“All my life men like you have sneered at me, and all my life I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.”
— Brienne of Tarth
(Content/trigger warning: Discussion of rape and abuse)
Prior to his appearance in season 6, actor Ian McShane described Game of Thrones as “only tits and dragons,” and he’s not necessarily wrong. Ask anyone who doesn’t follow the series and they’ll say much the same thing. Even fans get in on this — sex and death are two of the show’s vital drinking game rules. It’s something of a running joke, and who doesn’t need a few running jokes in a tale so wrought with dread?
Sometimes the series really is as simple as tits in one scene and dragons in the next. At other times, it’s incredibly nuanced. But no matter the context, Game of Thrones is, at its core, real. Its authenticity isn’t rooted in the ornamentation — the giants, resurrections, or the fact that these medieval women appear to have regular bikini waxes. Rather, it’s based on its portrayal of human beings, their relationships with one another, and the social and political structures that help or hinder them, depending on who they are. It is these portrayals of personal and political struggles that give Game of Thrones such a modern feminist tone.
Loathe as I am to pull the definition card, feminism continues to be so taboo and misidentified that some groundwork must be laid. To put it efficiently, feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” There are a myriad of issues involved in the movement — sexuality, race, rape culture, transgender rights, the list goes on — but “equality” is the gist of it. While Game of Thrones is not at all perfect in its examination of female empowerment, it provides plenty of rich material to mine.
The first step to winning any battle is acknowledging that there is a battle to be fought. A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin recognizes this. In a 2013 interview with The Telegraph, he said of his work:
Some women hate the female characters. But importantly they hate them as people, because of things that they’ve done, not because the character is underdeveloped…. Male or female, I believe in painting in shades of grey. All of the characters should be flawed; they should all have good and bad, because that’s what I see. Yes, it’s fantasy, but the characters still need to be real. […]
To me, being a feminist is about treating men and women the same. I regard men and women as all human—yes, there are differences, but many of those differences are created by the culture that we live in, whether it’s the medieval culture of Westeros, or 21st century western culture.
While Martin is not directly affected by the issues that women — from cis to transgender, and all of the non-binary points in between — face, he is mindful of them, and incorporates the consequences of sexism and misogyny into his work.
Consider the kinds of deaths suffered by some of the series’ villains: Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Bolton, Meryn Trant, and Walder Frey. While Martin (and, by extension, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss) paints his characters in shades of grey, these characters are, by and large, unquestionably foul. Much of their hideousness is rooted in their misogyny, which is defined as the “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.”
It is important to note that while these men gain sexual gratification from women, by no means does that suggest a respect or love for women as a whole. They demonstrate misogynistic behavior, and their punishments fit their crimes.
Joffrey took pains to mock the feminine at every turn. If he wasn’t scoffing at his little brother’s tears (“The Old Gods and the New”), he was refusing to wear flowers on his doublet. And all the while, he was tormenting Sansa Stark — by having her beaten in the Red Keep throne room, for example — and engaging in other grotesque behavior, such as forcing Ros to beat Daisy the prostitute for his entertainment in “Garden of Bones.” Joffrey delighted in humiliating his uncle Tyrion as well, but there was an especial sexual sadism involved in his torture of Sansa, Ros and Daisy that relied heavily on stripping them, whether bare or partially so.
In the end, Lady Olenna Tyrell kills Joffrey through the discreet use of poison — a “woman’s weapon,” as Pycelle and Ned Stark call it. That moniker implies that women aren’t as direct or honest as men when committing murder, or treason. But consider the results. Olenna commits high treason and gets away with it (for now). When Ned defied the royal family by openly declaring that Joffrey Baratheon was a bastard, he was beheaded. By not stabbing Joffrey straight in the heart where everyone could see her, Olenna came out ahead.
Meryn Trant and Walder Frey
These characters never meet, but they exhibit similar behaviors. Both men enjoy the sexual abuse of underage girls, and are in turn killed by one: Arya Stark. Both were included on Arya’s personal vengeance list, but in killing them, she still gets justice for all the young women who suffered at their hands.
In the case of Meryn Trant, that includes Arya’s sister Sansa, whom Trant stripped and beat on Joffrey’s orders. In light of what we learn about him in season 5, it’s likely that Trant gained some sexual pleasure from Sansa’s public humiliation. He basically recreates the Sansa scene in the brothel in Braavos, beating a lineup of young girls that, unknown to him, includes Sansa’s sister. Disturbing as the scene is, it underlines a connection between the Stark sisters that speaks volumes for their devotion to one another, differences and past squabbles aside. Had Arya known of Trant’s crimes against her sister, I for one am inclined to bet my entire bank account that she wouldn’t have stopped at slicing his throat, but would have continued until he was nothing but strips of questionable gas station beef jerky.
Walder Frey’s death plays out somewhat similarly. His penchant for prepubescent brides may be the “norm” for medieval times, but it does not make the practice any less despicable. The same goes for the careless way he sacrifices his young bride at the Red Wedding. (“I’ll find another,” he says when Catelyn threatens to kill his wife.) Under the guise of a serving maid, Arya is subjected to his mistreatment before she ends him with one clean strike, getting retribution for her family’s massacre.
Moral of the story? One: don’t underestimate women. Two: big things come in small packages. And three: Arya Stark’s eyebrows aren’t the only thing about her that’s killer, so check yourself before she slits your throat.
On the surface, Ramsay’s cruelty does not discriminate between the sexes. After all, he castrates Theon just to send a message, so it would seem that he’s all about equal opportunity when it comes to torture.
Yet Ramsay reserves particular disdain for women. Over the course of the show, Ramsay sics his dogs on women for multiple reasons. In season 4, he releases them on Tansy for making his lover Myranda jealous. In season 6, he has his hounds kill Walda Bolton (née Frey) for giving birth to Roose Bolton’s trueborn son, who challenged the bastard Ramsay’s claim to the North. This practice is worse in the books, as Vulture details:
We got a sanitized version of Ramsay’s hunting trips on the show, and we were spared some of the reasons why he does this. As Ramsay alluded to during his conversations with Myranda, he doesn’t need much of a reason—being bored is reason enough. Or making his lover jealous. Or getting pregnant. Do any of these things, and he would strip you naked, release you into the forest, and hunt you with his pack of feral dogs. If his victims gave ‘good sport,’ he would rape them and then wait to flay them once dead. If they did not give ‘good sport,’ he would rape them and then flay them alive. Another bonus if you gave good sport—he’ll name a dog after you. ‘The ones who weep and beg and won’t run don’t get to come back as bitches.’
Excuse me, I’ve just returned from vomiting.
Ramsay’s crimes against his abused wife and women in general come back around when Sansa pulls a Mr. Burns and releases his hungry hounds on him in season 6. Once again, the punishment for misogyny fits the crime.
Bonus: Viserys Targaryen
While Viserys Targaryen’s death suits his arc — he wanted a golden crown and got one — it speaks little to his misogynistic tendencies, as he demonstrated with his treatment of his sister Daenerys (“I would let [Khal Drogo’s] whole tribe fuck you – all forty thousand men – and their horses too if that’s what it took [to get an army]”) and in his scene with the slave Doreah in season 1. “What did I buy you for?” he asks Doreah when she expresses some melancholy. “To make me sad?”
Since then, we have seen Daenerys adopt some of her brother’s old mentality, at least where her ambition is concerned. Like Viserys, Daenerys feels entitled to the Iron Throne on account of her position as the “last dragon.” And like her brother, she is mistaken on that front, as we now know that Jon Snow is half-Targaryen himself. However, Daenerys’ quest for the crown thus far has empowered her where it crushed Viserys. We have two seasons left to see where this path takes her, but no matter what happens to her in the end, Daenerys will have at least survived her unworthy brother.
And so the curtain falls on these villains. I’d say I’m sad to see them go, but I’m not a liar and they’re not worth the niceties.
But the male villains aren’t the only characters to have died during this journey. Seemingly natural-born heroes such as Ned and Robb Stark have fallen, as well. Others to go include the steadfast Maester Luwin, the fierce Khal Drogo, fan favorite Oberyn Martell, and the Blackfish (or “Silverfox,” as I prefer to call him) Brynden Tully. We’ve also lost female characters like Catelyn Stark, Shireen Baratheon, Margaery Tyrell, Ygritte, and Osha, but even so, many of the major players who have survived to reach season 6 are women. What’s more, these characters have often succeeded where their male counterparts failed.
Take, for instance, Robb and Sansa Stark’s diverging approaches to arranged marriages. As King in the North, heir to Winterfell, and a man, Robb had more choice in his partners than Sansa. However, the War of the Five Kings imposes obligations on him, as Catelyn explained to him in season 2’s “The Old Gods and the New”:
I wish that you were free to follow your heart, but you have inherited your father’s responsibilities. They come at a cost.
But Robb shirks those responsibilities for the sake of true love. He rescinds his engagement to one of Walder Frey’s daughters and instead weds Talisa Maegyr, which enrages Walder Frey and leads to the Red Wedding. That event allows Roose Bolton to become the new Warden of the North and to legitimize his son Ramsay, which leads to Littlefinger striking a deal with Roose to marry Ramsay to Sansa. Following that chain of events back, Sansa endures the trauma and grief of marrying Ramsay Bolton, the son of a man who betrayed her family and a monster in his own right, as a direct result of Robb’s decision.
When Sansa learns that Littlefinger plans to marry her to Ramsay, he assures her he won’t force her to concede to the match (“High Sparrow”). We suspect this choice is illusory, but Sansa chooses to go through with the marriage all the same. Robb had an alliance with the Freys. He abandoned it and died. Sansa shouldered the aftermath of her brother’s choice in order to avenge him, their mother, and the Stark bannermen slaughtered at the Red Wedding. She lives.
If Game of Thrones played by the traditional rules of epic fantasy, Robb Stark should have made it through alive. The dashing, brave son who commands an army to avenge his father’s death, the prince who follows his heart before his duty…these elements of Robb’s character align with what we’ve come to expect from our medieval fantasy heroes, from King Arthur to Aragorn. But Robb acted foolishly, and more times than not on Game of Thrones, such flights of fancy — however genuine — get you killed. (The good news is that Richard Madden gets to pull some of these antics in Disney’s 2015 revamp of Cinderella, and I’m pleased to report that for once Robb Stark makes it out of a party alive and well.)
Robb, a traditional hero, is survived by his sisters, a brother, and a half-brother/secret cousin, none of whom quite fit his mold. Sansa and Arya are impeded by their womanhood, and Bran by his disability. That’s not to say they’re unworthy of power, but in the eyes of Westeros, they are not the stuff of heroes. Thankfully, Martin tends to turn such tropes on their head, and Benioff and Weiss, who learned how the series will end directly from Martin, should follow suit.
As it stands now, the Starks — separately and as a unit — are a formidable bunch, but the skills they possess have little to do with traditional masculinity. Jon Snow is perhaps the closest we have to a classic hero at this point: handsome, troubled, and good with a sword. But Thrones encourages the audience to dig a little deeper. Like Bran, Jon isn’t practiced at playing the “great game.” Both he and Bran have been concerned mainly with the threat of the White Walkers since the series began — Jon because he joined the Night’s Watch and Bran through his visions from the Three-Eyed Raven. Both operate at a bit of a remove from the wider world, and will have to turn to the Stark women — who have more experience with the goings-on down south — for guidance post-war. Should the remainder of this family live through the winter, and I am of the very strong opinion that they will, Jon and Bran are surely going to wear out their tape of “Wind Beneath My Wings” whenever they look to Sansa and Arya for advice.
Likewise, neither of the Lannister brothers are models of a male power fantasy. Jaime, for his part, continues to toe the line as an antihero; even this late in the game, there’s no definitive way to tell where his allegiance lies. His moral code may say one thing, but Cersei has a powerful hold on him, and may demand another. I can’t imagine this will last beyond season 7, but for now, it makes Jaime more compelling than your average Disney prince.
As for Tyrion, he, like Bran, doesn’t fit the hero bill physically, and must rely on his brain rather than his brawn. (The women of Game of Thrones use this tactic, as well.) Tyrion’s experience with this method is likely what leads to his understanding of and respect for both Sansa and Daenerys. (Recall his line about Sansa when she keeps up appearances after Joffrey has her beaten in season 2: “Lady Stark, you may survive us yet.”) He has seen them for who they are, and not the airs they put on for their enemies, because he knows where they’re coming from.
Varys and Petyr Baelish, both of whom have been around since season 1, also employ this strategy. Rather than fight with sword and spear, they use gossip (“whispers”) and manipulation to achieve their goals. Like poison, these methods could be dismissed as women’s weapons, an attitude rooted in the notion that women talk and men act, that women lie and men own up to what they’ve done. But thinking along those lines can lead to warped conclusions. Maybe Viserys was right to sell his sister to get vengeance against the usurper Robert Baratheon. Maybe Balon Greyjoy was correct, and his daughter should have closed herself off emotionally and given up on Theon for good.
But those trains of thought never reached the station. Daenerys is headed for the throne that her brother once coveted. Yara and her brother command Ironborn soldiers that were once their father’s. The Stark girls live while their father perished. The Lannister patriarch is dead, and Cersei wears the crown as the first standalone Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Ellaria and the Sand Snakes, regardless of how absurd their storyline is, are running the show in Dorne. So perhaps their male counterparts acted with honor and ambition, with blade and brawn, with integrity and self-righteousness, but they’re long dead, while the women are raising armies.
None of this is to say that these women don’t suffer beneath the burdens of Westeros’ patriarchal society. The female characters who have made it this far have had to claw their way over obstacles both personal and political. Take Brienne of Tarth, a woman who — in yet another twist on the traditional fantasy formula — may embody the ideals of the prototypical male fantasy hero better than any other character on the show, whether they be male, female, living, or dead. Brienne demonstrates unimpeachable honor, loyalty, and swordsmanship. Yet because she lives in Westeros’ sexist society, she is mocked for her refusal to conform to gender norms rather than celebrated for her accomplishments. More’s the pity, especially when it comes to her unwitting victims.
Perhaps the most damnable of the obstacles these women face is the threat of sexual violence, represented by the rapes of Daenerys (by Khal Drogo in season 1), Cersei (by Jaime in season 4), and Sansa (by Ramsay in season 5).
As someone who has not read the A Song of Ice and Fire books in their entirety, I cannot fully speak for the show’s adaptation of these events. While Daenerys consents to Drogo’s sexual attentions in the first book, her consent as a child bride is dubious at best, and in any case, it doesn’t carry over to the show. As for Cersei and Jaime in the sept, three of the people most closely involved with the scene — Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and director Alex Graves — are all of the opinion that Cersei’s consent is to some extent implied. However, the implication of consent is not the thing itself, and the end product depicts a struggling Cersei who, during the act, says “stop it,” “no,” and “it’s not right” while Jaime says “I don’t care.” Regardless of intentions, the scene presents an unambiguous sexual assault.
Neither Daenerys’ nor Cersei’s experiences seem to affect them following the rape itself. Sexual assault does not define its victims, but it’s wrong and oftentimes dangerous to suggest that it doesn’t leave a mark. In contrast, Sansa’s abuse at Ramsay’s hands — while not justifiable — plays a significant role in her ultimate victory against him. Sansa’s situation is empowering because of the way she overcomes that torment and defeats her abuser. This triumph is not one that Daenerys and Cersei can claim for themselves, despite their many victories unrelated to their assaults.
I could never unquestioningly accept what these women endure as a narrative inevitability, and will always be uneasy about defending the showrunners’ depiction of rape and abuse. If the topic is going to be broached, it needs follow-through, which only Sansa’s arc receives.
Game of Thrones does, however, shed light on rape culture in the modern world. For example, let’s examine Lyanna Mormont’s introduction in season 6’s “The Broken Man.” After Lyanna receives Jon Snow and Sansa in her audience chamber, Jon assures her that House Stark is not gone. “As far as I understand you’re a Snow,” she replies. “And Lady Sansa is a Bolton. Or is she a Lannister? I’ve heard conflicting reports.” By extension, she implies that Sansa — who was a hostage under the Lannisters and the Boltons, and a pawn of Littlefinger’s in between — is not a true Stark and has no allegiance to her own family.
In the world of Game of Thrones, names carry weight, but if Lyanna is savvy enough to rule her own land, she should recognize the power structures at work throughout the greater Seven Kingdoms. That is to say, women do as they’re bid to survive, most especially in times of war.
Lyanna’s assessment of Sansa’s position is perhaps the most overt example of victim-blaming within the show’s narrative. However, notice that Lyanna’s maester whispers into her ear directly before she says these lines. It may have been he who questioned Sansa’s allegiance, and as a young ruler, Lyanna is bound to put some trust in her older advisor.
Lyanna’s introductory scene brings up some solid talking points regarding modern society’s treatment of women who have been raped and abused. Men continue to call the shots, women turn against one another, and when it’s all said and done, survivors of such crimes are compelled to either keep quiet or speak loudly and clearly on behalf of themselves and all those who have shared their experiences. They are required to offer proof and justification for their situations while the assailants themselves are not held as accountable.
Sansa herself offers up such a justification, and it rings true. “I did what I had to do to survive, my lady, but I am a Stark. I will always be a Stark.” This could be Benioff and Weiss’ way of throwing their support behind Sansa, their way of saying, ‘Sansa did her thing and now she’s Lady of Winterfell instead of dead, so who’s laughing now?’
I haven’t touched on everything the show has to offer us, either in favor of or against my thesis that Game of Thrones is, at the end of the day, feminist media. The show may be “tits and dragons,” but there’s a lot of weighty — and often controversial — material in between, and it’s rendered well enough to demand consideration of how it impacts our lives beyond its entertainment value.
As of now, we stand at the precipice of season 7. Sansa, shrewd and tactical after burning through the last of her naivete, is Lady of Winterfell. Arya is a trained assassin on her way home, where the source of her strength lies. Cersei is Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Both Yara and Daenerys have armies at their ramrod-straight backs. Ellaria has a realm at her command, and Olenna Tyrell has nothing left to lose.
The War of the Five Kings is over, but the queens are reigning strong. So while the Night King may be marching south, hell hath no fury like a woman totally pissed off — and I for one think the women of Westeros have just about lost their patience.