George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire and the HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones, have a complicated relationship with women and feminism. On one hand, women are physically, emotionally, and sexually abused; confined to career choices of either noblewoman or whore with a few exceptions; and generally ‘protected’ (read: oppressed) as helpless, second-class citizens. On the other, the female characters that Martin created are just as multi-faceted, strong, devious, and interesting as their male counterparts, and they most certainly do not play peripheral roles in the world of Westeros. I will now introduce you to my favorite women of the Seven Kingdoms. (*WARNING: Contains seasons 1 and 2 spoilers*)
First, the HBIC, someone we all love to hate, Queen Cersei of House Lannister. A member of the richest and arguably most powerful family in the Seven Kingdoms, Cersei is used to getting what she wants. To her, no problem exists that enough money or threatening cannot overcome. Despite that, she is extremely cunning, willing to do anything—lie, steal, kill—to protect her family, her secrets, her status. She helms the campaign against the Starks to prevent anyone from discovering her love affair with her twin brother and openly views non-Lannisters as enemies. Cersei also uses her sexuality to advance her goals. Whether it is having her brother father her children to protect the Lannister bloodline or seducing key informants and strategic assets, Cersei firmly believes (as she tells young Sansa Stark) that “a woman’s weapon is between her legs.” She regularly defies the commands of her father, her husband the king, and all of the men on the Small Council. The lioness of Lannister embodies feminism—even though she is a villain, through and through—because despite her life of luxury and privilege, she is not afraid to get her hands dirty to achieve her goals, nor does she allow any man to dictate her actions.
Cersei’s counterpart is Lady Catelyn of Houses Tully and Stark. Cat is a much softer figure than is Cersei, but she is very intelligent and similarly willing to move heaven(s) and hell(s) to protect her children. When Brandon, one of the Stark boys, is crippled and an attempt made on his life, information comes to light that the Lannisters may have orchestrated it. Cat does not hesitate to set off on an adventure to discover the truth. Later, we see her act as an advisor to her son Robb as he wages war. Though Robb does not always listen to her, she gives him well-reasoned counsel. Another plot point even further demonstrates her strength and desire to do whatever necessary for her family, but I don’t want to spoil seasons 3 and 4 of the show. Cat proves herself early on to be Ned’s equal (not just his ‘lady wife’), and she carries that mutual respect and strength in her own convictions into everything she does.
Daenerys Targaryen was just a young girl caught between a terrible life of constant running and a sheltered one. However, she is sold by her older brother, son of the defeated former king of Westeros, to a powerful Dothraki Khal (tribal leader) in exchange for his army. She does not take this lying down and (actually quite quickly) comes into her own. First, she empowers herself sexually: rather than allowing her husband to fuck her “like a hound takes a bitch,” she becomes an active participant in their sex life. She stands up to her brother, who has abused her her whole life. Dothraki tradition dictates that when a khalasar conquers another tribe, they take the people as slaves, including raping the women. Dany, born in slave-free Westeros and raised in the Free Cities, does not stand for that—she “claims” the women as her own. True, being a handmaiden slave is not an ideal lifestyle, but Dany ensures their bodily integrity and personal safety.
When she loses her husband and infant son at the same time, Dany does not retreat with the widows of other Khals. She chooses to lead her husband’s khalasar, a decision that prompts many to turn against her. In pursuit of her homeland, she travels the world playing alternately the roles of queen, military commander, trader, and spymaster. She hand-picks her own advisors and guardians, trusting ultimately in her instinct and never engaging in a degrading relationship. Though she makes some bad decisions that delay the achievement of her goals, Dany makes all of those choices alone and becomes known as a champion for those who cannot fight for themselves.
Lady Brienne of Tarth defies all traditions of the lady’s role. Born to a noble family, she is expected to study the ‘women’s arts’ until her father finds her a suitable husband. Brienne discovers early that her skills lie elsewhere; specifically, in the fighting arts. I particularly love Brienne because she is large, strong, and not considered beautiful—and lets none of that (or the ridicule from men that accompanies it) get in the way of her kicking ass. In a tournament, she bests the most famous knights in the Seven Kingdoms then proves herself a loyal bodyguard for Prince (King?) Renly. Later she gives her fealty to Catelyn Stark and demonstrates her equality to—even superiority over—Jamie Lannister, the greatest swordsman alive in Westeros. Brienne learned early in life to have a thick skin and show little emotion, but she is also still capable of love, loyalty, and passion. She is tough and unafraid to take on the world, relying wholly upon herself.
Ygritte is another female warrior, this time a Wildling spearwife from north of the Wall. Wildling social norms are different from those in Westeros; if a woman can fight, then she is obligated to. Ygritte, with red hair considered lucky by Wildlings, is a particularly skilled and brave fighter. She holds her own against castle-trained Jon Snow and eventually falls in love with him. Constantly she reminds Jon Snow that he “know[s] nothing” and she is more educated in the ways of the world, be it politics, fighting, history, or sex. Despite their love, when Jon betrays her and the Wildling cause, Ygritte does not hesitate to go to war against him. Ygritte is brash, aggressive, funny, and fiercely protective of everything she holds dear. She is willing to risk everything to for what she cares about, but even more so to defend her freedom.
Finally…Arya Stark. What can I say about Arya, an 11-year-old girl more badass than basically every adult character combined? Like Brienne, Arya has no interest in those tasks relegated to women. From a tender age she gallivants around Winterfell, learning to ride and shoot with the boys and generally raising hell. Her brother gives her a sword, and she convinces her father to pay for a “dancing” (fencing) instructor when they move to the capital. When she is separated from her family, she does not rely on her name and status—which at that point could have led to her death as easily as her return to safety—but chooses instead to make her own way. Wherever she is sent, she completes her duties, but eventually finds a way to escape, usually taking out one or two villains in the process. Arya chooses her friends and allies carefully, never fully trusting anyone. Despite her sheltered upbringing, she is unafraid to explore the world and understands better than most adults when to stand up and fight, but also when to stay quiet and hidden. Put succinctly, she does not take shit from anyone.
There you have it, a rundown of the six women in Westeros that I think best embody feminism. They are by no means the only important women, nor the only feminists, in Martin’s universe (Osha, Asha/Yara Greyjoy, Meera Reed, Maergery Tyrell and her grandmother, and the Mormont women all spring to mind immediately). However, this sample demonstrates Martin’s belief that women can be strong and powerful.
Sexual violence is a disturbing theme in A Song of Ice and Fire. Game of Thrones actually tones it down, which will come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the show but not read the books. To me, though, it only slightly exaggerates the horrors women are subjected to in reality. Martin combats that violence by proving that even with such an oppressive framework, women are just as capable as men of rising to the challenge and manipulating the system in their favor. Perhaps even more so. The women of Westeros are not the delicate ladies or trophy wives they were raised to be. They kick ass, often and powerfully, and fight to the death (or beyond?) for what they want. And that is the main reason I am counting down the days until the March 31st season 3 premier.