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On Ros, Sex Work, and Exploitation

May 07, 2013 by in Blog
rosI’m usually a shameless Game of Thrones apologist but I am genuinely disturbed and offended by the gratuitous, sexualized murder of Ros this week. Just reviewing screenshots of the scene is making me a little ill in a way that has nothing to do with their (negligible) gore and everything to do with the exploitation of a disadvantaged woman by a sadistic king male-run, wank banking show.

 I liked Ros: she was a prostitute with a voice and, by this season, genuine character development. I loved that exchange between Ros and Shae: she talked about where she’d come from, actually discussed the hardship of being poor and female in Westeros. That scene even passed the Bechdel test! This fandom constantly (and justly) decries the fetishization of mute, unnamed female bodies and while Ros’ portrayal was frequently problematic and riddled with gratuitous nudity, she spoke and she improved her situation and she became, in her own small way, a power player by the end. So I was always confused by the hatred directed at Ros, a hatred I don’t think can solely be ascribed to her being a compilation character of a number of faceless book prostitutes or of Chataya and Alayaya.

I think some of fandom’s hatred of Ros emerged from a classism and a panic about sex work that sees it solely as victimization and exploitation (but more about that later). It just seems disingenuous that a fandom that has shrieked about Ros and anticipated her death since she became more than Tyrion’s unnamed winter town whore is so outraged by her death now. Where were you when Ros had actual character development? Oh wait, probably too busy complaining about the omnipresence of her body to actually listen to hear her backtalk Theon and cry about the horrible things she’s seen and  climb the social ladder and talk about her struggle with another woman. Fandom reduced Ros to her body as much as the show did.

Ros was often trotted out as flesh, presumably to meet the show’s semi-official quota of at least four breasts every episode, but—and I think this partly hinges on Esme Bianco’s nuanced portrayal—she was an inhabited character, particularly in the third season. As much as I disavow a feminism that labels all sex workers victims, I also question a sex-positive feminism that uncritically endorses sex work as empowerment without accounting for the systemic inequalities that themselves enact coercion. I think both of these depictions of sex work establish false binaries of victimization and agency and I really appreciated that Ros was empowered and often very much in control in her encounters with men  but she was also traumatized (by her previous encounter with Joffrey, the murder of Robert’s bastard) and probably led into sex work because of poverty (“it’s not easy for girls like us”). Born into poverty (“what did your father do? Fuck a cook and whelp a whore”), Ros has been oppressed, marginalized and she made the best of it through prostitution but it wasn’t always easy and when she could she left. She seemed to revel in her newfound empowerment as Baelish’s assistant and Varys’ informant. And she was good at what she did: she saw something even Varys didn’t and she exposed Littlefinger’s double featherbed plot to him.

So it feels particularly cruel that after all this development, the show returns to its most misogynist tendencies with Ros and kills her for shock value and  titillation. I really thought they were doing better with her and her sexualized murder seems particularly unjust after the pathos and character development she’s been given lately. It feels like the show crushing a back-talking whore who rose too high, putting her back in her place by returning her to sex work and then murdering her in such a fetishized way. We’ve long speculated that she would have been Ser Dontos’ replacement and murdered by Littlefinger or even pushed Lysa out of the moon door and then been killed and those deaths would have been fine, I guess. But a death that brutally places her back into the sex work she left, trusses her, ties her to a bed, and murders her with arrows to the breasts and genitals is horrifying and objectifying.

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