Warning: This Game of Thrones article contains MAJOR spoilers for seasons one to seven. This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Game of Thrones takes place in a fantasy world, but that fantasy is based on real world parallels, especially historical medieval parallels. As a result, most of the societies and cultures we see on the show are intensely patriarchal, placing female characters at a distinct disadvantage socially, economically, and politically.
George RR Martin, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, however, are not members of a medieval society, and nor are their audience. Most book readers or television viewers want to see balanced stories following both male and female characters, watching both make their way through the tangled plot of the series.
Naturally, this means that very few of the female characters in Game of Thrones decide to simply sit back and let the men sort everything out while they get on with a nice bit of sewing (and if you know any medieval history, you’ll know that not very many real historical women took that attitude either!). But the ways in which female characters engage with politics and warfare and ice-zombie-hunting are necessarily different from the ways in which male characters do, thanks to the (imaginary) society they live in.
Here, we take a look at the different ways the female characters of Game of Thrones find to make their mark on the plot in a man’s world.
Option 1: Reject traditional female roles and take on a man’s role
These are “strong women” in the most literal sense. They achieve hero (or villain) status by beating men at the things men are praised for doing – physical fighting, defeating enemies, killing monsters, protecting others.
Brienne of Tarth is, of course, the most obvious example of a woman taking this approach. Although she is keen to remind everyone that she is not a knight, as the position is not open to women, Brienne might as well be, and she served on Renly’s Kingsguard, a group usually made up of knights.
Brienne beats men at their own game – while Jaime was operating under a distinct disadvantage when they fought (hands tied and weakened from hard circumstances) she has defeated The Hound in a fair fight, along with numerous nameless and usually unpleasant random soldiers.
Arya has also learned to fight, though her methods are a little different. Brienne’s size and muscle power allows her to fight in the same way as male characters, but Arya has a clear physical disadvantage when it comes to fighting with broadswords.
As a member of a secretive group of assassins, she has used various means of killing people, including poison, which is traditionally considered a woman’s weapon – poison requires no muscle or combat training, and can be applied to food or drinks, something women traditionally either prepare or supervise. But Arya has also learned water dancing, a form of sword fighting suited to a woman or a smaller, lighter man. She takes an area dominated by men and adapts it to her own needs.
Yara Greyjoy is also pretty handy with a sword. As a member of a sea-faring culture, however, the key to her power is her expertise in sailing and ability to command her men, another job more often carried out by men in the world of Westeros. Part of that ability to command the Ironborn comes from her fighting skills, as “sailing” is largely synonymous with “raiding” and “conquering” for them, but without the skill and expertise to run a ship, Yara would not be able to take several ships and a number of Ironborn away with her in a political rebellion.
Ellaria Sand and The Sand Snakes sometimes use poison – poisoned lipstick is a pretty solidly ‘feminine’ way to kill someone. But the Sand Snakes generally favour slightly more “masculine” methods, having been trained in traditionally male fighting skills by their father, Oberyn, though they lean towards weapons that can easily be adapted for a smaller fighter.
Obara’s favorite weapon is a spear (giving her some space between herself and her opponent), Nymeria uses a whip (which offers the same advantage and can be used to trip someone up) and Tyene uses a combination of poison and small stabbing daggers, which are designed for a surprise attack, not giving a heavier opponent time to react.
Ygritte and Osha are Wildlings who have been raised in a culture with fewer differences between male and female roles anyway, but you could, broadly speaking, put them in this category. They are spear-wives – women who have chosen to become fighters – and Ygritte find the idea of being a traditional Westerosi woman hilarious.
Option 2: Use traditional female roles to your own advantage
This is a trickier role. It’s far less obvious and relies largely on male characters not realising what you are doing (or not until it is too late). It’s also more difficult to endear yourself to TV viewers, as this method means ignoring all the things which usually bring male characters glory – fighting and physical prowess, monster-killing, holding obvious positions of power that come with crowns, and so on – and, often, using your sexuality to get what you want.
Catelyn Stark wields a lot of power in Westeros – she is largely responsible for the War of the Five Kings, thanks to Littlefinger’s manipulation of her and her late husband. However, she comes to this power through her husband and son, and she wields it in a traditionally feminine way – Catelyn goes on diplomatic missions and makes treaties and alliances, rather than commanding armies or physically fighting. She also feels strongly that all members of the aristocracy of any gender have a duty to make a marriage that’s in their political interest – something she unfortunately did not pass on to her son.
Olenna Tyrell kills using the classic ‘woman’s weapon’ of poison, and wields power through her absolute command of her family. She doesn’t seem to think much of her own son and he seems to be entirely under her control, a situation she presumably engineered by the way she raised him as a mother.
Margaery Tyrell, on the other hand, is a classic femme fatale. Her power lies in two things – her pleasant nature and popularity with the people, and her sexuality. She plays Joffrey like a fiddle and finds Tommen even easier to control. Unfortunately this ploy let her down when it came to Cersei, who remained immune to her charms.
Cersei would probably like to think of herself as a femme fatale, but her biggest successes come from other methods. Cersei will sleep with just about anybody to gain an advantage, and even her love for her brother-lover Jaime doesn’t seem to be quite as strong as his for her.
But, ultimately, she tends to have to resort to other backstairs methods to get what she wants – blackmail, threats based on her position as Queen or Queen Mother and command of the royal troops, and that old favorite, poison. As of season seven, Cersei has started to move more towards a mixed model, as she has finally taken over as Queen in her own right, but she’s still trying to manipulate Jaime through the distinctly feminine method of either claiming to be, or actually becoming, pregnant.
Gilly is the closest any character on the show comes to fulfilling an entirely traditional female role. It’s easy to see her as a damsel in distress who is rescued by Sam and taken away to a better life. But that summary does a great injustice to a victim of abuse who took the huge risk of approaching a total stranger for help in a desperate bid to save her son, went through a gruelling physical journey while breast-feeding a small baby, and then worked hard to fit in to a completely new life, including learning to read and alerting Sam to a pretty important political revelation in the process. Gilly may slot herself into a traditional female role, but she does so like a total badass.
Shae, as a sex worker, has no choice but to use her sexuality to her advantage – it is not only her only weapon, but her entire livelihood.
Missandei doesn’t really get much chance to act independently, as her entire screen time is spent obeying orders from Danaerys or hooking up with Grey Worm. But she did first catch Dany’s eye by using her own intelligence to be somewhat creative in her translations, which could be described as using her position as a slave to her advantage – or just as doing her job to the best of her ability.
Sansa, over the course of the show, has become the most accomplished at this method of wielding power. Having been victimised and abused for years, she is learning to find better allies and follow in her mother’s footsteps, organising alliances and offering advice to her newly crowned brother.
However, she has learned from Cersei as well. Sansa does not use sex itself to get what she wants, but she does know the power of her own beauty and uses it to lull Littlefinger into a false sense of security without going so far as to actually give him anything. If she can hold it together, she and Jon may be able to succeed where Catelyn and Robb failed.
Option 3: A bit of both
Lysa Arryn is not very good at it, but she does try to combine the best of both worlds in her role as leader of the Eyrie as regent to her young son. Unlike Brienne or the Sand Snakes, Lysa does not take physical action herself – she relies on her power to command troops in her son’s name and on the willingness of others to fight for her. But she also commands her guards and soldiers from her stronghold, and presides over trials and executions personally, unlike Cersei, who finds herself at the mercy of male judges.
Lyanna Mormont is considerably more successful in the same role, staring down roomfuls of hardened warriors despite her age and size. Northern women tend to have some defensive skills anyway, thanks to years of being raided by Ironborn, but Lyanna’s power is definitely in her personality (and being born into the aristocracy) rather than her physical skills. She clearly commands her troops personally, however, and I wouldn’t place bets against her in a fight.
Melisandre holds a position of authority unlike that of most Westerosi women. Unlike Lysa and Lyanna, she didn’t come by her authority through (bad) luck, but through a position she holds on her own merits. The religion of the Seven is recognisably patriarchal, while the religion of the old gods is short on organised authority figures in general. As a Red Priestess, Melisandre therefore holds a position of power denied to most women in Westeros.
On the other hand, Melisandre frequently uses more traditionally feminine methods to get what she wants. There’s a reason she uses a glamour spell to make herself look considerably younger and more attractive than she really is, as her sexuality is clearly as much part of her appeal as her religious message. And of course, for one of her most impressive feats, the assassination of Renly Baratheon, she used the somewhat unusual and definitely feminine method of persuading Stannis to have sex with her, magically conceiving a mysterious shadow baby, then giving birth to it and sending it off to kill Renly. I’d like to have seen Thoros of Myr try that!
Danaerys is the most successful women in a man’s world in the show (up to this point), because she blends the two approaches expertly. Like Lysa and Lyanna, she gets (un)lucky when her husband dies and she finds herself in a position to take power, but unlike them, her new culture (the Dothraki) have no tradition of women taking power following the death of men. The widows of khals usually join the dosh khaleen and live in a hut interpreting omens, but Danaerys has another bit of luck on her side – she was born with the ability to walk through fire and given three dragon eggs as a wedding present.
The loyalty of her dragons and her nifty fire trick give Danaerys a physical advantage over other women, one she uses to defeat numerous enemies, most impressively the gathered khals who tried to send her to the dosh khaleen.
But Danaerys is much more of a commander than a fighter. Unlike Brienne, Arya or the Sand Snakes, she doesn’t usually participate in combat and will only generally fight personally in self-defence, though she does ride Drogon while he kills people on a fairly regular basis. She believes that she can’t have any more children thanks to Mirri Maz Duur, but she emphasises her role as a mother, not just to her son Rhaego, but also constantly referring to the dragons as her children, claiming for herself a unique but clearly female position in the hierarchies of Westeros and Essos.
Game of Thrones season 8 premieres on HBO on April 14.