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Gender and Power in Fantasy Land

The genre of fantasy fiction that we have inherited from storytellers of past generations has been one dominated by masculinity. The claim could certainly be made that traditional fantasy supports, even glorifies, society’s conventional conception of masculinity. We all know the story: The knight rides in on his valiant steed, magical sword in hand and after a harrowing battle, he slays the villain and rescues the damsel in distress. It is a tale that has become almost too trite to tell. So, contemporary fantasy writer George R. R. Martin decided to completely rewrite it.


The third season of HBO’s critically acclaimed series Game of Thrones is on track to post the show’s highest ratings yet. Every Sunday night, more and more people are tuning in, and they’re not all just a bunch of nerdy fan boys. In fact, quite a lot of them are women. Just what is it that is drawing these new female viewers to a show and genre that has historically been the realm of a largely male audience? It probably has something to do with fact that the women of Game of Thrones are some of the most powerful and dynamic female characters on television right now.


Take for example Daenerys Targaryan, played by Emilia Clarke. Since emerging from the flames in the season one finale, she has gone from being the glorified sex slave of a Dothraki savage to being something of a goddess in the eyes of her own people and a commander of some eight thousand warriors. This rise to power has not come without a cost, however. Daenerys struggled every step she took towards being capable of sacking the slave city of Astapor. Her own brother sold her to a horse lord. She carried that horse lord’s child to term only to experience the agony of losing her firstborn. She lost her husband,too, as well as the protection and security he had provided her. Yes, she gained three dragons, but with them came the responsibility and danger of being in sole possession of the most devastating weapons in the world. Throughout Daenerys’ journey across the desert wasteland, female audience members have watched and empathized with the exiled princess that is striving to claim her family’s throne in a world of ruthless and hostile men that constantly underestimate her. In Qarth, the Spice King, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, and Pyat Pree all seek to deceive and manipulate Daenerys for their own purposes. All three men are disposed of by the time she takes her leave of the city.


Daenerys’ cool and calculating demeanor in the face of vulgar men such as the slave master Kraznys mo Nakloz appeals to female viewers who can practically see the Targaryan princess outthinking her antagonist. Women know all too well what it’s like to have an arrogant man dismiss them and undervalue their intelligence. Kraznys hurls tasteless jeers and snide remarks at Daenerys in Valyrian, believing her to be a foreigner incapable of understanding him without the assistance of a translator. In, perhaps, the best reveal in the third season so far, Kraznys learns that he was very, very wrong about Daenerys and he pays dearly for his crass tongue.


In an interview with the Huffington Post about her role as Dany, Emilia Clarke said, “She comes from a line of leaders. She comes from a really, really powerful, strong family. It’s in her blood, and I think she’s, without realizing it, incredibly aware of what she needs to do and what it takes to be a leader.”


It is this role as an inspiring leader that causes fans to gravitate towards Daenerys, but her storyline is not the only one that is intriguing female audiences. Martin’s Game of Thrones universe is a mural of complex and morally grey characters, and while many of them are women, few have roles rooted in traditional stereotypes. Look no further than Brienne of Tarth, played by Gwendoline Chrstine, mockingly called Brienne the Beauty because of her tough features and brawny frame. In the books Martin describes Brienne as uncommonly strong and show creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have done an excellent job translating that visceral strength on to the television screen. In episode three of the third season, Brienne’s prisoner Jaime Lannister escapes his bonds and draws a blade on her. Jaime, believing to have the upper hand, presses the attack and once again falls victim to the same mistake that his thick-headed fellow males have made: underestimating a woman. Brienne matches Jaime blow for blow and even begins to exhaust the famed Kingslayer, who is said to be one of the finest swordsmen in the Seven Kingdoms. For female fans, it is hardly the first time they have seen Brienne best male knights at swordplay. Her prowess with a blade defeated Loras Tyrell and was the death of three Stark men who tried to recapture Jamie at the end of the second season. In Brienne of Tarth, women see the embodiment of female strength and courage in the face of adversity. They see a woman who is not only capable of doing things as well as a man, but a woman who is more than capable of beating men at their own game.


However, not all of the female characters of Game of Thrones are heroines. Some of the most powerful women in Westeros are also the most sinister, such as Cersei Lannister, played by the sensational Lena Heady. Cersei is the perfect metaphor of the prowling lioness, and the capitol of King’s Landing is her den. While her brother, Tyrion, plots and whittles his hours away with his mistress, Cersei watches his every move. While her father, Tywin, scribbles letters to various lords in his chambers, Cersei strives to solidify the Lannister legacy. And while Jaime is dragged unwilling across the countryside, Cersei keeps their son close and her eyes on the Iron Throne.


Though Cersei plays the role of a villain, the show’s writers have done an excellent job portraying her own struggle for power as she meets her own limits. Cersei feels that her own potential and genius are being stifled by the incompetency of the men surrounding her. This is a sentiment many women can relate to in their own lives. Cersei implores her father to see that she is his true heir and the best hope of preserving his legacy to no avail. Cersei’s difficulties also extend to controlling the petulant King Joffrey. As a mother, Cersei loves her children unconditionally, but it is obvious that she is beginning to become overwhelmed by the horrors she has seen her ever more tyrannical son Joffrey commit. Cersei’s character may not be wholly good, but it is still possible for female audiences to relate to her complexities and ambitions.


In an interview with the Telegraph’s Jessica Salter, George R.R. Martin acknowledges there can be as much abhorrence for his characters as there is admiration. “Some women hate the female characters, but importantly they hate them as people, because of the things that they’ve done, not because the character is underdeveloped,” says Martin.


Cersei is far from a static character. She is a strong and independent woman, capable of tremendous love for her children and tremendous wrath for her enemies. Just ask Ned Stark.


Cersei proves incapable of controlling her son, but that is not a failing she shares with Joffrey’s newly betrothed, Margaery Tyrell, played by Natalie Dormer. Margaery, who first became a player in the game of thrones as the wife of the late Renly Baratheon, has emerged as one of the third season’s most intriguing characters. Margaery is beautiful, brilliant, and seeks to be queen above all else. While Sansa Stark was easily bent to Joffrey’s sadistic will, Margaery effortlessly seduces the boy king and may have him eating out of the palm of her hand by the end of the season. Margaery has shifted the power in her relationship with Joffrey, and he doesn’t even know it yet.


In a telling scene in which the king is fiddling with his new crossbow, Margaery, instead of shying away from him, asks Joffrey to show her how to use it. She even plays along with his dark obsession with killing. Margaery knows exactly which of Joffrey’s buttons to push to get the reaction she wants, but he isn’t the only angle she’s playing. She has also befriended the traumatized Sansa Stark in a display of sisterly love, and drawn the watchful eye of Cersei for assisting the orphans of King’s Landing. Margaery’s down-to-earth nature and clever seduction tactics make her a natural draw to female audiences. She is the formidable force subtly manipulating the most powerful man in Westeros.


These four women are just a few of the multifaceted, dynamic female characters that George R.R. Martin has crafted in his fantasy universe and that, show creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have brought to life on screen. These men deserve only partial credit though. The believability of these characters is accomplished by the phenomenal acting of Clarke, Christie, Headey, and Dormer. These characters achieve their ends through a variety of means: deception, seduction, brute strength, subtle manipulation, and womanly intuition. In the process, the women of Game of Thrones are redefining a genre that has been historically dominated by men.


Game’s growing audience is comprised of many people from many walks of life, but a great deal of these new fans are women; women who love seeing their favorite female characters succeed in a world structured by brutal men and bloodshed. This diversion from the cliché fairy tales where male strength and authority go unquestioned is quite literally a game changer. It is also one of the primary reasons why the third season of Game of Thrones is on track to be the show’s best yet.

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