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Game Of Thrones, Feminism, And The Portrayal Of Women

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The first time I heard of a series called Game of Thrones was from a guy who couldn’t stop obsessing about how much he enjoyed this show because to him it was a source of some well produced soft porn, infused with the ever amazing genre of fantasy. This was a rather sad introduction, reductionist to say the least, and as a result, for a very long time, I didn’t feel inclined to sit and waste hours watching a show that inspired such audiences.

That changed after I noticed all the appreciation and the fan fiction surrounding the series. I finally decided to watch the show, and though it seemed a little difficult initially, after the first season, I was hooked. The brilliant world of George RR Martin, the thrilling plot, the attention to detail, all of it brought alive the world of Westeros in a fashion only Game of Thrones could. But there was still one issue, did the brilliant author of Game of Thrones, Martin, as well as the creators of the show, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff treat the female characters fairly?

This question has been raised time and again by many fans of the show, and many who are not. The show has been criticized for being degrading towards women, especially for its portrayal of scenes of sexual assault, but one scene in particular moved masses in a way very few others had. The rape of Sansa Stark was met with strong responses coming from all directions. Eminent people like Missouri Sen, Claire McCaskill swore off the show post that episode in a tweet. I found myself torn after watching it too. Without a doubt, it was the most horrific thing to put oneself through. But was it merely for the shock value and cheap attention that the show makers decided to do this?

Sansa Stark

I read a very interesting piece in Vanity Fair, which claims this scene was absolutely unnecessary and asks if “[rape] is really the only horror Game of Thrones can imagine visiting on its female characters.” Contextually speaking, this character’s death wouldn’t have been beneficial for the perpetrator, so he did the next worst thing.

Historically speaking, in wars and situations of crises, women are victims of all kinds of horrors, rape being the greatest threat and possibility. The books and the show have consistently tried to portray politics, battles, and the inner workings of a fantasy world, with such strong hold on reality that we find ourselves talking about dragons like they actually exist. Is it really shocking then, that in this reality, women find themselves in vulnerable positions?

Although, the show does not limit itself to the horrors and the tragedy of being a woman in this world. What is, in fact, brilliant to watch, especially as a girl, are women struggling for power and establishing themselves despite it all. There is no lack of female characters that leave you angry, sad, spellbound or proud. And what makes it exciting, is their refusal to feed into stereotypes.

We see matriarchs like Olenna Tyrell who play the game and get what they want, most of the time at least. Margaery Tyrell is the perfect example of how women have negotiated with and within powerful structures and gained great influence while being seen as docile and feminine. Cersei Lannister, who is a mother first, but second to none in her ruthless desire to uphold her position as the queen, is a complex character that commands attention. Sansa Stark, the eldest living legitimate child of Ned and Catelyn Stark has grown from a naïve child hoping to become queen someday, to a cold and manipulative strategist. Arya Stark, Sansa’s younger sister, is perhaps the most badass character on the show.

Olenna Tyrell

One of the fan favourites and arguably the strongest female presence on the show has to be Daenerys Targaryen, also known as the mother of Dragons, who strives to reclaim the throne of her father with nothing and no one to support her when she begins. Catelyn Stark, in her short time on the show, commanded respect and admiration. Yara Greyjoy with her strong will and command over her fleet breaks all notions of being born a woman into a ruling house. Missandei, a freed slave and an incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable woman who is the advisor and friend of Daenerys, is an interesting character. Brienne of Tarth and Lyanna Mormont are just as great examples of the kind of badass characters Game of Thrones has gifted us, that smash stereotypes and patriarchy.

But strong female characters are not all that Game of Thrones provides us. This show has explored what it means to be homosexual or not be from a noble house, and want to be powerful. Characters like Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell exemplify the struggle it is to be gay in a world that accepts nothing less than a man who is manly enough and only beds a woman. Lord Varys is another character who has fans in a flurry with all the influence he has and all that he can cause to happen. Littlefinger, a boy who comes from a little family, is another fan favourite, both loved and despised for his deceitful ways and his hunger for power. And then there are the supremely celebrated (and hated) female characters of the show, who have transformed the world of fantasy which used to consist of little to no heroes who weren’t straight men.

(Left) Daenerys Targaryen (Right) Missandei

In terms of the portrayal of races in the books (and consequently the show), the work of George RR Martin has been criticized for being “too white” and among other things, for superpositioning a white woman who ‘saves’ slaves of colour. That criticism must be met with nuance, and though history does coincide with the patterns in the show, what could’ve been different, and perhaps more inclusive, is the plot and the storyline, giving more important roles to men and women from diverse races. That is one discussion that must go on. But going by what we have had in the past, which is a history of white-washed shows, as a woman, and as an intersectional feminist, I do not think Game of Thrones is the worst thing to have happened to this genre.

It has taken the women in Game of Thrones a while to find their own, and it hasn’t been fun to watch sometimes, but a show that kills its seeming protagonist in the first season itself can’t be looked up to for fun. If feminism should mean that we pretend, just because we are in a fantasy world, that the most depraved sociopathic, sadistic soul wouldn’t sexually assault a vulnerable girl because he cannot kill her would be far from reality.

The pretense that women don’t constantly find themselves used and abused where power is in the hands of men; that orthodox religion upheld by men isn’t cruel to women and other genders. If we were to pretend that in a world where men held power, they also wouldn’t uphold male egos above the lives and respect of others, especially other genders; would be so far from reality, that it would make for a fantasy world in itself. A fantasy we would love to imagine, but seems stranger than this fiction.

There is no undoing the fact that this is a book series written by a white man, and a TV series created by more white men. But to a great extent, the show has surpassed the plots and typecasts of the genre, and one can only hope that a child watching Arya Stark growing up wanting to learn sword-fighting, and Missandei advising Daenerys through her conquests, will imagine an even better world, with even stronger women, and racial inclusiveness. For now, I will go back to waiting for Game of Thrones to return to television, while shamelessly rooting for Sansa or Dany to sit on that Iron Throne.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)’.

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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.”

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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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