Game Of Thrones, Feminism, And The Portrayal Of Women

Spoilers Ahead

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.