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Female Characters From ‘Game Of Thrones’ Who Prove It’s Not As Sexist As You Think

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By Athira Unni:

female characters of Game Of Thrones
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When I told a male friend how much I loved ‘Game of Thrones’, his response was: “but I thought you were a feminist!” He thought being a feminist, I would despise a show partly known for its generous showcasing of female nudity and partly for its gory violence and surprise kills. How could a feminist ever support a show that “objectifies” women in this way, he must have wondered. For all those who ponder about feminism and Game of Thrones, allow me to shed light on certain things.

Setting Game of Thrones in the medieval world and adopting a realist-fantasy genre, George R.R. Martin has pushed the boundaries of popular fiction. He took up taboo subjects such as incest, parricide, infanticide, sadistic kinks, slavery, homosexuality and more, routinely prodding readers and viewers to question and redefine morality. We can draw parallels between GOT plots and the real world, just as much as we can trace similarities between history and the present. In a way, the series addresses politics, mechanics of religion and inter-racial issues in a bigger scale than any other popular fantasy phenomenon. But what about the women in GOT? No doubt the HBO show has a disparity in male and female nudity. This is objectionable. It is also a product of the desires of the audience to watch a show dominated by breasts, a natural case of consumer demand. But why do we still talk about female nudity in GOT, when there’s much more to talk about when looked through the feminist lens?

The fact is, Game of Thrones has not been appreciated enough for its strong female characters. Viewers of the show have repeatedly focused on counting the nude scenes of female characters, weighing the politics of GOT using that single criterion. Perhaps this was because so much exposure in a primetime fantasy series was a relatively new thing. However, the numerous female characters themselves and what they do for the story has been ignored. The series abounds with representative women. There are wives, sisters, mothers, daughters, whores, mistresses, lovers, queens, warriors and conqueress. They aren’t just storyboard-markers or plot devices. These female characters determine what happens at Westeros and elsewhere in the murky world of Martin, as much as their male counterparts.

GOT has many women of varying ages, social situations, skills and desires. Cersei, the vengeful incestuous Queen-mother, is one of the major antagonists in the series, exemplifying motherly love in an almost animalistic way. One of the least-loved characters, Cersei has her moments of redemption in her devoted love for her twin brother Jaime, with whom she shares an incestuous relationship. In one of the most shocking scenes in the whole series, Cersei is raped by Jaime next to the corpse of their dead son. Her character is far from single-hued and is one of the fiercest in GOT. Cersei has the power to decide what goes on in Westeros much more than many male characters.

Daenerys Targaryen
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In contrast to Cersei, Daenerys Targaryen represents a more traditional morality, opposing slavery even while perceived as the foreign conqueress. She is known as the ‘Unburnt’, for her ability to defy fire. The Mother of Dragons, initially exploited by her ambitious but tactless brother, had literally risen out of the ashes after the death of her beloved husband (Khal Drogo) and her newborn. Who else is the series can claim to have eaten a bloody horse heart and killed a group of rape-threatening Khals with the ease that she has? Daenerys could sit on the Iron Throne, and most fans wouldn’t be surprised (but then it’s GOT. Fans are supposed to be surprised, right?).

Then there was the ambitious young queen Margaery Tyrell, former widow of Renley Baratheon and present queen of Tommen Baratheon. She knew how to play the Game and the people of her kingdom, appearing to be the ideal mix of elegance, beauty and cunning, even rising as a threat to Cersei. Similar, yet in stark contrast, is the crass, smirking sailor-princess Yara Greyjoy, fierce and protective of her little brother and capable of leading ships of foul-mouthed Iron Born to war. She is also shown to be a lesbian. If Margaery was gentle and elegant, Yara is the beacon of tough-love with a rough exterior.

Arya, the youngest Stark girl, is one of the bravest characters in the whole series. Separated from family members at a very young age, Arya actually kept a list of people she wanted to kill. ‘Un-ladylike’ from a young age, Arya was never meant to wear laces and gowns. She still navigates through the insides of an assassin cult, in a land far away from all her living relatives.

Her sister Sansa Stark also has been toughened by circumstances, emerging from continued victimisation, as someone who is now calling the shots. After being subjected to Joffrey’s sadism and Ramsay’s rape, Sansa is the unrivalled survivor of the series. In her, the initial spoiled and prissy girl, who dreamed about her handsome prince on a white horse, has given way to a weary and strong woman. Cersei and Sansa Stark are both rape survivors emerging from pain, with an iron will to keep going. The differences in their moral compasses do not determine what happens to them; they both suffer and stand tall after the suffering. In Game Of Thrones, there are good women and bad. They betray and are betrayed; they kill and die.

On top of these highborn ladies, we also have characters like Brienne of Tarth, the unparalleled warrior who was born to wield the sword. Brienne is a full-fledged fighter, loyal to those she pledges fealty and vengeful against those who defy her lords. Her commitment to protecting the Stark women has now led her to Sansa, forming a powerful lady-knight bond, a unique on-screen imagery of a woman protecting a woman.

Women in GOT do not shy away from being seductive. One of Cersei’s most famous quotes iterates that the biggest weapon a woman could use lies between her legs. Far from the South, where Cersei utters these words, Osho the wildling woman from Beyond the Wall, shows this in action, later when she tries to seduce Ramsay Bolton to kill him. Melisandre, the red priestess, is also seductive to achieve her dangerous ends. While on one side we see women who fight with swords and brains, on the other side we see women wielding their sexuality.

The sheer diversity of women in the series is a testament to the author’s conviction to portray the world a lot like ours — filled with men and women in pain, inflicting pain on others. This is something new. Fantasy fiction over the years has routinely sidestepped over female characters. Not to take any names, but dwarfs, elves and walking trees had got more attention than women in a widely popular fantasy series, and a so-called classic of all time! GOT has rectified this by ensuring the presence of a number of well-rounded female characters, who push the story forward. It’s more than a start.

Yet, Martin’s Westeros does not claim to be feminist. Westeros itself is patriarchal, perhaps much more than real life. Hence, we see no dearth of abused prostitutes, heinous rapes and crossbow bearing princes. There are whole episodes dedicated to the public shaming of women, in the form of a ritual (the Walk of Atonement). Does this make GOT misogynist? No. It does not. This is where my friend and a number of others view the series in an anti-feminist light. So let me make this simpler.

Holistically portraying patriarchy in a fictional world, without colouring all men as sexists or all women as pitiful victims, is feminist. GOT deals with patriarchy by exploring male and female characters who suffer under patriarchal exploitation. Women suffer in Westeros, but not just because of men. Women oppress women too. Cersei has no kindness for the women who marry her cruel son Joffrey. Melisandre, the immensely powerful red priestess, burns the little girl Shireen on the stake. Men revel in Westeros, but not just at the expense of women. Eunuchs and the Unsullied also face humiliation, for not having penises. Theon Greyjoy, who is mutilated by the torturer Ramsay Bolton, loses his sense of self when he loses his genitals. Even Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf, is looked down upon by many in Westeros (most notably his father) for failing to live up to patriarchal standards. Yet, these misfits and weaklings, detested by traditional patriarchy, are strong, significant characters. This, in itself, is a huge statement against patriarchy.

Looking closely, much of GOT, due to its medieval setting inevitably involves warrior-women and vengeful queens. But more than that, it does not shy away from showcasing the ugliness of patriarchy affecting both men and women. That, I think, is the real reason why GOT is feminist.

Next time someone asks you why you’re simultaneously a feminist and a fan of Game of Thrones, you know what to say. Representative and realist art, medieval or modern, should not be coloured by surface assumptions arising from nudity. That would be a shame to literature in general.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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