ARTICLE / LONG READ
IN 2011, the American fantasy drama television series GAME OF THRONES (HBO 2011-2019), introduced us to the mythical continent of Essos, the lands of Westeros and the nine Great Houses that battle to rule the Seven Kingdoms within it. The first season’s narrative was mostly dominated by male figures, such as the Kings, Lords and Heads of these Houses. Eddard Stark Lord of Winterfell (Sean Bean) and King of the Seven Kingdoms Robert of House Baratheon (Mark Addy) were two of the strong male leads seen. However, the narrative seemed to shift slowly as women rose to power throughout the series after numerous jaw-dropping events and several deaths. The main focus of the award-winning series has almost completely turned to the rise of the powerful women of Westeros as they dominate and seek out revenge over people who have done them wrong and, of course, the fight for The Iron Throne.
Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Queen of the Seven Kingdoms Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) evolve throughout the series to become two of the main protagonists and most powerful characters. In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine in 2018, actress Emilia Clarke stated: “Women have been great rulers. And then for that to be a character that I’m known to play? That’s so f***ing lucky. Anyone who seems to think that it’s not needed need only look at the political environment we’re all living in to be like, ‘Oh, no, it’s needed. It is needed’”. This highlights the important nature of depicting strong women on screen such as Daenerys and Cersei, rather than the too often seen trope of the damsel-in-distress.
The series itself is very timely due to the number of complex gendered narratives and themes it explores. In a Guardian article titled “Drama queens: why it is all about women and power on screen right now”, American literature scholar Sarah Churchwell describes watching GAME OF THRONES as “watching the culture do battle with its own ideas about women: overt misogyny, internalised misogyny, at least three waves of feminism and post-feminism are all fighting it out before our eyes. It is by no means clear who, or what, will win. What we see is what the struggle over women and power looks like”. The idea of female empowerment is an obvious dominant factor throughout the series, being explored and portrayed in a number of interesting ways through different characters.
Cersei, for example, is a fascinating character. She is extremely evil-minded at times but also a devoted mother of three children that she loves and adores. She voices some real feminist statements throughout the series. In season one, she tells Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), Eddard's eldest daughter, that when her brother “was taught to fight, I was taught to smile. He was heir to Casterly Rock, I was sold like a horse”. It is apparent that Cersei does not accept the norms and expectations of the society she was brought up in and indicates that she wants a change in the way women are treated, for them to have more equality and more power.
THE MAIN FOCUS HAS ALMOST COMPLETELY TURNED TO THE RISE OF THE POWERFUL WOMEN OF WESTEROS.
The show has encouraged Clarke to become a passionate advocate for feminism and an icon for many. When asked by Metro in 2015 “Would you like to create a feminist movement?” Clarke stated “I see my character as an icon of feminism. She is strong and fights against everything”. Throughout the series, Daenerys’s journey leads her to gain incredible power and respect by many for sticking to what she believes is right, such as ordering the slaughtering of the male masters of slaves and allows the slaves to live freely amongst her people. In her 2011 book WOMEN ON SCREEN: FEMINISM AND FEMININITY IN VISUAL CULTURE, feminism and popular culture scholar Melanie Waters explores how “authentic womanhood has been distorted or elided within popular culture”. She explains how the misrepresentation of women as “witches, wicked stepmothers, and damsels-indistress of common folklore to the modern-day Cinderellas of Hollywood cinema” has caused a “circulation of unrealistic and misleading images of women within media” embedding feminine stereotypes and ideology since the 1950s when cinema was dominated by traditionally masculine protagonists. GAME OF THRONES manages to subvert the idea of the “damsel-in-distress” on many occasion, with male characters becoming the ones being rescued by women and girls.
In the seventh season, Lord Commander of the Night's Watch Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and his group have to be saved from a near-death situation as an army of the dead surround and outnumber them. Their unexpected rescuer is Daenerys. This is just one of many instances in which a female character plays a vital role in the narrative, as opposed to being objectified as some sort of prize or helpless damsel, challenging the stereotypical views of gender roles. Do such instances signal the end of the “damsel-in-distress” in modern film and television programmes?
In the seminal 1995 text MASCULINITIES, sociologist Raewyn Connell explains how “Roles are defined by expectations and norms, sex roles by expectations attaching to biological status. This leads to a misperception of social reality, exaggerating differences between men and women”. The era and fantasy world within which GAME OF THRONES is set establishes the typical expectation for every female to be a queen, princess or well-mannered lady and, most importantly, obeying men at all times. Male figures generally take on the role of either a king, prince or at least a fearsome knight. Of course, the show evidently involves such stereotypical characters but it also manages to challenge the sexual norm by including more feminine and homosexual male characters. The same goes for challenging the female norm by introducing female characters with desires of wielding a sword and becoming a knight.
DAENERYS AND CERSEI CHALLENGE PATRIARCHY AND HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY IN RULING AS QUEENS WITHOUT KINGS.
Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), who is the guard to King Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony), has one wish: to be an honorable knight. She is ridiculed by several male characters due to her desire to take on a role traditionally associated with men. A number of the male characters simply do not believe it is possible for her to become a true honourable knight because of her gender. As Connell notes, “In its modern usage the term [gender] assumes that one’s behaviour results from the type of person one is. That is to say, an unmasculine person would behave differently: being peaceable rather than violent, conciliatory rather than dominating, hardly able to kick a football, uninterested in sexual conquest, and so forth”. By this logic, Brienne should be incapable of violence and of holding the title of a noble knight due to her gender and that she must hold a typically female role. But her character evidentially displays the opposite.
The concept of "hegemony" relates to dominance in society and Connell goes on to say that “hegemonic masculinity can be defined as the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women”. Patriarchalism is as one of the most prevailing types of dominance, referring to the authority of the father as the head of the house. In other words, the eldest masculine male figure. Brienne proves herself as a knight and directly challenges this ideology when she executes Robert Baratheon’s elder brother Stannis Baratheon (Stephan Dillane) and wins a sword fight against the previously undefeated and former King’s Guard Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann). Daenerys and Cersei also both challenge patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity in ruling as queens without kings. They demonstrate how they can be dominating, assertive and powerful without the need for a significant male other.
Sisters Sansa and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) are depicted as being at complete opposite ends of the scale. Sansa conforms to the so-called norm, wishing to someday marry a prince and honour the title of a princess. Free-spirited Arya has very different desires, such as playing with swords. She completely disassociates from the norms of stereotypical femininity.
FEMALE CHARACTERS ARE DOMINATING, ASSERTIVE AND POWERFUL WITHOUT THE NEED FOR A SIGNIFICANT MALE.
In the seventh season, both characters are depicted as strong, independent women who have significantly grown and become empowered by what they have faced, from witnessing brutal deaths, being the victims of imprisonment, torture and rape. Sansa becomes a leader - similar to Daenerys and Cersei - which demonstrates her ability to challenge others with her new-found dominance and power. Arya becomes a master assassin, obsessed with revenge and fascinated by violence and death.
Although the female characters of GAME OF THRONES experience their fair share of brutality due to sexism, they always manage to overcome it, making them feminist icons for audiences to look up too. The representation of gender in GAME OF THRONES is widely spoken about as it deconstructs and challenges outdated views of patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity, demonstrating that women can become heroic leaders and can be just as powerful as men. The popular show's strong female cast is pause for thought for the future of media. As Churchwell states, “audiences have demonstrated a growing appetite for allegorical stories about women with political and moral authority”. This is evident in an increase in film releases with women as the main protagonists, such as WONDER WOMAN (Patty Jenkins 2017), THE HUNGER GAMES (Gary Ross 2012) and the all-female casts of GHOSTBUSTERS (Paul Feig 2016) and OCEAN’S EIGHT (Gary Ross 2018).
In a 2013 article for The Telegraph, the show’s writer George RR Martin noted, “To me being a feminist is about treating men and women the same… I regard men and women as all human - yes there are differences, but many of those differences are created by the culture that we live in, whether it's the medieval culture of Westeros, or 21st-century western culture”. This is a contributing factor to the show’s success in portraying women in a positive and empowering light. GAME OF THRONES succeeds in showcasing female empowerment and gives its female characters a unique, inspiring voice.