It’s a well-recognized fact that women don’t have much power in the television (or film) world. Predictably, two of the most successful shows on TV right now are largely made by men and set in the past, or in a fantasy world, or both. But Mad Men and Game of Thrones both draw fascinating comparisons to women’s positions in present media; both series focus on prostitution, on the way female characters use sex to obtain power. Prostitution molds and crushes male characters, and on both Game of Thrones and Mad Men, female characters must either de-feminize or prostitute themselves in order to gain power.
“Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse,” Mad Men’s Don Draper declares in the final scene of this season’s “The Crash.” He’s not joking. For Don, the protagonist/antagonist/antihero, every female character on the show has been compartmentalized: It’s the classic Madonna/whore dichotomy. Freud wrote, “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.” This sentiment might as well caption a photo of Don Draper looking like the sexy beast we’ve all come to love and hate in equal measure.
Last year, Joan Holloway guaranteed her visible, full partnership with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce by sleeping with a client. Now she has to live with the fact that the people she “manages” believe her superlative resource is between her legs. Pete Campbell lost a massive account with his father-in-law because the two ran into each other at a whorehouse. Don Draper’s erstwhile mistress, Sylvia, gleefully accepts gifts and cash from Don. He holes her up in a hotel room “exclusively for his pleasure,” and makes her dress in crimson — for Don, the hue of prostitutes. We learn in (sometimes ham-fisted) flashbacks that hookers birthed him, cared for him, beat him, and took his virginity. Prostitutes were his mother figures and his introduction to sex. The result is Don Draper in all his controlling, sadistic, asshole glory. Prostitution shaped this man, and we’re watching him crumble.
Peggy Olson didn’t get where she is using sex. Her intelligence and mental agility allowed her to become an advertising executive in a world dominated by men. Her total lack of sexuality has made her a mother/virgin figure to Don. (Though his view of her was briefly tested in “The Crash.”) In the eyes of our protagonist, she has become “one of the guys” in order to gain his respect and access to the upper echelons of the ad world.
Game of Thrones, which airs every Sunday alongside Mad Men, is getting raunchier every season — and the proverbial feces is about to hit the fan. As in Mad Men, the characters on the HBO series see most women as little more than whores, tools for amusement and power plays. Shae, who is now Sansa Stark’s handmaid on the show, got her position by opening her legs to Tyrion. To his credit, Tyrion does truly love her. Joffrey, that inbred little psycho, killed a prostitute for funsies. Red Priestess Melisandre uses sex to obtain what she needs, and the action of giving birth — which belongs solely to women — to create horrible evil.
Critics have debated the characters of Ripley in the Alien films and Laurie in the Halloween series: are these “Final Girls” feminist representations? They use their strength and ingenuity to get the bad guys, right? But in order to return the male gaze, or to defeat the enemy, these women must render themselves masculine (Ripley’s muscular physique and cropped hair) or sexless (Laurie’s oft-criticized virginity).
The same could be applied to Brienne of Tarth, who in the novels is described as a hideously ugly virgin. (HBO seems certain American audiences won’t watch an ugly woman perform heroic feats, and hired this gorgeous woman to play her.) Her gender reveal is played as a big surprise. Ditto Arya Stark, whose tomboyish behavior is much-aggrieved, and who actually pretends to be a boy. In order to assert their power, to become strong, both had to become masculine.
Don’t get me wrong. There are strong female characters on both series. Further, Game of Thrones is introducing occasional male nudity. Both series are impeccably produced, well written, and artfully filmed, and both offer compelling plot lines for men and women. But for women in popular television, it seems, sex and power are inexplicably intertwined. Alternately, the ladies are choosing to denounce their femininity to obtain strength.
In telling stories about worlds that distantly resemble our own, present-day world (in which, let’s face it, women’s rights are under constant attack), these series make an important point about the portrayal of women in current media. All you need do is look up Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, read the comments on an article about the CEO of Yahoo! Marissa Mayer, Google what politicians say about rape, or check out a gossip rag. Roles for women, in reality and in the media, still have a long way to go.