Game of Thrones vs. The Wire

I’m halfway through Book 2 of the Game of Thrones series (now on HBO for those allergic to words), and I’m finding myself as addicted to the Seven Kingdoms as I’ve ever been to a fictional world (and that includes Hogwarts). They are sprawling and epic and complicated and emotional and fascinating and… do you see how I just keep adding adjectives?

Arya Stark, Daenerys, Queen Cersei

The thing I like about them the most, of course, is George R.R. Martin’s approach to gender. I’m about to attempt a long-shot of a comparison, so bear with me and I’m hoping it will all make sense in the end. Here it goes:

I love The Wire for a million reasons, but that show was a virtual wasteland for female characters. If you look at HBO’s obscenely long cast list, barely 10% of the characters are women. When writing a show about the Baltimore drug wars, the writers cherry-picked which stories to highlight and those were almost all male-centered.

You might point out that most drug dealers and cops in Baltimore are men, and you’d be right. But, in the fully formed world that The Wire attempts to create, women do exist, and they exist in equal number. They are the mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, addicts, teachers, etc. who populate the periphery of the cast. For whatever combination of reasons, the writers did not find their stories to be as compelling as those of the men. A landscape as vast and rich as The Wire‘s could have documented the stories of men and women. Cutty’s teacher ex-girlfriend, Avon’s sister, McNulty’s ex-wife, Nick’s baby mama, and Randy’s foster mother could have added incredible depth to David Simon’s big picture.

Back to Game of Thrones. The women in medieval-esque Seven Kingdoms are predominantly relegated to roles of wife and mother (and occasionally prostitute). Much like The Wire, the action-sequences are male-dominated, by the nature of what constitutes “action” (drug dealing and battles). Structurally speaking, however, Martin spends as much time with the women as he does with the gallivanting knights. Why? Because they’re fascinating.

Despite the confines of their societal roles, the women and girls in Game of Thrones have lives as ethically complex and emotionally difficult as the knights and swordsmen. The roles of wife, mother, sister, daughter are never one-note labels, but mere pieces of very nuanced portraits of human life. Just because these characters are limited by the inequality of their environment doesn’t make their stories any less rewarding.

That narrative balance is what allows Game of Thrones to pack the punch that it does. The world is so deep because Martin has added layers to every character, not just the ones with swords.

Related Post: Highbrow books in a lowbrow world.

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11 Comments

Filed under Books, Gender, Hollywood, Media, Really Good Writing by Other People

11 responses to “Game of Thrones vs. The Wire

  1. The man (Martin) is a master of character, to be sure. The show did a fine job of it, certainly, but his work it is based on is the true treasure trove of personality – of all ages, genders, and whatever else you’d like to partake in. Fascinating indeed – and as good a show as The Wire is, I’d have to agree with your assessment. Kudos!

  2. I agree that Thrones has some amazing strength in all the characters, male and female. Haven’t read the books, may have to, now. I don’t follow The Wire, but do watch Boardwalk Empire, and there are some amazing female characters there, too, including an assistant attorney general (which surprised me so much I checked it out. Sure enough, female assistant attorney generals.)

  3. aviatrixkim

    I never thought about this, but you make a great point. I also get frustrated with shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad, whose wife characters the writers seem content to paint in one color and one dimension. Why was the Dexter wife so boring and whiny, when the sister character is fascinating and funny and real? I’m pretty sure real women don’t suddenly become one-note and one-dimensional after the wedding.

  4. Hey Emily – I highly recommend Battlestar Galactica as great show / universe with incredibly well-developed, fascinating female characters. It may be one of my favorite things about the show, and one way in which I think it distinguishes itself as truly wonderful science fiction.

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