Warning: This blog post discusses sexual violence.
By Dan Spinelli
Dan Spinelli is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and Political Science.
For such a wildly popular TV show, Game of Thrones sure inspires a lackluster worldview. Tim Surette of TV.com may have put it best when summing up the show’s Season 5 finale as “Life sucks, and then you die.”
Yes, life sucks for most people in this faux-medieval world, soon to experience winter and the typical round of ice zombies that accompany it. But for whom does life suck the most? The Season 5 finale, which featured a major female character enduring an eight-minute nude walk of shame, answered the question more poignantly than even the show’s questionable portrayals of sexual violence ever could: women — because of their femininity and in a direct attempt to deny them agency — endure the most uniquely awful punishment. The brutal misogyny underlying medieval punishment is of little surprise to anyone, and hardly worthy of even argument. But the way fantasy series like Game of Thrones use the Middle Ages (plus or minus a couple dragons) as their setting reveal the contradictions — and unbridled, unrelenting misogyny — fueling medieval punishment of women.
Let’s add a little context to the show’s depiction of this walk of shame: Cersei Lannister, portrayed by Lena Headey, has been imprisoned by the Faith Militant, a fundamentalist religious sect, on charges of adultery and incest. She is guilty of both crimes, and while she may have her justifications, she has not, up to this point, earned most viewers’ sympathy. If a slot on the “Villains Wiki” is any justification, some fans even classify her as a straight-up evildoer. However, Cersei then exits her cell where she has been kept prisoner for the latter half of the season. She is stripped naked, washed, and shaved. Aided by a perilous-looking septa (a priestess in Game of Thrones parlance) yelling “Shame! Shame!” she walks barefoot across King’s Landing, the capital city. Men taunt her and throw food and trash. Some even expose themselves. The ordeal is utterly humiliating — for the character and the actress (a body double performed the nude walk with Headey’s face superimposed in the picture.)
The scene, like other graphic forms of punishment shown in Game of Thrones, actually happened. When King Richard III assumed the English throne in 1483, he made Jane Shore, one of deceased monarch Edward IV’s mistresses, perform a walk throughout London in her undergarments. Shore was likely targeted for political reasons, yet her walk dehumanized her because of her femininity, and her decision to engage in affairs with high-profile noblemen.  The French also used public shame as a way to embarrass adulterers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Ahead of the walk, city officials would often blow trumpets to corral as many townspeople as possible to come and join in the humiliation.  Penance walks, besides being weapons of a patriarchal elite, reinforced classist expectations of highborn women and kept social climbers from joining the upper class. The penance doesn’t just destroy a woman’s social status — serving jail time could do that by itself. The public punishment destroys the woman’s will by reducing her to her body. The cleansing and shaving sharpen the allegory, making the women as physically “pure” as possible. Even the Bible advised for a female captive to be treated in a similar manner to purify them for marriage: “Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured…then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife.”  Ritualistic purification works from an assumption that women are only as ethically pure as they are physically clean — in effect, devaluing their essence to just their body.
The classist element of public shaming—used as it were to out social climbers like Jane Shore —have also been referenced in A Song of Ice and Fire, the series of books on which Game of Thrones is based. Cersei’s grandfather Tytos took an unnamed paramour after the death of his wife. His new mistress, the common-born daughter of a candlemaker, began assuming the household roles of Tytos’ late wife by ordering and firing servants, sitting in his place when Tytos was indisposed, and wearing his wife’s jewelry.  In order to regain his family’s reputation after Tytos’ death, his son Tywin (upon assuming the lordship) banished the mistress. But simply removing her from a place of influence wasn’t enough. He had her stripped naked and sent throughout the city where she confessed to being a “thief and harlot” to anyone she met.  The reputation of House Lannister was of preeminent concern for Tywin. His father’s mistress had only committed the crime of acting out the role of a highborn woman. Instead of punishing her for masquerading as upper class, Tywin declared her a “harlot,” making her femininity the root of her evil. In this way, public shaming intertwined classism and sexism by categorizing any woman as sexually deviant for breaking the established social hierarchy.
 Orr, Christopher. "Why Does Game of Thrones Feature So Much Sexual Violence?" The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 17 June 2015. Web. 22 July 2015. <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/06/game-of-thrones-sexual-violence/396191/>.
 Rothman, Lily. "The True History Behind Cersei’s Game of Thrones Walk of Shame." Time.com. Time, Inc., 15 June 2015. Web. <http://time.com/3921066/cersei-game-of-thrones-history/>.
 Deuteronomy. The Holy Bible: New International Version. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1979. Print. Ch. 21: 12-13.
 Martin, George R. R. "Cersei I." A Feast for Crows. New York: Bantam, 2005. N. pag. Print.
 Martin, George R. R. "Cersei III." A Feast for Crows. New York: Bantam, 2005. N. pag. Print.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Global Panorama
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