’t get produced. “Some Nickelodeon executives were worried… about backing an animated action show with a female lead character. Conventional TV wisdom has it that girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls.” Fortunately for Koneitzko, DiMartino, and the viewing public, Nickelodeon ordered the show after test screenings, where “boys said they didn’t care that Korra was a girl. They just said she was awesome.”
Nickelodeon ended up producing Korra, and the results, as I have often said, were magnificent. The show was a ratings smash, and Nickelodeon ordered two additional seasons. But think about how many shows might not have been produced because executives feared men wouldn’t tune in. How many amazing female characters have we been deprived of because of the idea that certain works are “for women” and men won’t want to watch?
The notion that a work is “for men” is just as insulting and problematic. Works with this label are often violent works or works of science fiction or fantasy. Both Ms. Bellafante and Ms. Sellitti dismiss the latter (Ms. Bellafante says that it is very unlikely for a women’s book club to select The Hobbit, while Ms. Sellitti says that Game of Thrones doesn’t appeal to women in part because it reminds them of the nerds who played Magic: The Gathering). Carving out entire genres as being within the province of just one gender tells women that they should avoid lots of great works of pop culture. Game of Thrones alone should be enough to dispel the notion that certain types of work are only for men. Game of Thrones has some of the best female characters in any medium, and provides better female role models than certain works marketed heavily to women. On the flip side of the coin, saying that violent works appeal only to men reinforce the idea that men are inherently violent.
The idea that works are gendered is very harmful to our culture. But it also seems like it would be bad for business, so the continued perpetuation of the idea at the hands of producers and marketers baffles me. If works were marketed to 100% of the population, as opposed to only 50%, wouldn’t sales increase? No matter how you look at this gender split, everyone is hurt by it. It’s time to put it aside.