TV

The Future of 'Game of Thrones' Is Female

Alcy Leyva
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones (2011) (All photos IMDB)

An exploration into how the show's violence against its women enforces and strengthens the matriarchy of Game of Thrones' Westeros.


Game of Thrones

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington
Network: HBO
Year: 2011
Amazon

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

Stark Then

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.

Next Page

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image