The Women of Westeros

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, April 2, 2013 10:41 EDT
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Starting next week, this blog space on Mondays will be given over to The Orange Couch recaps of “Mad Men” (sadly, we had to cut “Doctor Who” because we don’t have time for both), so I won’t have a lot of time to talk about that other bad ass show that purports to be about men wrangling for power but is just as much about the women who have to survive in a patriarchy: “Game of Thrones”. The third season started on Sunday. Between the episode and word from people who’ve watched screeners of the entire season, it appears that we’re going to start seeing even more of the ladies of Westeros. Adam Serwer described it:

Thrones has been widely and justifiably mocked for its use of “sexposition,” a.k.a. nudity, to introduce important plot points, and Martin’s source material has complex but deeply flawed gender politics. Perhaps that’s why in Season 3, it’s the women of Westeros—and their attempts to manipulate a barbarous, patriarchal society rife with sexual violence—who take center stage. From the ladies of House Tyrell quietly making their bid for Iron Throne, to former prostitutes pulling the strings of power behind the scenes, to Brienne (the sworn sword of Catelyn Stark) humbling feared warrior Jamie Lannister, Thrones writers enhance the roles for the women of Westeros—in some cases beyond the bounds of Martin’s books—and it’s mostly for the better.

Watching the female characters grapple in surprisingly diverse ways with living in what is not just a patriarchy, but a patriarchy that doesn’t pretend to be anything else, is some of the best parts of “Game of Thrones”. As with “Mad Men”, I think it’s partially an evolution as the writers (which include George R.R. Martin) began to realize that simply giving more attention to women than most storytellers traditionally do makes your story feel fresh and stand out. Obviously, it’s sad that simply acknowledging that women are complex, fully realized human beings like men are makes your work feel like it’s breaking new artistic ground, but it’s a transition that is no less welcome for how overdue it is.

It’s an interesting exercise in this regard to compare “Game of Thrones” to the “Lord of the Rings” movie series whose popularity probably made “GoT” saleable in the first place. To a large extent, “Lord of the Rings” buys into the patriarchal assumption that women are simply support staff for men, and that their lives aren’t interesting in the slightest, outside of what they can provide for men. There are a couple of female characters who do actual things in the world, but they’re so slight as to be the exception that proves the rule. If any of them express a whit of dissatisfaction at their constrained roles in a patriarchy, it was so slight as to be non-memorable. On “GoT”, however, we’re constantly reminded of how nonsensical the sexism of their world is, without it ever feeling preachy.

What I particularly like about “GoT” is that it really demonstrates how complex sexist systems really are. If you’re a feminist writer like myself, you constantly have anti-feminists telling you that because you’re allowed to walk around unveiled or because some women actually get some measure of power, sexism isn’t real and wocka wocka. But it’s really not a black and white sort of thing, and by putting these kinds of complexities in a fantasy world, it’s a lot easier to see how it works. No one would deny that the culture of Westeros is sexist even though Daenerys Targaryen is regarded as a queen and has men who follow and obey her. After all, she had to get rid of her sniveling brother and overcome being treated like a token for trade to get to her position. She’s clearly so much stronger and more talented than her brother ever was, and yet his greater status for being born male was the trump card he could pull until the very end, when her husband had to kill him for her.

I also love how much of a mockery the show makes of the old rationalizations for sexism that claimed women exert their power in the home: “the hand that rocks the cradle” or “the power behind the throne” kind of garbage people still push today. Cersei has made it her life’s work to manipulate men, but she finds pretty quickly that their actual, real world power trumps hers. She’s left with kicking her brother Tyrion around—he used his male privilege against her the second he had it, and now that it’s been stripped from him, she’s going to expend all her anger towards all the men who control her on him.

One of the most common distraction techniques that anti-feminists use is to claim feminists are the “real” sexists, because by pointing out how women are oppressed is “playing the victim card” or even “denying women’s agency”—an argument that seems to assume that simply by showing agency, one can throw off thousands of years of male dominance. What I love about “GoT” is how neatly it dispatches with that bullshit. The women of this world are oppressed and treated like objects and tokens more often than not, but observing this reality does not rob them of a whit of agency. On the contrary, it’s a world where “agency” is a thing that people have by virtue of being human beings, and to genuinely rob someone of it takes sociopathic efforts, such as the strategies used by the slave traders that Dany meets up with in the first episode of this season. Women in this world are controlled by men and they don’t give up and lay there like passive objects. Even Sansa, who started off fully embracing the role of a passive object, is beginning to have her spirit rise up in her.

So, open thread to talk about “Game of Thrones”. What are you hoping for this new season?

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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