It wasn’t so long ago that Game of Thrones was widely criticised for its initial portrayal of female characters as powerless victims. In my view, the disconnect between the books and TV series was the main factor in these concerns: scenes such as Sansa’s (Jeyne Poole in the books) abuse was shot for TV in a way which emphasised a male character’s (Theon Greyjoy’s) reaction; scenes critical of male-on-female violence were cut. Perhaps just as importantly, the books’ presentation of systemic oppression of the poor, disabled and even children- not just women- was not as apparent onscreen.
Obviously, all that changed during Season 6. Now, with Sansa as acting ruler of the North, all the contestants for the Iron Throne are women. (Unless Gendry shows up to stake a claim as Robert Baratheon’s bastard). However, Game of Thrones has gone further than simply having powerful female characters. Intentionally or not, both the show and the books take down classical archetypes of women which have existed in the west for centuries.
The Mother Archetype
The Westerosi seven gods include the Mother, Maiden and Crone- a reference to goddess triads typical of Norse and other ancient religions. The Mother exemplifies traditional notions of feminity:
HIGH SPARROW: Ah, “As water rounds the stones, smoothing- -”
MARGAERY: “Smoothing what was jagged, so does a woman’s love calm a man’s brute nature. A wife salves her husband’s wounds, a mother sings her son to sleep.”
-Game of Thrones Season 6, Episode 7: The Broken Man
Game of Thrones explores this traditional ideal of motherhood and pushes it to its extreme. Cersei’s love for her children leads to mass-murder by blowing up the Sept. She walked through King’s Landing naked to protect her children, fearful that a trial would expose their bastardy. And she protects them despite them being born from a decidedly non-traditional relationship with her brother. The more a mother loves her children, the more she must do to keep them safe. A mother’s love means she must kill to protect. She has to violate the very norms of feminine modesty (by being naked in public) to protect them. And she has to love her children even if she created them out of nonconforming relationships. Cersei is the mother archetype’s logical conclusion. The maternal love that religion (personified by the High Sparrow) valued necessitates brutality. Game of Thrones proves that gender norms make no sense because following the norm contradicts it.
The religion reflects societal values of women as destined only for marriage and motherhood, as is revealed in the same conversation:
HIGH SPARROW: You have a duty, Your Grace. To your husband, your king, your country, to the gods themselves.
MARGAERY: It’s just…the desires that once drove me no longer do.
HIGH SPARROW: Congress does not require desire on the woman’s part, only patience. The king must have an heir if we are to continue our good work.
In earlier episodes, Ned Stark explains to Arya that she won’t do any great deeds but will marry a great man. Cersei tells Sansa that unlike her twin Jaime whose destiny was glory, she was sold off to Robert Baratheon “like a horse, to be beaten whenever he wanted, ridden whenever he wanted”. In the show, she implies the domestic violence by saying “And you will be [cruel, abusive] Joffrey’s [queen]. Enjoy.”
However, most of the female characters violate these norms.
Most of George R.R. Martin’s female characters are deviant in some way from the Westerosi/patriarchal norm of the passive, appearance-valuing, chaste woman.
In Westeros, as in patriarchal societies, women don’t fight. In the A Song of Ice and Fire books, it is only the deviant women (Molestown whores) who take up crossbows to defend the Wall from Wildlings. However, some characters get around this to avenge friends and family.
Arya is a killer, taking revenge for her family just like a man would. Her reply to Ned Stark in Season 1 that marriage “isn’t me” is echoed in Season 7 when her direwolf Nymeria chooses to continue to lead her pack instead of resuming a life as Arya’s pet. Arya forges her own destiny; like her wolf, she can’t be tamed. Understanding this, Arya whispers “That’s not you” as Nymeria walks away.
Brienne fails to conform to feminine ideals due to her height, body type and appearance. She responds by rejecting all aspects of gender norms, dressing as a man and fighting like a knight. She’s mocked for it, but succeeds in avenging Renly. Having found a home in Winterfell as Sansa’s sworn sword, she’s also found respect and a worthy role. And she won’t stick out so much now that all the girls are training to fight. Brienne also confounds gender norms: she rejects them, but she is a maternal protector to Sansa and Arya. So she fulfils gender norms while simultaneously violating them. Similarly, the wildling Ygritte participates in warfare and presumably would not be considered pretty or chaste south of the Wall, but is a loyal lover to Jon Snow. Female love and protection are not limited to strict gender roles.
There are other ways of deviating from the imposed norm: by gaining and wielding power. Danaerys and Cersei rule over people and kingdoms which have never had a female Khal or queen. Lyanna Mormont rules Bear Island and supports Jon Snow’s command that girls must train to fight for the first time. Sansa helps Jon in war councils and the leadership of the North, and is now a temporary ruler during Jon’s absence. Ellaria of Dorne and the Sand Snakes fight as well as or better than men, as does Yara Greyjoy, who leads some of the ironborn and aspired to be their queen.
Even in the first seasons when female characters were often abused, the female characters Cersei and Sansa and the good male characters Tyrion and Bran acknowledged domestic violence and marital rape instead of accepting it, despite its legality. Danaerys and Jaime prevent sexual violence even more in the books than in the show. Though the female characters were born into a world where violence against women was rife, they were capable of assessing their situation and deciding it wasn’t right. It’s also a notable point that Westeros is not as dissimilar from our reality as we like to think; rape was legal in the UK until the early 1990s if it occurred within marriage, as seems to be the case in Westeros. Domestic abuse was not recognised or dealt with by police until the 1970s in the US. Husbands continue to be able to abuse wives in other jurisdictions.
The Madonna-Whore Complex
Game of Thrones also has a lot of fun with the Madonna-Whore complex, also called the virgin-whore complex. According to Thought Catalog,
The term “Madonna-Whore Complex” was first coined by – you guessed it – the father of Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Though much of Freud’s work has either been disproven or is widely regarded as invalid (to put it nicely), his archetype-based complexes live on. The Madonna-Whore Complex is known as the distinction men draw between the women they desire and the women they respect – with the implication that those two categories are mutually exclusive.
The idea is that women are either mother-figures/virgin figures- innocent and nurturing. Or they’re sexually empowered- which is incompatible with being, in modern terms, “girlfriend material”. You might have heard of the complex as ‘good girl vs bad girl’ or ‘nice girl vs slut’. It lives on in our own time, despite being at least as old as the Medieval era Game of Thrones is based on.
Sansa vs Shae
In Game of Thrones, the Madonna-Whore complex/Virgin-Whore Complex is centred on Tyrion. He’s literally in a love triangle with a virgin and a whore. His wife Sansa Stark is a virgin and remains such for the duration of their marriage. His secret lover Shae was a sex worker and is often referred to and self-describes as “a whore”. However, the relevance and importance of the concept of sexual innocence is interrogated in the books: Tyrion decides he can’t trust his wife as “[Sansa] might be maiden between the legs, but she was hardly innocent of betrayal”. Her supposed ‘purity’ is therefore pointless. According to the Madonna-Whore complex, Tyrion should love and respect Sansa while desiring and disrespecting Shae. Instead, he respects them both, loves Shae and has a limited and self-controlled desire for Sansa (in the books) or no feelings toward her (in the show).
Game of Thrones further turns the complex on its head by revealing that aged 13, Tyrion married a 13 year old girl, Tysha, then was told by his father Tywin that she was a whore Jaime had paid to take his virginity and make a man of him. In the books Tywin further makes his point by forcing Tyrion to watch and participate in her gang-rape and pay her for the “sex work”. After freeing Tyrion from prison in Season 5, Jaime confesses that Tywin lied: Tysha was never a whore, but Tywin believed she married Tyrion for the family’s wealth so she was therefore a “whore”. Tyrion then goes to confront his father and, heartbroken at finding Shae has slept with him, he kills her. He asks Tywin where Tysha went after the gang-rape and murders his father for calling her a whore.
Tysha’s story questions the “whore”/”slut” label and its validity. Tywin called Tysha a whore when it suited him. She wasn’t the wealthy, titled wife he wanted for his son, so she had to be disposed of. For Tywin, she wasn’t even a person- he didn’t think he was punishing her, but instead teaching his son a lesson. Tywin also had his late father’s girlfriend whipped through the streets naked “never dreaming that the same fate awaited his own golden daughter” – Cersei, who was also called a whore by detractors. The take-away here is that “whore” is a label applied by men, and arbitrarily. Cersei was Tywin’s daughter so she wasn’t a whore to him, but women he didn’t know (Tysha, his father’s girlfriend and Shae) were. The men who slept with the “whores”- his father, his son, and Tywin himself- were not labelled.
Game of Thrones also pushes the “slut” trope to its breaking point with Pia. In the books, Pia is a servant at Harrenhal who uses her beauty to get Lannister soldiers into bed…or cupboard. Some of Gregor Clegane’s equally unsavoury companions decide that this means she’s always available to them- whether she wants to or not. Jaime Lannister executes them for rape, with the last rapist protesting that Pia had consented at other times. This scene seems to be asking, ‘OK- if someone is a ‘slut’, then, well, so what?’ The idea of a “slut” seems to be that the woman is always available (sexist ideas pose women as passive, so ‘sluts’ are “available for sex” instead of “pursuing sex”) and for some reason, this is interesting or scandalous. As the Pia story shows, however, ‘sluts’ don’t actually exist in this way as nobody is consenting all the time to everyone. They aren’t “always available”. And so if someone is more interested in sex than average, well, so what? George R.R. Martin was ahead of his time with this one, as rape victims’ sexual history was allowed as evidence in rape cases until the early 2000s in the UK. The last rapist’s comments would therefore actually have been accepted as evidence!
Manic Pixie Dream Girls
Though Game of Thrones hasn’t completely avoided using violence against women to show how bad a villain is or elicit emotion from a man, it has at least steered clear of manic pixie dream girl syndrome- when a relationship or friendship with a two-dimensional female character leads a male character to an epiphany or self-improvement. For example, foster sister Sansa’s abuse and birth sister Yara’s capture did not motivate Theon to shed his torture-induced cowardice and help them. He fails to help Sansa by signalling and though he murders Myranda, he doesn’t save Sansa. They escape together. Later, he flees from battle instead of saving Yara.
Game of Thrones might seem a totally different series (regarding its female characters) from its first couple of seasons, but its current empowerment of them was always there in the background. Like most TV shows it’s far from unproblematic, but hopefully the series will continue to improve in the way it deals with gender issues.