This essay contains spoilers for A Game of Thrones up to season six, episode three, and for A Song of Ice and Fire up to A Dance of Dragons.
When Game of Thrones first aired in 2011, The New York Times published a now infamous review of the first season by Ginia Bellafante. The program’s “illicitness,” she wrote – i.e. its many scenes featuring sex and incest – had “been tossed in as a little something for the ladies”. It was unclear why women would prefer watching “illicit” sex scenes to men – especially since there’s far more female than male nudity in the series.
I find myself agreeing with the author of the Ice and Fire books, George R.R. Martin, who has said that too often we ignore or sideline the long history of sexual violence against women. To paraphrase Ramsay Bolton, the sadistic torturer and rapist of the Dreadfort: if you think women don’t experience the kind of violence often depicted on Game of Thrones then you haven’t been paying attention.
Still, I don’t watch Game of Thrones for the illicitness or the sexual violence. I watch it because I enjoy the genre of fantasy. Contrary to Bellafante’s argument that it is for “boys”, many feminist women enjoy fantasy books, movies, and TV shows. Yet very few films or TV series have lived up to the genre’s popular or critical potential – Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings being the exception that proved the rule. Game of Thrones is an extraordinarily engaging story, with complex plot lines and historical depth. While Martin isn’t my favourite modern fantasy author – I’m more likely to choose to read Raymond E. Feist, Janny Wurts, David Gemmill, and Robin Hobb – I can still see why he is incredibly popular.
Another reason why I watch is the number and variety of female characters. Apart from Orange is the New Black, I can’t think of another TV series that has so many women as protagonists. Yes, they exist in a sexist and violent world, but Game of Thrones is hardly alone in that. Is the underlying misogyny in Game of Thrones worse than that in Mad Men? Is the violence worse than that of The Wire, or The Walking Dead?
This isn’t to say that the TV show is flawless when it comes to the depiction of women. Naked women are sexually objectified without narrative cause. And Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys, recently called for more equality when it comes to depictions of nudity on the show. It was time, she said, to “free the P” and display more full frontal nude men. In spite of and sometimes because of their sexual degradation however, many female characters go on to develop into strong, capable women.
The Women of Ice and Fire:
Many thousands of words have been written debating whether Game of Thrones is feminist, or misogynist or racist, or all of the above. Many writers point to particular scenes or characters they think most ably make their points. Even having this debate is, I think, a good thing. At a time when TV characters are still overwhelmingly white, straight, and male, the women of Westeros and Essos are a breath of fresh air. There are wealthy queens and noble ladies, warriors and assassins, slaves and prostitutes.
A new collection of essays, Women of Ice and Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones, and Multiple Media Engagements (2016) explores the role and representation of women in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books and its cultural adaptations, including Game of Thrones.
The essays cover a range of topics. Several deal with sexuality and desire in the TV series. One looks at female Machiavellian political plotters, such as Cersei Lannister (played by Lena Headey) and Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), sister of Theon and a contestant for the throne of the Iron Islands. There’s an essay examining the influence of medieval romances on the journey of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and another comparing the character of Daenerys to traditional fairy tale and fantasy heroines.
A major theme of the book is the effect of adaptation on the written word. One fascinating essay examines how being translated to the screen has altered the perceived strengths and weakness of Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and Cersei Lannister as mothers.
Women of Ice and Fire also explores differing media interpretations of the characters. Strong and complex women, like Robb Stark’s wife, Talisa Mageyr (Oona Chaplin) and Ros (Esmé Bianco), the red-haired prostitute from Winterfell, were developed specifically for the TV series. Conversely, several female characters in the books, including Catelyn, Cersei, and Shae – Tyrion Lannister’s lover – were softened by the TV writers to make them more appealing.
The critic Felix Schröter also discusses how gaming adaptations, such as Game of Thrones (2012) developed by Cyanide/Focus Home Interactive, reverted to type with damsels in distress, evil queens, and women being killed to give the male “hero” motivation.
My top ten Thrones women (in no particular order)
In Women of Ice and Fire, Rikke Schubart describes Daenerys – Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons and the “last” Targaryen claimant – as “a fantasy hero who breaks generic patterns” by combining “emotions and elements that are stereotypically gendered male and female”.
Like all good heroes, Daenerys is not without flaws. She makes mistakes and suffers setbacks, most notably the loss of her husband and the revolt by the Sons of the Harpy in the city of Meereen. Neither a warrior like Brienne, nor a “little dove” of a lady like Sansa, she is, writes critic Elizabeth Beaton, a political leader.
In contrast to the frightened pawn of her brother’s plotting we first met in season one, Daenerys has emerged as strong, sexually empowered and dedicated to bringing about a new world. As she says to Tyrion at the end of the fifth season:
I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.
Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), Daenerys’s translator, has so far been primarily relegated to the role of female friend and confidante. Her only other relationship was a budding romance with Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), the commander of the Unsullied.
But her role on the council of Meereen as Dany’s most trusted confidante and friend may allow her to develop into the wily councillor she is in the books. She proves a capable strategist in A Song of Ice and Fire, although her character is only eleven!
Lady Olenna, the Queen of Thorns
Lady Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg), grandmother of Queen Margaery has consistently been a scene-stealer in the TV series. From her first meeting with Sansa, to her role in the assassination of Joffrey, to the imprisonment of Cersei, Olenna has been a powerful player in Westeros.
She is an older woman in a cast that has already sidelined other older female characters – such as Lady Maege Mormont, who appeared alarmingly briefly in season one. Olenna’s frank and open manner causes Cersei to call her “the famously tart-tongued Queen of Thorns.”
To which Lady Olenna replies:
And the famous tart, Queen Cersei.
Cersei is one of the characters people most love to hate. Still, her bad decisions, scheming and manipulations are often due to fears for her children.
In Women of Ice and Fire, theorist Marta Eidsvåg compares and contrasts Cersei and the other tragic maternal figure, Catelyn Stark, as representations of motherhood. Eidsvåg argues that in adapting these two mothers from the book to the TV show, they have been “mainstreamed”. Cersei, for instance, is softened on TV, with her son Joffrey given some of the fictional Cersei’s darker acts – including the murder of King Robert’s bastard children.
In season five Cersei’s story takes truly tragic overtones. We learn in the opening episode that a woods-witch had foretold Cersei’s life, including her marriage to King Robert:
The king will have 20 children and you will have three. Gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds.
Lady Olenna’s granddaughter, Queen Margaery (Natalie Dormer), has yet to become a “Machiavellian female prince”, to quote a term used by Beaton to describe Yara Greyjoy, Cersei and Daenerys. But Margaery is manipulative in her scheming to become Queen and canny enough to know that she should at least appear to be a just and charitable ruler – unlike Cersei, who rules through fear.
Early on in the books and the TV series we see Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) primarily through Arya Stark’s (Maisie Williams) eyes. To her little sister Sansa is naive, ladylike, and deeply annoying. Slowly, over the course of the first book and season, every certainty in Sansa’s life is stripped away. She begins to learn, haltingly and timidly, to manipulate those around her. Yet she remains, by and large a naive child, even as she learns to survive.
By season five, she can boldly declare to Ramsay Bolton’s sadistic paramour, Myranda (Charlotte Hope) that,
I’m Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home, and you can’t frighten me.
Yet having dismissed Myranda, we see Sansa’s face immediately fall, revealing the fear beneath her strength.
Sansa has gone from the foolish romantic girl, to a woman who is able to face her fears, to endure pain, abuse, and shame.
Brienne of Tarth
One of the best moments from the season six premiere was finally seeing Brienne keep her oath to Lady Catelyn and find a Stark daughter to protect.
As Yvonne Tasker and Lindsay Steenberg point out in Women of Ice and Fire, Brienne has provided a powerful contrast to Ser Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Jaime had the appearance of a noble knight – but none of the honour – until his journey back to King’s Landing with Brienne.
Brienne isn’t just a male knight made a woman for dramatic purposes or a token strong female character. She is an exceptional person who has chosen, despite the difficult circumstances, to become a knight. She is skilled, physically powerful, and continues to believe that there is meaning and worth in doing the right thing. In one sense, like Sansa, Brienne maintains an ideal of how things should be even as she is repeatedly confronted with how the world is.
And most strikingly, Brienne is portrayed without any attempt to sexualise or feminise her.
Arya Stark has been an important touchstone for the reader and viewer. Ned Stark’s tomboy daughter began the story wanting to be an independent fighter. And for a long time Arya didn’t just dress like a boy, but actually pretended to be one: “Arry”.
Yet Arya, as Tasker and Steenberg point out, has left behind the code of honour Brienne lives by, in favour of a bleaker, revenge and death driven quest to become a member of the Faceless Men.
The third martial woman on this list, Yara Greyjoy, has so far been defined in relation to her male relatives. She has been a loyal daughter to Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), self-proclaimed King of the Iron Islands, and a loving and protective – if exasperated sister – to Theon
However, after her uncle Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) killed her father, she and he will now vie for the throne of the Iron Islands. Yara is, as Beaton notes, a true martial prince(ss). She is a bold leader like Daenerys, coupled with the practical martial skills of Brienne.
As I wrote last year, Melisandre (Carce van Houten) fascinates because she uses and inverts the stereotypes we associate with witches and religious leaders. Melisandre’s mission as an instrument of divine will took a serious blow when the burning of Princess Shireen (Kerry Ingram), King Stannis’s daughter, led to Stannis’s own defeat and death.
By the start of season six she was quite literally stripped away from her beliefs - physically represented in the stripping off of her physical illusion, revealing a frailty and vulnerability that goes beyond old age. Although it is possible this was only a brief hiatus in her messianic mission, given her revival of Jon Snow (Kit Harington), it further complicates Melisandre’s inversion of stereotypes and perceptions about women, witches, age, and sexuality.
Melisandre’s role without Stannis as her candidate for Azor Ahai – the mythical hero who is supposed to save the world – is unclear. But perhaps, with the resurrection of Snow (and let us take a moment to enjoy the inversion of that moment), Melisandre and her god may yet play an important role in the outcome of the series.
There are many other women I could have included here – Gilly, Ygritte, Myrcella or Ellaria to name a few. Those listed above include only a small number of the women in Game of Thrones. There have been prostitutes aplenty, servants, freewomen of the north, slaves, and princesses. There have even been perpetrators of sexualised violence, such as Ramsay Bolton’s lover, Myranda, who delighted in helping him torture Theon, and hunt and kill his other lovers.
Many of the women in the series have gone through character arcs that have taken them from pawns in the game, to powerful actors in their own right.
As season six goes on there are three “queens” in King’s Landing – Cersei, Margaery and Olenna – exerting as much or more power and influence than the men left around them.
While Daenerys may be absent from Mereen, and Yara Greyjoy may have to fight the remaining men of her family, both seek power for themselves. And in the north, Sansa, Brienne and Melisandre are all facing new challenges.
The women in Game of Thrones don’t live in a perfect world, and they aren’t all great feminist heroines. But there are more of them than the usual token female characters, they come from widely differing backgrounds, and each of them finds their own ways to survive in a dangerous, sexist world. If that isn’t interesting to female viewers, then I am not sure what is.