Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past four years, you’ve probably heard about the insanely successful HBO series Game of Thrones. The show, which has quickly become a pop culture phenomenon, has won countless awards and has also achieved somewhat of a cult status, developing a fan base that could rival Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. Based off of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, the show just wrapped up its fourth season, and since its television debut it has received constant attention from critics in the media. A significant portion of its press, however, is not related to the dragons, dwarves, and addicting drama; instead, the show regularly receives criticisms for the politics of its plot line.
Many feminists, like outspoken blogger Meghan Murphy, unapologetically condemn the show as sexist and anti-feminist, taking issue with the gratuitous sex scenes, depictions of rape, and other on-screen violence directed towards female characters. Other female critics are also quick to point out how some of the episodes fail the Bechdel test, which is essentially a made-up marker designed to “test” the presentation of women in the media. A show or film can only pass this test, named for literary feminist Alison Bechdel, if it includes two female characters who have at least one conversation about something other than a man.
What these critics fail to recognize, however, is the fact that virtually every main female character in Game of Thrones can be considered a feminist in some way or another. Here are just a few examples:
- Daenerys Targaryen: Dany was the first character to come to mind, as by the end of season 4 she’s arguably the most powerful individual in the entirety of Martin’s fictional world. She’s the master of three dragons and a conqueror of two slave cities (freeing thousands of slaves in the process), and through it all she refuses to submit to the will of the powerful men around her, instead learning how to use her feminine assets to enhance her own power. What’s more is that Dany is a survivor of rape and slavery herself, and displays remarkable resilience despite the odds set against her.
- Brienne of Tarth: Brienne struts around in knight’s armor, fights with some of the most skilled swordsmen in Westeros (and wins), and remains utterly committed to her values despite the sexist slander sent her way. Stoic and brave, Brienne shatters stereotypical gender roles and never once succumbs to the pressures of Martin’s medieval society.
- Cersei Lannister: Cersei displays an unparalleled level of political prowess in the series, outmaneuvering hordes of powerful men, including her own husband and father, to protect her own interests as well as her position as queen. Cersei represents an interesting dichotomy: she’s uninhibited sexually, even procreating with her own brother, yet she also fiercely embraces her role as a mother and even considers her inbred children the most important part of her own existence.
- Arya Stark: Arya is another character who defies traditional gender roles, as she’s a tomboy from the beginning of the series and eventually comes to display a truly unprecedented level of emotional maturity. Indeed, Arya hasn’t even hit puberty when she learns to rely on herself to survive and, rather disturbingly, she even kills some of the men who attempt to challenge or control her.
- Ygritte & The Wildlings: Ygritte is one of the Wildings (also known as the “free folk”), a population outside the realm of Westeros who reject institutional gender stereotypes and pride themselves on their refusal to kneel to any man or woman. Ygritte is a “spear wife,” a woman who fights alongside the men in battles, and is also sexually uninhibited, even persuading Jon Snow, a man sworn to celibacy, to renege on his vows and embrace his sexuality.
- Melisandre of Asshai: Although somewhat of a villain, Melisandre is undoubtedly a powerful woman in the series. She’s a priestess for a mysterious religion devoted to the “Lord of Light,” and although she was once a slave, she successfully uses her charm to gain the confidence and devotion of contending king Stannis Baratheon. Melisandre easily manipulates others to serve her own interests and is clearly beholden to no man, eventually emerging as the mastermind of most of King Stannis’s strategic decisions.
- Honorable Mentions: Catelyn Stark, Margaery Tyrell, Olenna Tyrell, Yara (Asha) Greyjoy, Sansa Stark, and Ros are all other feminist characters worthy of mention.
Now, I’m not saying that having strong, complex female leads is enough to wash out the stain of Joffrey’s sadism or the multitude of rapes that make it on screen. But after all, it’s not the job of George R.R. Martin or the show’s writers to create an idealistic world where both genders are 100% equal and no gender-based violence ever happens. Martin’s fantasy novels revolve around realistic, human characters who endure plausible, real-world situations, and in the real world there has always been and will always be this type of conflict.
Interestingly enough, however, feminists don’t have anything to say about all the violence directed toward men on the show. There’s tons of warfare in which women participate, disturbing torture scenes where women actually use their powers of seduction to help control and even torture men (Gendry & Theon Greyjoy), and on multiple occasions female characters, such as Arya, Melisandre, and Cersei, kill innocent men without consequence.
As for claims of excessive nudity amongst the show’s women, feminists also tend to ignore the undeniable sexualization of the show’s male characters. On several occasions throughout the series viewers have witnessed male private parts, which progressives should actually be applauding, considering the utter absence of male nudity in Hollywood’s past. In the books male prostitutes are just as common as female ones, and the show-wrtiers have actually minimized the lewdness compared to what Martin includes in his books. Contrary to what a feminist might tell you, the female nudity isn’t intended to objectify or demean; the brothels are typically included to enhance the plot and setting, while the “gratuitous” sex is meant only to add to character dynamics. And besides, as previously stated, Martin’s world is one intended to mimic our own. Casual sex happens all the time–it’s practically essential to human nature–so why is it suddenly sexist and offensive when it’s placed before us on screen?
Feminists and progressives in general also ignore how both the books and the show include many positive representations of homosexuality. The gay relationship between Loras Tyrell and Renly Baratheon is central to show’s plot line for the first two seasons, and this past season saw the series’ first bisexual characters, Oberyn Martell and his mistress Ellaria Sand, both of whom definitely don’t discriminate when they visit the pleasure-houses of King’s Landing. Although not shown on TV, many of the show’s other main characters also engage in homosexual behavior. Daenerys fools around with her trusted handmaidens on several occasions throughout the books, and even the series’ most powerful matriarch, Cersei Lannister, experiments with her close friend and confidante Taena Merryweather. It’s worth noting that both of these instances are intended to strengthen character relationships and add to each character’s complexity–Martin does not simply use the action to give the reader sexual pleasure.
So rather than endlessly shame Game of Thrones for what it doesn’t do, feminists should praise Martin as well as the show’s writers for what the series does do–it embraces strong, independent, and empowered female characters who overcome significant obstacles and find ways to succeed within the natural confines of their medieval world.