Game of Thrones and Gender
Fantasy is one of the most popular genres in today’s pop culture. Books and Television offer many fantasy series which quickly gather thousands of followers and fans and make them topics of discussions in pop culture. One of these fantasy series that has taken over the pop culture universe for more than a decade is George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones has introduced one of the most exciting storylines in Television history with complicated characters and amazing visuals. The medieval influenced story takes place in Westeros and the lands across its narrow sea, where the King sits on the “Iron Throne.” It rules Westeros, along with noble houses in the kingdom who enjoy immense power and influence. The power is distributed between Lords and men who have money and influence. The women, however, are not entitled to such authority. In the beginning seasons, Game of Thrones looks at women as tools who are only useful to help men achieve their goals. Many of these women like Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen slowly gain power and authority within a male-dominated society and become strong characters that serve as role models for fans. Seeing how these characters evolve from submissive women with no will power to strong women who rule men from all walks of life has been inspirational for many fans. Like our society, female characters in Game of Thrones suffer a lack of representation, ignorance, and violence toward them, however, they take a long journey to become influential leaders who play essential roles in their society.
When we were first introduced to politics in Westeros, the key players in the realm were all men from Nobel houses married to women from other Noble houses. Marriage in Game of Thrones was a way to consolidate power and create an alliance between strong houses. Similar practices were also seen across the narrow sea in Esos where Daenerys Targaryen was sold to a horse lord to secure an army for her brother to win the Iron Throne back. In the article “Lessons from Westeros: Gender and power in Game of Thrones,” William Clapton and Laura J Shepherd bring up this argument by stating, “The society of Westeros is feudal, misogynistic and patriarchal. The women of Westeros are frequently represented as objects to be used by men at will; it is the men who wield political authority.” (Clapton and Shepherd 10) Clapton and Shepherd elaborate on this argument by drawing attention to a scene where Khal Drogo, leader of the Dothraki, easily ignores Daenerys’ claim to the throne and promises to win it for his son. As the last surviving Targaryen, Daenerys is entitled to his father’s former throne, but he simply cannot comprehend her claim and calls it “the chair that his mother’s father sat on.” (Clapton and Shepherd 11) In his speech, after declaring war on Westeros, Khal Drogo promises to kill the men and rape their women, claiming men are agents in politics, but women are merely a prize of their victory, and they can use them as they wish.
Game of Thrones has strong female characters who seek authority and defy society’s gender expectations by fighting for their right to be taken seriously. Fans have long debated whether or not Game of Thrones is empowering women and challenging gender roles because some believe that the show is using too much female nudity to attract the audience. However, female characters develop in each season and gain more power and authority as they go along to become leaders. For example, Daenerys has one of the most significant evolutions as a character in the show, from being an innocent and naive princess to a fearless queen who fights for her claim to the throne. In her Thesis “All men must die, but we are not men: An analysis of the extent of empowerment of the women in the television series Game of Thrones,” Laura Galip points to Daenerys’ journey of gaining confidence and argues that the respect she receives from her husband helps her immensely to feel worthy and empowered. To quote Galip, “Daenerys is introduced appearing too insecure to avert the marriage arrangement of her violent brother. Her emotional state changes quickly in season one when she experiences love and respect by Drogo and his Khalasar, which seems to give her an immense amount of confidence and pride. Ultimately she can prevail against her brother.” (Galip 56) Eventually she becomes a leader and leads a Dothraki Khalisar which had never been seen before, hence, establishing her as a dominant player in the world of politics in Game of Thrones.
In most pop culture texts, the relationship that female fans have with the characters of their beloved books comes from the characters’ relatability. The journey these characters make, although fictional, is relatable to many female audiences. Women in our modern society are fighting for a voice in politics like the female characters of Game of Thrones. Popular culture texts sometimes help fans make sense of the world around them by seeing characters who fight for inclusion. Many female fans have stated that seeing the journey of female characters in GOT has helped them feel like they can be empowered too. In his book “Understanding Popular Culture,” John Fiske reflects on a study of Cagney and Lacey fans who learn lessons from fictional characters on how to navigate the men’s world. To quote Fiske, “fans found (different) ways that the show helped them to understand their experiences as women in male-dominated institutions-particularly workplaces and schools-and for some this understanding led to more assertive ways of behaving within and against such subordination.” (Fiske 105) Fiske further argues that pop culture is “functional,” which means the consumers of a pop culture text use it in daily life and draw relevance for their own experiences. Moreover, fans take ownership of the text and interpret the text as it suits their needs. Therefore, seeing women gain control of their own lives gradually in a fictional story like Game of Thrones is immensely inspirational for female fans.
Analyzing the gradual change in the power dynamic in Game of Thrones, one will notice that Westeros is almost entirely being ruled by women by the beginning of the 7th season. In the first episode of season 7, Cercei Lannister, who is the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, counts her enemies to the east, west, north, and the south, which have strong women in positions of power. Olenna Tyrell rules the west, Yara Greyjoy is gathering an army in the east, Ellaria Sand rules the south, and Sansa stands beside Jon Snow in the north. Her enemy across the narrow sea is also a woman who is making her way to Westeros to defeat her. The devoted fans of the show have long praised this change in gender representation in GOT and talked about how empowering it is to see these female characters find their voices as leaders in a television series. Fans have made many videos about them and wrote blog posts praising these character developments. For example, a fan-made video on the YouTube channel Cassius devotes titled “Female Empowerment, Feminism and Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Game of Thrones” devotes the video to show the change in gender roles in GOT. It points to Yara Greyjoy’s leading an army of men to defeat her uncle, Jon Snow taking Sansa’s opinion into consideration, and Lyanna Mormont refusing to stand down and letting men fight for her. Furthermore, these types of observations by the fans reinforce the claim Clapton and Shepherd make about GOT challenging gender representation in a male-dominated society. They argue, “Game of Thrones, represents the consolidation, exercise of and challenges to political power and authority as fundamentally gendered activities.” (Clapton and Shepherd 11)
Furthermore, sex is one of the most talked-about topics among Game of Thrones critics and fans. They have long criticized the show for relying too heavily on female nudity as a means for attracting the audience. The criticism is because of the violence toward women, non-consensual sex, and rape. Many feminist groups have expressed their concern and dissatisfaction with the fact that HBO shows too many violent rape scenes in the show. Many feminist fans have also criticized their favorite show for demonstrating violence toward women. Various blog posts and social media posts from the fans have expressed their concern about the rape culture in the show where women are shown as victims of violence. These fans try to bring awareness about violence toward women in pop culture texts and start a conversation by demanding a change in the depiction of women in pop culture. One of the plot points that received many criticisms happened when Ramsey Bolton raped Sansa Stark. Fans and critics started posting and writing about this problematic demonstration of violence and misogyny because they have a legitimate right to start a conversation about things that bother them. In the article “Game of Thrones War on Women: Fandom and Feminist Discourse on Tumble,” Briony Hannell reflect on numerous fan reactions to this episode and brings up the issues that they have and argues that it is important for fans to start a conversation over issues that matter to them. She quotes a concerned fan who called the violence against women “War on Women”:
“It’s time to have a real conversation about Game of Thrones’ war on women.
With the last night's episode, the showrunners have made two things abundantly clear:
Shock is valued above all else.
In Game of Thrones, women only exist to be hurt, tortured and raped.
And that’s why I’m willing to call it a war on women. This isn’t just an epidemic of sexual violence on TV (which, of course, is happening all across HBO), this is a blunt refusal to look at women past the traumatic situations that can happen to them. (bb8s, May 18th 2015)”
It is correct that sex and violence sell; however, these fans bring up valid arguments that need to be discussed regarding the representation of women in pop culture texts.
Game of Thrones fans are quick to criticize as well as ready to praise the show. On the opposite side of the rage over Sansa Stark’s rape scene is Missandei and Gray Worms’ love scene which has been praised by fans and critics for empowering women. Since Gray Worm was a former slave who was castrated as a young boy, he could not imagine a romantic relationship with a woman. In season 7 episode “Stormborn” Missandei, however, proves to him that his situation does not affect what she feels for him. Their lovemaking scene has been admired by GOT fandom for putting the focus on the woman’s pleasure in bed for once and demonstrating one of the few consensual sex scenes in the show. Ariana Romero, in an article on Refinery29.com, points out to this scene and suggests that it is one of the most empowering scenes in the show because of the focus it puts on consensual sex and female pleasure. To quote Romero, “For a few seconds, fans directly see Grey Worm going down on Missandei as she enjoys something that’s specifically, and only, for her own pleasure. For a few seconds, we’re literally seeing a woman’s perspective during sex.” (Romero 1) The importance of this scene is because of the fact that it is one of the few scenes in GOT where the man puts his entire focus on pleasuring his female partner instead of thinking about his own pleasure, and that is something that fans and critics could not miss.
In conclusion, although in the early seasons of the show, the authority of women was being ignored, the gradual change in gender representation and gender role in Game of Thrones has proven to be helpful for some female fans in finding their place in a male-dominated society. Although fictional, these female characters inspire real women to fight for their rights. However, female characters did not gain this power easily in the world of GOT. Game of Thrones demonstrates numerous violence and negligence against women to the point where they are only seen as tools for men to be used at their will. Critics and fans have shown valid concerns regarding the violence the show demonstrates against women and have demanded a change. For a show in which sex plays a huge role in the relationship between genders, Sansa Stark’s rape played a crucial role in starting a conversation about the depiction of women as victims in Television. On the other hand, critics and fans have also praised the show whenever it empowered women, either by showing them as leaders or giving them power in their relationships. Hence showing the complicated relationship fans have with their favorite text.
Cassius. Female Empowerment, Feminism and Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Game of Thrones. YouTube, YouTube, 27 July 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=l81xGMN8v_M.
Clapton, William, and Laura J Shepherd. “Lessons from Westeros: Gender and Power InGame of Thrones.” Politics, vol. 37, no. 1, July 2016, pp. 5–18., doi:10.1177/0263395715612101.
Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. Routledge, 2011.
Galip, Laura, and Elger Abbink. ”All Men Must Die, but We Are Not Men”:: An Analysis of the Extent of Empowerment of the Women in the Television Series ‘Game of Thrones’ (2017). Web.
Hannell, Briony. “Game of Thrones' War on Women’: Fandom and Feminist Discourse on Tumblr.” Academia.edu, 25 June 2017, www.academia.edu/33750174/_Game_of_Thrones_War_on_Women_Fandom_and_Feminist_Discourse_on_Tumblr_Fan_Studies_Network_Conference_2017_.
Martin, George R R. Game of Thrones, HBO, 2011.
Romero, Ariana. “Greyworm Missandei Sex Scene Unsullied Eunuch Penis.” Greyworm Missandei Sex Scene Unsullied Eunuch Penis, 24 July 2017, 6:15 AM, www.refinery29.com/en-us/2017/07/164747/game-of-thrones-missandei-grey-worm-sex-scene.