The fans doth protest too much, methinks: Is Game of Thrones Truly Feminist?

[Warning: there are minor SPOILERS here for those of you who haven't seen the first two episodes of Season Three - for everyone else, read on!]

For the two people who still don’t know, A Game of Thrones is the first in a series of fantasy novels (named A Song of Ice and Fire) by George R. R. Martin which has been turned into an extremely popular HBO television series (named after the first novel and now in its third season).  The books have been praised for their complex and complete worlds, political intrigue, and a tendency to kill off characters with little to no regard of their popularity with the readers.

Game of Thrones is set to become as revered as The Lord of the Rings and has a big female as well as male following. It is said that part of this popularity with women is because it represents women in a feminist way. But is this true? If we feel the need to defend the novels’ feminist credentials, isn’t that a sign that something is awry?

George R R Martin: the face of a feminist? Or a kindly old sea captain?

George R R Martin: the face of a feminist? Or a kindly old sea captain?

The way female characters in the novels and television series are treated is confronting.  Women are very regularly subjected to physical and sexual violence and are largely used as pawns in the “game of thrones” for marriage and childbearing.  One of the most shocking and uncomfortable examples is Craster (the wilding beyond The Wall) who marries his daughters, who birth more daughters, who he then marries and so on.  His daughters are completely isolated and have no viable escape.  When Jon Snow confronts the Night’s Watch about it, they are all like; “Meh, we knew about it, but Craster protects us from those hectic zombie-like creatures, so what are you going to do?” And Jon is like; “Fair enough, I suppose”.

Feminists in support of Game of Thrones argue that the exploitation of women is presented in a way that reveals the systematic manner in which women are subjugated; we are encouraged to empathise with the female characters and reflect on the unfairness of the system to women.  But do we need to witness female characters being routinely abused to do this?

Tracey Egan Morrissey from Jezebel argues that:

While the realm that [Martin] has created isn’t exactly woman-friendly, the hardships and limitations it creates for its female inhabitants lends itself well to the rich development of their characters

Does character complexity equal feminism, however? The women in Game of Thrones embody a wide range of character traits and ambitions; some are conniving, some are compassionate, some want to be princesses, some want to be warriors.  While the female characters are ambitious, do they have access to power?

For every female character demonstrating power there seems to be an accompanying weakness.  Cersei Lannister rules the kingdom by-proxy through her son Joffrey, however she is constantly outmaneuvred by her brother Tyrion and her father Lord Tywin.  She is also (willingly) fucking her twin brother Jamie, which erodes her credibility somewhat.  While Brienne of Tarth is physically stronger than most men, she only wanted to join Renly Baratheon’s guard because she had a huge lady-boner for him.  Catelyn Stark is clever and headstrong, but she only holds influence when acting as a proxy for her son.  Arya Stark is an undeniable badass, but she is still a child, and what power she does have only comes when she pretends to be a boy.  Then we come to Daenerys Targaryen.

Daenarys Targaryen, who suffers from the same hair colour-mismatching-eyebrow-colour disease afflicting Legolas Greenleaf.

Daenarys Targaryen, who suffers from the same hair colour-mismatching-eyebrow-colour disease afflicting Legolas Greenleaf.

While Daenerys has won the following of the Dothraki, a few battles and has dragons, George R. R. Martin (and the television show) seem pretty occupied with reminding us at all times that she is a sexy, sexy lady-with-boobs.  Her demonstrations of power are almost always balanced out by observations about her nubile body and general boob-havingness.  Cracked writer David Wong notes how Martin, writing from Daenerys’ perspective, somehow manages to bring her breasts into the scenario. The girl is on her way to a key confrontation, and the narrator describes it thusly:

“When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest …”

… when a male writes a female, he assumes that she spends every moment thinking about the size of her breasts and what they are doing…”

None of the female characters demonstrate power that is not in some way mitigated by their gender.  Is this just a part of creating complex, believable characters? After all, hardly any character, male or female, in the novels is wholly good or bad, powerful or weak.

One argument in support of Game of Thrones as feminist is that it simply reflects the reality of our past and how bad things truly were for women.  It is true that one of my pet peeves is a historical movie or novel that, without logical explanation, allows one woman to exceed the position of other women in society simply through her wit or determination, ignoring the very real political, economic and social constraints that existed at the time, keeping women as second class.  Sometimes anachronistic gender roles aren’t explained at all, like Peggy Carter in Captain America.  What the hell is her role in the military?  Most British women were driving trucks and making munitions on the home front during World War II, which is great, but they weren’t following Tommy Lee-Jones around and punching mouthy soldiers in the face during training.  How did she get there?

"I have literally no idea why they are letting me do this"

“I have literally no idea why they are letting me do this”

However, just because Game of Thrones is set in some kind of fantasy-past, does this mean that gender roles have to be portrayed as they are?  In a world where dragons and magic are real, why must gender roles look identical to those of our past (and present)?

In my books, Game of Thrones is not feminist.  There seems to be just too much gender-based violence, too much gratuitous girl-on-girl action (rather than actual lesbian desire) and too much of a nudity imbalance for Game of Thrones to be truly feminist.  It is however, bloody entertaining and if we had to limit our consumption of media to things that are 100% feminist we wouldn’t be able to read or watch anything, ever.  So proceed with caution and enjoy if you can.

Elizabeth is a law student and lactose intolerant. Her Dad worries that her swearing on twitter will prevent her from finding a job in the future.
  • Evie

    I haven’t watched the series, but I enjoyed the books very much and found them mostly not sexist. Yes, the society portrayed is a patriarchal one, but the actual female characters are, for the most part, complete human beings rather than stereotypes.

    The one exception is the gratuitous “girl-on-girl action” you mentioned. The characters in question aren’t portrayed as bisexual or lesbian, it’s more like the author simply can’t wrap his head around the idea that anyone might *not* find women hot. Imagine a similar scene with a straight male character and his male servant – wouldn’t happen!

  • Josh

    How do you use Craster as an example of female subjugation and then completely wash over the fact that HE MURDERS HIS MALE CHILDREN?

    • toobad

      Unfortunately, you can’t rationalize with feminists. In their minds, women and girls are eternal victims.