This post contains spoilers for season five of Game of Thrones
The Primetime Emmy Awards announced Thursday that Game of Thrones has earned a whopping 24 nominations, more than any other TV show this year. While that would seem to be a reason for the cast and crew to celebrate, the nods come at a time when the HBO show is under fire from even its most dedicated fans for its treatment of women. The season five finale aired over a month ago, but fans are still bristling from controversial scenes this season like the rape of Sansa, the shaming of Cersei and the death of Shireen.
It’s a backlash that the producers of the show seem to have ignored—or at least decided not to register—considering that they submitted the season’s most controversial episodes for awards. These criticisms don’t necessarily mean the show isn’t worthy of Emmy nominations. The scope and production of the show cannot be matched, and Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey and Diana Rigg have all received deserving nods. But of all the episodes to be nominated for Emmys, the producers of the show chose “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” for best direction and “Mother’s Mercy” for best writing and best direction—the two episodes this season that had some fans declaring they were done watching the show.
The tension between creators and fans reached a fever pitch at the Game of Thrones panel at San Diego Comic-Con last weekend. Most panelists at Comic-Con expect to geek out with their fans, sharing stories of what it was like to see the Millennium Falcon on the Star Wars set or enthusing over a new Batman v Superman trailer. But this year, fans who slept in line on the streets of San Diego to see their favorite Game of Thrones characters bombarded the actors, producer Carolyn Strauss and director David Nutter with questions about rape on the show.
A male fan asked whether the rape of Sansa made the character less strong, and a female attendee wondered whether the next season will “more overtly address and complicate these criticisms [of misogyny] by showing them as the pitfalls of patriarchy, rape culture, and other forms of oppression.” Again, the people asking these questions sat on concrete for 12 hours and plastic chairs for another 10 to ask these questions. It’s no wonder showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss decided to skip this year’s convention.
Given that even the show’s most rabid fans are starting to question the writers and directors’ choices, the nomination of two episodes that center on abuse toward women is particularly bold. “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” for those who don’t recall, is the episode in which Sansa is raped on her wedding night. That questioner at Comic-Con echoed concerns from critics about why director Jeremy Podeswa decided not to focus on Sansa’s pain during the assault but instead panned to Theon (Alfie Allen). Andy Greenwald at Grantland put it best: “Sansa’s anguished screaming as she was violently assaulted by her new husband was hideous, full stop. But it was almost worse the way Jeremy Podeswa’s camera lingered on Alfie Allen’s tear-filled eyes, as if his violation was somehow equal to Sansa’s; as if this disgusting act was somehow part of Theon’s long and ugly path to redemption, not a brutal and unwarranted violation.”
The season finale, “Mother’s Mercy,” was almost as controversial. As punishment for incest, Cersei is made to walk naked in front of an entire town as a woman chimes a bell chanting “shame, shame, shame” behind her. Flying feces, bloody feet and getting flashed by creepy men were among the many indignities the character (and Lena Headey’s body double) was forced to suffer during that scene. Though many critics said the writers skillfully handled Cersei’s evolution—presumably this humiliation and the death of her daughter will compel Cersei to take Joffrey-level vengeance on her wrongdoers next season—some complained that this was just another on a long list of sexual mistreatments every female character on the show must endure.
Whether the Game of Thrones producers chose only these episodes for submission or the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences chose them, the nominations seem tone deaf considering the fan outrage. But Game of Thrones will continue to draw a massive audience, no matter how many senators boycott the show. And if the Emmys love rewarding the kind of TV that gets people to tune in (if only to be outraged) then the move makes sense. Ultimately, the nominations are further proof that both HBO and the industry at large care little about sexism, even if viewers do. Remember, this is the same institution that literally put Sofia Vergara on a pedestal during a sexist skit at last year’s Emmys. Whether Vergara was in on the joke or not, it remains a symbol of how Hollywood treats its women: sexy objects to catch your attention.