Game of Thrones
Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington
Since its airing in 2011, Game of Thrones has ridden an amazing wave of popularity. Along with being on the cusp of oversaturation, its characters, tropes (and yes even its theme song) has clearly seeped into America’s current culture. From screening parties in local bars to the various memes which populate our Twitter feeds, it’s easy to see that this show has become a landmark of current television.
For some, this is a relatively problematic occurrence. A show which features narratives of incest, rape, and the attempted murder of small children—all in its first episode—asks a lot of its viewers. I wondered, “Well is this it? Is the show, and the novels crafted by George R. R. Martin which inspire it, so focused on the suffering of its female characters that it has nothing else to say?” It’s possible that as we enter the show’s penultimate season, and as we draw ever closer to its highly anticipated conclusion, that we are finally beginning to see through the bleakness of Game of Thrones towards a more female-centered future. Interestingly, by analyzing the story arcs of its female characters, as well as the violent nature of their survival in Westeros, we can see a narrative which has used the physical and mental abuse of women to empower the rise of a new matriarchy.
The show’s violence against women has been thoroughly documented over the years, with some pointing out its excessive reliance on the suffering of women and others flatly protesting its misogyny by refusing to promote the show in any way. At the start of the season, six main threads were established for both its major players and supporting cast. Of the six, four revolve around the theme of a woman coming into her own and having to deal with her new place in the world. All of these women—Arya Stark (played by Maisie Williams), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), Daenerys Targaryen (Emelia Clarke), and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey)—were first presented on the show standing in the shadow of the men in their lives. As a result of these same men losing their power (and their lives), these women were faced with one nightmarish obstacle after another. If we were to look back and carefully plot these women’s character arcs from the first episode to the present day, not only would we amazed by their gradual rise from victims to central figures in the shaping of this world, it would also be possible to further analyze a theme which has been carefully revealed to us over the past seven years.
But before we get into the specific character analysis, we should first look back at how Westeros was before the great androcentric houses fell; back when they were still leaving their lasting effects on its female leads.
The Death of Westeros Patriarchy
When we are first introduced to the world of Westeros, the kingdom was enjoying a time of assumed peace. The heads of the ruling families were mostly male. Robert Baratheon (played by Mark Addy), Ned Stark (Sean Bean), Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd), Kahl Drogo (Jason Momoa), and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) were all of the “old guard”. Even families introduced in later seasons – the Boltons, Martells, and Freys—are male dominated. At the time, it appeared that the most pressing issue was the execution of a deserter from the Night’s Watch. Aside from its squabbles with The Free Folk, there were no wars or uprisings, giving Westeros a semblance of “order.” The entire narrative, and this perceived order is then upended by the contention of bequeathment. Upon learning of Robert Baratheon’s various bastards, and his wife’s duplicity in producing a true heir to his throne, the facade at King’s Landing is finally razed and chaos ensues.
As reproduction is the central cause for the unrest in Westeros, one can read the initial plight which befalls the world as the first slight against the female body. Further, while Robert can be blamed for his philandering, his death before the actual fight for the Iron Throne transfers the weight of his transgressions to the female characters. Suddenly, Cersei must protect her name and the honor of her children. Sansa is quickly offered to Joffrey ( Jack Gleeson) as a means to extend the Lannister heirs. Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) is thrust into the role of protector of her house.
This might seem as an egregious slight on what it means to be a woman in Westeros, but as we come to learn, this is merely a surface reading of what is at work in this world. The patriarchy has only created a “perceived order”, one which has been slowly crumbling beneath the weight of its male corruption. Since the death of the “Mad King”, Westeros’ political structure has clung to its old practices. The aforementioned heads of households follow the old ways, as can be seen as various characters speak about the days when dragons ruled the skies and people feared the coming of the White Walkers. Westeros then was a world of magic and the supernatural. The years have withered these beliefs into legends and fairy tales that no one wants to believe. This complete disregard for the natural world can be tied to the mistreatment of its women. Even the magic we have come to witness in Westeros is thoroughly tied to nature and blood.
The vacuum and the subsequent scramble for power following the death of the king— The War of the Five Kings—leads to the end of many of the patriarchal houses and the rise of a female led revolution. The moment the women of Westeros begin to rise, the old gods are evoked, dragons fly again, proving that the sins of the male oligarchy are what has brought the long winter to the world. Its destruction is the necessary change Westeros has had to accept in order to survive. What has played out over the span of six seasons, and what we come to learn at the start of the seventh, is that the physical and emotional violence endured by these women are as a result of a society desperately clinging to the failing system of patriarchal dependence.
To best prove this point, let’s examine how these women of Westeros lived between seasons 1-6 and where they are when we rejoin them at the start of season 7.
Maisie Williams as Arya Stark
When we first meet Sansa and Arya Stark, they are the young and naïve daughters of a noble family. Sansa stands as the daughter of entitlement, wishfully swayed by the promises of kings and perfect suitors. When she first sees Joffrey, she’s enamored. She sees not the tyrant he can be, but the promise of a lavish and secure lifestyle by the side of a prince. When we first see Arya, on the other hand, she escapes from a class on sewing just to upstage her brother during archery practice. She flings food at Sansa and even appears in one scene wearing a soldier’s helmet with her dress. When she is asked to name the sword she’s given as a gift, she says, “Sansa can keep her sewing needles, I’ve got a needle of my own.” From the outset, it was clear that Arya desired to shed her femininity by exuding very male qualities (which will later come to fruition when she is forced to subvert her gender completely by posing as a boy).
It seems fitting that Sansa comes to learn of the world not from Lady Stark but from Cersei. The cruel nature of men, the expectancy of women to be vessels for childbirth are all things Cersei imparts to shatter Sansa’s view of the world. When she is then physically and emotionally abused by Joffrey, and later on by Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), the public humiliation and personal hell that she endures is the fulfillment of what Cersei previously hinted was at play in the male dominated Westeros.
Following Sansa’s escape from King’s Landing, she is then replaced by Margaery Tyrell. Unlike Sansa (and this will be explained more in detail when we examine the path Cersei has taken) Margaery attempts to fulfill the role of subservient wife and queen. She feels that, regardless of her gender, her marriage to the young king will grant her more power in the world, Margaery and Sansa, therefore, share the same misunderstanding of a woman’s role in Westeros. While Sansa manages to flee before this claimed her life, ultimately Margaery’s self-confidence leads to her downfall.
Following the death of her father, Arya takes a more proactive role towards finding her purpose in the world. Unlike Sansa who is lost and confused after Ned’s death, Arya creates one simple plan for herself: write a list of names and plan to murder everyone on it. This list becomes Arya’s response to the violent world she resides within. She shares a sense of narrow-minded justice which will lead her down a very difficult path following season 1.
From the beginning, Arya was drawn more to men to serve as role models. She especially took to those who did not treat her like a child. Men like Robb Stark (played by Richard Madden)and Syrio Forel (Miltos Yerolemou) saw Arya’s potential, not as a defenseless woman of nobility, but of a soldier. It is when these same men are killed around her that Arya sets out to become stronger in order to enact her revenge. She comes to believe that she can find this strength by becoming one of the “Faceless Men”—an underground guild of assassins that move silently around Westeros. Arya chooses to sacrifice the two most precious things she has left to join The Faceless Men: her name and her sword Needle. After nearly being killed, Arya finally understands that no man is worth her following. By then leaving The Faceless Men, she reclaims her name and weapon and sets out to seek revenge on those responsible for the destruction of her innocence. In one glorious scene at the end of season 6, we see Arya fully realized, slitting the throat of the man responsible for killing her mother, brother, and unborn nephew/niece.