There’s a whole lot of naked going on.
That was my initial impression when I started watching Game of Thrones. It seemed like a fifteen year-old-boy’s fantasy with lots of battles and naked women. The female characters seemed secondary and ornamental. But many friends said, “Just you wait, the women are amazing.” My patience was soon rewarded.
As season seven of Game of Thrones is upon us, it’s worth taking a moment to admire the strength and complexity of the female characters. They are never moody or irrational. They don’t get PMS. The emotional strength these characters show is impressive and thrilling to watch. They live in a brutal sexist world, but all of them are active, self-directed, limit-pushing heroines. They calmly calculate and negotiate their circumstances in the face of frightening evil. Sometimes they are frighteningly evil.
Let’s start with Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, and Sansa Stark, Lady of Winterfell. Two naïve daughters of powerful men, married off for political alliances. The circumstances of their lives are out of their control, but they slowly find their way to exercising power.
Daenerys is married to the brutish Khal Drogo, but finds a way to becomes his partner, rather than the meek plaything he expected. After his death, she attempts to lead his people and makes some political mistakes. But she learns from them, and with her growing cunning and skill, and the help of her dragons, she conquers her enemies and rallies armies behind her. Daenerys believes in herself and inspires others to believe in her. At the cusp of season seven she is poised to take the Iron Throne for herself.
While Daenerys starts to build her power rather quickly, Sansa Stark has a much slower evolution. When we meet Sansa, she is interested in mild feminine pursuits like embroidery and poetry. She is at first excited to be engaged to Prince Joffrey who she thinks will give her a romantic exciting life, but he turns out to be a cruel and immature king. She is tossed about by events and the machinations of others, engaged to one murderous psychopath and then married to another, Bolton Ramsay. The cruelty she endures hardens her and eventually makes her understand there are few she can trust. She becomes politically savvy and convinces her half-brother Jon Snow to fight with her to retake their rightful home, Winterfell.
Two women who flex their power without hesitation are the mothers, Catelyn Stark and Circe Lannister. For the women of Westeros, age only enhances their ability to operate in a world of unbridled ambition and subterfuge (See the cold machinations of the elderly but cutthroat Lady Olenna). The middle-aged Catelyn is a proud and loving mother, and uses her political prowess and connections to help her eldest son Robb rise to power. She isn’t perfect, though. For many years she resents that her husband Ned brought home his bastard son Jon Snow for her to raise. She criticizes Robb when he marries a foreign woman. She is a fully drawn character, allowed complexity and human faults along with her better attributes. Her commitment to her family never wavers and she does what she needs to for them to survive.
Cerce Lannister is in many ways the evil reflection of Catelyn Stark. Similarly motivated by her desire for her children to succeed, but diabolical in her willingness to hurt and kill anyone in her way. She does nothing impulsively. When her children die, her ambition is for herself and she takes no prisoners in her quest for the Iron Throne. Despite her ruthless ways, we also see her vulnerability. Her father’s complete control over who she marries brings her misery. But like all Game of Thrones female characters, her steely strength is undeterred by the cards she is dealt.
Any discussion of strong women in the Game of Thrones universe would be remiss without a mention of Brienne of Tarth. She is literally a knight in shining armor. She is loyal, steadfast, brave, and honorable and has formidable fighting skills. She first serves matriarch Catelyn Stark and then Sansa Stark. Brienne is a woman in what has always been a man’s job and performs it with unquestionable dedication and ability. Her unwavering moral compass stands in contrast to another knight, the morally bankrupt Jaimie Lannister.
I could write pages and pages about the powerful women of Game of Thrones with characters like Margaery, Shae, Arya, Gilly, Melisandre, Ygritte, and Yara Greyjoy. They all exist along the continuum of good and evil, and there is not a wilting flower among them. They live with purpose and passion that is exciting to watch.
There still is a lot of naked going on, and the repeated use of rape as a plot device is disturbing. But George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire books upon which GOT is based, and the creators of the television show, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have created a world of powerful women who are tremendously steady, active, and competent. I can’t wait to see what happens next.