But what many commentators missed is that “Game of Thrones” is not a modern show derived from modern conventions and ethics. It is a feudal drama with feudal ethics (and, in the case of Stark, who is executed on the order of the crazed King Joffrey at the end of season one, it is also a tragedy). Its people’s principles are honor, duty, loyalty, family, and primogeniture. They do not concern themselves with many of the things a HBO viewer might care about. Rather, this is an 11th century world, produced for our 21st century entertainment. The pleasure of the show’s scenarios are sometimes as vicariously subversive as they are dramatic. These people live and do things in ways that we cannot.
“Mad Men”—that other anxiously awaited returning drama—also receives high marks despite comparatively backwards attitudes towards gender and race. But the common justification goes that Matthew Weiner and company are simply representing the time in which the show is set, when brutish behavior towards women, Jews, and blacks was open and tolerated. And yet, it is for that same reason that some critics, like Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in The New York Review of Books, have found the show uncomfortable. There’s a sense in which the capability to represent these behaviors is being trumpeted—look what we can do!—and the audience, by way of the passive medium of television, is made complicit.
“Game of Thrones” may unsettle some viewers for similar reasons. While the show’s women are often rewarded for fierce displays of principle, most often they are of one kind: maternal love. Occasionally we see women scheming alongside, or against, the men, but they have no way to match the agency and physical power wielded by their male counterparts. When a female character is introduced, there’s an even chance that you’ll eventually see her nude, if she isn’t already. Prostitutes are abundant, and a number of women are victims of sexual violence, sometimes while trying to supplicate themselves before powerful men.