'Game of Thrones': Feminist or not?

Game-of-Thrones-Daenerys-Targaryen

Image Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO

HBO’s much-hyped swordsy fantasy epic Game of Thrones packed loads of stuff into its premiere episode Sunday: severed bodies, decapitations, bastards, sex, dwarves, sex, dire wolves, incest, and more sex. But it’s a matter of some debate whether strong female characters are part of the Game plan. There’s no doubt that among the seemingly infinite cast there are women — and memorable ones, at that. The question is whether they’re an endless parade of misery and victimhood or inspiring figures who triumph in a very masculinized fictional world where no one even thinks of giving the titular headwear to a chick.

I come down on the latter side, though I found myself in the curious position of arguing that this geekboy fantasy fest was, in fact, quite feminist with EW’s own Doc Jensen, who thought the pilot was misogynistic. Granted, I have the context of having read the entire book on which the first season is based, and having watched the first six episodes. But I certainly see where he was coming from when he asked in an email, “Do the women get to do anything more than be miserable or sex objects (willing, paid, or raped) for the men?” Aside from the omnipresent prostitutes (and frequent mentions of past conquests by the king himself), exiled former royal Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is a particularly problematic character in the pilot: The young, beautiful virgin is first seen fully naked, fresh out of a bath, being creepily ogled and fondled by her power-hungry brother, Viserys (Harry Lloyd). He proceeds to marry her off to hulking warlord Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), who consummates their union, businesslike, having barely exchanged a word with her. (In his defense, they do speak different languages.) Lena Headey’s Queen Cersei is delightfully evil, but even the actress herself felt constrained by the limits placed on her character: “It’s a similar story to this [entertainment] industry, where you’re sort of a second class citizen,” she says. “I think [Cersei] feels that, but she would never admit it to herself.” The former Sarah Connor Chronicles star adds, “I find it very hard to sit still, and she does a lot of sitting.”

All of that said, such an anti-woman world makes for great stories of female triumph over great odds — if you stick with the story past the pilot. Westeros strikes me as a world (not unlike ours during the time when people were wearing roughly the same clothes they wear in this — that is, medieval-ish) where the women are definitely second-class citizens, but several of the female characters (eventually) rise to the challenge. It takes a few hours of the series for the ladies to fight the power: Lady Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), grieving for her gravely injured son, eventually handles her own revenge, thank you; and Daenerys, without spoiling any plot points, gets to stick it to some men quite nicely. “It’s the story of a girl growing into being a woman,” Clarke says of her character. “It’s a beautiful arc. I kind of fell in love with her strength, which you don’t see for the first couple of episodes, but I believe she has.” And Catelyn’s youngest daughter, Arya (Maisie Williams), a tomboy more interested in swordplay than the courtly behavior forced upon her, grows into nothing short of a feminist hero.

What did you think, Thrones fans and neophytes alike? Were you worried for the women of Westeros after watching Sunday’s premiere? Do you have hope for them?

Follow me on Twitter: @jenmarmstrong

Comments (200 total) Add your comment
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  • NewToGoT

    Thanks for spoiling that the son survives. Not all of us have read the books, and the cliffhanger left us assuming he was killed.

    • Ke

      Calm down.

    • Jennie

      Ok, so I just read the book and now my husband and I are watching the show. I told him that I will not tell him a thing about what is going on unless he asks me. And I told him that I will NOT tell him anything about the book past the episode just watched. Why can’t EW do the same? Not everyone has read the book and it seems kind of unprofessional to give away important things in these articles. The surprise of what happens was one of the best parts of the book – why spoil that for those who are just watching the show?! If I can keep the spoilers a secret, they should be able to as well! I will tell my husband to NOT read EW until the season finale is done, geesh!

      • NewToGoT

        I think the problem is also that many of these writers have been given several episodes in advance so they know what’s coming.

    • Portia

      Cat has 3 sons. Any of whom could be injured in upcoming episodes. No need to assume this refers to Bran’s fall.

      • TPK

        Fall?! He didn’t fall!

      • Mandy

        He did not suffer a fall, but defenestration! Shame on EW for spoiling plot developments and missing the chance to use “defenestration” in a review!

    • mejaki

      Considering how long ago the original books came out–if you want to avoid accidental spoilers, your best bet would be to avoid reviews altogether.

    • Crucio you muggles

      get over it baby wahhhhhhhh lol. oh and cruico because lord voldermort does not like whiners

      • lostidol

        These stories have been out there in novel form for years. Really,if you don’t want to be spoiled, stay off the internet. Writers and commenters shouldn’t be under any obligation to restrict themselves from talking about the story.

      • Bird

        lmao

      • @lostidol

        actually, they should be under an obligation to not reveal things that happen in future episodes. if she is going to write this article, and reference the tv show, then she should be able to make her argument without mentioning plot points that the tv viewer hasn’t seen yet.

    • Cara

      Why come to an entertainment site to read about a show you haven’t watched and not expect spoilers… Just go to wikipedia where the full synopsis of the book is given read that and get caught up. Or watch the show before you come to this webiste.

      • Um…

        What are you talking about? People HAVE watched the show, the premiere last night. That’s one episode, not the three or four the recapper is JUMPING AHEAD and referencing. The one episode that has aired left off with a cliffhanger as to whether or not Bran would survive his fall. It’s not unreasonable to expect the recapper to hold off revealing what happens in later episodes, simply because she knows, seeing as how (and this isn’t exactly a mystery) we viewers have not seen them yet. There are plenty of us, just like with the True Blood series (and here I thought THOSE book fanatics were obnoxious…), who have not read the books and wish to experience the production as it airs.

    • tad

      no crap!

    • MT_Richardson

      It’s a pretty forgivable sin – going by the books, Bran’s state will be one of the first things revealed in the next episode.

      Besides, if you think that George RR Martin is going to go around killing well-loved, primary characters then – oh, wait, nevermind.

    • Feist

      Um, Jason Momoa is hot. Get outta my way Albino virgin and let me at ‘im.

      • sparkles

        The line starts behind me.

      • bee

        I had to be around him for a whole day. He is good looking until he opens his loud mouth. Sorry, that is unkind but he really bothered me. Good looking guy though.

      • peachez

        sparkles, and behind Lisa Bonet. That’s her man. Gosh he is so hot and he has green eyes. Yummy, yummy, yummy. Lucky Lisa.

    • Ann

      This is a misogynistic series. I don’t think I have the fortitude to wait for its supposed feminist side to rear its head.

      • monika

        I don’t consider it a feminist series but I don’t think it is misogynist because it depicts misogyny (if that makes any sense). The women and girl characters are leaders, well rounded, and frankly more interesting than their male counterparts. They deal with sexist oppression in a myriad of ways, depticting nicely the diversity of female resistance to patriarchy (including sexualized violence, etc.) That said, it is pretty heteronormative, and there is not a variety of women’s bodies (e.g. where are the fat women lead characters???)

    • peachez

      NewtoGoT is right. The writer took it for granted that we read the book. Also, she said she saw the first 6 episodes. Well la dee dah, we only saw one! So we didn’t know the kid survived. She should have put the word “spoiler” or should have known better.

    • Alec

      And thank you for now spoiling it for me.

  • april

    Agreed.I was concerned to get up this morning and see so many reviews from women who fear the worst for for the female characters in this fantasy. As I explained to many of my friends prior to the premiere the reason I love the books so much is because of the fact that there are so many strong woman characters. I agree with the statement that this first episode sets the stage for these women to rise and conquor and I believe that if people stick with it they’ll be pleasently surprised.

    • lostidol

      Just wait. The women of the series are probably more dominant driving forces of the story than the men. Cersei, Caitlin, Arya, Daenerys, and (later) Brienne, are all very strong women. No one can claim that the ladies of GoT are weak or subservient for very long.

      • Notmy Realname

        And Asha. And Ygritte. And Lyanna, despite being dead.

        Admittedly, not Sansa. Even after everything, she’s still a little birdie in a cage.

      • crispy

        No love for Melisandre?!

      • cabinsuzi

        I agree totally lostidol! Wait for a few episodes, things will change….

      • monika

        Notmyrealname, I see Sansa (by the end of the first book/first season) as very much strategizing, and surviving. She is resisting as much as she can in order to survive.

    • Ugly K unt

      Strong Woman = Just another hole that needs to be filled.

      • MGM

        So nasty…your on-line name says it all!

    • Yellow

      You know nothing Jennifer Armstrong. Spoiling things on the internet is bad manners.

      I actually like more of the women characters then the men in the books. Arya (then again, who doesn’t) followed by the Maid of Tarth, Cat, Dany and I even have a soft spot for Sansa. Special mention goes out to Genna Lannister, one chapter was enough to make me love her for her fictional brain. I just hate Cercei, but that’s in a good way.

      Shame they changed the Dany and Khal Drogo wedding night and start of their relationship. Makes it more seedy then liberating for Mrs Stormborn.

  • writerchick

    It doesn’t say he survives…it says he’s gravely injured. Nothing about the outcome. So thank YOU for spoiling that….

    • NewToGoT

      Gravely injured = survives the initial fall. The author of this article shouldn’t have said anything about it.

      • Portia

        You are ASSUMING she’s referring to Bran rather than one of her OTHER TWO SONS.

      • Jake

        Except that neither of the other two sons were pitched out of a window right before the fade to black. So, you gotta admit that’s a fair ASSUMPTION to make.

  • Godstar

    I think if you go into this series solely with the expectation that you’re going to find something feminist to cheer about in a medieval world, then you will be sorely disappointed. Not only is it an unreasonable expectation, it’s presumptuous.

    • crispy

      Couldn’t disagree more. Go Arya! Bring on Brienne!

      • Joe Greps

        Exactly – Brienne – A one word response as to why this whole feminist angle is ludicrous.

      • Godstar

        Notice I said ‘go into’ the series, the TV series, I never mentioned how characters develop three books later. If you ‘go into’ *STRESS THE WORDS AGAIN* and expect the whole feminist context to present itself straight away, you will be sorely mistaken.

      • crispy

        I don’t see how “go into” restricts your comment to the first book. You really didn’t clarify a specific timeframe.

      • Godstar

        I thought it was obvious since I stated ‘going into the series’ – thus the time frame is at beginning of the series.

      • cabinsuzi

        love love love Brienne!!

      • thin

        If you wanted to say there are no feminist heroines at the beginning of the series, but they rise as it goes on, you should have said it that way. What you said did not convey what you seem to have wanted it to.

    • Jennifer

      Except that it is *not* actually set in the Middle Ages it’s a fantasy series. We’re all willing to accept direwolves in Westeros despite them not being real historical creatures. Why is it too much to expect that a series first published in the 1990s and a TV show released in 2011 shouldn’t have feminist characters?

      • Jennifer

        Before I get jumped on for my grammar, I’m aware that I made some typos. Try this:

        Except that it is *not* actually set in the Middle Ages. It’s a fantasy series. We’re all willing to accept direwolves in Westeros despite them not being real historical creatures. It’s not too much to expect feminist characters in a series first published in the 1990s and a TV show released in 2011.

      • Kim

        typos okay. you WILL get your feminist jive on in this one, sister. Just, it takes an episode or three. Please keep watching…

        Perfectly reasonable to ask that Martin has more than Tolkien’s TWO women in his entire story.

        Martin develops his characters. You won’t see any cardboard cutouts here (except, debatably, Viserys)

      • knowitall

        Um, dire wolves were real creatures. They were one of the megafauna, like the mammoth or cave bear. “The Dire Wolf, Canis dirus, is an extinct carnivorous mammal of the genus Canis, and was most common in North America and South America from the Irvingtonian stage to the Rancholabrean stage of the Pleistocene epoch living 1.80 Ma – 10,000 years ago, existing for approximately 1.79 million years.”

  • SLB

    Really. Get over it.

  • cabinsuzi

    I love this series of books, and with that, there is only so much TV can do. These are complex characters, and sometimes it doesn’t transcend to the screen. Get the books and read them, & believe me they are just getting started, head will roll, literally & soon. Alot to pack into the first season, hope they do it justice. They got most of the characters right too! Only Lysa is different from the description so far.

  • Danae

    Having read ALL of the books, I can tell you (without giving away too much) that the objectification Danerys goes though is necessary at first, because she develops into one of the strongest female characters in the series after surviving what she does. Yeah, there’s a lot of sex – but there’s also a lot of strong female characters fighting either behind the veil of their “place” in that world, and the ones who just plain annihilate that role and burn their own paths (sometimes literally).

    • cabinsuzi

      Absolutely Danae, can’t wait for Brianne!

      • crispy

        Yes, that’s exactly what I was about to comment! Does Brienne make an appearance in the first book? I can’t remember

      • Jen

        No, second book.

      • crispy

        I thought she might make a brief appearance during the tournament for the new Hand. That would be cool foreshadowing actually, but I doubt she’s been cast yet.

    • ks

      So true! I do not think the reviewrs even read the books.

      • cabinsuzi

        I sure hope they cast her right too and not some pretty thing. Sorry but I have a def idea of how she is to look, just dont want to be to disappointed! LOVE the her & Jamie thingy. One of my favorite parts of all the books is when he said “I dreamed of you”. Love this series.

    • fish eye no miko

      “objectification Danerys goes though is necessary at first, because she develops into one of the strongest female characters in the series after surviving what she does.”

      You’re… saying the only way she could be strong was to be objectified? Really?

      • Sara

        It’s part of the story. I’d be bored with a story where every character starts of from a place of total equality—it’s more interesting when a character can rise like a pheonix from the ashes. Though I must say…I liked it better in the books when the sex scene with Khal Drogo happened. Wer waited for her to say “yes” before banging her.

      • Kim

        Umm… in the books Dany’s thirteen. Girls in middle ages were bought and sold at that age. She does grow up!

  • sirenis

    It doesn’t matter if it is feminist or not, these books are based on the English wars of the roses, a decidedly sexist era of human history. Feminism in a work about a historical time would be to show the female perspective honestly and sympathetically, not to anachronistically show women behaving like liberated feminists. That would be patronizing.

    • LoQ

      That’s a specious argument – either the novels are fantasy, in which case anything can happen or they aren’t. If you want to get “historical” about Game of Thrones, let’s start with the chances of a pre-industrial human beings surviving in a climate where winter lasts for “decades” let alone a highly specialized, feudal society. Study the subsistence cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Australian outback and the high Arctic – then we can talk about Game of Thrones’ “historical” bona fides.

      • Kim

        familiar with the little ice age? somehow the Inuit survived through that.

    • A

      Exactly. It’s like the people who constantly complain that the only black people working at the agency on “Mad Men” are elevator operators. Do they seriously expect to see a black ad exec in a corner office of 1960s Madison Avenue?

      • Helena

        Wow, you mannage to sound both racist and feminist. incredible.

      • A

        What, praytell, is “racist” about acknowledging that the civil rights struggle had not yet made such strides toward equality, and that imposing modern sensibilities on the depiction of another time period isn’t just unrealistic, it’s insulting?

      • Jake

        Oh, for crying out loud, Helena. Just because I have enough of a basic historical background to know that I shouldn’t see an F-18 fighter jet streaking across the sky in a Matthew Brady photograph (look it up, along with the word “anachronistic;” you might learn something) doesn’t mean I hate airplanes. Maybe you should make sure you understand the posts before you start throwing around the “r” word. Good grief.

      • Felicia

        This series can be based on anything it wants, but it ISN’T historical fiction. It is fantasy, so women wanting the characters to be stronger isn’t that ridiculous. I haven’t read the books yet or seen the show. Is there magic in it? Yes/No? If there is, than its “realism”, historical or not, seems a moot point.

      • TreS

        Yes Felicia, it is fantasy, so it can do whatever it wants, but why is it BAD that it decides to focus its equality among sexes upon a period in our own history when sexes were not equal? Just because the characters in the book view women as nothing more than property doesn’t mean that the author, nor the viewers/readers condone that action. It is simply a plot point within the story. Some characters will rise above it, others will not. It is what makes an interesting story, as opposed to the whitewashed world where everything is great and dandy and nothing bad ever happens to anyone or anything.

      • Jen

        So is it only permissable to write fictional dramas that take place in an egalitarian culture? If you can’t look past the fact that the author chose to set his story in a culture with certain rules and gender roles, then change the channel.

    • Gwen

      As an avid student of British history, I have read several books about the Wars of the Roses. The fictional series on which “Game of Thrones” is based has nothing to do with the Wars of the Roses. It all comes from the imagination of Mr. Martin.

      • NYC

        It’s pretty widely accepted that A Song of Ice and Fire was in fact quite heavily influenced by the series fights over control of the English throne in medieval England. To say it has ‘everything’ to do with Martin’s books is wrong, but to say it has ‘nothing’ to do with them is wrong too.

      • Kim

        and The girl with the dragon tattoo was entirely fictional. (yet another story about psychopaths, fwiw)

      • thin

        It’s not really “widely accepted,” it’s straight from the horse’s mouth. The characters of the Starks are loosely based on the Yorks, and the Lannisters the Lancasters. Yes, it’s a fictional story that comes from the imagination of GRRM, but the War of the Roses was the starting point for it in his mind.

      • Margaret Brunton

        Amen! I majored in English history and I find it incredible that the author claims that the book has its basis in that time period. About the only thing similar is that there are multiple houses, branches of the royal family, fighting over the throne. And yes, Henry VI, was a bit a mental case but in his case he was too meek and wasn’t sending people to the block for no reason. What Martin has done is graft prevailing Medieval attitudes onto his fantasy plot. Doesn’t mean that females don’t want women to be more that chattel.

  • LoQ

    Having read the first three novels of A Song of Ice and Fire, I believe Armstrong is mistaken – Martin’s novels tell a familiar tale where “heroic” women are victimized and female sexuality and ambition are feared and reviled. Game of Thrones suffers from a gynophobic, juvenile attitude towards sexuality that is all too typical of the genre. This isn’t Rome (or Spartacus for that matter).

    • emt

      Trying reading them again but pay attention this time.

      • thin

        Seriously.

    • TreS

      Yes, the presiding attitude within the story is that women are second class citizens, but that is a story-telling element, not a juvenile attitude towards sexuality that GRRM is letting slip into his work as you would have everyone believe. It is simply a plot point, there for some characters to overcome, and others to stumble upon. Brienne and Arya being perfect examples. I could also make a strong argument that Daenerys falls into that trap at first, but only once she moves beyond using her sexuality to get ahead does she really gain any power.

      And what about Dorne? That entire Kingdom throws away the notion that women are lesser. I think you really do need to go back and read the books again, and people need to stop assuming that because the author writes a mysogonistic world that somehow he is mysogonistic himself. He is simply writing in that sexism as just one of many the many pitfalls that characters have to try and overcome.
      If everything was sunny and peachy for everyone all the time, that would be a very boring story indeed.

  • Bug

    Not to be “that person” who harps on what is different between the books and the show, but I have to say the Dany scene where she was basically raped by her new husband really bothered me. In the book, that was the start of her changing as a character. She took more control of the situation. It was really the first time that I thought the person she was away from her brother might be different than the person she is around him. That wasn’t really in that scene in the show. She just basically traded attackers in the show, which was really disturbing to me.

    • crispy

      My guess is that scene was a fake-out.

      • Portia

        I hope you’re right. This was my only peeve with this episode. It changes the entire dynamic of their relationship from this point forward.

    • nyn

      I was bothered too. In the book, he asks for and recieves her permission before any sex takes place. For me it was the one sour note in an otherwise solid debut.

    • Meg

      I agree, Bug, although I can see one possible explanation for the change: the book does mention that for an extended period of time after her marriage Daenarys is in pain from riding all day, and is not enjoying her sex life with Khal Drogo, who as I recall demands sex every night, at all. Maybe rather than try to show all that, they decided to make the wedding night stand in for it, if that makes sense. We’ll have to see how they develop it, but I agree that right now it seems like an unfortunate and puzzling change for them to have made.

    • Merry Bear

      I agree with your comment (and don’t want to be “that person”, either. Because of the kindness her husband showed on their wedding night, we begin to like and not fear his character; I would hate for that to not translate, or worse, for Dany to come to love a man who basically raped her in the movie.

  • Nathan H

    Try watching style or lifetime if you don’t want to see how life was for the majority of women throughout all of history. Feminist or not, I’d just say rather realistic.

    • Felicia

      Yet again, fantasy, dude. The story can be whatever the writer wants it to be.

      • crispy

        I think you’re sorta missing the point of this type of writing. It is at once both an historical and fictional work, kind of a genre all its own, so the author is still beholden to certain conditions and factual elements of the timeframe. Another fantastic example of this type of novel is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel.

      • TreS

        But just because its fantasy doesn’t mean he has to whitewash everything. Would you be as equally disgusted if it were fantasy where men were taken advantage of and raped by women? That hasn’t happened on a large scale in human history as far as I am aware, so that would be fantasy, yet it would be demeaning to men…

        I think you are just looking for something to cry about, and have landed on this. Just because its fantasy doesn’t mean that women have to be treated as well as men within the story, and it definitely doesn’t mean that the author is sexist, it is just a story he is telling where there are pitfalls for everyone.

      • Kim

        responding to tres:
        Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time essentially has women raping men — removing their will to live, among other things.

      • Kim

        you want Xena? go watch Xena!
        This is DARK fantasy. And we don’t mean twilight.
        It also gives people room to grow, change, and be awesome. Tyrian wouldn’t be nearly as awesome without being a dwarf. He’d just be a smarmy knowitall.

  • Jen

    I have been a longtime fan of the series and when I read about people trying to characterize this epic story as “anti-feminist” I just want to roll my eyes.

    The culture of the story (with Dorne being the exception, though that realm has not yet been introduced) does have a patriarch society and guess what, that’s not too unlike our own world a few hundred years ago. Accept that the dominant culture believes that men have their roles and women have theirs. Can we move on?

    Now, take the main female characters in the storyline. They are strong women whose story is about overcoming their own obstacles in their own ways.

    It is possible to have a good story with compelling female characters in a male-dominated society without having it turn into a commentary about gender equality.

    • TreS

      Thank you! You said exactly what I have been trying to put into words!

    • Michelle

      Can we get this comment in bronze, please?

      • Jen

        Thanks guys! *beam*

    • thin

      Hear, hear!

  • The Truth

    This show and the books are based on a Medieval fantasty world. So far the show depicted how women were treated and viewed as during Medieval times. I hate it when people try to put modern ethics and morales into characters that lived in a completely different era. I applaud the author and the show for keeping with how people behaved and acted in the world which they lived in and not make a show about modern 21st century people dressed up in Medieval clothing.

  • Lorene

    Seems to mostly be about sex and violence – I won’t be watching any more

    • Merry Bear

      You’ll be missing out on a lot more than sex and violence, but to each his own.

  • joe

    loved the nudity. some sweet women out there. loved their hair

    • crispy

      Since we’re talking about gender bias in this series, the boobies to peen ratio is woefully lopsided. Jamie Lannister needs to get depantsed pronto.

      • Sadie

        LOL Is it me, or is the boobies to peen ratio pretty much always woefully lopsided?

      • Merry Bear

        Crispy, I usually agree with you on most topics, even if I don’t comment, but I really can’t say nekked Jamie sounds appealing. That said, can we focus more on Sean Bean and his excess clothing?

      • Sadie

        Which one is Jamie Lannister again? Keeping up with all 136 of these characters is making me tired. IMDB it is.

      • crispy

        Oh, I’ll happily take naked Sean Bean. Woof!

      • crispy

        @Sadie: Jamie Lannister is the pin-up blond who’s banging his sister.

      • Melissa

        This is my biggest gripe as well. Sadie is right, though, the boobs to peen ratio is always lopsided in Hollywood. I actually think that is one thing that makes the show seem mysogynistic. Not that I think the producers hate women, or that even the male characters do. But, they seem to be objectifying the women more than is necessary. Did anyone else notice how the men were fully clothed (and buttoned up) while having sex in the wedding party and even Jamie and Cercesi. Very comical.

      • Kim

        Momoa (the Hawaian Drogo) is promising much more of him being nude…

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