Alan. Alex. Ali. Brian. Daniel. Daniel. Daniel. David. David. David. Jack. Jeremy. Matt. Mark. Michael. Miguel. Neil. Tim.
Those are the names of every person who has directed one or more of the 67 existing episodes of HBO’s flagship series, “Game of Thrones.” While the current season centers on the war for Westeros between Queen Cersei and Queen Daenerys, few real-world women have held creative power as director. As of now, 18 men and 1 woman have taken the wheel, with Michelle MacLaren (“Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead”) helming 4/67, or 6%, of episodes. 2 women and 5 men can claim writing credits, though, again, women are credited writers on only 6% of episodes. For the last three seasons, no woman has been credited as a writer or director. So, why are women in power easier for the HBO leadership team to write in than invite in?
Every op-ed tackling the series should foreground and interrogate these statistics. Publications have been clambering over each other to launch perceptive takes on how the series approaches gender roles and violence. The A.V Club, among others, dove deep into the show’s tendency to feature rape and assault in the storylines of female leads, even when the assaults did not occur in the sourcebooks. There have been disavowals and defenses, but I’m here neither to bury or to praise “Game of Thrones.” I’ve celebrated and critiqued the series since it began, but the question of whether the show crosses the line between portraying a sexist world and exploiting that world’s abuses for shock and titillation is beyond my mission here. My aim is to highlight that the makeup of the writing/directing team has not always been raised for context.
Director Michelle MacLaren. Via the Emmys site.
For all these differing appraisals of the series, one fact no one can miss is how the creaking wheel of Westorosi power has spun towards women rulers and warriors. Cersei, Daenerys, Yara, Ellaria, Olenna, Sansa, Arya, and Brienne have all vaulted to higher positions this year. Yet, as they have risen, women’s creative participation at the level of writer or director has fallen to 0%.
It’s difficult to reconcile “Game of Thrones” insistence on its own progressive portrayal of female leadership with its exclusion of women in these top roles. Episodes and trailers are replete with scenes of Daenerys, Arya, Cersei, or even Lyanna Mormont firing off a speech on justice, vengeance, or breaking the status quo for women. And it’s not only characters speaking to this issue. HBO publicity and bonus content also touts “Thrones” ground-breaking on-screen roles for women.
For a recent case, look no further than season 7, episode 2’s “Inside the Episode” interview segment. In it, showrunners David Benioff and D.B Weiss spotlight a war room scene in which prospective queen Daenerys Targaryen calls together four female advisors. The creators earnestly state:
“I don’t think there are that many situations in television or film where you see four women sitting around a table discussing power and strategy and war. To have Emilia at one end of the table and Diana at the other…to me, that was just such a breath of fresh air. It made writing it a lot more fun.”
I don’t doubt that this enthusiasm was genuine, but placed in context it has an off-putting dimension. It’s self-congratulatory. It fondly imagines women presiding over a table when women are only at the table as writers or directors on 12% of the series episodes. Men are credited in 100% of entries. This disparity is dishonest and regressive. I’m not calling into question that David, Dan, and the HBO team aim to value every staff member on their roster. It’s also not in doubt that people of all backgrounds are bringing it in every department, from editing to executive producing. Nevertheless, writing and directing credits matter and are highly visible. And there, when it comes to ideals vs actions, “Game of Thrones” is among TV’s greatest failures. Them’s fighting words, so let’s survey the television landscape to see how it illuminates, but doesn’t exonerate, the hypocrisies of “Game of Thrones” production.
Natalie Dormer as ‘Margaery Tyrell’ in “Game of Thrones.”
We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Article for: A Note on Call-Out Culture
While this article critiques public statements made by “Game of Thrones” artists, including showrunners David Benioff and D.B Weiss, the intent is by no means to suggest they are somehow solely implicated. They are not the leering villains of this piece. Their team has scripted some outrageously good television (Jaime’s bathhouse confession to Brienne and Daenerys and the Unsullied slaying the masters )… as well as laughably lazy scenes (The notorious “bad pussy” and “most beautiful woman” incidents comes to mind.) Their team has both responded thoughtfully and blundered ignorantly in interviews. Often, they’ve failed to brook discussion of the sexual violence and racial stereotypes that appear in “Thrones.” They happen to work at a studio that, of the 8 examined in an extensive 2016 Director’s Guild study (chart below), has the lowest hiring rate for women and racial minorities.
Adopting a devil’s advocate stance, I note the role of enormous production pressures that play in hiring decisions. Seeing as “Game of Thrones” is in a constant head-rush of a production schedule, it isn’t surprising that the show is mainly entrusted to proven directors from other large-scale, complex HBO productions such as “Rome” and “The Sopranos.” Many directors on “Thrones” possess a stacked HBO resume… and much of classic HBO employed very few women. However sensible this may sound to some, anyone can spot the infinite, snake eats tail, “logic” in this situation.
Scratch a millimeter deep and it’s clear this conservative thought pattern perpetuates and has always perpetuated, the problem for another decade of artists. They don’t hire women because women lack the resume? Translation: “We don’t hire women because we didn’t hire women.” Well, the next mega-hit can rattle off the same excuse. And on and on it spins.
Speaking directly to the HBO team now: Look harder. Believe in all artists more freely! Women are half of film students and a strong festival presence. My dudes, you literally just wrote an episode where Daenarys called out her new advisor Varys for supporting her megalomaniacal, man-child brother because he had the obvious qualifications for rule (read: penis) when she was the worthier contender. Can you not apply this narrative to expanding who you put faith in for leading your episodes? For real? What disaster would befall you if you hired not even 50% women to direct, but 25% instead of 6%? By all accounts, David and Dan are thoughtful writers who’ve made TV history through their dedication to burdened, medieval underdogs like Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister, and Hodor. I doubt the absence of women is malicious or intentional. There are larger structures and histories at play. But there’s the crux of the problem. If everyone’s responsible; no one’s responsible. If everyone excuses themselves, little changes. Intentionality, consciousness, and checking of biases is everyone’s work. Otherwise, you can wind up playing par for the course in the misogynist open.
So, even if you’re inclined to give shows like “Thrones” that include few women the benefit of the doubt, even if you trust that they impartially looked for the “best person for the job”, the fact is that other top dramas and networks are picking “best people” that are less homogenous. So, let’s examine at that.
Emilia Clarke with showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff of “Game of Thrones.” Via Macall B. Polay/HBO
How does “Game of Thrones” look standing amongst its peers? For comparison’s sake, I’ve broken down the credits of 11 similarly lauded, hour-long series, primarily from cable networks.
- Rome (HBO): 0 women directed 0% of episodes
- The Sopranos(HBO): 1 woman directed 1% of episodes
- Games of Thrones (HBO): 1 woman directed 6% of episodes
- The Walking Dead (AMC): 9 women directed 16% of episodes
- The Americans (FX): 8 women directed 17% of episodes
- Six Feet Under (HBO): 6 women directed 17% of episodes
- Mad Men(AMC): 4 women directed 20% of episodes
- Breaking Bad (AMC): 3 women directed 21% of episodes
- The Leftovers (HBO): 4 women directed 50% of episodes
- Jane the Virgin (CW): 12 women directed 67% of episodes
- The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu): 4 women directed 80% of episodes
To elaborate a bit more on this wider view, the Director’s Guild of America’s report on the 2015-2016 season is bursting with un-fun facts. In the study of 4,000+ television episodes, they concluded only 17% were directed by women and 19% by minorities, with minority women claiming only 3% of directing credits. 81% of directors were white, 83% were male. “Game of Thrones’s” 6% directing rate for women is dragging in the muck, lower even than the average, but not unique.
If you’ve overlooked hiring discrimination in television while following the discussion about films; you’re not alone. Televisual diversity soars above mainstream film, and high-profile successes created by diverse teams and minority showrunners, such as “Jane the Virgin,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Atlanta,” and “Master of None” may skew our perception of industry-wide equality. The DGA averages reveal the exceptionality of such staffs.
To further illustrate this fact, I’ve charted 15 contemporary critical and audience hits. The percentages are based on a YES/NO question. For each episode of a series I asked:
- Is there any woman on the writing/directing team?
- Is there any man on the writing/directing team?
Note: This does not factor in assistants or showrunners unless they are specifically credited on that episode.
Much like the Bechdel Test, the question lacks nuance but provides a framework. As incomplete as any single metric is, I chose this approach for its ability to contain optimism and critique. For instance, many may be surprised that nearly half of “Walking Dead” and “Better Call Saul” episodes were either written, co-written, or directed by a woman. There’s the optimism. Every fan and industry professional should know this and note it.
Rachel Bloom, creator and star of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Via Glamour Magazine.
Another encouraging trend in this small sample is women showrunners hiring balanced staffs. Despite controversy over series like “Jessica Jones” and ‘Queen Sugar” electing to hire all women for a season, as a rebuff to series that hire men for years on end, other acclaimed series run by women have small discrepancies. In fact, shows run by women were the only shows in my sample where men and women’s credits were even or separated by a very narrow margin. (See: “Supergirl,” “Crazy-Ex Girlfriend,” ”Orange is the New Black”). Men’s input hardly appears to be shunned by “feminazi” series calling for diversity in media. What great showrunners typically grasp is that any talented human can potentially contribute to any endeavor. Not every individual team will be a precise demographic reflection, but the overall participation rate in the industry should be pretty damn precise when hundreds or thousands of projects are considered.
On the critical side, the visual clarifies the stubborn paradigm in which women’s input is deemed optional on a given episode while men’s is nearly constant. Point being, it is exceedingly rare for 2-5 women to comprise a writing/directing team with no men, while episode credits with no women are commonplace. To rephrase the “Walking Dead” example: Only 1% of “Walking Dead” episodes” involved no men as writer/director, 53% involved no women.
Many may be inclined to dismiss such research as “identity politics” infringing on standards of merit and finding the “best person for the job”. While I defend the right of individual artists to collaborate with friends and trusted colleagues on creative outings, there comes a point where specific examples must be probed to highlight the discrimination that underlies the industry. The problems with this “best person for the job” narrative are legion. One is that the notion that the hiring process is infallible. This is laughable to any human who has had a job interview and doubly silly in the arts. How ridiculous is it to suppose any series hired the best possible director? How can you pre-emptively know who will craft the best iteration of your script? Are there not hundreds, thousands, millions of valid choices in camera placement, performance style, and structure? This acts as though the “best” episode exists in the ether, waiting to be accessed by the chosen hero, and all other versions would be amateurish.
Via Yasmine Gateau/Variety
Look, we’re all tired by this conversation. I’d prefer to focus on the themes and content of ”Game of Thrones,” not the details of the creators’ personal identity. However, the state of things makes that not only difficult but an abdication of critical thought and action. Yes, I’m wrung out on op-eds, crushed by call-outs, deadened by statistical analyses. Moreover, I’m numbly enraged by interviews with industry leaders. I’m tired because they ring hollow. Vague expressions of dismay are abundant, but results are scant. But I’ll keep reading and writing.
Criticism can feel like a paper airplane in the halls of power. Industry leaders take a glance, sagely agree that “we need strong female characters,” declare “my little girl loved Wonder Woman” into the nearest journalists’ mic, and change nothing. They shuffle off and hope we don’t examine the credits on their latest projects too closely. This is a gross simplification of the intersecting forces that cause women to vanish at high levels but the premise, really, could not be simpler.
You either believe women are less biologically and psychologically capable of creative vision, or you don’t. You believe they are less equipped with the requisite intellect, interpersonal skills, work ethic, and emotional capacity to make art, or you don’t. In fact, let’s delete the qualifiers. You believe women are less. Or you don’t. If you don’t, then turn a searching eye towards any industry, any company, any government where a vast disparity exists. The Dragonglass ceiling isn’t breaking. And those who tell you it is are welding on reinforcements.