Girls of Thrones: Strong Female Characters in a Sexist Fantasy World
Game of Thrones. Need I say more?
Maybe you’ve read all five books, or maybe you started the first one but got overwhelmed by its size and gave up. Maybe you’re obsessed with the popular HBO series, or maybe you’ve just seen trailers for it between episodes of Girls and Boardwalk Empire. Regardless of your relationship with the franchise, chances are that you’ve at least heard of it. As the HBO show approaches its third season, advertisers even decided not to display the show’s name or images of characters on some of their bilboards, a testament to how much recognition the brand now garners among fans and the public.
So what is it about Game of Thrones that has led to such great commercial success? Like any good fantasy, I believe that it’s not just the magical world of dragons, White Walkers and fire priestesses that has people enthralled – it’s the complex cast of characters and how they navigate through the incredible world that has fans so eagerly awaiting the next book and TV season.
For me, the highlights of the series come from the women of Westeros (and across the Narrow Sea!), the strong and often unorthodox female characters who fight to exist in a deeply sexist feudal society, one similar to that of Medieval Europe.
In this article I will be looking at the women of Game of Thrones as they are seen in both the books and TV show, and I will assume that anyone reading this has seen the first two seasons of the show. I will put a spoiler warning (SW) before any information that gives away plot points from beyond the second season.
The Stark Women
Where to start but with the Stark women, Catelyn, Sansa and Arya? Hailing from House Stark, arguably the most significant and prominent family in the series, these women are very distinct in their personalities and motivations and each are powerful female characters.
Catelyn Stark is the wife of Lord Eddard Stark and serves as Lady of Winterfell, a kingdom in the far north. Her role in the series begins as a loving mother and dutiful wife, but everything changes when her husband and daughters leave for King’s Landing in the south and her son Bran is left crippled and paralyzed after “falling” (being pushed) off a tower. Her subsequent actions set her up as a strong female character and a fighter: we see her fight to the death with an assassin who wants to claim her crippled son’s life, then see her leave Winterfell on a quest to exact justice on those behind the attack and to protect her husband, whom she believes is in danger. In A Clash of Kings (book and season two of the series), she journeys with her son Robb as he commands an army in battle for Winterfell’s independence from King’s Landing. She serves as an advisor to him and ventures on her own mission to negotiate with Lord Renly Baratheon, the leader of an opposing army. These are not the actions you would expect of a Lady and mother in a fantasy series, a genre that often focuses on the feats of male characters or younger females who reject their womanhood to be “one of the boys.” In Catelyn Stark we have a distinctly feminine character who will fight and risk her life for her husband and children. Her motivations come from an intense love and loyalty for her family.
Sansa Stark is the eldest daughter of Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard, a young girl who loves acting like the embodiment of a perfect Lady and dreams of one day living happily ever after with a dashing knight or prince. In the beginning of the series we see her as a somewhat shallow character, obsessing over her embroidery work, fighting with her sister Arya and becoming infatuated with Prince Joffrey, heir to the Iron Throne and future ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. She begins her journey as an 11-year-old traveling with her father and sister to King’s Landing, where Lord Eddard is to become Hand of the King. As the story progresses she begins to mature and becomes disillusioned of the romanticized ideas she once held of the world. Instead, she realizes that the world is a dangerous and tragic place, with her father unjustly beheaded for treason and she herself becoming a captive of the Lannister family. Even after Lord Eddard’s death and scandal she is forced to remain in a betrothal with Prince Joffrey, who she now realizes is cruel and who has her publicly stripped and beaten to pay for her father’s “crimes.” Sansa goes from being a happy young girl, optimistic about her future prospects, to internalizing all her anguish and doing whatever she can to keep her captors happy so she can stay alive. She plays the role of a polite and amenable girl who is in love with her sadistic prince and ashamed of her father’s treason, all the while seeking desperately for a way to escape. Sansa shows incredible strength in character as she rolls with each punch life brings her, making her my personal favorite in the series.
Arya Stark is Sansa’s younger sister and seemingly her polar opposite. A small but fiery 9-year-old girl, Arya rejects everything that her sister loves: embroidery, dancing, sweet songs and notions of romance. Instead, she fights with wooden swords with her younger brother Bran and later learns to fight with a real sword, Needle, given to her by her half-brother Jon Snow. Realizing that he will never be able to “tame” her into being a polite and proper Lady, Lord Eddard allows her to train in King’s Landing with a master swordsman from across the Narrow Sea. Arya is immediately set up as a character who rejects the social constructs of femininity and gender roles and is very much her own person, despite her young age. She later discards her social privilege as a member of the nobility, escaping King’s Landing disguised as a pesant boy. She seems instantly comfortable in her new identity, fighting and sometimes killing those who try to get in her way. She appears to be motivated by a sense of adventure, a longing for revenge against those who have wronged her family, and a desire to find a place where she belongs.
Cersei was born a twin alongside her brother, Jaime Lannister, and later married King Robert Baratheon after Jaime killed the previous king and Robert claimed the Iron Throne. A daughter of the rich and powerful Lannister House, Cersei enjoyed many privileges in life. However, she always felt that she had been denied one thing, and that was the power and control over her life that came with being a man. She wanted to rule the Seven Kingdoms, not be ruled by a husband who she had been forced to marry. In an effort to achieve this, Cersei devised a plan to have her husband killed and install her 13-year-old son Prince Joffrey on the throne, Robert’s illegitimate son and secret product of Cersei’s longtime love affair with her twin. She would then seize power by claiming the position of Joffrey’s regent, acting as King until he was deemed fit to rule on his own. Although Cersei is an incredibly flawed and often amoral character, she is a compelling example of a woman who fights tooth and nail to gain power in a world run by men. (SW) She is also one of the women on this list who “breaks the rules” so to speak when it comes to expressing her sexuality, shamelessly enjoying sex and seducing men into her bed. She owns her sexuality, sometimes even using it to help her gain or maintain her power. However, Cersei ends up paying for this at the end of A Dance With Dragons when she is punished by society, forced to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing in a “walk of shame.” By the end of the book she is seen to have been stripped not only of her clothes but of her fire and ambition. She is motivated throughout the series by her desire for power and a love for her three children, all fathered by Jaime.
Now we couldn’t have a post about the ladies of Westeros without mentioning this girl. Dany is one of the most famous faces in the series, and an example of how a character and a person can be strong without being physically capable and a testament to the power that everyone has within them. She begins as a meek, shy, abused young woman under the hard thumb of her scheming brother, starting her journey as a pawn in his game and essentially sold into sex slavery in exchange for an army.
However, being the trophy wife of a barbaric clan leader is not enough to kick her to the curb — deciding she has had enough of being a bargaining chip, Daenerys takes a stand and works to build a relationship and an understanding between her new husband and new culture and herself, and this gives her a certain empowerment… so much so that she begins to stand up to her brother and take care of herself, much to his surprise. (He’s even more surprised to find that the Dothraki are quite sick of him and have a new favourite ruler in his tiny sister, as they promptly proceed to dump molten gold over his head!)
Daenerys’ story is one of overcoming the terrible things society and life throw at you and soldiering onwards. In the second book/season we see her move forward after the death of the man she had come to love and the miscarriage of their child, adopting three dragons instead and setting out on a conquest to take back her throne in the Seven Kingdoms. She is not physically strong, but she learns to radiate with power, (SW) allowing her to command her knights and bloodriders and eventually an army that will sweep through and take over some of the most awful cities in Essos.
Daenerys has a taste for justice, but she is not played as the pure white saviour, with realistic mess left in the wake of her conquests and serious conflicts stirred up by her future and her past. She may have to rely on her baby dragons to burn down the world around her, but simply because the average war sword is as big as she is, it does not discredit all the trauma that she has not only survived but walked out of with her head high. She’s a tough cookie, and she stays tough without losing her compassion or her womanhood.
Brienne of Tarth
Sansa dreams of a fairy tale world populated by gallant knights… but in the real world, one of the few knights we see who shows the slightest bit of chivalry is singled out as a complete oddball. Brienne of Tarth is an “exceptionally ugly” and tough woman who swears herself first to Renly Baratheon, and then to Catelyn Stark’s service before finding herself sparring both with words and swords with the conniving letch that is Ser Jaime Lannister, twin and lover of Queen Cersei.
Interestingly, Brienne isn’t accepted into the soldier’s world or praised for acting masculine. There’s no ‘one of the boys’ attitude for her; the men laugh at her and spurn her, and the women aren’t quite sure what to think, abhorring her for throwing away her femininity and not adhering to traditional gender roles. She’s caught between two worlds and so she finds herself virtually genderless, building herself not on the body she is in but the values that she strives for and the personality she possesses.
Brienne is a deep and complex character, implied to be in love with Renly, not that she knew quite what to do about it, and with a strong respect for Catelyn for her courage and strength as a mother. The remarkable thing is that, despite all the flack and conflict she gets for it, Brienne chose to be a knight, chose to defy the the norms, and chose who to ally herself with. She was not pushed into it, nor used, nor played with. Everything she does is her own choice, and it’s bizarrely rare to see a female character have such agency.
George R. R. Martin has been praised for creating and writing strong, believable female characters — when asked how he did it he simply replied, “Well, mostly I try to write them as people.”
The fantasy genre has had its own parade of problems with sexism and the like (also the treatment of race and sexuality of course, but that is another issue for another article) over the many years of its popular reign, which is another thing that makes the A Song of Ice and Fire saga and its TV adaptation Game of Thrones stand out in a crowd. One of the biggest hooks to the series is its characters, and among them are a battalion of flawed, multi-layered and interesting women.
The series, of course, comes with its own set of issues regarding the subjects that shouldn’t be ignored, like HBO’s tendency for filling every episode with as many bared breasts as possible and reducing those in the sex trade to playthings and plot devices to be picked on by the other characters. However, it is important to note where A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones went right with its ladies.
What do you think of Game of Thrones and its female characters? Who are your favorites, least favorites, and why? Join the discussion by sharing in the comments below!
Written by Rhiannon Payne and Alex Henderson