Game of Thrones’ “Girl Power”: Women on Top (and stabbing you while you’re down)

After criticisms of Game of Thrones’ misogyny rose to a fever pitch last year, the show has been determined to tell us how very feminist it really is. From the obvious “Women on Top” feature in Entertainment Weekly to seemingly endless interviews with cast members (especially cast members who had previously hinted at criticism of the show, like Natalie Dormer) asserting how it’s the most feminist series on TV, the idea that the show is actually super empowering has practically been shoved down our throats.

And, to give the show credit, this wasn’t only a branding effort. As I said last week, this season of Game of Thrones did manage to be less overtly awful, where “less overtly awful” sometimes meant “holy crap, is this even the same show??” when we watched yet another episode without any blatant misogyny.

The show has been helped by the fact that critics can no longer compare its plotlines to events in the books and reach conclusions based on what the writers left in and what they chose to change. That hasn’t stopped those criticisms entirely — instead we’re just guessing what will probably happen or not happen in the books based on the series — but it gives the show more leeway in terms of exploring misogyny in the name of the plot.

But for all its apparently genuine efforts, the show is still clinging to the idea of “feminism” it’s had for many seasons, where strength and badassness mean callousness, cruelty, and killing without guilt or mercy.

For some characters, this makes sense. Arya is training to be an assassin, and she’s in an abusive situation in the process. She’s become a very dark character obsessed with revenge, so it makes sense that this season explores her attitude to killing and lets her take steps towards vengeance. Did we need to see her get beaten up every week by a blandly evil character? Not really. But she escapes the situation, she kills Walder Frey, and it all makes sense for her character, even if the story skips a bunch of key details along the way. Yes, she must be superpowered to get hold of one of the faces, get to the Riverlands, infiltrate the Twins, find and kill the Walders, make them into a pie, serve that pie to Walder Frey when he’s entirely alone, and THEN kill him… but it’s more a stretch of disbelief along the lines of Apparating Varys instead of specifically a problem because Arya is a girl.

But Arya isn’t unique as a vengeful and violent character, and many other female characters act in a similar way without any reference to logic. They all seem to have “badass” moments, where being badass involves unflinching murder.

The most obvious example is Ellaria Sand and the Sandsnakes, who relished in murdering Prince Doran and Trystane, with no apparent motive beyond “because they wanted to” and no real repercussions, assumedly because who would want to argue against such feminist badassery? But a similar narrative also appeared in less obvious places. This season put more focus on Asha/Yara, for example, and the show really wanted us to know how badass and feminist she is. So we see her in the one return of the naked brothel scenes, because if it’s a girl there then it’s OK, and see her screaming at her brother for daring to be traumatized after several years being mutilated in a dungeon. How dare he be so weak, feeling guilt for what he did and trauma from what he experienced? He had better start being more badass and independent, like she is — although, as he’s a man, sleeping with sex slaves is not feminist and so is optional.

Dany, meanwhile, burned part of the Dothraki’s sacred city to the ground and murdered all their leaders, and instead of being angry, all the Dothraki instantly seem to worship her. She sweeps in with her dragons and acts all queenly and imperious to defeat the slavers, before kicking Daario to the curb, feeling nothing at all for him, and setting off with her ships, ready to be a conqueror once again. And her plan is to kill everyone, until Tyrion points out how cruel and idiotic that is.

An insane part of me hopes that this is on purpose, and that we’ll have our two pyromaniac queens fighting over King’s Landing with dragons and wildfire while we look on in horror. But despite that one “burn them all” faux pas, I get the feeling that Dany is still supposed to be good. She’s just good in an unflinchingly badass way — like Cersei, who gets her revenge by mass murder, destroying the Sept and probably a decent chunk of King’s Landing. And even this mass murder of main characters feels somewhat ambiguous. Are we supposed to feel victorious when she walks away from the Septa, chanting “shame”? I’d like to assume not, but Cersei’s scenes are so similar to many “good” characters’ moments of victory and revenge that it’s hard to tell. And while her crowning should have been a dark, dark moment, framing her as the new main villain of the story, the awfulness of this wasn’t really expressed. No one in the crowd looked unhappy, and Jaime barely reacted at all… so how much are we supposed to root for her Badassness, getting revenge against the awful Faith Militant and the Tyrells for shoving her aside?

Brienne is still the Brienne we’ve seen in previous seasons, aka the woman who hits things with swords and is angry all the time, but now victims take the time to comment that she’s a woman before she kills them, to increase her girlpower.

Even Lyanna Mormont, new fan favorite, somewhat fits this mold. She’s hilarious and refreshing to watch, but still, she’s “badass” in the same way that all female characters in Game of Thrones are “badass,” minus any actual murder. She won’t stand for any of that courtly nonsense, and she says what she thinks to the point of being rude. She’s outspoken and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, and although that makes her a really fun ten-year-old to watch, it’s a far too familiar mold, especially when she faces off against the “your mother was a great beauty”-commenting Sansa.

Speaking of Sansa… I wrote about her in far more depth last week, but it bears repeating again that her character motivations made little sense, and her “badassness” felt like cruelty. She hid important information from Jon, because keeping secrets makes her a “player.” She grins as Ramsay is torn apart by his dogs because even good and sensitive characters must delight in gruesome violence in the name of revenge.

And any female characters who couldn’t be made “badass” in this way were given very little to do. Margaery faded into the background and was much more of a non-character this season, despite it being her last, and her story in the Sept of Baelor being ripe for exploration. Melisandre raised Jon from the dead, then basically disappeared until the Shireen reveal, even though you’d think her powers would have been useful, and it would have been fascinating to see an exploration of her feelings after literally raising Jon from the dead. And even those characters have both been manipulators and potential murderers in the past. The only female character still alive who doesn’t act that way is Gilly, and she seems to get a pass because she fits in the “victim” camp of characterization, along with Sansa.

The show is undoubtably better than it was before. But its ideas of what “feminism” and “strength” mean have given us a near-parody of “strong female characters,” rather than any actual exploration of “women on top” in a fantasy world.

12 comments on “Game of Thrones’ “Girl Power”: Women on Top (and stabbing you while you’re down)

  • Courtney , Direct link to comment

    Excellent points! I am so hoping for a Cersei and Dany showdown, but I’m still bummed about Margaery. She might not have been “badass” but she was still pretty cool. Brains can be badass too, all I’m saying…

    Hey, I was wondering, are you still going to do a post of Stardust?

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Yes! It’s been a messy few months, but it’s definitely still on my to-do list. In fact, a rewatch of Stardust sounds like just what I need right now. 🙂

  • Penelope Wallace , Direct link to comment

    I haven’t yet watched Season Six, but I agree so much. Killing people = feminism; not really.
    Would love to see a post on Stardust! We’ve just rewatched it. Only a man can be king; no explanation of how Una was captured, and no one did anything about it… all magic is female, and mostly bad… Hmmm.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Oh no! I have such fond memories of watching Stardust, so I hope all the subtext isn’t bad like that!

      • Courtney , Direct link to comment

        No, of course it isn’t all bad. Ina and Yvaine were very empowering, and not stock damsel in distress movie tropes. Plus, Una’s dad and brothers were all greedy and power hungry, which probably accounts for why they didn’t make a huge effort to look for her.

        • Mark , Direct link to comment

          My main issue with the movie was how it ruined the character of Victoria, who actually developed in the book and even befriend Yvaine. In the film, she’s just 19th-century Paris Hilton who never changes and doesn’t even meet Yvaine.

  • Mila , Direct link to comment

    Absolutely! We kept hearing in interviews and features how feminist this season would be, and it turns out “feminist” means your female characters are vengeful and ruthless, and, consequently, “badass” and “strong.” Yuck. Okay, let’s imagine for a moment that for some reason Ellaria and the Sand Snakes really did need to kill Doran and Trystane. But why do it so happily? Wouldn’t they be much more interesting characters, much stronger characters, if they had shown some regret? If we had seen Obara and Nym hesitate about killing their cousin, about hurting the boy they had grown up with? If we had seen them finally decide to kill him, painlessly and without letting him know what is happening, and then suffering because of what they had done? Compare Qyburn, sort of apologizing to Pycelle before killing him and assuring him he bears him no ill will but is doing what he needs to do, to Obara and Nym, cheerfully arguing which one gets the pleasure to kill Trystane. And, of course, Ellaria had to mock Doran for being weak and let him know his son would die as well. Was it necessary, especially given book!Ellaria, who is refreshingly anti-war and anti-vengeance?

    And wouldn’t Sansa be a more interesting character if she had been more horrified at Ramsay’s death? If she had been happy and relieved that he is gone, but at the same time sad and terrified that she might be becoming like him?

    I don’t blame Dany for burning the khals after the way they treated her, and if we ignore the technicalities of how it actually worked (fine, she’s fireproof, but wouldn’t she suffocate from the smoke, locked in that hut? Or the Mother of Dragons doesn’t need oxyden?), the scene is cool, even if similar to scenes in earlier seasons. But I was also surprised everyone suddenly decided to follow her. Given what we’ve seen of Dothraki mentality so far, I would have expected them to label her a witch and distrust her, instead of follow her beyond the sea and cheer for her. If they followed out of fear, we saw none of it. And then, of course, she goes back to her “burn them all” attitude. At one point I was thinking maybe Dany is supposed to go mad and become a villain, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. If she keeps wishing to burn everyone and everything, and being the hero at the same time, I’m not sure how it’s supposed to work. In what way is she better than Cersei or the Mad King?

    Lyanna Mormont is fun to watch, but I agree she’s doing nothing more than speaking her mind to the point of rudeness. I kept wondering, would a grown-up, a man, have gotten away with such behavior? I’m afraid some characters (and viewers) might be subconsciously only enjoying her because they find her non-threatening and don’t take her seriously, like “Awww, how cute, the little girl telling the grown-ups they are cowards!” I’m not sure speaking your mind is always a form a strength, under every circumstance. Sansa wasn’t weak when she kept her thoughts to herself in King’s Landing and remained courteous to her captors — she was doing the only thing that would keep her alive, and it required a certain amount of self-discipline. But now that we’ve gone off-book, such varied characters like book!Sansa and book!Ellaria are gone.

    Don’t get me wrong — I thought this season was a great improvement over the last. But I might have enjoyed it even more if we didn’t keep hearing about how feminist it is — it just wasn’t.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Dany is clearly too badass to need to breathe. 😛

      And I think that’s an excellent comparison between Pycelle and the Martell plotline. It’s not necessarily that these violent stories are necessarily *bad*, as they fit in with the tone of the world. It’s just that the instances with female characters aren’t allowed to have any emotional depth. It’s like checking off a point on the plot’s to-do list, rather than telling us a story about people in a difficult and violent situation.

  • Mark , Direct link to comment

    Lyanna Mormont’s feminism card got tossed out when she decided to rally for Jon to be King of the North just because “Ned Stark’s blood runs through his veins” and he has a penis, just completely ignoring Sansa who was RIGHT THERE. It gives off that vibe that Lyanna, like show-Arya, is a female misogynist who believes “most girls are stupid”.

    • Gretchen , Direct link to comment

      I agree! The worst part was her claim that she would only follow a Stark, and then to nominate a Snow… There was a trueblood Stark literally sitting right next to him!

  • Nico , Direct link to comment

    Its really sad an cringe-worthy when male writers ty so hard to create female characters, when all they have to do is write people, who act like people, and whose actions make bloody sense

  • Ivana , Direct link to comment

    The version of “feminism” that GoT promotes seems to be basically “what MRAs and dudebros who complain about evil man-hating feminists think feminism is”. On GoT, everybody must be super toxically masculine, both men and women, or else they are weak and don’t deserve to live. And everything is about killing and vengeful revengey revenge, which is awesome and everyone should do it.

What do you think?

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