As Daenerys Targaryen teaches us, it’s much easier to re-invent the wheel than to break one—and if anything ever qualified as a wheel, it would be the unending internet discourse on the massively popular TV show Game of Thrones. In that wheel, few spokes gleam brighter than the spoke of gender relations among the men and women of Westeros. Much has been written on the representation of women on Game of Thrones, especially on women in positions of power. While many of these writers make intriguing and provocative points, only a couple have really honed in on GoT’s approach to gender issues in the context of the show’s larger goal of upending stereotypes—both in-show universe and out of it—to reveal the unreliability of expectations when it comes to the messy work of living history.
That sounded like a bunch of mumbo jumbo, I know, but bear with me! Lord of Light knows this show has been analyzed and over-analyzed to death and then back to life again, and of all the gender-related aspects of the show that have received analysis, probably none have been as controversial as its multiple instances of female characters experiencing sexual assault. Practically every female character on the show has either been rape or threatened with rape on GoT, often in circumstances that never even appeared in the source novels. While I could relate to the discomfort and hurt the scenes caused, I did not stop watching the show, as Senator Claire McCaskill did. Game of Thrones is not real, its true. It doesn’t have to show rape and abuse, just like it doesn’t have to show castration or burning children alive. But it did, and it does, because Game of Thrones is a show about the darkness in our souls that too often becomes our default mode of living, from petty backstabbing to, uh, outright backstabbing.
That last point is crucial, especially in regard to the tired old debate about whether or not female leaders like Cersei and Daenerys are “bitchy” for insisting Jon Snow bend the knee or lighting a sept full of people on fire.
This, I would argue, is what makes the show such a massive hit, not the dragons or the exotic locales or the sexy black magic. The offenses committed against the women on GoT—the the horrific rapes, the flippant murders, the regular withholding of autonomy of all kinds—are a part of that complex of commonplace horror, one of its pillars even. How can the series stake any claim to human realism without including that?
On the flip side, GoT’s inclusion of women abusing their power is just as important, if more subtle than it’s mirror image of women being abused. A message to those still engaged in the tired old debate about whether or not female leaders like Cersei and Daenerys are “bitchy” for insisting Jon Snow bend the knee or lighting a sept full of people on fire: WOMEN ARE PEOPLE TOO, AND PEOPLE AS A RULE TEND TO DO A LOT OF BAD THINGS. Yes, Cersei is a malicious plotter and remorseless torturer, but no more so than her dad Tywin or literal minion-from-hell Ramsay Bolton. Now, if the female characters did something so out of character that it came off as fake, that would be another, more worth matter of debate. But it is shocking that, 7 seasons in, people are still arguing about women’s capacity to do things that men do with little fanfare.
Image courtesy of Romper
But where GoT truly succeeds in this regard is its portrayal these specific troubles without reducing it to gushy spectacle or one-dimensional narratives so often applied to rape survivors and “women in a man’s world” generally. We see the crimes done to them, yes, but unlike with quite a few popular shows, their stories aren’t chiefly defined by the abuse of their bodies, bundled up in one nameless hour never to be seen or heard of again. Not only are women portrayed in positions of power, but we see the very dangerous and tragic places they are coming from as well.
As Gwendoline Christie, who plays knight Brienne, astutely pointed out, the female characters on GoT are not merely girlfriends, wives, sisters. They may start out as these things, as these are the types to which their male-driven society wants them to adhere. But the ground shifts, strength or anger is found in the depths of humiliation, and women once resigned to being passive princesses or laughingstocks find themselves with pain, power, prestige they could never have imagined before.
At its heart, GoT is a show interested in exploring what happens when long-held expectations or beliefs are up-ended. Their will always be a Stark in Winterfell…until one day, there isn’t. Dothraki don’t go on boats…until they do. White walkers are scary bedtime stories, until a couple of horny freezing teenagers discover that the very fate of human civilization is in peril. The growing power of the women of Westeros—check out that star-studded strategic roundtable in episode 2 of this season, ‘Stormborn’—is one of the strongest examples of this. That most of those women are now dead or imprisoned (as are most of the male leaders who have graced the thrones of Essos and Westeros over 7 seasons) only proves the rule. Progress is not assured, even when it is as unmistakable as a power table dominated by women. But once a first is made, it cannot be taken back.
Image courtesy of The Verge
What happens when we, in this vastly more unattractive cast of actors called the real world, let go of past conceptions of gender and power and instead try something new, however scary or unfamiliar? Maybe female leadership will make the world a better place. Maybe it won’t. My intuition tells me it will probably be a combination of both. Who knows, maybe a dragon or two will make a cameo. That would certainly be refreshing.
Featured image courtesy of Bundle of Books.