By Athira Unni:
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.
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.