Game of Thrones isn’t always the easiest show to watch, particularly if you’re female. [Trigger warning for sexual violence.] Between gratuitous rape scenes, constant reminders of patriarchal norms, and the excessive boob-age for which HBO has become somewhat infamous, the show has alienated many female viewers in the past. Violence and oppression against female characters is rarely treated with the appropriate depth and complexity on television — a problem that is often worsened by the prevalence of all-male writing staffs. And as someone who makes a point of protesting misogyny in media, I was as offended as anyone by the rape of Sansa last year, and I almost stopped watching the show in protest. However, one of the most compelling undercurrents of the show — the one which kept me glued to the screen despite my skepticism — is how it’s develops a kind of “against the grain” feminism with its female characters. This came to a head in Season 6, arguably Game of Thrones‘ most feminist season yet. It unequivocally won me back as a feminist viewer.
Most obviously, almost all of the rulers in the show are now women. Aside from Jon Snow, it’s hard to even imagine a male ruler in the GoT universe anymore — or at least, one who doesn’t totally make a mess of his reign. Daenerys decisively quelled the Masters’ rebellion in Slaver’s Bay (now the Bay of Dragons), and is headed across the Narrow Sea to conquer Westeros. Yara Greyjoy sails out with her, aiming to capture the throne of the Iron Islands and reclaim their sovereignty. Ellaria and the Sand Snakes rule Dorne, conspiring with Olenna Tyrell, who is now the sole proprietor of her house. I even got a morbid sense of pleasure (actually, “morbid sense of pleasure” could describe most GoT viewing experiences) in watching Cersei annihilate the figurehead and headquarters of an oppressive religion and subsequently be crowned Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
Not to mention the ferocious Lady Mormont (can you imagine how hard it would be to babysit that kid?), and the queenly aspirations Sansa is no doubt mulling over in that shared look with Littlefinger during the “King of the North” scene in the finale. Overall, the women of Westeros (book club name, anyone?) have maneuvered, manipulated, and all-out fought their way onto their thrones — and they already seem better equipped to handle the burdens of ruling than their weak, sociopathic, or blatantly incompetent male predecessors.
More significantly, while most of the female characters still don’t (literally) rule, even the non-queen women cultivate agency in subtle, clever ways. Not unlike Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, even the most oppressed of women find some means to reclaim their identities, inhabiting the norms of their culture while simultaneously subverting them.
In Episode 7 of this season, Margaery secretly handed her grandmother Olenna a drawing of a rose, indicating that she was still herself despite the act that she needed to put on in order to survive the new religious regime. Sansa, though hardened by her treatment at Ramsay’s hands, values the integrity of her house above all else, and basically inspired and organized the reclamation of Winterfell on her own. She rightly protested being ignored by Jon and his councilmen despite having the most in-depth knowledge of Ramsay of anyone at the table, and then proceeded to save the day by calling upon Littlefinger and the knights of the Vale — without giving Jon any foreknowledge. You could argue that mopey ol’ undead Jon was merely a pawn in Sansa’s quest to take back Winterfell and the North.
On the other end of the spectrum, Arya eschews social structures altogether, choosing to remain in the shadows and traverse the wide world freely as an assassin in order to dole out justice. Even when she wears her own face — that of a young girl — it can be interpreted as a kind of agentive mask, because she sometimes uses it to appear more meek and harmless than she really is (except for when she’s smiling down at Walder Frey’s bloody corpse … proving herself yet another member of the GoT “please don’t make me babysit this scary child” list).
Importantly, even though many of these women have suffered great traumas — rape, torture, the death of family, oppressive religious structures — their trauma does not fundamentally change or redefine who they are. They are affected by it — particularly by sexual violence — and they have to figure out ways to cope, but it doesn’t permanently defile them or turn them evil.
It is especially notable that, for a show historically written almost entirely by men, the female characters tend to defy stereotypes and easy categorization. So many female characters written by men lack realistic internal motivations, or lack interiority at all. When not rendered as mere objects, they’re often relegated to playing foils to male characters. Amy Schumer did a brilliant parody of this on her show, and Alison Bechdel devised a test to see if a movie even attempts to give its female characters any existence in their own rights (as in, outside of the male characters’ sphere). But the major female characters in the GoT universe each have their own defining characteristics, and are never one-dimensional.
Daenerys is wildly ambitious, but also authoritative, brave (to the point of recklessness), strongly motivated by a desire for equality and justice, and perhaps touched by just a hint of that famous Targaryen madness and tendency toward destruction. Cersei, on the other hand, cares nothing for equality, and is a cruel and power-hungry psychopath — but she’s also a fiercely loyal and loving mother (and sister, it must be said). Arya is consumed by her desire for vengeance, but she’s not cold-blooded; she defies the order of the Faceless Men and saves a target’s life at great risk to herself. Brienne is a fierce warrior, but she’s firmly principled, loyal, and remains capable of more typically “feminine” characteristics and story arcs.
One of my favorite peripheral jokes of this season was Tormund Giantsbane’s blatant crush on Brienne. It would appear to be an empty gag, were it not for the fact that Brienne also seems to be the only woman besides Cersei who is capable of piquing Jamie Lannister’s interest. And why shouldn’t someone desire Brienne? She can have typically “masculine” qualities and still be desirable as a woman.
Most strikingly, while all of these women are “strong,” (as in, not simpering and submissive — except for when that behavior is part of an act devised to get them what they want), they are not one-dimensionally strong, which is a common pitfall of “badass” female characters. They have realistic inner motivations and agendas, and a host of other qualities that both augment and conflict with their strength. Like, you know, real human beings.
And speaking of real human beings, for an author who seems to employ no great moral scheme in deciding which characters live or die, it’s pretty noticeable that the true sociopaths — such as Joffrey and Ramsay, who enacted the most brutal violence against women — have met some of the most seriously gruesome ends. It’s no doubt hard for any survivor of sexual assault to watch rape occur on television — hence the importance of “trigger warnings” — but perhaps there can be something kind of healing about watching perpetrators be brought to such justice. Ramsay being torn alive by his own hounds at Sansa’s bidding provided a much needed catharsis after her (not from the books) rape scene last year. Plus, her last words to him were straight-up perfect, capturing the essence of what so many victims may want to say to their rapists: You will not stain me or this world. We will carry on without you.
Last, but far from least: Daenerys. Mother of Dragons. Targaryen. I mean, do I even need to say anything else? I can’t tell if I want to be her, have sex with her, be her best friend, or some combination of the three. Her sex scene with Daario Naharis back in Season 4 featured a rare “female gaze” of the camera, in which the masculine body was framed as the submissive object of desire for once. And this season has provided no shortage of further opportunities to revel in her badassery. I can’t wait to see what next year has in store for Queen D and all the other leading ladies of Westeros.