What Women Want
“There’s one thing that’s really interesting about your books. I noticed that you write women really well, really different. Where does that come from?” George R. R. Martin is surely used to fawning questions, and he has an answer for this one. But it’s an answer that only sounds simple: “You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.”
What’s left out of this exchange is what “well” might mean, or “different.” It might be that considering women “to be people” is remarkable in itself, for a male writer of fantasy fiction. Or it may be that women, as fictional people in a fictional world as wild and enticing as Westeros, provide a particular kind of fantasy, one appealing to a very dedicated cadre of fans. The question is, as these “people”, imagined so vividly in Martin’s books and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ series Game of Thrones, are so fully immersed in a world of men, how might they matter and what do they mean?
From the start of the series, when it was in the business of following the books, headstrong Lady Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and the ambitious widow Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) occupied themselves with political games, with managing their households and positioning their men. But when the kingdom’s factions went to war, their ability to influence events—especially their children’s fates—declined. As the third season premieres on 31 March, Cersei and Catelyn are challenged by younger rivals, women in pursuit of political supremacy.
Picking up where the second season left off, the new one’s first episodes focus on the aftermath of one of the biggest battles for the claim to the Iron Throne. Most of Westeros is shattered, with the exception of the Lannisters, as Cersei’s son Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) still reigns as king. But while Joffrey and other men fight for control over the realm, Catelyn and Cersei seek to keep control over their families. Cersei’s family is currently the most powerful in Westeros. With her son on the throne and her father serving as Hand of the King, she’s focused on protecting them from both the rebels and Joffrey’s scheming allies.
Cersei is especially distrustful of Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), due to marry Joffrey. Here the series considers how celebrity shapes politics: Margaery is young and beautiful, and the citizens of King’s Landing have fallen in love with her apparent warmth, which she bestows on peasants and orphans during brief, crowd-pleasing visits. Cersei maintains her own chilly surface during dinner shared by the Tyrells and the Lannisters; while Margaery wears a gorgeous, light blue dress with revealing diamond-shaped cut-outs, Cersei is fully covered, wearing a dress that Margaery describes with barely veiled disdain: “Isn’t the queen’s gown magnificent? The fabric, the embroidery, the metalwork? I’ve never seen anything like it.” Cersei replies, “You might find a bit of armor quite useful once you become queen.” While the queen-to-be is reminiscent of the dwindling summer months, the Lannister lioness is prepared for the oncoming winter.
Nothing in Game of Thrones is as it seems, of course, and no one understands this more completely than Cersei. She worries for Joffrey, so smitten with his new queen. Cersei tries to warn him, “Margaery Tyrell dotes on filthy urchins for a reason. She dresses like a harlot for a reason. She married a traitor and known degenerate like Renly Baratheon for a reason.” Joffrey cuts her off: “She married Renly Baratheon because she was told to. That’s what intelligent women do. What they’re told.”
While the king may speak as though he’s independent of his mother, that she should also be an “intelligent” woman, their conversation begins as she’s helping him decide on new clothing; for a moment, Joffrey still seems a child who is too drunk with power to realize he still needs his mother’s help. But as he delivers his threatening line, he’s standing above her, positioned so that he’s literally looking down on the mother who has guided and protected him for so long. In this moment, we know that Margaery has replaced the Queen in his eyes, that Cersei has lost her influence on him, so long and carefully cultivated.
A similar shift takes place within Lady Catelyn’s family, as the show leaves the lush blues and greens in the South for the earth tones and snows of the North. We find the Stark matriarch with her son King Robb Stark (Richard Madden), still held prisoner for freeing Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Even though Catelyn has lost the respect of the Northmen and her son, this is not her biggest concern. Like Cersei, she now has a daughter-in-law to worry about.
Despite Robb’s commitment to marry one of Lord Frey’s (David Bradley) daughters in exchange for the Frey family’s support in the war the young king chooses to wed Talisa Maegyr (Oona Chaplin), a healer who abandoned her noble family in favor of helping those in need. Catelyn and the Northmen know the risk of Robb’s choice, stated explicitly by one of his lords: “I think you lost this war the day you married her.” Talisa is a wrecking ball, an affront to Catelyn’s power (Lady Stark worked out the agreement with the Freys to help strengthen Robb’s army) and likely to her son’s as well.
Outside of Westeros but also wrapped up in familial dudgeons, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) maintains her claim to the Iron Throne. Threatening the Lannister reign and the Starks, as well as the entirety of the Seven Kingdoms, Dany and her khalasar have survived deserts, greedy men, and blue-mouthed warlocks. This season, she gains strength and ships, sailing to a city to buy a slave army. Like Margaery, she is vibrant and beloved by her followers, and she possesses an empathy much like Talisa’s. But unlike either, the Mother of Dragons is completely independent of a man and has no mothers-in-law to question her actions or her supremacy.
The women of Game of Thrones are certainly “people,” as Martin puts it, with sharp wits, complex motivations, and vivid personalities. Cunning and ambitious, with a deep understanding of politics and war, they all know how to get what they want.