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Game of Thrones and Feminism

A song of female character diversity and Lannister comparisons

By Victoria Kallsen
On March 31, 2014

This article contains spoilers for only the television show with mild explanations on Westeros society further detailed in the books.

The "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series, and its derivative, "Game of Thrones," are easily among the best examples of feminist works to date, yet they remain in the confines of medieval limitations. While many critics disagree with the gratuitous amount of naked bodies in the television show, the "sexposition" tactics don't scream of objectification so much as characterization. The representations of female characters is remarkably diverse and encompassing. Most importantly, George R. R. Martin, the author of the series, most expertly draws attention to critiques of the current society with a comparison between Cersei and Jaime Lannister as well as exploration of Dorne politics.
Many describe the sexual content as gratuitous, particularly the scene where Petyr Baelish provides exposition as two women simulate sex in his brothel. However, as the creators of the TV show said to the New York Times, "Every one of those sex scenes is there because we wanted that particular scene in the show." Doesn't Baelish's discussion of his undying love for a certain Catelyn Tully while coaching his prostitutes say more about his character than merely serve as gratuitous pandering?

Furthermore, it isn't as if every female character walks around the show with no clothes on; instead, it appears to be more fitting to the characterization. Shae and Ros are sex workers, and nudity follows from that. Innocent Sansa, tomboy Arya, prim Catelyn and regal Cersei remain fully clothed in comparison, along with most of the main female characters. The nudity embodied by Melisandre and Daenerys is more of a powerful and commanding quality, as they remain confident with their expressions of sexuality. Also, let's not forget that we often see plenty of male nudity, especially when we recall the vivid Renly/Loras homosexual sex scenes.
Regarding the beautiful diversity of female characters, the series sidesteps the typical Madonna-Whore or Betty-Veronica dichotomy of female characters and instead fleshes out individual characters. Naive and pure Sansa, with dutiful and honorable Catelyn, are often portrayed as courageous. On the other hand, tomboy characters Brianne, Arya and Asha Greyjoy display a different type of courage, "a woman's courage," as Brianne describes it. While reaction to Arya has been more positive than, for example, that for Sansa, I believe Sansa's tale says a lot about how society treats women. She's continually shuffled around and married off for her claim to Winterfell. Additionally, if you have the benefit of reading from her point of view in the novels, you see all her hate-fueled thoughts regarding Joffrey.
While Daenerys Targaryen remains the pinnacle for many a feminist discussion, she fills a standard void for strong women pieces: a white blonde kick-butt woman with a Buffy's-been-there-done-that vibe. My Mother of Dragons love remains strong, but Cersei's anti-hero antics are more persuasive. Cersei is constantly exploiting, manipulating and will resort to less than heroic actions in order to keep the Iron Throne in her regal hands. (Awesome, right?) While many critics are skeptical of her, Cersei laughs at the weakness of Lancel and Jaime who succumb to her wiles all too easily. Furthermore, her journey is constantly compared to that of Jaime's, and she often muses of the place she would have in society if she was born a man. In the age of anti-heroes, Cersei Lannister is the female answer to the likes of Walter White and Tony Soprano: flawed, often paranoid and murderous.
The last piece of the puzzle is the critique of the traditional medieval male-dominated society. The province of Dorne in the south of Westeros comes into prominence this season with far more liberal class and gender standards. Their practice of equal primogeniture allows for the eldest child, regardless of gender, to inherit their parents' estate and titles. The resulting clash of cultures remains important for later conflict in the series.
Where does this leave "Game of Thrones?" To be honest, in a really good place. With confident, self-assured characters like Ygritte and Melisandre, strong badass dragon-welding Daenerys, and even demure Sansa, "A Song of Ice and Fire" remains a powerhouse of female characterization with important commentary on a sexist Westeros society. Fantasy has long remained the realm of men of all shapes and sizes, but few women have commanded the narrative especially in a novel so awash with sex, violence and political intrigue. Through a compelling multiple point-of-view narrative device and a commitment to real, varied representations of women, Martin has hit the mark closer than most.

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