*Spoiler Alert: If you have not seen any or all episodes of season three of ‘Game of Thrones’ proceed at your own risk. This article contains multiple plot and character details.
From a feminist standpoint, it might seem that all of the female nudity would devalue the complexity and importance of female characters on the show ‘Game of Thrones’ (GOT). But, the primary female characters aren’t delegated to play one dimensional stereotypes. In fact, the women of Westeros provide the heart and soul of ‘Game of Thrones.’
One of the most engaging and unique aspects of HBO’s fantasy hit is the multitude of female protagonists. It would be easy in a show full of men battling for the ultimate prize, complete power symbolized by an Iron Throne, phallic in appearance, for women to be relegated to strictly secondary characters. But, many of the women who inhabit the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros embody a dizzying array of archetypes that are complex, overlapping and multi-layered.
‘Game of Thrones’ does rely a great deal on one degrading stereotype – whores. But this isn’t much of a leap from other TV characters whose only draw is their sexuality. There is one notable exception; Shae, who once she is singled out as the object of Tyrion Lannister’s affection, becomes a more in-depth character. She actually serves as a surrogate mother and mentor to Sansa who has no genuine allies in King’s Landing.
One of ‘Game of Thrones’’ most richly drawn characters is Cersei Lannister. She is a compilation of numerous archetypes, the most prevalent being a mother. Mother figures are overall considered to be calm, sweet and loving. This was the formula that produced June Cleaver, Donna Reed and Harriet Nelson. In the decades that have followed, these traits have been expanded upon. Matriarchs can be funny and flawed. They struggle with balancing self-fulfillment and motherhood. This evolution is a reflection of changing societal attitudes.
Cersei values motherhood above all else, but rarely is she shown being warm or loving to her children. Her affection is demonstrated by her ambitions for her children, primarily her first born son Joffrey. This is also the basis for her self-satisfaction. She has no other purpose. Since Cersei is wealthy she has the luxury of experiencing discontent. Cersei is an interesting dichotomy: a woman who inhabits an unrelatable time and place, but manages to struggle with some very contemporary issues.
Cersei is a mother, yet she lacks warmth, and as opposed to being calm, she comes across more distant and cold. Her idea of nurturing is to realize her ambitions for her children, especially Joffrey. And, like many mothers, now that his aspirations have been met, he has discarded her. This isn’t dissimilar to children who move away from home to attend college and then get jobs far from home.
Cersei does fiercely try to protect her children; she was even willing to murder her youngest son rather than let him fall into the hands of the enemy. Cersei is watchful, another motherly trait. Her suspicions regarding the motives of Joffrey’s betrothed Margaery Tyrell have led her to stymie any of her future daughter-in-laws schemes that she sees as a threat to Joffrey’s power.
Other than motherhood, Cersei has been unable to succeed in what are to this day perceived as women’s duties. Cersei’s loveless marriage to Robert Baratheon and long-term incestuous love affair with her brother, demonstrate a lack of domesticity to say the least – sexual deviance and perversion would be more precise descriptions. She is considered a disappointment by her father, despite her desperate and numerous attempts to please him. Her relationship with Tyrion is usually contentious with the two often plotting against one another, but siblings have recently formed an uneasy alliance as they are forced to endure their father’s tyrannical reign.
Another matriarch was Catelyn Stark. She was a much more traditional mother than Cersei. Catelyn was established early on as a loving wife and mother, until the death of her husband, the presumed death of two of her children and her prolonged separation from daughters Sansa and Arya. Catelyn’s singular role became that of a mentor to her son Robb during his quest to become king. In an attempt to reunite with the remaining members of her family, Catelyn freed Jaime Lannister and became an outcast, thereupon losing all sense of identity. Catelyn Stark was a tragic figure because her counsel was largely ignored by Robb, and she ultimately failed to protect her children.
There aren’t many typical children in the world of GOT. Sansa has become jaded toward the Lannisters, particularly Joffrey, but overall she remains naïve and trusting. She was both a loving and obedient daughter. While engaged to Joffrey, she endured his taunts and torments refusing to speak ill of him in the company of others. Desperate for a confidante, she was easily swayed by Margaery to form an attachment to Loras Tyrell. Sansa is in need of a protector. Tyrion is torn about taking on this responsibility as opposed to meeting his father’s expectations.
Margaery believes strongly in the idea of children as salvation and renewal. She speaks to Sansa of this when Sansa laments about her impending nuptials to Tyrion. Marrying Joffrey, given Joffrey’s violent temperament and homicidal tendencies, makes Margaery a bit of a martyr. She might not be making sacrifices for her religious beliefs, but Margaery, like many GOT characters is committed to furthering her family’s ambition. It’s doubtful Margaery would die for the cause directly, but there will come a day when she won’t be able to charm Joffrey by feigning interest in his brutal hobbies. Margaery has taken precautions to help insure her personal security. In addition, to endearing herself to the people, if she bears any children, her family will be inextricably tied to the Lannisters. In spite of her less than ideal groom, Margaery tells Sansa she takes comfort in the fact that she will be able to raise her sons to be good kings.
Ned and Catelyn Stark’s daughter Arya has been quickly transitioning out of the childhood period of development. She may be young and small in stature, but she has become what she will be from here forth, a warrior. She believes revenge is a noble cause, illustrated by her murdering a soldier after the death of her brother and mother. Arya’s future is dark as predicted by the red witch. Will she remain a heroic figure as long as she kills in pursuit of justice, or will she devolve into a shadowy character?
The most prevalent archetype on GOT, both male and female, is that of the warrior. Warriors use force and strength as a means to an end. Most people associate warriors as protectors of the innocent and purveyors of justice.’ In Game of Thrones’ that viewpoint is very subjective.
While female warriors have become almost commonplace on television in the last few decades (Michonne, Nikita, Buffy), GOT is one of the few, if not the only show, to feature so many. The only other shows that even come close are ‘True Blood’ and ‘The Walking Dead.’ Female warriors are often single and self-reliant. They may have training in hand-to-hand combat or use weapons or magic (the red witch).
A male warrior will often embark on a quest that also serves as a journey of self-discovery. If a woman is not the ultimate prize, she will often serve a distraction. This was the case with Robb Stark and Talisa. A healer whose pregnancy held the promise of new beginnings was ultimately the source of Stark’s undoing.
There are three female warriors on GOT who are more indicative of their male counterparts: Brienne of Tarth, Yara Greyjoy and Ygritte. Physically Brienne even resembles a man, and she’s the only woman on TV to stand toe-to-toe with a bear. She prefers loyalty to an individual than a cause, evidenced by her allegiance to Renly and then to Catelyn Stark. Unlike Brienne of Tarth, Ygritte is fighting for a concept that drives many heroines, freedom from male oppression. In this case, that oppression is represented by the members of the Night Watch. Aside from her long, red hair, Ygritte is asexual in appearance. But, she is also a seductress. She uses sex to try and motivate Jon Snow to adhere to her will but ultimately fails. Yara Greyjoy commands and receives respect from the men she leads, but she operates strictly for the betterment of her family and their interests. Yara’s quest to retrieve her brother is a perfect example. Even though she and Theon are not close, she refuses to turn her back on blood.
Daenerys Targaryen or “Khaleesi” is by far the mightiest female warrior although she never brandishes a sword. She has fought her way from being a bargaining chip for her brother to a woman who commands an army of thousands. She is the “mother” of dragons, which in a showdown for the thrown, are a more valuable commodity than human heirs who can get killed in battle or kidnapped. Although her biological child died, she has thousands of freed slaves who view her as a mother/goddess. Often female warriors are unattractive, but Khaleesi is blessed with angelic features, and she is able to exploit her beauty to help her in her quest. Khaleesi disobeys conventional rules for what she feels is the greater good, securing her birthright.
While many of the primary male characters in ‘Game of Thrones’ are or were driven by a singular purpose, the women have had a wide array of agendas. Some seek vengeance or power. Others want either security for their existing families or to start ones of their own. There are those who must serve a lord and master while one in particular is master of her own destiny. One thing is certain, they all still have both metaphorical and literal battles to face and win. It would have been easy, even expected for the creative forces behind ‘Game of Thrones’ to subjugate women because of social mores of the time period.’ Mad Men’ certainly hasn’t suffered despite deciding to adhere to the constant objectification of women in the work place that was pervasive in the 1960s. Hopefully, GOT will continue to provide audiences with strong, female characters.