When it comes to gender dynamics, Game of Thrones is kind of a minefield. There are Strong Female Characters around every corner and numerous articles praising the show’s powerful, badass women. Yet the show can’t shake its unequal treatment of said women, hence the fact that female characters still get far less screen time than their male counterparts, and too much of that time is spent being sexually assaulted and humiliated.
Not that this is anything new. Critics have been calling out Game of Thrones‘ cavalier attitudes towards rape and sexual objectification since episode one. From Daenerys’ first meeting with Khal Drogo, to Cersei’s forced coupling with Jaime next to the corpse of their dead son, to Littlefinger soliloquizing on the allure of power while ordering two prostitutes to perform increasingly graphic sex acts on each other, there’s an ugly strain of misogyny that continues to haunt HBO’s premier fantasy drama.
Before anyone goes down the “What about the men?” rabbit hole, of course male characters aren’t safe from gnarly injuries. Jaime gets his hand cut off, Tywin dies from a gut shot on the toilet, Theon loses a very important part of himself, and Oberyn…well, that death scene is etched into our brains. However, the important distinction is that, except for Theon’s torture, what happens to these men isn’t sexualized in the same way as the violence inflicted upon Daenerys or Sansa or Cersei; it’s also worth noting that Ramsay castrating Theon is something of a forced desexualization. Men suffer, but not because they’re men.
Anyway, what doesn’t get talked about is the question of which female characters are brutalized for our entertainment. After all, some of the show’s most prominent girls and women, such as Arya, Brienne, and Yara, have so far been spared. Despite spending the last two seasons in a bustling city full of many different kinds of people, Arya has miraculously never been accosted by gross dudes. Brienne’s weathered much more than her fair share of chauvinist insults, but not so when it comes to unwanted sexual contact. As for Yara, the head of House Greyjoy brooks no creepers.
So how are they different from other female characters?
Yes, they’re supremely badass, but you could say the same for most women on Game of Thrones. To get to the bottom of this, we need to look at the nature of their badassery. Arya, Brienne, and Yara swing a mean sword and would pick a suit of armor over a silk gown any time. Characters like Cersei and Sansa, on the other hand, use discussion and manipulation rather than one-on-one combat to defeat their enemies, and know the importance of a chic dress/cloak ensemble. In other words, some female characters show strength through physical aggression, an ability traditionally associated with masculinity, and shun anything that could be considered girly. Others opt for words instead of stabbing to demonstrate power and embrace the outward trappings of girliness, thus failing to reject stereotypical femininity. And for this failure, they are punished.
That’s why Cersei’s body had to be treated as a public spectacle during her walk of atonement. That’s why the scene where Ramsay raped Sansa had to be included, even though we were already aware he was a monster and so didn’t need to see Sansa getting sexually abused to grasp that super obvious concept. That’s why Daenerys’ first encounter with Khal Drogo was devoid of consent, despite the books offering a consensual and mutually enjoyed version of events that could have replaced what happened in the show. Even Ros, the prostitute who went from rags outside Winterfell to riches in King’s Landing, had to be murdered in fulfillment of Joffrey’s horrific snuff fantasy.
By contrast, consider how the other half lives. Arya has a sword called Needle, so named because it’s meant to replace ladylike pursuits like needlework (which, not coincidentally, Sansa is very good at), and goes around disguised as a boy before signing on with Jaqen H’ghar. Brienne is not just the only female knight in Westeros, but also the only woman to ever serve on a Kingsguard; talk about excelling in a male-dominated field. Yara’s a hard-drinking, womanizing military leader who believes the best way to heal from PTSD is to drink away your feelings.
To use a modern expression, they’re not like other girls. The problem with the “not like other girls” mentality is that it’s total BS.
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Beneath the nonconformist veneer is an assumption that being like “other girls” is somehow wrong and that traits associated with femininity should be despised. In pop culture you can see this in the cool butt-kicking heroine showing the guys she can take care of herself, thank you very much, or the bookish teen genius misunderstood by her vapid peers who don’t care about anything except fashion and dating. Game of Thrones takes a more nuanced–but still misogynist–approach to the issue by depicting all these “other girls” as intelligent, powerful individuals while violating and degrading their bodies. Doing this sends the message that there’s only one kind of strength for women that matters: physical strength. Female characters can be smart, diplomatic, possessed of incredible mental fortitude, capable of breaking someone’s spirit with a single word, and none of it can save them from sexual abuse. Once again, it’s all about our bodies, because who cares about our minds, right?
“But those times were really sexist!” some viewers might say. “It’s historical realism!” Ah, yes, the times of dragons, ice zombies, and shadow baby assassins. If we can accept those things, we can accept a world where femininity isn’t punished by violent misogyny. We can accept the radical idea of narratives that give equal respect to women’s physical power and their mental and emotional strength. We’re ready for it, Game of Thrones. You want to be groundbreaking? Give us female characters who are genuinely allowed to be strong.
How do you think Game of Thrones could address these issues? Let us know in the comments below!