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.
Being saddled with not one but two of the most loathed characters in the show’s run, Sansa enters season 7 now fully aware of the power she holds as a woman. The visual of Sansa quietly watching Ramsay Bolton being eaten by his hounds last season stands as a powerful visual for the person Sansa Stark has now become. Through the pain and mental anguish she has endured, Sansa has gained knowledge and experience of the Westeros she once took for granted. By listening and observing the missteps of others, she has gained valuable insight into the intricacies of political influence. She also seems to have a firm grasp of her femininity, especially in regards to the advances of Lord Baelish (Aiden Gillan). Baelish has made it clear that he desires to sit on the Iron Throne with Sansa by his side. Sansa, being aware of his infatuation with her, is navigating this privilege with clever tact, so far. While she’s not aware of his exact plans, she sees through the wiles of what some may call the most conniving man in the entire series. In doing so, she has gained control of an army that can secure her path to the Iron Throne.
If Joffrey represents the corruption of pure blood patriarchy, then Ramsay proves that there is even less to be found in bastard lineage. Neither is fit to rule and abuse their power with reckless abandon. Even the “righteous” protagonists such as Ned and Robb Stark are found unworthy to lead and are killed because they fail to have the proper awareness of the world. The necessary conclusion then is that the new institution that should rise from the ashes of this failed oligarchy be made up of those who have the proper insight into the ills of mankind.
Sansa now holds this awareness, a fact proven by the growing tension between her and her brother, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington). Brewing beneath the surface, a struggle for power between the two heads of the Stark banner is on the horizon. Sansa, not Jon, carries the full Stark bloodline and holds a viable claim to rule all of Westeros. As viewers, knowing the traumatic events which she has survived, we almost side with her over Jon in this respect. Jon’s sense of justice and his view of the world are locked solely on the battlefields across Westeros. Sansa is obviously not as naïve as her brother and, coupled with her influence on Lord Baelish and her intimate knowledge of how power corrupts lesser men, has made her a definitive force to be reckoned with in the upcoming war with Cersei Lannister. Sansa even comes to warn her brother of this in the season 7 episode when she tells him:
“You have to be smarter than Father. You need to be smarter than Robb. I love them, I miss them, but they made stupid mistakes and they both lost their heads for it.”
Sansa recognizes that Jon is following the ways of the past and that this can only lead to ruin. She sees within Jon a dutiful and honorable man, one which people will follow, but moreso because he represents the shallowness of an old system built on honor and code. She knows that Jon can lead Westeros while it is at war, but it is she who knows of the depravity of the human experience, thereby ultimately allowing her to be better equipped to lead Westeros after Winter breaks. Sansa represents the experience of calculated politics needed for the matriarchy to survive.
Arya is now built on one single-minded focus. Instead of arriving back at home and running to her sibling’s’ side, she continues to exact her revenge on those who have caused her harm. She has adopted the skills of The Faceless Men but maintains her own name. Singlehandedly purging, not only the male head of House Frey but also every man in its lineage. Now turning her attention to the grandest names on her list, which are currently housed in King’s Landing, Arya’s transformation from rambunctious child to force of nature is complete. When she says, “Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe,” to the men she has just poisoned, this reveals that she considers herself as the sole inheritor of the Stark code we see her father Ned speaking of in season 1.
The reason she beckons the men to drink and stops the female servants short from the same fate can be seen as Arya becoming a reestablishment of order. While at first she rejected the single notion of what is expected of a young girl, she has now matured into a woman who defies the social norm. She can now navigate the harsh world of Westeros with her ability to take the guise of anyone — man, woman, or child. Her expertise at this camouflage gives her the edge in her purge of House Grey, but it remains to be seen how far this alone will aide her once she is within range of Cersei Lannister.
While an easy character to rally behind, Arya’s death drive is also one which should worry her fans. Regardless of her experiences, she is still only 17years old and shouldering the entire weight of the world on her own will have its consequences. While episode 1 of season 7 leaves Arya on an uplifting scene in which she is sharing a meal with soldiers close to her age, it remains to be seen what will happen if she continues on this path. This scene specifically brings into question whether once every name is crossed off of her list, does Arya have the capacity to return to society? Can one find happiness at the end of a path drawn in blood?
Daenerys Targaryen, (Souad Faress) and Dosh Khaleen High Priestess (Emilia Clarke)
When we first meet Daenerys Targaryen, she is a powerless character at the start of Game of Thrones. Much like Sansa and Cersei, her body is being used as a bargaining chip, sold between families for the advancement of the men around her. Being a mere pawn of her brother, Viserys, we slowly begin to see signs of the headstrong “Mother of Dragons” she will become upon his death.
What makes Daenerys’ journey so interesting is that it reveals the undermining effect of patriarchal tradition. While she is a direct descendant of the “Mad King”, Daenerys is strong-willed, dependable, and cares for her people. She is stern without being unjust, and has had to deal with her good intentions meeting public resistance. Her crusade to overthrow the institution of slavery in Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen seemed to be one in which the sides of “good” and “evil” were clearly drawn. Yet, as we come to learn, the institution of slavery, and the infrastructure that it has provided for Slaver’s Bay for hundreds of years, proved to be more resilient than she expected.
Daenerys is able to come full circle with her growth as a woman in power. Her initial awakening by fire gave birth to the three dragons, but it is this second emergence from the all-consuming flames — flames which erased the influence of the male Khals and solidified Khaleesi as mother to all — in which we see her as a true liberator. In this case, she serves as the destroyer of the male stranglehold on this nation while, at the same time, solidifying her as a legitimate threat to do the same to all of Westeros.
Season 7’s opener left us with very little time with Daenerys. Only appearing at the very end of the episode, her silent trek through the titular Dragonstone is symbolic of the journey she has completed up to this point. This stronghold, once the ancestral home of the Targaryen bloodline, had last been used by Lord Stannis Baratheon as he attempted to reclaim the Iron Throne– the very thing Daenerys considers her birthright. Dragonstone represents the reclamation of a world lost. Like her exploits in Meereen, it is safe to predict that the real challenge she is set to face is not that of the physical war for the throne. Instead, regardless of her best intentions, the true complications will arise from the stigma of a Targaryen ruler. What many fear the most is Daenerys’ status as woman in power. He title “Mother of Dragons” implies a fear of her femininity and control over nature (she not only commands three dragons but she is impervious to fire). Her “children” are, for all intents and purposes, mythological beasts. This symbolically makes Daenery’s Targaryn mother both legend and magical.
Daenerys’ story is unlike the other characters simply because it is not that of a woman coming into power during a giant upheaval of societal norms, but what she must learn in order to weather the broad strokes of change she hopes to implement. How she deals with the clashes of wills from the other female leads, as well as the coming reveal of Jon Snow’s true ancestry, will come to define the legacy of Daenerys Targaryen.
Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Meryn Trant (Ian Beattie)
Cersei’s path is unique in that she is very much a direct product, and some would say, instigator, of the old regime. There are several factors that lead into this but the most telling is her age. She is the oldest and, within the framework of politics and family hierarchy, the most experienced at “playing the game of thrones” While we don’t see much of Cersei in her younger years (outside of the prophecy flashback), we gather hints of her life from her reactions to various events around her. We know that she is both cunning and manipulative, a repurposed Lady Macbeth with the fire of a mother dragon.
Cersei’s interactions and eventual comparisons with Sansa Stark have been well documented. From the outset, she saw a weakness within Sansa that she thought to challenge. We never directly see how Cersei was a young Queen, but we come to understand that it mirrors Sansa quite perfectly. She too was forced into a loveless marriage and used by the men around her to further their names. It was Cersei, not Catlyn, who was present when Sansa experiences her first period. Not to say that they were devoid of moments in which Cersei wasn’t hostile towards young Sansa (her practice of calling her “Little Dove” certainly proves this openly). The most telling scene which reflects this duality in Cersei — both as an adopted mother figure and cruel teacher — is her interaction with Sansa during the Battle of Blackwater. She openly mocks the young girl’s need for prayer (citing that her father did the same to her) and even forces her to drink wine, subsequently revealing, “I should have been born a man. I’d rather face a thousand swords than be shut up inside with this flock of frightened hens.” The nature of their relationship poses Cersei Lannister as a kind of pre-matriarch to the eventual shift to women in power.
Her interactions with Margaery Tyrell prove that in this role, she also serves as a classic sentry to protect the old ways. While Sansa never provoked Cersei into believing that she was there to endanger her family, Margaery came across as far more hostile and threatening to her way of life. While this did give us some marvelous scenes in which the two personalities clashed (my personal favorite being Cersei’s explanation of the song “The Rains of Castamere”), it shows it also fully establishes her as the woman everyone in Westeros aspires to be. She is the epitome of mother and wife; both powerful in character as well as in name.
Following her bloody accession to power, we find that Cersei has become a shadow of her old self. The previous role of early matriarch is now replaced with cold and self-righteous anger, which was always present before but assembled with the buffer of her family grounding Cersei for us as an audience. We found her cruel and vicious at times, but at the heart of every barb she threw was a motivation to protect her children at all costs. With their death, her brother (and former lover) Jaime expressing his doubts over her actions and what appears to be enemies flanking her at every turn, Cersei Lannister seems primed to be inviting her own destruction. The opposing forces of the Starks and Targaryen armies threaten to complete the destruction of King’s Landing — an event that had been set in motion even before the first episode aired. For Cersei, she alone opposes these armies.
What was at first a victim of the male-focused regime has now become its last breath. Cersei fails to shed the ways of the patriarchy that bred her maternal instincts. While there was a time that she stood for something more than her father’s ideals, she is now a warrior queen. In this, she resembles Daenerys (there is a reason she ascended the Iron Throne by using wildfire), but unlike the exiled Targaryen, she has not learned compassion and mercy from the wounds that have been inflicted on her. When she states, “The only way to keep your people loyal is to make certain they fear you more than they do the enemy,” it becomes quite clear that even the old matriarchy, the feminism Cersei laid out to young Sansa as gospel, the one created during the rule of men, is not fit to aid society.
With her two brothers physically maimed and therefore emasculated, her rise to power has made her the inheritor of the tyranny wrought by the old kingdom. Her age and experience grants her wisdom, but only as it relates to the destruction of her enemies and the subjugation of her detractors. If the White Walkers represent the return of the old magic and forgotten gods, Cersei Lannister is now the final embodiment of the terror which lies in humanity’s power. She is the final mainstay of the Westeros “Old Guard” — a woman modeled after the inhumanity she has had to endure at the hands of prideful men. She is now muted: flowing gowns are replaced by dresses that resemble armor; long blonde hair is now cut short. Though all of her children are dead, Cersei Lannister is now only mother to a dying
A Means to an End
We have watched these women suffer throughout the years. They are survivors of physical violence and mental abuse. We have seen them burned alive, enslaved into dens of incestuous fathers, and stripped naked and forced to walk until their feet bled. Though their bodies and minds have been violated by the cruelty of men, they now command the greatest armies ever assembled. These women are the survivors of a society willing to mutilate the female form.
All of this leads us to ask some important questions of the theme being presented in this show. What are the writers/creators attempting to say about the life a woman must lead in order to be truly “free” of her male oppressors? Similarly, if this show has come to entertain us with some of the most powerful and influential women on television — and surely we can rally around the new age brought on by Arya, Sansa, Daenerys, and Cersei — as viewers, we should also be questioning violence against women whenever a show uses it as a narrative tool to motivate its characters.
Hopefully, these last two seasons of the show are building towards the final obstacle facing the successful implementation of a matriarchal society in Westeros: the symbolic destruction of the game of thrones itself. At least one thing is certain in Westeros: the future is female.