One of the strengths of A Song of Ice and Fire is its willingness to play with and subvert fantasy narrative tropes, especially with its female characters. The warrior woman is also a naive romantic who has never killed a soul. The scrappy young girl becomes an emotionally damaged child hell-bent on revenge. Cersei and Catelyn are both mothers who want to protect their children, but they go about it in rather different ways. And who even knows what Margaery is like, considering that we only see her from the perspectives of a girl who idolizes her and a queen who wants her dead. Characters resist simple categorization.
Game of Thrones‘ inability to understand this is one of its biggest flaws. Although the show has created some wonderful moments and built on some of the book’s less developed characters (like Shae) in compelling and interesting ways, it often falls back on the desire to fit female characters neatly into the categories that the book defies. Most particularly, the show seems determined to fit some of its more complicated female characters into one of two boxes: masculine or feminine.
Masculine characters are all about overt strength and fighting the system directly. They are outspoken and bold, can fight, do not flinch at the sight of blood, and are capable of killing.
Feminine characters, on the other hand, are softer. They fight using smiles and kind words and manipulations. They are often concerned with marriage and motherhood, and tend to keep their true opinions to themselves. They are often, although not always, somewhat naive and romantic.
Few to none of the ASOIAF characters fit neatly into one of those two categories, which means, of course, that it’s difficult for the show to fit them nearly into one of those categories either. But they are trying their best.
Our main “masculine” character is Brienne of Tarth. In the books, Brienne is a warrior who is a woman, but she’s not a “warrior woman.” She has a strong sense of honor, is fairly naive about how the world will work, is very romantic like Sansa, and has never killed a single person. When she finally does kill somebody, it’s a huge emotional moment for her, and not one that she’s proud of. In the show, on the other hand, she kills in the second season without blinking. She’s much tougher and less emotionally vulnerable. It is as though the writers have taken the “soft” feminine bits out of her in order to make her more neatly fit our expectations of what a fighting woman would be like.
Of course, this isn’t a consistent change, and as the show has gone on, she’s become more similar to the Brienne we see in the books. Perhaps different writers have different perspectives. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I’m thinking of her words in a scene that George RR Martin wrote himself. Perhaps the show simply feels that it can explore more of her depth and complexity once the audience has got to know her. But her casual aside to Jaime, that his fear is making him sound “like a bloody woman,” suggests that there is some anti-feminine sentiment going on in the writing of her character. Brienne, it seems, has somehow overcome the fact that she is a woman. She has transcended her femininity and become a warrior instead, and so she of course hates those normal women, and can no longer show traits, such as romanticism, that only women would have.
On the other hand, we have characters like Cersei and Sansa. I already wrote a lot this week about how Sansa was made “nicer” in the show by kneeling for Tyrion, and how the show seems eager to make her like and appreciate Tyrion and make the best of her marriage. The show has also chosen an interpretation of Margaery that makes her into quite a manipulative figure, but one who seems bound to tell Sansa to appreciate her blessings and learn how to use marriage to her advantage. And although Cersei is still a powerful and fearful figure, the show seems to have decided that she can’t be complex and occasionally sympathetic while also being the ruthless spiteful killer she is in the books. Cersei wants power, but she can only achieve it through feminine means, through smiles and manipulation and fighting to protect her son. Any blunt, cold-blooded murder must be removed. In S2, her murder of Robert’s bastard children (done to protect her children’s own heritage) was given to Joffrey, while she acted shocked over how out of control her son has become. This season, her (admittedly unconfirmed, but most likely) attempt to have Tyrion killed is again given to her son. It’s good that the show isn’t just presenting her as an Evil Queen figure, without any sympathy or emotions of her own, but that doesn’t mean she has to be reduced to a mother with an out-of-control son. Unlike Jaime, who can shove children out of windows and also become a sympathetic main character, Cersei’s actions apparently must be sweetened and reduced, so that we can sympathize with her position, without remembering that she is not the nicest person herself.
And of course, there’s Catelyn, who is punished by the narrative, and by her son, for stepping out of the acceptable bounds of “the king’s worried mother,” and then silenced for the rest of the show.
Things get more complicated when we come to Arya Stark. She’s a “masculine” character, in that she’s all about learning to fight with a sword and speaks her mind at the most inopportune moments, but the line is drawn when the book asks her to kill bystanders in cold blood for her own gain, such as during her escape from Harrenhal. Like Cersei, that would be too much for a female character (even a masculine one) that we are supposed to like, and so her darkness and complexity is taken away.
The only characters who are allowed to combine masculine and feminine, it seems, are the love interests. Talisa has been the most egregrious example of this, as a “not like other girls” character who rebels from the restrictions of her society, saves lives and captures the heart of the king, all in one go. The entirely “feminine,” sweet and somewhat naive Jeyne Westerling is not enough for our King Robb. He must have a woman who is something more, who is feisty and opinionated and strong-minded and unafraid of battle or blood, someone who would never have married if she had not met him, and so Talisa was created to replace her. Yet Talisa is obviously not like Brienne of Tarth, because she still needs to be a love interest. She still needs to be acceptable for our hero, and acceptable for long scenes where she lounges naked writing letters, so they have to keep in that softer side as well.
Shae is a similar case. I love Shae in the show, but she’s very different from the superficial girl we see in the books. That Shae seems to care most about books and pretty dresses and the advantages that Tyrion can give her. The Shae in the show, on the other hand, is highly intelligent, blunt and outspoken, not at all superficial, but also genuinely loves Tyrion, frequently naked, and busts out a bit of feminine jealousy when Sansa gets involved.
Daenerys is the one character who defies these thoughts, but she too fits into the space created for a love interest. She plays the badass conquering queen, albeit it indirectly and with her silk dresses intact, while also being feminine and vulnerable when the show’s nudity quota requires it.
A Song of Ice and Fire seems determined to tell us that people cannot be easily categorized. The loving mother can also be a spiteful murderer. A man can kill a king for a good reason, and attempt to kill a boy for a terrible one. The sister who fights with a sword and the sister who fights with a smiles both have their strengths and weaknesses, and both will work hard to survive. But when it comes to female characters, the show doesn’t seem interested in all that. Much better to fit the characters into the categories they try to transcend, the “masculine” or the “feminine,” the weak dreaming girl or the bold love interest who’s not like those silly other things.
If the show existed on its own, these tropes would probably not even be noticeable. They are, after all, common tropes. But when the books present us with such rich characters, and the show decides to force them into those tropes anyway, it suddenly seems startlingly obvious. Why have these complexities, the show seems to say, when these basic tropes are more appealing?