Game of Thrones Has ALWAYS Given Female Characters a Voice — and Then Some
Perhaps because Game of Thrones is set in an intentionally misogynist world, it seems to frequently be the easy target of the kind of Bubblegum Feminism that gives the rest of us severe facepalm. Since social media algorithms know I love both feminism and Game of Thrones, now and then one of these — serving as a topic combination but utterly lacking substance — will float stubbornly into my feed like a turd too buoyant to be flushed. Usually I roll my eyes and move right along. There are bigger and more threatening IRL orange-faced-GOP-candidate fish to fry than someone’s painfully surface interpretation of a deeply feminist fantasy series.
And let me be very clear: feminists tend to love media, and we are STARVING for more representation within books, television, and film. SOMEONE PLEASE TAKE OUR MONEY. However, contrary to male executives’ silly assumptions of what we want, the pesky detail they keep missing is that it has to be good. I wanted Supergirl to be good so much, cringed throughout the first couple episodes, and gave up. Supergirl was clearly concocted in a series of focus groups, watered down in all the wrong places, given an airbrushed veneer of pop-feminism, is essentially a children’s show, and was the kind of disappointment that could only be picked up by the CW for a second season; who knows, maybe they will fix the damn thing. The female reboot of Ghostbusters looks funny and I had zero problems with the angry-male-maligned trailer, but it better be a good movie. Because it being good is the only thing that will save it from the wrath of the angry bro club who lie in wait with ample quantities of confirmation bias.
Game of Thrones is the good stuff; the stuff of which we want more. And if we’re going to get it, it’s very important that people understand what makes it work. Unobservant series watchers and probable non-GRRM-readers being allowed to write about the series does not help. Anna Silman at The Cut has written the quintessential example of this kind of Exasperation Incarnate Bullshit: “Finally, Game of Thrones Is Giving Its Female Characters a Voice” and if you’re a female fan of the series, books, or both like me, it will raise the bile to your throat and gently whisper in darkness, this is why we can’t have nice things.
Yes, HBO’s version has made some mistakes in the feminism department, most of them to minor characters who got sexually assaulted in the first few seasons in that disturbing decorative way that some (largely male) audiences actually enjoy, and that’s obviously problematic. It can even be forgiven on the grounds that they were trying to quickly establish the existence of misogynistic societies and merely forgot we live in one. Other than that, they made two major mistakes:
- Khal Drogo does not rape Daenerys on their wedding night, but actively seeks both her consent, and her mutual arousal. This is a huge difference between the books and the show and I cannot understand why the showrunners made the decision because it served no narrative purpose; they had already established the facts of Dothraki life. This achieved our seeing Khal Drogo as more of a caricature than anyone deserved.
- Cersei and Jaime have only ever had sex (read: consensual) in the books. Jaime never raped Cersei, and certainly never did it over the corpse of their son.
If you’re wondering why I haven’t included Sansa, it’s because not all feminists are in agreement on what those mistakes are. I happen to strongly believe that the rape of Sansa is one of the most responsible depictions of rape on television ever and I regret not taking the time when it happened to fully explain why. In short, I disagree with The Mary Sue on that one 100% whereas I completely agree with Alyssa Rosenberg. TLDR it was done correctly by the evidence that y’all were upset that it happened to her, duh.
Both the books and the series are set in a largely misogynistic culture, and both have a responsibility to portray what that looks like honestly. The books do a better job for obvious reasons. That we have plenty of complex characters — male and female — who actively fight against that in varying degrees and through different forms of power is evidently lost on certain self-described critics who lack the critical thinking necessary to qualify.
The Cut’s thankfully short and confusing bit of thinkbait is populated with painfully oversimplified descriptions of women on Game of Thrones where the author explains that being a female Game of Thrones viewer has been “exhausting”, adding “I’m hard pressed to think of a more masochistic way to spend a Sunday evening.”
First of all, I can think of lots of ways, including exposing my eyeballs to this kind of anti-criticism manufactured to be aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator. Second, this immediately begs the good ‘ol lady doth protest too much question: Why the actual fuck is she watching it — presumably for six seasons now — if this is what she gets out of a show that plenty of thinking feminists understood on a far deeper and infinitely more rewarding level from the first season on?
Apparently, women don’t have voices until they are fighting back in explicitly violent (read: male) ways; Sansa’s understandably vengeful warmongering suddenly qualifies as “having a voice” and her entire, complex journey up to this point does not? NOPE. Sansa’s power up to this point has been in her response to her circumstances. There is extraordinary power in surviving — and not lesser power. Don’t get me wrong, I am super excited about where these lady characters are going. But better critics have discussed that as a continuation of their evolving power, not its beginning.
Season six is clearly building up to a kind of fantastical and drawn out climax where the characters, (male and female alike) are reaching the natural result of surviving trauma (thus far) and getting miraculously through literally hard-won battles. Tremendously satisfying moments like the events in the latest episodes are the result of the audience being hungry for the smallest bit of justice and resolution, whether it be the deeply touching familial reconnection of Sansa and Jon or the awe of Daenerys’ unique ability to bring fiery comeuppance upon yet another group of dick-proud patriarchs.
But here’s the thing; the series wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it is if it was all about the resolution bits and sped past the oh-so-peskily-slow character development that most of us deeply enjoy. Despite the mock-frustration at season-ending cliffhangers and the deaths of beloved characters expressed in kneejerk perfection on Twitter, whether or not all audiences would care to admit it, this kind of enjoyable torment is ultimately why people watch the series. Audiences want to be genuinely invested in a show before it is entitled to fuck with their feels. Go figure.
It’s also why people love the books. GRRM subverts traditional fiction tropes about the hero winning justice at the end of the day, “to be a fascinating deconstruction of the romanticization of medieval patriarchy, a romanticization that is used as a rhetorical weapon to this day in order to prop up modern patriarchy.”
Any presumptive victory won on Sunday night may be smashed to bits next week in some uniquely horrifying fashion. Whether it ultimately has a happy ending for at least a couple beloved characters (or not) remains to be seen since the novels are currently unfinished. But even if the audience gets that as an ultimate reward, one thing is clear: it won’t happen that way for all the characters, because it hasn’t happened for many of them already. One of the themes that make it unique and subversive storytelling is that we do not often get the bitter truth in fiction: that life is often unfair, life is full of deep disappointments, and often the bad guys go unpunished. From Ned’s or Shireen’s perspective, this is already a story without a happy ending.
To Silman however, all this as-yet unfixed resolution is merely the result of the showrunners “actually paying attention to their critics” as if they just woke up and realized that what people wanted, all this time, was to see ladies kick butt sans all that pesky context that gives it meaning. Even worse, she posits the objectively incorrect assumption that all this time, the novels have been the driving force of what she refers to as misogyny. “Perhaps it was being freed from the constraints of George R.R. Martin’s books” that, in her mind, has made the female characters suddenly have a voice. Only someone who hasn’t read the novels would say that. I could assume that she’s a poor reader, but that theory doesn’t hold since the books are written in such a way as to demand full attention, or nothing. There are so many biblical-level side characters and subplots in them that the casual reader gives up after book one or has the choice to dive in; those are your only two choices. Many readers take that exit and I don’t blame them — I have a lot of time on my hands — not everyone does. But don’t then publish something entitled “Finally…” about the show and then throw in a line meant to remind people that the books exist, if you have not read enough of them to know that the novels are indeed the driving force of the feminism, not the other way around.
I am not going to waste time reminding people how many female characters “have a voice” in Game of Thrones because it would be an incredibly lengthy post with numerous and boringly-obvious examples. Arya, Brienne, Yara, and Daenerys stand out in front as the obvious choices, but there are rich non-obvious examples each worthy of their own thesis in the different forms of power expressed by Cersei, Sansa, Ygritte, Margaery, Melisandre, Olenna, Catelyn, Meera, Osha, Shireen, and even Shae and Ellaria. Even by virtue of existing as a fully fleshed out character there is power, especially in a Hollywood that so often assigns cookie cutter tropes to female characters. Game of Thrones passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors — and it’s been doing it since season one. It was the implicit feminism in the show that got me to read the books in the first place, and I was richly rewarded. It is RIDICULOUS to make the claim that Game of Thrones is just now starting to get good for women.