A lot of my feminist friends have reservations about watching Game of Thrones, because they’ve heard it’s misogynist. This makes me sad, because I think there’s a lot in this show for feminists to love. I definitely don’t think this show is for everyone. It has some disturbing representations of violence, including sexual violence, which can be triggering. For some people, it’s not just their cup of tea. But I’d like to try to convince some women that they might want to consider watching this show, and tell them what they might get out of it.
(I’m restricting myself to discussion of the show rather than the book series, even though I enjoy both, simply because most people don’t have the time or energy to read thousands upon thousands of pages of epic fantasy, and that’s OK.)
First, I’d like to take a moment to point out what is most problematic about the show, because all shows have troubling aspects, and just because I love a show doesn’t mean I can’t call it out on its bullshit. The show is famously drenched in the male gaze; that is, the creators assume the viewer is a man who wants to see naked women represented as sexual objects. Most unsettlingly, the male gaze sometimes applies during scenes depicting sexual violence. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with depicting sexual violence on screen, but the camera definitely should not be leering at women who are sexually assaulted.
Any spoilers below the cut will be clearly marked, so read on without fear.
Another major problem with the show is race. All of the major characters in the show are white. The minor characters of color who exist in the show are Otherized: basically, presented as exotic, evil, or helpless. (The only exceptions I can think of are Missandei, Talisa, and Grey Worm.) There is a gross “white savior” aspect to one of the major subplots which was especially apparent in last week’s season finale.
If you’d rather not watch a show that depicts sexual violence or people of color in this way, I totally understand. We all draw a different line when it comes to the media we’re willing to engage with. Even with all of these problems, though, I think the positive outweighs the negative.
If I were to identify the central theme of Game of Thrones, it would be power. Some characters have a lot of it; some don’t. The show asks questions about what people are willing to do to acquire power, what they do with it once they get it, and how they handle themselves if they lose it. Game of Thrones is set in a highly patriarchal fantasy world, which means that society works to rob women of power. But instead of accepting this as a given, the show asks how women face up to their powerlessness in this world, and how they might empower themselves despite the strictures of the societies they live in. This doesn’t always result in “strong ass-kicking badass women” (though sometimes it does) – more importantly, it results in some of the most three-dimensional and well-developed female characters in the whole fantasy genre.
That, for me, is the bottom line of how worthwhile a book or TV show is from my feminist perspective: how many multifaceted, interesting, real female characters are there? I’ve read books by women, with no objectionable problematic elements, in which the answer to that question was zero.
SPOILERS FOR ALL THREE SEASONS OF THE SHOW BEYOND THIS POINT.
Some women in the show acquire power by going completely against what their societies tell them they can do. The best examples of this type are Brienne Tarth and Daenerys Targaryen. Brienne fights for what is right and holds herself to the honor code of a knight, even though women in her society are not allowed to be knights or even wield swords at all. When people take away her agency, she takes it back at swordpoint. Her power, however, comes at the cost of social disapproval. People see her as a freak, less than human, because she defies her gender role. Daenerys is a warrior queen who fights to take back her rightful kingdom, even though all the societies she encounters are led by men. Male leaders constantly sexualize, infantilize, and disrespect her, until they realize that she is much more powerful than they assume.
Other women in the show gain and wield power through means that are deemed socially acceptable. Cersei Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, and Catelyn Stark are all examples. Catelyn uses her status as the lady of a powerful and well-respected noble house to get what she wants. When she believes that Tyrion Lannister tried to murder her son, she gains control of him by telling the commoners around him to capture him in the name of House Stark. She also manages to broker a peace between her son Robb and King Renly using her status as Lady Stark (though the deal is subsequently shattered by the assassination of Renly.) Margaery Tyrell and Cersei Lannister use flattery, sexuality, and manipulation to get what they want. They bring down their enemies in games of court intrigue, while to all outward appearances being proper ladies. These women have the respect and approval of society, which both bolsters and limits their power.
Other women are stripped of their power. Yet these women’s struggle to retain a sense of self despite their powerlessness makes for amazing drama and amazing characters. Here we have a tale of two sisters: Sansa and Arya Stark. Both of them lose all their power when they are separated from their family. They deal with their predicaments in nearly opposite ways. Arya takes refuge in anonymity, concealing her identity from as many people as she can, and uses it as camouflage against those who might try to use her name as a tool. Sansa takes refuge in her identity as a Stark, holding onto her dignity and the memory of her father despite the attempts of all the backstabbers at court to grind her into the dirt.
Another aspect of the show I find fascinating is the role of misogyny itself. This is a highly patriarchal world, so all men here are sexist to some degree or another. However, the misogyny of men is correlated with how evil they are. The most evil, hated characters in the series (e.g., Joffrey Lannister, Walder Frey) are disgustingly misogynist, while the good, sympathetic men have much more respect for women (e.g., Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow.) Not only that, but the men’s sexist attitudes are integral to their character arcs. Jaime Lannister’s redemption from a heartless, unlovable character to a kinder, more understandable one is inextricable from his total reversal of opinion on Brienne, from sexist contempt to self-sacrificing devotion. As he sheds his misogynistic assumptions about her, he becomes a better person.
In this show, men who underestimate women suffer for it. Joffrey’s misogyny makes him easy prey for Margaery’s manipulations. Over and over, men who think that Daenerys is a naïve little sex doll die in exceedingly horrible ways. Theon Greyjoy gets tricked and backstabbed by Osha and his sister Yara because he thinks of women as nothing but sex toys for his amusement. Anyone who thinks Arya is a harmless little girl is in for an unexpected and brutal death.
Whenever people tell me, “Oh, I never see female characters who are XYZ,” I can almost always pull out an example of the type of female character they seek from Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series on which it’s based. The breadth and depth of female characters rarely disappoints.
If you’ve been holding back on watching this show because you’re worried it’s full of the same old cardboard women you always see on TV, I ask you to reconsider. If you’ve been watching the show and you wish the women were represented better, I encourage you to participate in the fandom, which engages critically with the problematic aspects of the show. In particular, I’d recommend the Fat Pink Cast, a Game of Thrones podcast by three women of color, and the following fanfiction:
We are Strangers and Rebels (Margaery, Renly)
The Dregs of Power (Sansa, Shae)
the little rose (Margaery)