While appearing at a convention, Esmé Bianco remembers a woman approaching her and identifying as a prostitute.
Bianco said the woman saw sex workers portrayed on TV before, but never saw the character treated as a human. The woman said Bianco — through her role as Ros on Game of Thrones — changed that.
"For me, the whole point of art is to reflect back the human experience," Bianco said. "If somebody who's never seen themselves reflected before sees that for the first time, and feels seen, I'm like, 'I did my job!' That's why I do what I do."
Bianco visited Michigan State Monday night as the guest speaker for an event titled "New Year, New Me," hosted at Wilson Hall by MSU Residence Halls Association, or RHA. She spoke on a range of topics, from her experiences with harassment to her evolving views on feminism.
A former burlesque dancer, Bianco said she's always felt comfortable showing skin, likening it to an "out of body experience" where she is the character, not herself. However, she's always had a love-hate relationship with her body image, including stints with eating disorders and self-harm. Looking back, she sometimes tied her self-worth to how she was perceived sexually, she said.
"Somehow, through it all, I've always felt comfortable with it," Bianco said. "I may love it or I may hate it, but it's my body to love or hate as I see fit."
Through her career, she's also experienced sexual harassment, usually as on-set comments or pushing toward actions she was not comfortable with. She did not think much about this behavior until the #MeToo movement, during which she looked back at her jobs and relationships. She wishes she spoke up more often when witnessing or experiencing inappropriate behavior, a skill she's still working on, she said.
"I started thinking about all of the jobs I've had and all of the boyfriends and weird experiences at parties, where I've started going 'God, what was that?' and I've started seeing all of this stuff," Bianco said. "As a woman, you become so used to it, you just bat it off every day ... I was like 'Oh, this has been happening to me my whole life ... and I thought nothing of it.' I was kind of pissed at myself, I was like, 'Why have I been silent all these years?'"
The movement also led to Bianco identifying as a feminist. Before Game of Thrones, she had a negative opinion of the label, perceiving it to mean a militant focus on the belittlement of men. She said she did not have a true understanding of the issues and was a bit naive from her upbringing.
"It's just accepting that the society we live in right now is not equal for men and women, and there's a lot of work we need to do," Bianco said.
Bianco often put herself in dangerous situations in her early 20s, which is when people most often experience relationship violence, she said. Bianco's early experiences with relationships and sex weren't healthy, but as her first experiences, she normalized them for years, not having clear frameworks of consent or how to advocate for herself.
"Therefore, all the sh*t that was happening that was not OK became normal for me," Bianco said. "When I was well past university and all that stuff, I was still having those unhealthy experiences and thinking they were normal."
Bianco believes she could've gone down a different path without luck, which motivates her to advocate for others, to make sure they don't go through what she did. She encouraged the audience to educate themselves on consent and signs of an abusive relationship.
"That's why I love being able to talk to you guys, it's amazing, because I'm like, 'God, if somebody had talked to me when I was your age,'" Bianco said.
Bianco said it was very exciting and empowering to be able to come to MSU and discuss her experiences.
"It's weird, the circle life brings you in," Esmé Bianco said. "It's fun to actually have something to offer, to have gone through experiences that I can look back at and learn something from and hopefully share something that's gonna give someone else hope or power."
RHA Director of Public Relations Brooke Rosin, an advertising junior, asked Bianco questions and moderated the discussion.
"We wanted to bring somebody in that had an interesting viewpoint of things," Rosin said. "As somebody who worked as a prostitute on the TV show and as an erotic dancer, we thought that her perspective might be different and more in tune with the non-traditional things of what it means to be a feminist and what it means to be empowered."
Communications junior Nicholas Cacevic said he thought the event was well done and the topics were very relevant for life at MSU and as a college student.
"The climate, in regards to sexual assault and things like that, isn't just felt around here, it's felt all around," Cacevic said. "While we're under the spotlight, it is still happening everywhere else as well."