These strong characters might survive us yet…
Though Game of Thrones has been labeled as a show composed solely of “tits and dragons,” characters with one or the other (or both) have made up a cast of unique Westerosi, capable of starting conversations in our world of what it means to be a feminist figure. One of the main criticisms of a feminist reading of the show is that Westeros’ instability, conflict, and political maneuvering have largely involved sexual violence towards women. This is an important argument as the normalization of sexual violence, particularly when presented in a titillating, gratuitous, spectacle-like manner, has long been a problem in modern media.
In response, author George R.R. Martin has supported a feminist interpretation of the show on the basis of the realism of the female characters and the reality of sexual violence in the context of war, arguing, “women hate the female characters as people because of what they’ve done, not because the character is underdeveloped.” To his point, there is a plethora of admirable trope-defying characters on the show—from Cersei the Sept-destroyer and first Queen of the Seven Kingdoms to Daenerys, liberator of slaves and head of the Dothraki army, to Yara Greyjoy, leader of the Ironborn fleet.
In preparation for the April 14th premiere, here are a few highlights of this diverse cast of strong characters.
“When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”
As the oldest (full-blooded) Stark at the end of Season 7, Sansa is one of the most powerful people in the North. What solidifies her status as a feminist figure is that her rise to power is unconventional for the fantasy genre. At the start of the series, the Stark men dominated Northern politics, particularly Ned and Robb. However, Robb’s politically unsound decision to not get an arranged marriage proves to be his undoing. Sansa is indirectly left to deal with the damage, and is harmed significantly, becoming an orphan after the Red Wedding and left vulnerable and unprotected from court machinations and Joffrey’s wrath at King’s Landing. However, she learns, adapts, and overcomes these obstacles to make her way back to Winterfell.
What especially attests to the feminist nature of Thrones characters is that Sansa, as well as the others on this list, are often placed in distressing situations, particularly due to the constant threat of sexual violence, but are never typified into a “damsel in distress” role. Rather, these Westerosi women are forced to deal with the conflict and danger themselves, and often do so successfully. For example, Sansa is raped in Season 5 by Ramsay Bolton, yet ultimately outsmarts him militarily and strategically in the Battle of the Bastards when she arrives with the Knights of the Vale and turns the tide of the skirmish back in her favor. While the portrayal of the rape was arguably gratuitous, Sansa’s strength as a survivor in the following seasons is a testament to her character complexity and development, most notably when she leaves Bolton to his demise at the teeth of his own hounds. It is important to note that most traditionally powerful clans in Westeros are headed by an old, wise patriarch, backed by many strapping, knightly sons, and a passive wife who is supportive, yet silent. But by the end of Season 7, the Starks are once more powerful, and not in a traditional way—the House is led by two strong, though young, women, an illegitimate cousin, and a wheelchair-using heir.
“Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe.”
The resilience and determination Arya shows when multiple obstacles are put in her path, and her resulting successes and failures, continually reject any trope of female helplessness and reaffirm women’s agency in the show.
The younger Stark sister was not spared any of the horrible circumstances that can befall a pre-teen girl in Westeros. After her father is beheaded by Joffrey, 11 year-old Arya is forced to live as fugitive, pretending to be a boy to escape predators in King’s Landing. Her fledgling bravery shines through when at Harrenhal she is forced to serve the Lannisters, the same people who killed her father, with the constant threat of being recognized as a Stark. However, the intensity of her strength and courage is most strongly displayed in her time in Braavos with the Faceless Men. Here, while blind, Arya is constantly abused by a rival apprentice who is eventually sent to murder her for trying to escape back to Westeros. Ultimately, Arya masters fighting at a disadvantage and overcomes her rival, and makes her way back home. The resilience and determination Arya shows when multiple obstacles are put in her path, and her resulting successes and failures, continually reject any trope of female helplessness and reaffirm women’s agency in the show.
As a feminist figure, Arya is also a well-developed character with complex motivations, and as the show has progressed her characterization contains a distinct element of moral ambiguity. Strength and bravery, values that are valorized, are not inherently moral, and Arya’s lack of questioning the ethics of her actions raises questions about moral ambiguity and feminism. For example, Arya plays a large role in one of the recurring themes of the show—the behavior of misogynists and their eventual punishment. As her kills include murderers and pedophiles of the likes of Meryn Trant and Walder Frey, Arya’s narrative arc has mapped her rise from a defenseless orphan to a vengeful Robin Hood of sorts for the vulnerable of Westeros. However, her murder of the entire Frey house in revenge for her relatives’ deaths is chilling and showcases a darker side to her quest for revenge, as an emotionless Arya literally commits mass murder. Far from a one-dimensional underdog-turned-hero, Arya encompasses the complexity of fighting against injustice in a brutal world.
Brienne of Tarth
“All my life, men like you have sneered at me. And all my life, I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.”
In a twist on typical fantasy tropes, Brienne is the single character in Game of Thrones that best embodies ideals of a male fantasy hero. She beats the Hound in single combat, takes on Podrick as the squire to her knight, and is unswervingly loyal, first to Renly Baratheon then to the Stark women. By creating a character that bends gender norms (in both our world and Westeros), George R. R. Martin and the show’s writers have weaponized the sexism that constantly threatens women with sexual violence and perpetuates conflict over “female honor” in the show. Many of the men who encounter Brienne write her off as a woman playing at being a knight and ignorantly wielding a sword. In return, Brienne sticks her enemies with the pointy end of their male chauvinism, a surprising and often bloody finish to their underestimation of her abilities based on her looks, all while letting her own code of honor and loyalty guide her. Game of Thrones revolves around upset fantasy tropes; therefore, placing the mantle of “noble hero” on the strong shoulders of an androgynous woman is key for rewriting a feminist “knight.”
“I may be small, I may be a girl, but I won’t be knitting by the fire while men fight for me.”
Winter is coming, and one of the main themes of Season 8 will be unifying different factions of Westeros to fight against the undead. No one understands the importance of this more than Lyanna Mormont, 10 year-old leader of Bear Island. When Jon Snow proposes weapons training for both boys and girls, Lyanna throws all her support toward this combined effort for a necessary egalitarianism. Though her age could easily make her determination seem foolish and idealistic, Lyanna presents a pragmatism born of the threats she faces in a world as unforgiving as Westeros due to her gender and age, that eventually rallies the ornery, old patriarchs of the Northern houses to her cause. While her childhood is arguably stolen by the weight of her responsibility of House Mormont, Lyanna is a role model for young feminists looking to break free from tribalism and tradition and move forward into creating a better world for everyone.
The power of Game of Thrones’ women still largely emphasizes traditionally masculine qualities including a penchant (or at least tolerance) for violence and brutality. Traditionally feminine women have, for the most part, been written out of the narrative, blown up by their rivals or slaughtered at a wedding. Is the empowerment of individual women by violence a feminist message? What does this mean for the brutal world they will inherit or rule? The overall message in Games of Thrones seems to be that there is fatal folly in underestimating women and expecting them to act differently from the violent and brutal men around them. Will the Night King learn the same lesson in the finale?