There’s been a lot of talk on the internet in recent times about feminism, almost all of it negative in the sense that there are primarily two camps, neither of which really seem to stand for anything substantial other than opposing one another. Some decry the meaning of modern feminism as a universal capitulation to political malcontentment for often imaginary slights that go to the extent of infringing on the rights of non-females leading them to often react in an aggressive manner. Many feminists seem preoccupied with finding slights anywhere they can, often singling out stylized fiction as a source of misogynist sentiment.
My opinion on the matter is this: rather than tearing down the things people love and turning potential allies into opponents over what is essentially a non-issue, the obvious answer is to build up the examples of fiction that do it right instead. Highlight the powerful women in pop culture to serve as shining examples of empowerment, rather than falling upon those who don’t live up to standards most real people can’t meet themselves. As an example, I’m going to take one of the biggest literary fantasy franchises, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s television adaptation Game of Thrones, and discuss the sometimes subtle ways in which this story empowers its female characters while retaining believability and real world relatability by acknowledging that there are intrinsic differences between the sexes, and that these differences need not leave one inferior to the other. There will be spoilers.
Now the first argument would be “But Westeros is clearly a patriarchy! How can a woman be empowered in a society where men hold all of the power?” Well, let me put it this way: men may run Westeros, but it is often the women who make Westeros run. There is the illusion of power and control, and then there is the real thing. Not every strong woman needs superhuman fighting ability or to be supreme empress of the world to be powerful or influential. That is an illusory, unreachable, and uncreative kind of empowerment that is not attainable in real life and therefore impractical outside of fantasy fiction.
As the title insinuates, A Song of Ice and Fire is a story riddled with extreme contrasts and conflicts. In addition to Summer and Winter, honor and deceit, North and South, appearances and reality, Arya and Sansa, burning passion and cold logic, Stark and Lannister, violence and diplomacy, tradition and adaptation, and many more, one of the most prominent contrasts is the roles of men and women in society and the methods each use to achieve their ends. And out of all the characters scrambling for control of Westeros, I think it’s safe to say who the frontrunner is to end up on the top of the heap once the smoke has cleared in the final chapters yet to come.
Daenerys Targaryen is arguably the rightful queen, being the descendant of the long-standing empire which was deposed by the regime in power at the tale’s beginning. Hers is arguably the most compelling character arc and she is almost without a doubt the most empowered woman in the Ice and Fire series despite (or maybe because of) the fact that her story begins with her essentially being sold into sexual slavery by her own brother in exchange for what he believes will be the power to conquer Westeros.
So what the hell is empowering about a very young teenage girl being sold by her brother to a clan of brutal savages? Well, as with most things in life, it’s not the situation that makes the woman, but what she makes of it. Coming to grips with her situation without ever forgetting who she is, Dany earns her husband’s respect and love while learning to love him and his people herself, becoming a true khaleesi and queen in her own right. With the power now in her hands, the brother who sold his own sister for an army that is now loyal to her and her husband had to essentially submit to her will or die penniless.
But she was still subject to her husband’s whims, benevolent or not, right? Well, things change and Daenerys eventually found herself leading the remains of her new people after managing to bring into the world the first dragons in centuries, thus earning her the title “Mother of Dragons” and the responsibility to bring them and her people to safety. Naturally, she rises to the occasion and eventually becomes a just and capable ruler across the sea from her native home, often using her girlish appearance and mannerisms to trick her opponents into underestimating her to their own downfall.
Legends of her beauty and prowess traveled around the world and now men from everywhere are clambering over each other for her favor as she plots the end game. From forlorn sex slave to benevolent queen and primary threat to the Iron Throne in a few short years; not too shabby for a teenage girl. I can’t wait to see her bring Blood and Fire to the Lannisters’ shore. Speaking of which…
While Daenerys is largely revered and portrayed as a heroine, Cersei Lannister is one of the series’ primary antagonists. She is remarked for her cold ruthlessness, ambition, and cunning. All of these are negative traits that are not really becoming of an ideal woman. But this article is not about ideal women; it’s about empowered women, and for better or worse, Cersei is one of the most influential and powerful forces in “A Song of Ice and Fire”.
Cersei’s beginnings parallel Dany’s somewhat in that she was also forced into an arranged marriage for the political gain of the male members of her family. She very much resents being born a woman and the limits placed upon her because of that fact, but nonetheless she uses her femininity and grace to full effect with no small amount of scheming to achieve power; and achieve it she does when she becomes the senior monarch by putting her young son on the Iron Throne.
In spite of the villainous nature she portrays on the surface, there are moments in the narrative where Cersei makes her true intentions clear, adding a huge amount of depth and strength to her character. She was forced into the role she plays by her very birth and refusal to submit to her fate simply because of her gender. Nearly every nasty and vile thing she does is essential to protect the lives of her children, which is something I think any parent can understand on some level.
Because of the patriarchal society she was born into and her refusal to bear legitimate heirs for a man she did not love, her affair with the man she does love (her twin brother) and the resulting offspring have no legitimate claim to the Throne, and if it were discovered to be so, their deaths would be guaranteed. The only way for Cersei to assure her children’s lives was to eliminate the threats and ascend to the Throne, and she pulled it off masterfully. Now let’s talk Wildlings.
Pop quiz, hotshot: what does Jon Snow know? Well according to Ygritte of the Free Folk, he knows nothing. But he’s learning. The Wildlings have one of the most interesting communities in Martin’s world. They reject the accepted notions of leadership based on lineage, ownership of land based on artificial borders, and politics in general in favor of freedom, fellowship, and practical survival. They are referred to as “savages” by the rest of Westeros, but the truth is that their society may be the most civilized of all from a philosophical standpoint.
Women of the Free Folk are free to do as they will. They are respected as equals in all things, including combat. Being forced to pull their own weight in the communities beyond the Wall that keeps the Wildlings separated from the rest of Westeros, the women are not raised to be “proper ladies” and are forced to be as strong as the men to survive in the harsh arctic conditions north of the Wall.
The closest thing to marriage the Free Folk practice is the tradition of “stealing” the women they fancy from other clans, broadening the gene pool and preventing inbreeding by doing so. The ladies are encouraged to attempt to kill their kidnappers, making the tradition double as a coming of age test to see if the kidnapper is man enough to convince her of his worthiness before she slits his throat. One has to wonder if all men might not be a little more respectful towards the “fairer sex” if the alternative was possible death.
Jon Snow, as the son of a man who literally lived and died by his honor, is faced with the choice of living up to the responsibilities and oaths he took on when he joined the Night’s Watch or being true to his heart after Ygritte successfully separates him from his brothers. Having fallen in love with her and learned about the Free Folk firsthand, he faces a lose-lose decision between his own people and hers.
In their time together, she was in every way the dominant one in their relationship and even when they are separated, Snow continues to hear Ygritte’s voice chiding him with “you know nothing, Jon Snow”. In a way, everything he does once he leaves the company of the Free Folk revolves around her and the things she taught him. That is to say that an empowered woman’s influence can go far beyond their mere deeds, presence, or accomplishments.
“But all of these women are extremely flawed”, you say? Well, yes they absolutely are. And so are all of the men in Westeros. Not to mention every real person ever. Empowerment is not about an unattainable perfection, but about doing the most you can with what you have to work with in the situations you find yourself in. Idealized characters can be a fun diversion but if every powerful female character was Xena or Wonder Woman, who would real women relate to?
Take Brienne, the “Maid of Tarth”, for instance. A woman who is physically incapable of being what most people think of when they picture a proper lady. She’s an Amazonian powerhouse with a mannish build and a face to match, and she has been subjected to a lifetime of mockery for it. She also happens to be one of the most capable, loyal, and honorable people in all of Westeros. But so many never see past her genetics that they mock even her earnestness, thus portraying the tragedy of a superficial society that singles out and mocks anyone who doesn’t (or can’t) meet their expectations of what “normal” is.
Some would say that it is this lifetime of mockery and rejection that has caused Brienne to strive to be the best she can be at everything else; and some may even say she succeeded. Sometimes the rest of the world really is wrong and you are right, and Brienne is that still point in a turning world.
Next argument: “Game of Thrones is full of boobs, it can’t be empowering to women. Boobs are oppressive because men like them.” Well, some of that is true. Men do tend to enjoy the site of unclothed females and there are many such instances portrayed in the television show, but I’ve never really understood this argument. I can’t think of a single reason why a woman should be ashamed of her body, should she choose to share it or not, and if somebody else should enjoy the sight, I don’t see how that makes it a bad thing. The beauty of the feminine form is timeless and universally acknowledged; I would think that a true feminist would find that pretty affirming. And owning your own sexuality? There is power in that.
The Red Priestess Melisandre makes a massive mark when she brings monotheistic religion to Westeros, attaching herself to the rightful heir to the Iron Throne (technically), Stannis Baratheon, and declaring war on the resident gods of the region, The Seven. The “Red Woman” quickly becomes the only person who Stannis listens to, leading people to believe that she has bewitched him, and they might be right.
In a rare instance of blatant magic in “A Song of Ice and Fire”, Melisandre gives birth to a demonic avatar of Stannis which she used to carry out his (or her) will. She confides in another character that she can do this after having had sexual relations with him. So basically, the Red Woman is able steal a man’s essence through the act of intercourse. How many men do you suppose have been controlled by sex at one time or another? Possibly all of them.
Female sexuality is a powerful force in society, and history -both ancient and modern- is chock full of instances of men in power seeking to repress it, often violently. While sex is usually a weakness for men (stupid evolutionary traits!), for a strong woman it can be a force to be reckoned with.
There are too many instances for me to fully explore the myriad ways in which the many women of Martin’s epic often dominate the proceedings in a single article, but I can certainly list a few more for you. A personal favorite of mine is Margaery Tyrell, after being betrothed to the sniveling boy-king Joffrey, leaving her palanquin to go out confidently amongst the common people, showing them genuine compassion as the fellow humans they are while her “king” cowers inside, afraid of his own people.
Then there are the aggressive and formidable Sand Snakes of Dorn with their bold pursuit of war, defying their more passive and cautious ruler Prince Doran. And the significance was not lost on me when Robb Stark became King in the North, and kept his mother at his side for advice as he went out to war, nor was the end result of his eventual refusal to listen to her due to his masculine pride.
Speaking of Lady Catelyn Stark, she is one of the most conflicted characters in the story, and therefore one of the most interesting. Like Cersei, the (arguably) bad things she does are done out of love for her children, and thankfully, those children turned out better than the Lannister bunch.
Her daughters, Sansa and Arya, are perfect polar opposites; a princess and a tomboy, respectively. Once they are separated from their family, their paths take very different turns, with Sansa learning the hard way that life is not like a story with a happy ending while using her well-practiced social graces to survive and endure in the most hostile of political environments without allowing it to change who she is while more experienced women crumble, and Arya’s hard-nosed determination and intelligence allowing her to thrive in the gutters and cesspools of the world in spite of her noble upbringing.
The women of Westeros are some of the most layered and powerful in popular fiction, and their greatest power may lie in their very human flaws. Some feminists may argue that Dany’s weakness for bad boys, Sansa’s horrific treatment by Joffrey and inability to change her situation herself, Ygritte’s fate as a mere stopover in a male character’s journey, or Cersei’s descent into madness and subsequent walk of shame rob these characters of their power and pride as women. I disagree.
I think that the struggles with our weaknesses and tribulations in life is where strength comes from; and in fiction it’s how you separate a living, breathing character that people can relate to and care about from a mere archetypical plot device. Being inspired by the struggles, triumphs, and even the flaws of a character you truly love is where fiction stops being a mere story and becomes relevant to your life.
None of these women are the perfect feminist icon because no such person exists anywhere. But all together, I think George R.R. Martin has created a world where women continue to find creative ways exert their power and influence, or at the very least endure, even when the world is stacked against them.
Pictured: my vision of a comments section combining feminism with GoT.