How A Feminist Watches Game of Thrones: Power Is Power
Fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones would remember the scene well: the Master of Coin and whore-master Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish attempts to lecture Queen Cersei Lannister on the subject and nature of power by blackmailing her regarding a certain romantic affair she is having with her twin brother Jaime. Smugly and full of condescension, he monologues to her about how “knowledge is power,” but Cersei, unmoved calmly tells her guards to “seize him” and “cut his throat.” Petyr, struggling to break free from the guards, looks at his queen in shock and horror as she almost whimsically says, “Stop it. Wait. I’ve changed my mind. Let him go.” While the now free Petyr keeps his guard up, Cersei commands her guards to “step back three paces,” and in a royal game of “Simon Says,” she tells them to turn around and close their eyes. Proving that she has the upper hand, she slowly walks towards Petyr and imparts her lesson to him: “Power is power.” Then she gives him orders.
This iconic scene was not present in the books. Written specifically for the TV series, this scene not only provides an example of a “strong” woman on the show, but illustrates the subversive feminism of a show which at face value would seem to be a reactionary (or most commonly refereed to as a “throw back”) take on the Medieval fantasy genre which only caters to the male viewer (or in feminist lingo, the “male gaze”). The scene, however, teaches the spectator, particularly the female or feminist spectator, how to read Game of Thrones as a feminist piece of popular culture.
First of all, the circumstances of the scene are not as they appear. The small talk between Littlefinger and Cersei at the beginning of the scene is polite, but as any fan of the show would know, every statement is loaded with alternative meanings and intentions. Much is happening beneath the surface of the smiles and pleasantries. Secondly, anyone who is familiar with Game of Thrones knows that Littlefinger is a character who is usually in control of a situation (and he knows this). The scene, then, plays into the audience’s expectations, but then shatters them while teaching the audience (and the character) that Littlefinger is not always as in control as he thinks he is and (what many learned during Season 1) that Cersei is not to be underestimated.
While there have been endless articles which have argued whether Game of Thrones is feminist or not, this second point, the defamiliarization of the familiar, is the one which this article will focus on as the basis for the feminist lessons in Game of Thrones: a series notorious for its surprises. For the viewers of this show, the element of surprise is most often embodied by the fact that once the audience feels like they understand the “rules” of the world of Westeros, a main character (and usually a beloved character) is killed off. The result of which is that the audience, after the outrage and shock have subsided, sits back, puts some distance between themselves and their perceptions of the “rules,” and re-evaluates what they think they know about the “rules” of Westeros.
This distancing effect, or “Alienation Effect” as this article will call it, applies to gender “rules” as well. 1 As the series goes on, the lessons on gender constantly change, eventually pointing to the biggest lesson of all which was cited by Cersei in Season 1: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” This article will use examples of the Alienation Effect to highlight lessons in gender on Game of Thrones to point to the fact that this is a series in which women like Cersei Lannister are equal players in the global game for power despite the extreme obstacles towards the female gender in the world of Westeros and beyond.
Please note: There are many “strong” female characters on this show. The purpose of this article is not to point out the strong female characters and why they are “feminist.” This article is meant to give the reader one specific tool, the Alienation Effect, for doing a feminist reading of Game of Thrones. For the sake of length, there are bound to be names (even major ones) and moments which are left out. If you feel compelled to discuss a female character or moment which you believe did not receive attention from this article, feel free to mention her in the comments section.
The Spectator’s Distance from Westeros
If one were to hold a picture very close to another person’s eyes, it would be difficult to see clearly, and seeing the whole picture would be nearly impossible. Only by distancing the picture from the person’s gaze can he or she see the big picture. Just like the Game of Thrones intro which shows a large map of Westeros and then zooms in and out, the way in which the audience is introduced to the “rules” of the show is similar. One can think of the format of the show as one thinks of the opening theme: the larger world is introduced, the kingdoms are introduced, the “rules” of each kingdom are established piece by piece like the building of each kingdom in the intro, and then the gaze zooms out again to look at the big picture while everything that seemed so important seconds ago now seems so small and insignificant. This is how the Alienation Effect works and understanding how this effect works is crucial to understanding how feminist lessons of Game of Thrones works.
The Alienation Effect was a theory suggested by a German theatre director named Bertolt Brecht before the Second World War. For Brecht, the goal of entertainment was that the education of the audience continued after the curtain closed. 2 He did this by adding things to his plots which simply didn’t sit well with his audience or made them turn back around to reexamine what they witnessed. This “alienating moment” could be in the form of something shocking, unexpected, or something which pulls the metaphorical curtain away from the gears which turn a certain world. (Again, think about the mechanical imagery in the opening sequence). By denying his audiences a conventional story or ending, audiences would then go home, think about and talk about how annoyed they were with the piece, holding it at a distance, looking at the bigger picture and talking about why they were so annoyed. In doing this, audience members would actively engage the ideas present in Brecht’s work and in their real world.
Game of Thrones certainly operates in the same way. There are episodes such as the infamous “Red Wedding” (episode title “The Rains of Castamere”) where the title credits start after something tremendous just happened. Because the episode does not give the audience the luxury of wrapping up and processing what just happened, the spectators must process it for themselves either with the fellow spectators in the room, on social media, or in articles. The “grieving process” (and therefore, the learning process) can last for days, to months, to years while larger societal questions are asked.
Unlike Brecht’s time, social media now allows researchers to gauge an audience’s reaction: and in the case of Game of Thrones, Brecht would be pleased to know that his theory works. For the “Red Wedding” there were over 700,000 mentions on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, news sites and forums. 3 Seth Rogan’s comments perfectly illustrate the way in which the Alienation Effect for this particular episode distances audience members: “[HBO] kind of set a precedent that the second to last episode is when they do the really crazy shit … but they went way further than I thought they would. My wife is very upset.” 4 He talks about how Game of Thrones established an expectation and shattered it, defamiliarizing the familiar “rules” which the series set up, disturbing audience members and encouraging them to erupt in conversations about it. These conversations range from jokes (which is often how some people handle something disturbing) to deeper conversations about history or human nature.
An article for the Huffington Post entitled “‘Game Of Thrones’ Red Wedding Based On Real Historical Events: The Black Dinner And Glencoe Massacre” was published along with articles across the internet with titles like “‘Game Of Thrones’ – ‘The Rains of Castamere’: There Is Nothing Fair In This World, There Is Nothing Safe In This World” and “Why do we sit through the brutality of Game of Thrones every week?” These reactions explore something much deeper in the series than “unnecessary” violence in a Tolkien-esque fantasy world. They ask questions which are not easily answered like the ones which the show asks about gender. The events of Westeros train and condition spectators to question, analyze, and debate what they are watching on TV and how it relates to their world: so that when we see something that is not quite right in our own world, or that doesn’t sit well with us, we can hold the situation at a distance and figure it out.
Introducing the Gender Rules of Westeros
One of the most compelling conversations in the entire series is between Tywin Lannister and a disguised Arya Stark in Season 2 when Tywin attempts to lecture Arya on history saying “Aegon Targaryen changed the rules. That’s why every child alive still knows his name.” Much like the scene where Littlefinger attempts to “school” Cersei, Arya reminds Tywin that it was not just Aegon but “Aegon and his [two] sisters.” First of all, there seem to be a lot of scenes where men try to educate women who already know how the world works; however, this scene especially speaks to an aspect of feminist reading which plays into a Brechtian/feminist analysis of Game of Thrones. Feminist scholar Jill Dolan in her book The Feminist Spectator as Critic says that “Feminism begins with a keen awareness of exclusion from cultural, social, sexual, political, and intellectual discourse.” 5 In this scene, Tywin’s male-centric version of history excluded Aegon’s sisters Visenya and Rhaenys. Arya interrupts his narrative to mention the role of the two women in the changing of the “rules.” By distancing the audience from Tywin’s narrative, Arya changed, the audience’s view of the world of Westeros and rules of conduct which had been established at that point in the series.
So what are these “rules” in Game of Thrones which apply to gender and how are the audience’s expectations and knowledge constantly challenged? The Pilot episode presents the audience with a very black-and-white world of honor and death where one performs one’s duty (implied in “duty” is one’s proper gender performance) or is punished. This sentiment is most notable in two characters: the poor Knight’s Watch deserter who is beheaded for his cowardice and the young Daenerys Targaryen who is forced to marry a Dorthraki Khal by her power-hungry brother Viserys. Between Daenerys’ being raped on her wedding night by her new husband and Arya’s boredom during her needle-point circle, the world of Westeros (and beyond) is established as a horrible place for both sexes, but particularly women who seemed doomed to a life of sexual victim-hood, being a pawn, or monotony. There is not even one mention of the fact that in olden days, women like Visenya and Rhaenys wielded swords and rode dragons to victory.
There are, two female characters in the Pilot episode who are immediately aware (and make the audience aware as well) of their exclusion from the sphere of power and, in their own, way attempt to penetrate that world. They are Arya Stark, already mentioned, and Cersei Lannister. Arya joins her brothers in their archery games and wears a helmet to greet the king while Cersei engages in sexual relations with her brother Jaime. While Cersei’s actions are much more controversial to a modern audience, Westeros is established, though an earlier scene with Tyrion and several whores, as a world where men can engage in whatever sexual activity they want no matter how “depraved.” These shocking acts alienate the audience and make them see this seemingly stereotypical Medieval space with a newly found critical eye. Perhaps an audience member might come to the conclusion that by participating in the same sexual liberty that the men do, Cersei enters the male realm through her sexual privilege and like Arya with her bow and arrow skills, surpasses the men in indulgence.
These two female characters are constantly connected to each other (and not just in the amount of times each one calls Sansa “stupid”) whether in the fact that Cersei’s name is included in Arya’s “kill list,” or conversations of others throughout the series. One of the most notable connections is in Season 2 when Tywin Lannister compares Arya to Cersei saying “You remind me of my daughter.”
Not that Arya would enter a romantic relationship with Bran, for instance, but the fact that these two female characters have brothers makes them aware of their exclusion more than other characters like Catelyn Stark who only has a sister. Cersei talks about the difference in upbringing between her and Jaime: while they shared a womb and are equal in genetics, Jaime was raised to fight and Cersei was raised to marry well. Cersei’s unhappy marriage to King Robert is the root of many conflicts in the series. When Ned Stark tells Arya that her future is to marry a great lord, one might wonder that if circumstances were different, would Arya have turned into Cersei and vice versa. Either way, each woman progresses in the series further into the realm of men: Cersei through politics and sexuality and Arya through violence. Both females engage in shocking activity and both women face consequences of their action, but both women are equal players to the point where Arya, even as a young girl, has one of the highest kill counts in the realm. Talk about “girl power.”
The eventual introduction of other female characters such as Brienne of Tarth and the Queen of Thorns present the audience with two more examples of women who do not accept exclusion and insert themselves into the world of men as equals and even superiors. Other female characters grow into this realization and grow into strength. Like the Alienation-Effect makes audience members more aware, one moment of awareness is usually the catalyst for the creation of more powerful women in Game of Thrones.
Identification and Subjectification
These are two really big words and ways of saying: women identify with female characters who take control of their own individuality and their own agency. As seen with Tywin’s version of history: oftentimes, the male characters are central (the heroes) and female characters are secondary or supporting roles. It is a wonder that female spectators to such stories have found female characters with which to identify. That being said, the fact that so many female fans of Game of Thrones identify strongly with female characters on the show proves the way in which such characters have forced, killed, or fucked their way into subjectification.
Instead of going into the complex theories of Michel Foucault on sexual objectification vs. subjectification, here is a video which explains it very well. In short a person is sexually objectified when she is seen as merely an object to have sex with, while a subject is in control of the situation. Sexual objectification of women is a large phenomenon in American culture and is often so “beautified” that it is barely noticeable.
Game of Thrones has been widely criticized for perpetuating the sexual objectification of women. While it is commendable that people speak out against forms of objectification of women, this article would like to point to the ways in which Game of Thrones undermines the objectification of women and features characters like Daenarys Targaryen, Ros, Shae and Sansa who enact their subjectivity even at their most power-less moments.
Firstly, Game of Thrones de-beautifies the objectification of women. Unlike shows like Spartacus or True Blood where the naked bodies are idealized versions of the nude female form, shot in special filters and perfected as if in a magazine, there is a more raw presentation of nudity on Game of Thrones (as there is a rawness to the way that everything is presented). 6
There is a variety of body types and races which demystifies the concept of showing a naked woman on TV: again, defamiliarizing the familiar and distancing the viewer from what they may expect. The scene where Lysa Arryn breastfeeds her grown son is a perfect example of the rawness by which the female body is presented. Secondly, going along with the de-beautification of the objectification of women, the show’s portrayal of sexual violence is anything but glorified. It is difficult to watch and forces the audience to see the consequences of a world which sees women as sexual objects. This is one of the few shows which connects the objectification of women to a rape culture and makes the audience watch how a vulgar joke or language about a woman’s body leads to the violation of the woman’s body. So does the show offer a societal solution? Yes: subjectification of women.
Daenarys makes an early decision to transform herself from the object of Khal Drogo’s pleasure into the subject. She does this by employing the help of her female servant who was trained (as a prostitute) in the ways of pleasuring men. While this scene has also been criticized for using a physical encounter between two women to enhance male viewership, think about what this scene is actually about. In this scene, two women are conspiring with each other into manipulating the Khal and save Daenarys from being raped. These women gain empowerment from each other and they are both acting in their own interests.
This scene is similar to the scene where Littlefinger monologues about his past and plans for the future while teaching Ros and another prostitute how to manipulate their customers. This scene is often cited as an example of sexual objectification as the women are practicing on each other and was the source of the term “sexposition.” However, again, one must stop and actually think about what is happening here. These women are deconstructing their own objectification and turning it around on the men who frequent the brothel. This scene removes the “curtain” and shows a sex scene being choreographed as if it is a “behind the scenes” look at the show itself. This demystifies a part of the sexual content of the show and suggests that many of the nameless naked women throughout the series is “faking it” with the men they are with. This proves that it may be a man’s world but the women know how to play the game in a way which leaves the men completely oblivious and, in their own way, excluded from a world of which only the women know of.
Meanwhile, Daenarys makes herself the sexual subject, initiating intercourse where her husband is forced to look her in the eyes. Because Daenarys was made aware of her own individuality and her own power to please both her husband and herself, Khal Drogo became aware of her individuality as well and began to see her as a person and not a sex object. Subjectification is contagious.
This is not to say that a woman is safe if she recognizes herself as the sexual subject. This fact is embodied by the characters Ros and Shae who are both keenly aware and active subjects who still end up dead because there are some situations in Westeros (and our own world) where women simply don’t have enough power to protect themselves. Shae went through a similar arc of subjectivity that Daenarys did: because Shae was strong in her subjectification, she enabled Tryion (who not only didn’t see whores as individual human beings but resented them because of a trick that Jamie and Tywin pulled on him years ago) to see her as an individual and fall in love with her. In this way, the show brings a harsh reality into the audience’s periphery when it kills off two strong female characters.
Of course, the most notorious case of subjectification and tragedy is the rape of Sansa on her wedding night by Ramsay Bolton. This moment sparked a similar uproar to that of the Red Wedding. One interesting factor, however, which makes the scene so gut-wrenching is the fact that Sansa had just discovered her subjectivity at the end of the previous season. However, if the audience knows anything about Sansa, it is that her ability to keep quiet has saved her life on several occasions. It is possible, and actress Sophie Turner as argued this, that Sansa’s decision to not fight Ramsay was a calculated move for survival; thus retaining her subjectivity in her darkest moment.
Theon Cries For Us All
The most interesting part of that scene is the fact that the camera focused on Theon (a move which also gained criticism for the show). This decision to focus on Theon, who was forced to watch, is like turning the lens of the camera on the audience of the show (who is also being forced to watch). This focus on the spectator is a challenge to the audience: a reminder that there are many in our society who stand idly by while women are assaulted. This not only includes those like Theon who are physically close by or witness something like that, but the whole of society who allows a culture of rape to persist. So does the spectator stand there and cry like Theon or do something to change his world?
The show is very clever on how it handles the complex issue of speaking out against rape. One of the more interesting moments is when Jamie Lannister loses a hand after saving Brienne from getting raped showing that there are consequences to speaking up for others, especially when being a male. Jamie, however, is also guilty of “accidentally” raping Cersei proving that as a male he has been so immersed in a culture of rape that he can stand up for Brienne one day but be blinded towards Cersei’s subjectivity the next.
By deconstructing gender issues on Game of Thrones, this article does not attempt to make excuses for sexual violence in our world. It is never excused no matter how much subjectivity the victim holds on to. However, by pointing to moments of female characters’ agency and resistance to the misogyny of Westeros, hopefully this article points to ways of subverting misogyny in our world. The show is very conscious and purposeful in their choices to portray a world in which women are objects and their use of the Alienation Effect to spawn strong reactions from audience members. The fact that Theon is wearing the same outfit to Sansa’s wedding that Robb Stark was wearing at the Red Wedding is evidence how carefully the creators craft each moment. In fact there are so many brilliant moments and characters which advance feminist ideas in this series that no one article could ever cover it, but hopefully after reading this one, possibilities of further feminist readings of Game of Thrones have opened up.
So to disgruntled feminist spectators I say: continue to be disgruntled, continue to speak out. However, instead of speaking out against Game of Thrones, use that energy to change our world first with an awareness of the exclusion of women and the fight towards subjectification.
Cersei is right: power is power. The women of Game of Thrones take what power they can get and force themselves into inclusion and subjectivity. Imagine what women in this world can do with so many more advantages than in Westeros.
- This idea that the “Alienation Effect” can be applied to gender comes from the article “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism” by Elin Diamond for those of you who are interested in learning more. While this article does not quote her article directly, the ideas come from her way of approaching theatre and film, but the ideas can be applied to TV as well. It rests on the idea that Game of Thrones is a show which does not immerse the audience in its world but rather makes them aware of the fact that they are outsiders to this world. ↩
- Gerould, Daniel. Theatre Theory Theatre: The Major Critical Texts from Aristotle and Zeami to Soyinka and Hagel. New York: Applause Theater and Cinema Books. 2000. pgs. 446-461 ↩
- Hernandez, Brian Anthony. “‘Red Wedding’ is the Most Social Episode of Any HBO Show Ever.” Mashable. Jun 7, 2013. Web. Dec 12, 2015. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Dolan, 3 ↩
- Jaime’s line “It’s a strange thing, first time you cut a man. You realize we’re nothing but sacks of meat and blood, and some bone to keep it all standing.” demystifies the human body, for example. ↩
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