How A Feminist Watches Game of Thrones: Power Is Power

Queen Cersei and Littlefinger have a very polite conversation.
Queen Cersei and Littlefinger have a very polite conversation.

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.

Cersei Lannister plays a Medieval version of Simon Says with her guards to showcase her power.
Cersei Lannister plays a Medieval version of Simon Says with her guards to showcase her power.

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.

With one rip of a paper, a woman changes the course of world events.

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

Things are easier to see from a distance.
Things are easier to see from a distance.

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.brecht

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.

These tweets from the "Red Wedding" episode show how shaken people were to the point where they have to communicate it in order to process it.
These tweets from the “Red Wedding” episode show how shaken people were to the point where they have to communicate it in order to process it.

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.

Aegon and his sisters changed the world: proof that women in Westeros can and WILL change their world
Aegon and his sisters changed the world: proof that women in Westeros can and WILL change their world

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.

Arya's "dancing lessons" are an example of how she must go against the "rules" of gender to protect herself and how she has to hide this by telling people that she is learning dancing.
Arya’s “dancing lessons” are an example of how she must go against the “rules” of gender to protect herself and how she has to hide this by telling people that she is learning dancing.

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

Two different takes on what a "barbarian" woman looks like on Spartacus (left) and Game of Thrones (right). The woman on Spartacus is barely wearing anything and has a body that could be on the cover of Playboy, while Ygritte from Game of Thrones (who rarely shows this much skin on the show) looks more natural even in a glamour promo photo for Entertainment Weekly.
Two different takes on what a “barbarian” woman looks like on Spartacus (left) and Game of Thrones (right). The woman on Spartacus is barely wearing anything and has a body that could be on the cover of Playboy, while Ygritte from Game of Thrones (who rarely shows this much skin on the show) looks more natural even in a glamour promo photo for Entertainment Weekly.

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.

A choreographed lesbian sex scene is a very meta moment in Game of Thrones.
A choreographed lesbian sex scene is a very meta moment in Game of Thrones with queer-homosocial tones.

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.

Once again, Twitter responses show the way in which the Alienation Effect works for Game of Thrones: setting up an expectation and then destroying it.

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.twitter 1

Theon Cries For Us All

theon criesThe 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.

Works Cited

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. Hernandez, Brian Anthony. “‘Red Wedding’ is the Most Social Episode of Any HBO Show Ever.” Mashable. Jun 7, 2013. Web. Dec 12, 2015.
  4. ibid.
  5. Dolan, 3
  6. 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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Interesting because I refuse to watch GoT because of its disgusting portrayal of rape and violent sex. From what parts I have seen, it simply including complicated, strong women cannot make up for the depictions of violence that do not deal sensitively with the subject but rather exploit it.

    • Well, that is specifically why this article is not about “strong” women, but rather, a way of viewing a piece of popular culture through a feminist lens. While I agree that the show is not “sensitive” towards the subject of sexual violence, I counter-argue that it is “conscious” sometimes to the point of being “meta.” It is through this consciousness that the audience is taken on a critical journey. In short, I strongly encourage you to watch at least one whole season before condemning the show completely. By only seeing “parts” it is possible that you deprive yourself of the larger picture by only seeing it at face-value. Thank you for your feedback! I look forward to hearing from you in the future.

      • Jessica

        I’ve watched two whole seasons, and I agree with Julie — the show is sexist. And I don’t appreciate your implication that we’re NOT viewing the show through a feminist lens. We are, and that’s how we know it’s fucking sexist as shit. It’s hard to believe that you DO view the show through a feminist lens, as it appears you’re simply attempting to justify your love for it with empty arguments (wowee, a queen has power? How feminist! I guess we should all just become monarchs!) in the hopes that it will allow you to continue to label yourself a feminist.

    • Su Shannon

      It sounds like you need to give the show another chance. The show does some things better and some things worse than the book.

  2. While there are lot of powerful female characters in it, they’re all good looking too – which is more indicative of a male-dominated casting process. Not that I disapprove of that of course.

    • JekoJeko

      I think all the male actors were just insulted for not looking ‘good looking’ enough.

    • I think this is interesting because, in my humble opinion, a lot of women on this show are not conventionally “TV pretty” like they are on other period shows like Spartacus or The Tudors (though I acknowledge the cross-over of some actors).

  3. mosche barne

    Great read. In spite of taking place in a fantasy world it reflects the human nature in a way that is not seen so often.

  4. Arya’s my favourite character, such good lines and storyline. Her relationship with the Hound was fascinating.

  5. fidelie

    Quite simply one of the best series I’ve ever seen.

  6. Maricela

    I don’t watch the show, but I’m in the middle of A Feast for Crows and I just don’t like the show…it strays too far from the books and has too much needless rape (i.e., in the show Daenerys is raped by Drogo, in the books he waits till she gives consent). I feel like it’s a dumbed down version of the books.

    • There will always be a “books vs. show” debate. While some things that are added to the show might be viewed as negative, oftentimes there are examples of the show toning down or diverting other forms of sexual violence or objectification. This other article articulates some of these things in more depth than mine. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.

    • Connor Gregorich-Trevor

      This was an incredibly interesting read. I haven’t watched the show yet (currently wading my way through A Feast for Crows) but this is a much different perspective than I’ve heard from any of my friends, particularly of the use of Theon. While I haven’t watched it and can’t really make an informed opinion yet, I think that Theon as a representation of bystanders or perhaps even the audience themselves is a valid and very thought-provoking idea. I’m not sure if it makes up for the apparent lack of focus on Sansa, but it certainly puts a very different spin on the scene.

  7. Kozlowski

    Amazing. Thank you for this post from a feminist and Game of Thrones lover.

  8. ericg

    This was a good read. Game of Thrones is my favorite show, but recently I felt that the show has just been getting too gratuitous for its own good. I like how you were able to justify at least (some) of it by finding meaning in it.

    Although, I have to point out a mistake you made in the article–Catelyn Stark has a brother–Edmure Tully. He was in the third season of the TV show, famously trying (and failing) to shoot a flaming arrow at his father’s corpse as it drifted off to sea.

    • Thank you for pointing that out. I apologize for the oversight, although it seems that Edmure Tully is such a failure at life sometimes that his entire existence can be equated with the word “oversight.” lol.

      I would like to clarify, though, that the purpose of this article is not to “justify” anything on the show, but to present an innovative way of watching and engaging with the show that many might not know is possible. Thank you for your feedback!

      • Jessica

        But that’s precisely the point — women shouldn’t HAVE TO invent “an innovative way of watching and engaging with” a show just to feel OK about watching a series that caters excessively to the male gaze while ignoring the female gaze and depicting several scenes of sexual violence in a manner that’s clearly intended to titillate the audience. Why the fuck would you put so much effort into trying to cast the show in a feminist light when you could just instead give your support to all of the wonderful works of high fantasy that DON’T commit these sins? What about Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy? Her worlds are just as intricately wrought and compelling as anything GRRM has ever written, maybe more-so. GRRM even agrees that she’s a master of the genre. So where the fuck is her HBO series? She’ll never get one, because we live in a world that caters to hetero-male sexuality. Hobb’s work doesn’t lend itself to the “tits as wallpaper” aesthetic, so she’ll never get the riches she deserves for her genius.

  9. Emily Deibler

    As a huge ASoIaF fan, I appreciate the amount of thought put into looking at GOT through this lens. Though I’m fairly disconcerted with the show in terms of race and gender, the article made me think, and as you said, it’s not about justifying the show’s decisions, but seeing other possible perspectives concerning how female agency in an in-universe misogynistic fantasy setting is treated.

    In regards to ASoIaF, the books are great at taking certain fantasy character and setting tropes and deconstructing the consequences of them–both in female (Arya; Sansa; Brienne; Cersei; Jeyne Poole) and male (Jaime; Sandor; Tyrion; Theon) characters. I love how the narrative takes on issues of objectification and medieval chivalry. I thought the show did this well in regards to Brienne and Jaime’s dynamic in season three.

    And in the books, I find the consent between Jaime and Cersei dubious at best. Jaime’s position as a man so anti-rape and traumatized by not being able to protect Rhaella and Cersei from marital abuse, yet still not necessarily taking into account Cersei’s consent in his advances, shows how deeply ingrained the unhealthy society gender dynamics are (as well as the destructive nature of the relationship). This is a setting where women crying as they’re forcibly stripped for their wedding night is considered normal and not alarming, which is a norm women like Catelyn reflect upon. Dany’s struggle for agency while being sold into a marriage is another example of the “typical” violence and its effects. While some characters don’t pinpoint the issue, they do their best to subvert the roles enforced by societal limitations. I like how GRRM depicts these very challenging subjects with nuance.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful feedback. It is much appreciated. I actually suggested a Topic on here regarding the way the show handles race. I’m sure its sitting in the Topics list somewhere being looked over but I would love to see that aspect of the show gain more attention.

  10. Awesome!

  11. Sara U.

    I’m a former US Air Force aircraft mechanic.

    It was surprising to a lot of the guys that I had a sense of duty, that I was patriotic, and that I had unquestionable integrity. As a result of being my true self, my team honored and respected me. And I, them. I was always the only female on the flightline.

    It is refreshing to me to see a female character with loyalty, integrity, and a sense of duty. You have to admit, there has never been a character like her on any popular show before. She knows her duty. She accepts her fate and the consequences of her choices. Her word means something.

    The show brings the ugliness of war, the passion of love, and the motivations of politics to the screen. It’s intense. And, despite the parts that are hard to watch, I still like it.

  12. Carylon

    I’ve read & loved all of the books the show is based on!

  13. I have to say, I find it the same as the books: very difficult to get into.

  14. There is a greater depth of characters of both genders, not only the guys. Just as men like to identify with interesting characters when reading or watching something, women do too. Not that I can’t also identify with male characters – it’s not all about gender – but there’s something nice about my gender not being ignored as actual people, and clumped into the same boring category, in the story that I’m enjoying.

  15. Feminism has several characteristics- a belief in an eternal marxist class struggle between men and women, a brutal sexual repressiveness, and the portrayal of women as having only one social role, as eternal victims. GoT shows women as strong on their own account (not Feminist), sexy, (not Feminist) and as individuals with both admirable and undesirable characteristics (not Feminist).

    It is perhaps best described as a liberal show, in the old-fashioned meaning of the word “liberal” before American social democrats stole it; not least in its generally negative portrayal of government and monarchy, and its central bawdiness (the latter reflecting the old English character before the descent of the miserable puritan wave in the 19th century which itself gave birth to the first wave of Feminism. Hannah More would not approve of Game Of Thrones, we can be sure of that. The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain it is not).

    There is a myth put about that Feminism is some kind of pro-women movement, so anything that portrays women in a positive or interesting light is Feminist. This is one of those big lies. Feminism is, at its heart, a cabal of establishment matrons attempting to control everyone, male and female, by relentless attacks on males and generating a cult of victimhood and weakness in females. It thus intrisincally tries to organise women into a repressive collective. The strong, individualist women in Game Of Thrones have nothing in common with that.

    • Im sorry but I have to disagree with your false perception of feminism. First of all, feminism and Marxism are most certainly not always associated with each other. Marxist Feminism is a branch of feminism just like AnarchoCommunism is a branch of anarchy. There are many avid feminists, myself included, who are often at odds with Marxism for its glossing over of gender difference and gender struggle as Marxism is almost always focused primarily on class struggle above all else.

      You will have to elaborate on what you meam by “sexual repressiveness” but if this article accomplishes anything it is that women on this show are NOT always victims. I suggest that you give the article another read.

      I also do not understand your assertion that being sexy and being feminist are mutally exclusive. I mean, there are plenty of sexy feminists who save and everything.

      This article also does not attack men or male characters on the show expect the ones which harm women. Pointing to the ways in which a society favors masculinity over femininity is not an attack of men. In fact, I believe I refer to at least two instances where men are victims of their world. Feminism recognizes the large amounts of pressure that men are under im our society as a result of its favoring masculinity over femininity. The only reason this article focuses more on women than men is for the sake of length and the fact that I know that most readers of an article on feminism will be female. I would have loved especially to talk about young Bran being forced to watch a beheading.

      Finally, I will say this: Feminism is a way of looking at the world. It’s a kind of consciousness; specifically a consciousness of things like gender and sexuality and the way in which these things affect one’s life experiences. Take it or leave it but educate yourself on the nuances of the movement before attacking it with overgeneralizations. If you would like some feminist readings I would be happy to siggest some.

    • Your take on feminism is not the mainstream version of feminism.

      “a belief in an eternal marxist class struggle between men and women”
      No. That does describe, in a very rough and simplistic way, some early manifestations of feminism but it is not the standard or even a common belief.

      “a brutal sexual repressiveness”
      REALLY no. That describes better the double standard that feminism often tries to address, where extra-marital sex was tacitly accepted for men but socially punished for women. It may be that a few young men were thrown out of their homes for getting a girl pregnant, and if that happened it would also have been horrendous, but what or where were the male equivalents of Magdalene laundries?

      “and the portrayal of women as having only one social role, as eternal victims”
      Not even wrong. To note and draw attention to victimisation is not to support said victimisation. It’s part of an attempt to end the victimisation. Which DOES exist. It’s not as bad in the West as it is in other places in the world, but there are still attempts to keep people in clearly defined gender roles. Example- pay rates. ‘Oh, but women are more likely to take months or even years off to look after children’ is a common response to that issue, but that’s the problem right there- an underlying assumption that it’s the woman’s role to look after children. Men can be great parents too, but they still get odd looks when they opt for a career break to raise their kids.

      Basically, feminism is too big a concept to be defined as being one thing or another. I know that you can find writers and articles that support your perception, but there are many more with very different takes on the matter. And your description of feminism being “at its heart, a cabal of establishment matrons attempting to control everyone, male and female, by relentless attacks on males and generating a cult of victimhood and weakness in females.” is more descriptive of hardline patriarchy. Just change ‘matrons’ to… well, ‘patrons’ doesn’t have the same connotation so let’s say ‘male elders’, and you do have exactly the situation that feminism was created to fight. A desire to control people, attacks on those who do not behave in the ‘correct’ way, making women weak and helpless so that they’d believe that they needed a man to ‘look after them’.

      Most feminists do not want to subjugate men. Those who fear that they do, however- well, it looks a lot like projection. In the 70’s and 80’s some thought that Women’s Lib would result in complete role reversal- women in charge and men put down and oppressed. In other words, they thought that women would do to them what they had been doing to women. No wonder they were scared! But after decades of development and several waves, that is not the general goal. I promise. Go and have a proper look.

    • Annett Star

      I’m sure the 50+% of the population who are women appreciate you telling them what feminism is. I’m also sure that they will appreciate you distilling it down to a simplistic and self serving easy to digest list.

    • Well said. The show couldn’t be more anti-feminist.

    • Well said. The show couldn’t be more anti-feminist.

  16. I love Game of Thrones and I loved this post.

  17. Do any of this plethora of female characters actually TALK to any other female characters, now that the Stark family is dispersed? It seems to me that each female character is basically an island of her own in a sea full of men in every scene.

    • I think that the series fluctuates in this regard. Characters have dispersed in different directions for the time being (this affects male characters as well) and there is a huge possibility that things will start to go in the other direction in this upcoming season as the World gets smaller again.

  18. By far Arya is the best. Followed by Cersei, Brienne, and Lady Olenna. Then maybe Daenery. She is sexy but so far her scenes are aided by special effects (dragons and such). The others have done well without all the bells and whistles. Also don’t forget lady Stark, Eglat, and Sansa (who is getting better). Lets face it these women are good.

  19. All the characters are complex, martin is just a good writer.

  20. Great post!

  21. I have never thought of Game of Thrones as anti-feminist apart from its blatant male gaze, just because the characters redeem any fault the cinematographers may have.

    The problem I do have, however, is how the show is received. I believe this is true of many fantasy shows, films, and books, as well as video games. Maybe the perception has changed, but when I first started watching, men found that to be surprising, as if it made me cooler or one of them somehow. But it’s a television show, featuring very strong women. It doesn’t make sense to me why there needs to be an assumption that a story of war and violence couldn’t possibly appeal to most women. Is there really such a widespread perception of women exclusively watching romantic comedies and dramas? Obviously I’m only speaking from personal experience and I don’t know if anyone else has noticed it, but I really find it irritating to have my tastes be subject to shock and awe because I’m a woman. I like what I like, so what?

    • One of the largest problems that I have personally with criticism of women or feminists watching and enjoying the show is that I want to respond, “Don’t tell me what I can and cannot handle emotionally or intellectually. Don’t tell me what I should and should not be watching.” By attracting a huge female fan base, the show accomplishes something Brechtian in and of itself in that it shatters the expectations of what women want in their entertainment. By surprising your male counterparts, you are doing what Arya does when she interrupts Tywin’s history lesson: you are inserting yourself into the male realm. It’s happening a lot right now with female fans of comics, for example, becoming more visible and vocal. Keep up the fight! : )

    • I have friends who’ve told the same thing back when it started to air: they tell a guy they watch Game of Thrones and they’re like “OMG A LADY GoT FAN.” It’s not… that weird? You’re so right, why wouldn’t we want to watch a show with strong women? If anything I know more women who watch the show than men.

  22. AgingFather

    Well observed. An essential part of the appeal of this series is all the strong women. The setting, though, is medieval warfare where brute strength counts, they are managing and manipulating as best they can. In space warfare, men and women are equal, so for really strong female characters, stronger than the men, try Battlestar Galactica (2004). Yes, I know, the name puts you off; star wars, space western, boys’ toys, childish heroics. Fortunately, this male has a daughter who put him right. Rush to watch Laura Roslin and Kara Thrace et al in action (just make sure to start with the full length pilot).

    • Jessica

      “Yes, I know, the name puts you off.” What the fuck are you even talking about? Women love Battlestar Galactica. What, you think we wouldn’t l like it because “star wars, space western, boys’ toys…” what the fuck are you rambling about? Are you somehow under the impression women don’t like Sci-Fi? That it’s only for men? You’re a goddamn moron. Thanks for the idiotic comment and for reminding us of all the bullshit we’re up against from male genre fans who can’t be bothered to notice all the women in the room with you.

  23. I have family members who adore this series, but frankly, so many of these actors look alike, I found it hard to keep up with who was what. Plus, they all looked dirty/ and as if they smelled bad. (My son thinks this is ridiculous and maybe it is). When they killed off main characters, I just lost the thread. However, I think the Dwarf is the best actor in the series and I’m glad to hear he survives each year!

    • You’re old enough to have a son and you haven’t realised that most people in such a world would constantly have dirt on their faces? And who looks alike besides Robb and Jon?

      Maybe the killing of main characters isn’t the kind of story you want, but most people just find it refreshing.

  24. What I took from it is that famous rape is horrendous. The entire series is a story of man’s inhumanity to man. It is not so far removed from where we are today when large swaths of Syria and Iraq are replete with rapists, killers, and thieves rampaging without accountability, where human traffickers around the world enslave young girls, where the wealthy and powerful are removed from the travails of the rest of us and exploit labor and resources recklessly to amass ever greater fortunes and more power. Maybe by seeing it all in color, close up, we can still conjure up revulsion at it. I didn’t mind being horrified. We should remain attuned to what is happening around us. Then we should do something about it.

    • An Utley

      It’s called the consummation of the marriage and it’s what everyone expects to happen. This nonsense is cheapening the word rape by applying it wrongly.

  25. Fans who raved about the books, then complain about the sex and violence shown in the series, remind me of Oprah Winfrey raving about Interview with the Vampire, then walking out on the screening because she was disgusted by all the blood.

  26. How can we then say that the show is feminist? The strong women in the show are completely and vastly outnumbered by the nameless prostitutes and wallpaper-women… Too much of the discussion on GoT is on the portrayal in the books and authentically portraying history etc., when the discussion really should about the benefits of such entertainment for this day and age? What kind of subconscious messages it’s leaving on young adults? And if it’s desensitizing sexualized violence… including violence against women…

    • Hmm I suggest that you give the article another read because I believe that I have addressed a lot of these questions.

      To clarify what I said in my introduction: the purpose of the article is not to point to strong women and say “this show is feminist because it has strong women.” The purpose of this article is to give spectators a WAY of READING the show as feminist by using Brecht’s alienation effect.

      I think I only mention the books once, but I do say in my section on sexual indulgence that this show does not portray an expected Medieval world. The show isnt about history. It’s about our modern world where things like political corruption, war, and sexual violence are realities and topics which should be actively engaged. This show provides a way for many who would normally ignore these topics to talk aboit them or be forced to listen to discussions on them because the social media presence of these conversations is basically unavoidable.

      As stated in my piece, I would argue that the show does not desensitize viewers to sexual violence. If it did than would audience members have reacted so strongly to Sansa’s rape after being exposed to sexual violence for five seasons? I don’ think so.

    • One of the most cruel characters in the entire book/show series is a WOMAN named Cersei Lannister. One of the physically strongest and most morally righteous characters is Brienne of Tarth. One of the most compelling and fierce characters is a girl named Arya Stark. One of the sharpest characters is a woman named Lady Olenna Tyrell. One of the most powerful charaters is a woman named Daenerys Targaryen.

    • TalkingSnake

      The show is not feminist by any means. There are enough compelling, powerful female characters that it was worthwhile viewing material for feminists. There is a difference.

  27. I am not of the belief that feminism is strictly women who are strong and fierce. I think women can be role models even if their environment isn’t ideal – Sansa to me is the perfect embodiment of this. She is a strong and resilient character despite being in a culture where she is expected to be weak, and is constantly being mistreated.

    Cersei is evil to me despite her motivations, at best she is paranoid and crazy, but I think that is so much to George R. R. Martin’s credit – he doesn’t differentiate between men and women in this sense! His characters are all complicated, from Cersei to Jaime to Melisandre to Jon to Sansa etc…

  28. I really like the fact that the women acknowledge they know their expected roles within the GoT society and either use that to their advantage or try to actively go against it.

  29. You can argue that Sansa’s rape makes for a better story or a worse story. But it’s not ethically wrong to have rape in a TV-MA show. Rapes in a drama shouldn’t have to pass a necessity test or a gender fairness test. And what constitutes necessity? if you eliminate rapes or change who gets raped, it’s not the same story any more, so it’s necessary for the story the writers intended to tell. That’s true even if the change is far less consequential than having a man rape his male submissive instead of his wife.

    • The thing is, rape is pretty much the only crime in which many people think the victim is lying and asking for it and there is virtually no justice. That’s why if you’re going to include it in fiction you have to be very responsible because otherwise you’re contributing to rape culture. Just throwing it in to show that someone is evil or as a plot motivation for someone other than the victim is using a very tired trope. As for changing the story, the show is pretty much AU fanfic now. In the books it’s not Sansa but her girlhood friend Jeyne Poole who marries Ramsay and deals with this abuse. In a way it’s even more egregious in the book because the plot is all about getting Theon to escape Ramsay’s clutches. Since they didn’t include Jeyne in the show they didn’t have to include this plot at all, let alone subbing Sansa in for Jeyne. From a narrative standpoint it’s bad for Sansa’s story arc. She goes from being abused in King’s Landing to becoming stronger and more sophisticated under Littlefinger’s tutelage only to go back to being abused. Leaving the question of appropriateness aside, it’s boring and repetitive. Like a medieval version of the Gilligan tries to get off the island plot.

  30. This is one of the reasons I have always enjoyed GoT. It’s doesn’s skip over these difficult subjects; instead it showcases them in all their ugly truth.

  31. I really like your point of view in this article. As a feminist watching the show, I get a lot of feedback from people calling me a “fake” feminist. It’s interesting, because while watching the show, I felt like they were indeed “conscious” with what they were throwing out there.

    Your example with Ygritte, for example. She only strips down when she wants to lay with the man she loves. In most other shows and movies like you say, the women rarely cover their bodies, and it becomes part of our subconscious thinking––you are just used to seeing them all look “sexy” instead of rugged.

    Even with many of the rape scenes, the characters turn speak up or act against it. It is not shown as something that is normal or good.

    I think many people jump to the conclusion that just because the show has several rape and sex scenes, then it must be misogynistic. They don’t quite bother to look at how they are constructed and how they are challenged, especially for the society in the time period of the show.

  32. You made a really good case for someone like me, who has time and time again refused to watch HBO shows because of various reasons, to think of something like Game of Thrones differently. You’re points are thoughtful and you’ve clearly delved deeply into the show. My only question is if some of the female characters on the show are actually, as they called them on the documentary, Miss Representation, “Fighting F*** Toys.” When you mentioned Spartacus vs. GoT, Spartacus represented the “FFT.” But I’m wondering if the graphic nature of the show is simply to make the audience feel something as an a form of art, or to still, attract a wider audience. I always question this in various art because many, many times a show can give audiences the same emotions, but not by showing things as explicitly.

    • Well, I would answer that the graphic nature of the show is not only about making the audience “feel” something as you suggest. It is less about an emotional reaction and more about the intellectual reaction that follows. That being said, there is not doubt in my mind that attracting a wider audience is a component of much of the graphic nature of the show, but it is not the only component or even the primary component. If it were, why wouldn’t they choose more conventionally “TV pretty” women? If you would like to see how it operates, I suggest you watch a full season and give me your thoughts.

  33. I feel like this article is just attempting to tell me that I have to see the explicate aspects of the series a certain way in order to justify it. (Please, don’t bother to reply as to why this is not the case, I am not looking for a debate and likely will not change my mind on the matter) If the purpose were truly to depict how cruel and brutal humans can be and show how terrible rape/sexual objectification is, it would show the truly realistic aspects as well and not lean so far to a one-sided biased. I don’t care if there is a “feminist” side not, no matter the supposed definition of what feminism is. Men raped/pleasured each other as well. Not as often as women, however anyone can see that the show focuses mainly on women when working with sexual events. Everyone was tortured, violated and killed in the past. Side note: the women would also not be so well groomed– what I am saying is, it simply is not as “realistic” as everyone claims it is trying to be, rather pleasuring a heterosexual male audience and any women who are accepting of it. And I know of 14 year-old boys who say they watch the show. That is scary to me, as they will not see these “underlining meanings” behind the actions; many people will probably not get this out of what they are seeing. They’re only going to become desensitized to rape/sexual objectification. From what I read in this article, it could be easy for a viewer to take it as “women have learned to train themselves to be able to accept their role and weakness, thus it will not truly affect them, should they be raped/attacked”. Don’t tell me that couldn’t screw with someone’s mind, even if that isn’t what you meant. Not everyone will see it alike. If anything, this made me feel more disgusted by the show’s obsessive tendency to use sexual explicitly for shock value. Frankly, I don’t care what your take of it is, or even what the writers of the book/tv series were trying to convey, I don’t find it a wise thing to be airing for anyone to view and interoperate; especially being a mix between fantasy/history. (Again, no reason to reply. I am simply stating my opinion and am well aware that you, the author, and many others do not agree)

    • Well, yes, actually, there is a reason to reply. I will not give you the luxury of accusing my of justifying sexual violence on a show and not have me respond because I won’t “change your mind.” You obviously DO care what my take is because you have written a very large paragraph against what you THINK my take is. It seems to me that you completely misunderstand my article. I suggest you give it a second read, or a third, in your case. I especially suggest that you re-read the section of subjectification. There is not one moment of this article where I encourage acceptance of role or weakness. In fact, it is quite the opposite beginning with my section on feminism and exclusion. I also suggest that you re-read my section on the nature of nudity in this show and that I never said that they were “realistic.” I never once used that word, so I don’t even know where you are getting that argument from. In short, you’re perception of my opinion is completely wrong. I believe I end this article by encouraging those who do not like the show to continue speaking out against it. In that way, I encourage you to continue your crusade against what you believe to be a dangerous show. However, I cannot allow you to drag my name in the mud when you misquote me. For the record, I also do not care what the writers of the show are trying to convey. Feminism is a way of looking at something. This article is the way that I choose to look at a show that I love and feel empowered by it.

      • Very well, if you wish to turn it in to something it doesn’t need to be…I think you should read my post over again. I did not mean that you, nor your post encourages that behavior, (when I said “you”, I was generally speaking to anyone who may be reading my comment, not necessarily the author of the article) I said, personally, I feel that it can be gained in the minds of certain viewers. Thank you for blowing my opinion out of proportion though. If that is truly what you got out of my post, I inform you, it is not what I was getting at. I have a valid opinion and freedom of speech, so yes I care about my feelings on the subject. But I was not attempting to personally accuse you of anything. I don’t find anything truly wrong with your opinion, nor take on the show– I wish all people could see it in the light you do, as then there would be no need for concern. However, I do believe that SOME viewers could misinterpret what you got from the show; not what you have said, though I’ll even admit my wording probably came off that way. You got the best, least alarming message, but others may get something slightly off from that message and more alarming (I emphasize, NOT your interpretation). I did say that I felt as though I would have to see the show through your eyes to be able to watch it, yes. Not because you didn’t make good points, but because I can’t help but think that the show in general, is not a pleasing one in which I could enjoy. Honestly, I don’t believe that you said anything condoning such things as gender segregation and rape.

      • By the way, rereading my initial comment, I do see that it looks as though I am personally addressing you, which was not my intent. When I wrote “you, the author, and many others”, it does look that way. I meant, you (the reader of this comment), the author, and many others. Frankly, I was ranting and it came off in a more angry tone than which I intended. To conclude, I worry about other’s not seeing it this (your) way, but in a more dangerous way. When I say I do not care what others see in it, I only meant that I see the possibility of danger, not that others are not allowed to have differing opinions. That is fine. I also brought up the aspect of realism on my own terms, you did not mention it, it is simply something that bothered me when first watching.

        • Yes, you do have freedom of speech, and I am glad that you were not addressing me personally, even though it seemed that way. Part of the reason I wrote this, was so that people COULD see it my way. I realize that not everyone will, though I have not heard or seen anyone misinterpret my article in a dangerous way thus far. If you know of anyone who does, feel free to send them my way.

      • Jessica

        You know, instead of encouraging every single person who disagrees with you to reread your article, maybe you should just become a better writer? You’re clearly not as persuasive or articulate as you seem to think you are. And why the fuck are you getting so defensive toward everyone who disagrees with you? “I suggest you give it a second read, or a third, in your case.” Really? Are you seriously implying that they’re stupid or illiterate just because they disagree with your poorly constructed arguments? Serendipity did not misquote you, and they certainly didn’t drag your name through the mud. Calm the fuck down.

        “You’re perception of my opinion is completely wrong.” Whose fault is that? You’re the writer! Where the hell do you think they got that perception, if not from the words you wrote? And it’s YOUR, not YOU’RE. As in “I believe YOUR perception of my opinion is completely wrong, because I believe I’m entitled to have everyone agree with me despite the fact that I’m incapable of writing well enough to persuade them.” So, again: learn to write.

        • Hello Jessica,

          Thank you for the time it took to respond with these thoughtful comments. In the interest of normalizing the process of going back in one’s past writing and self-critiquing, I look for ways to make my writing clearer. I had hoped to demonstrate the difference between the way that a pop culture text is written and the way it is received. There are going to be readings, counter-readings, and everything in between for a show like Game of Thrones or any show. In the article, I recognize, early on, that the show’s feminism is subversive at best, and also hotly contested – or, at least it was more hotly contested five years ago, when I wrote this. Like I said: “This article is meant to give the reader one specific tool, the Alienation Effect, for doing a feminist reading of Game of Thrones.” In other words, if a feminist is actively looking for moments of agency and resistance of female characters in GoT, here is a tool (one might say lens) that might help them find it. There is a reason I specifically chose to use Dolan’s framework – since her work acknowledges that most pop culture texts are not made for women, let alone feminists. Most are made for the “male gaze” and, yes, are sexist. She offers a way of looking at a piece and reclaiming it as feminist. It is an active choice that often goes against the initial intent of the piece – just as there are many things in this world that are not made for women, but women still find ways of claiming and reclaiming them – or not. I tried to make this as clear as possible, and it’s apparent that I could have done better. I have learned a lot in the last five years about how to write and how to better engage, and I recognize that my tone reads as dismissive without sufficiently acknowledging Serendipity’s point that the subversive aspects of the show’s feminism might be too subterranean to be noticed and cold potentially cause harm. I do maintain that my intent is not to justify the things portrayed on the show, but to highlight the ways that female characters exhibit agency and resistance under circumstances and rules that were not built for them.

          I think that if I were to re-write this piece or revisit this piece (which I cannot do on this platform) I would not give the writers as much credit as I did in planting these meanings. I would also revise certain sections to include content warnings. I would also edit my second-to-last paragraph, where I tell feminists who disagree with me to keep speaking up but focus energy on the real world instead of the show: I would change that to keep speaking up, focusing your energy on the show AND the real world. There are probably some other things I would change, but I would need more time to go through it in more detail. Also the title was changed at the last minute by editors to better match whatever the Google algorithm was, at the time. I didn’t originally phrase it that way (I don’t remember what it originally was) but if I had a choice to change it, it would probably read more like “Tools for Feminist Reclamation” or something that makes space for other feminist readings. I agree that this title makes it sound like I think I have a monopoly on feminist readings, and that’s not reflexive of what I say in the article where I acknowledge debates and other viewpoints, which I believe are valid. Thank you again for your feedback.

  34. I only recently started watching this show, and I never quite made the connection between Cersei and Arya. After reading this, I can’t believe I missed it!

  35. I like how you titled the article; I have to say that sometimes watching Game of Thrones as a feminist can be challenging, and while I can see how it’s debatable, I wouldn’t call Game of Thrones a feminist show. That being said, you’ve definitely demonstrated ways in which the show can be read in a feminist way despite its not being truly “feminist”. The example I find the most interesting is Daenerys and Drogo’s relationship. I think the way Daenerys employs the knowledge of her female comrade to take control of the situation made a relationship that was initially so disturbing into something palatable…and then ultimately, the love that developed between Khal and Khaleesi was pretty much believable.

  36. This is a very interesting critique of the series and I appreciate the work you put in to write this piece. I still don’t think I’m going to watch the show – the fanatic use of shock value to disguise often poorly written scripts isn’t enough for me unfortunately – but this has definitely opened my mind a little!

  37. I really enjoy the work that you put into this. It’s always interesting to watch a show and consider its implications, but then it’s so much more interesting to actually back it all up.

    Just earlier I was speaking with my mom about GoT, and she was complaining that there aren’t really any ‘feminist’ characters. I know that I’ve also struggled at times with that critique, but in the end I have to say that the women are strong, and diverse in their strength. Brienne certainly is strong in a very different way from Cersei’s use of her female wiles and cunning to get her way. I feel that all the women show their strength in different ways, and personally I love to watch their characters develop (Dany, Arya, Sansa, I think they’ve all come really far)! I should definitely show this to her!

    I also really like that you distinguished between strong female characters and feminists. I think that the show has a lot of strong female characters, but it’s interesting to question whether they are actually feminists as well.

  38. El Noeme Zaire

    As a multicultural feminist reader, I cannot disagree with your analysis. I think much of your rationale includes a set of reasons why I still watch the show with anticipation and high interest. Game of Thrones deals with serious subjects like slavery and rape on deeper levels than I’ve ever seen depicted on television. That being said, it hasn’t quite touched racism as an issue or put a black woman in a serious position of power. Danny’s partner in crime is still the infamous Black woman as sidekick. I’d like to see the show blow our minds by letting Danny’s sidekick achieve more dimension and depth. Or introduce a different Black female character with more subject power and dimension. ‘Nough said!

    • I would loved to have touched on the racial factors of the show, but alas I cannot fit everything into one article. If, however, you look through the topics that I have “suggested” on this site, Game of Thrones and race is one of them. I would love to see you pick up the topic and run with it!

  39. Game of Thrones (the show and the books), for me, is problematic. And I think that part of that is because I love it so much. First I had to separate the show from the books: the books, unlike the show, features exponentially less rape and sexual violence against female characters. The show, though, features heaps of unnecessary sexual violence that they (the producers) use as a means of “awakening” for female characters. There might be an interesting meta that the audience reads into to try to get past all the rape, but I doubt the producers planned that it out like that.

    • Have the producers said that they use sexual violence as a way of “awakening” the female characters? I don’t think that’s why they include it.

  40. I think GofT has some of the strongest female characters in TV history. Rarely are women shown as leading entire civilizations like this. For me, it’s been refreshing after watching other binge-worthy shows with strong female leads who come across as one-dimensional in some manner. Great analysis!

  41. I think the unpredictable nature of the show is one of the things that makes it so great – too many movies and shows can be plotted out on a minute by minute basis – but i never considered that its unpredictability and jarring moments might be Brechtian in nature. I look forward to re-watching it with that in mind!

  42. This is such an interesting and compelling article, very well done!

    As a feminist, I didn’t watch the show this way, even though I always acknowledged the power of strong characters such as Sansa, Arya, Shae, Cersei ans obviously Daenerys, but this made me look at the show from an original and bright new perspective.
    It really is a tool that helps shine a light on the objectification of women and the rape culture that we have to fight since it became the norm, starting with real life.

  43. Piper CJ

    I just wanted to chime in as a voice of major support of both author and article. Great job!

    I would be far more disgusted by Game of Thrones if they were portraying a fictional world where women have no barriers, torments or horrors to face and overcome. Instead, they’re attempting to shed light on the genuine torture that it can be to live as a woman, and that very explicit exposure may be what’s needed to shake the audience out of their slumber.

    A real-world conversation with some “bros” has occurred where I was able to point them back to the fictional assault scenario in Game of Thrones when they were talking about a real-world assault scenario callously. A lightbulb moment occurred for them, finally able to glimpse the slightest sliver of the disgust and horror that is sexual assault in a patriarchal world.

  44. Great article 🙂 There’s a point that Martin makes about when he writes the book, how he wants to break normal fantasy stereotypes. It’s nice to see how the show allows women to be strong within the constraints of society at the time, as opposed to a “strong woman” equaling “a woman that can physically whoop your ass”. Don’t get me wrong, I love characters like Arya. Interestingly, Margaery is one character that’s very akin to Cersei, however with a different…branding over? Margaery almost takes the stereotype of “small, docile woman” and plays it to her advantage. She feeds the poor so that she gains favour, dresses herself to her advantage, and takes all the characteristics that are kind of thrown upon woman and really switches them to make herself more powerful.

    Anyways, great article and great writing!

  45. I absolutely loved reading your comparison between Cersei and Arya. I never would have considered those characters to be similar at all, but you explained it very convincingly. You pointed out a lot of things that I definitely missed, which made this a really fascinating read for me.

    There are a couple of errors here (Catelyn has a brother, for example), but they don’t detract from the overall article. I thought it was extremely well-written with lots of great, thought-provoking idea. Thanks for writing this.

    • Thanks. No one else noticed the Caatelyn error until after it was published but then I joke and say that Edmure is so useless it’s hard to remember that he exists haha

  46. JulieCMillay

    “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.” This was brilliant!

    I think societies forgets, quite commonly, that the those who are excluded from inherited power create their realm – of which the powerful could never and will never understand. In this way, they silently remain the backbone of these societies, a crucial underbelly of social construction. It leaves one to ask, who really has the power? Who is really blinded to the reality of the world? Great work, I really enjoyed reading your article!

  47. I like the way you led into this article, with the quote from Cersei. I cannot stand her character, but I do admire the power she has and how easily she uses it – it sets up your argument perfectly. You have pointed out a lot of accurate readings that as a feminist I have seen when watching the show. I’m glad you contrasted the identification and subjectification of male and female characters, because I think that really adds a layer to any gendered reading one might do on this show

  48. I agreed up until you started talking about a rape culture. Then I was like “meh, another one of those people who don’t understand what real rape culture is.”

  49. I really enjoyed this article as I am a huge fan of the books and the tv series. All the female characters on the show have strength in their own way! I know you had to edit for length purposes, but I would have loved more mention of the women in Dorne, and your opinion on how their specific culture has contributed to such a difference in the way they identify as women, compared to the other areas of Westeros. Great article!

  50. LondonFog

    As someone who has studied the representation of female bodies in Game of Thrones your article was interesting to read. What was interesting in the previous seasons (season 5 I feel breaks away from the old formula) was that women visually were still being used as visual props. So while there were certainly strong female characters they were often off set by the overindulgent displays of female sexuality. There is a concept that Kress proposed where even if someone vocally conveys power, if the signs in the environment point to a certain power level they tend to override the words.

    It’s similar to the idea of body language composing of so much more of our ability to communicate than words alone. I feel like while many of the women in the show talk in a very feminist way, they are still being used and cued in their environment as sexual objects.

    I think season 5 broke away from this and did away with the overuse of sexuality (thankfully) due to complaints. It’s a very interesting topic to look at exploitative filming techniques versus a feminist veneer.

  51. I honestly don’t quite understand how people can’t see how strong so many of the female characters in the show are. I believe they all have characteristics that mirror those of male characters while also taking into account the social implications of that time period. I know that some of them are seen as evil, but Game of Thrones is more about complicated people who are a mix of both good and evil then just simply one-note. Yes Cersei is considered a cruel woman, but at some point you have to look at all of her circumstances and take into account the things that have happened so far in her life that have made her who she is. Overall I really liked this article though because I feel that it accurately broached this topic.

  52. Excellent article and interesting debate though I confess I have only scanned it. My view is that GOT is feminist in that it does portray the struggles of women in a patriarchal society and recognises their strength and victories. History, of course is replete with strong women, if perhaps not so well recorded as men. From the great female monarchs of tudor times to the women at home behind the miners in the 18th and 19th century without whom the whole system would have broken down (no pit head baths, or works canteen’s until late 1930s – can you imagine sorting out all that filth with a hoard of children around your feet?). In medieval Britain, family’s/ clans fought to maintain their status. Marriage and childbirth for the women of the nobility was the job. The system relied on having male heirs to inherit the family wealth – keep it in the family-on daughters to marry into money to increase the family wealth and gain power. Some argue that the idea of marrying for love was considered idiotic – self indulgent – disloyal – a path to ruin. Hard for me to comprehend.
    Whilst by Tudor times, the internal conflict had lessened, the marriage/ inheritance culture persisted – and onwards of course. GOT highlights this in the portrayal of the bastard – innocent result of those who dared to step outside the rules. I love to watch it, debate it and celebrate how far we have come.

  53. cbharris

    The show, as you point out, receives so much criticism for it’s portrayal (of everything brutal), so I find a feminist angle to be very refreshing. I hate Cersei, but love that she won (and Dany as well).

  54. CostanzaCasati

    Great Article! I think it would be worth mentioning Ygritte a bit more in depth and not only in relation to her clothing or nudity. Another character that could be compared to Arya and Cersei –as grown up with a male brother in a patriarchal context, and then tries to break the boundaries of such context– is Yara Greyjoy. She is stronger than her brother, raised as a boy because Theon was away, and no one ever mentions marriage in relation to her. She is a fighter and a leader. However, it is interesting to notice how, when she wants to become the first Queen of the Iron Islands, the other men decide to vote for her uncle instead, a man.

  55. CostanzaCasati

    Margaery is also an example of a character which does not try to break the boundaries of the patriarchal context, but, remaining in those boundaries, she exploits her role and femininity to obtain what she wants.

  56. One of the best moments in my opinion for women on Game of Thrones was the last episode of season 1 when the dragon eggs hatch and Danearyus stands up, completely naked, while everyone bows. Her nudity made her seem so powerful in this scene. It wasn’t meant to be sexual but rather raw and powerful and strong.

  57. I found Jamie’s “accidental” rape of Cersei so disturbing for that same reason (sidenote: I read all the books before watching so sometimes I get my timeline from the show mixed up. Forgive me if I’m wrong!). After coming to see Jamie in a very different light at the end of the books versus the beginning, the show’s addition of the scene with Cersei was even harder to watch, having come to appreciate Jamie. I’m still not sure why they chose to include it, honestly. But I really love this idea that by showing Jamie as defending Brienne, but raping Cersei shows how blind a person can be to their own problems. Too often we judge others by their deeds while our perception of ourselves is based solely on our intentions.

  58. I believe that Game of Thrones does in some way empower women. Although there are some vulgar scenes in the show not showing women at their best, there are plenty of scenes showing women are even better than men. Some of the most powerful characters in the show are women, such as; Daenerys, a powerful dragon tamer and ruler of many, who also goes to show that she is for the people and not just the power/title of it all. Arya Stark, a young strong woman who looks out for herself and does what she has to do to get her way, and lastly but not final, Brienne of tarth, who’s stronger than many of the men she comes to find that picks a fight with her. These women are all great examples of power female power on the show.

  59. CostanzaCasati

    great article! I Love the series and I definitely agree with what you say about female power! Including Margaery would be interesting in relation to your topic!

  60. I loved this article it really looks more in depth at certain scenes and characters within the show that I would not have noticed from a feminist point of view.

  61. I’m obviously late to the party for this article, but this must be the best (and fairest) article I’ve read regarding feminism and Game of Thrones (still looking for a good on that’s focused on the book series). As you pointed out, on the surface the show covers a lot of topics of major concern to feminists: sexual objectification, violence against women, and just generally being treated as “less than a man” and another object for the patriarchy to use.

    However, to the critics of the show, I would ask “how fair would it be to have a revisionist history of medieval times?” The fact that countless women have suffered oppression for centuries just because of their gender shouldn’t be glossed over in favor of some kind of feminist (or any other movement’s) ideal. It reminds me of how McGraw-Hill published a history book decribing southern slaves as “forced immigrants,” essentially glossing over a segment of American history where a people were treated as possessions.

    As you astutely pointed out, these things are supposed to be hard to watch and encourage thought. Which has more impact: (1) Being told that women suffer in a patriarchal society, or (2) seeing it happen with your own eyes. It’s a lot more effective in impacting people because it confronts them with situations where women are targets of oppression than to have someone tell you that’s how it is. It’s the women that recognize this faulty medieval system for what it is, what their place is supposed to be in it, and finding ways to empower themselves by either manipulating it to their advantage (Catelyn, Olenna, Margaery) or flat out rejecting it (Brienne, Arya).

    Anyways, I really liked your section on examples of female characters shifting their situation from being objectified to subjectified. Sure, it’s still within the confines of the male-created and dominated system, but it’s women retaking their own agency and that’s not something to scoff at. It is certainly not enough for us today, but it’s a start. Some of these people are the women we can and should look back to as representing fictional versions of the foremothers of the movement, in a time where such a thing is not yet possible.

  62. Ben Hufbauer

    Excellent article! Thanks for the many insights.++

  63. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    This was a very well written and insightful article. I am not overly fond of the show at all, so I enjoyed this very much on the merit of your research and own background knowledge. Wonderful work and I look forward to reading more of your articles.

  64. Very well written, deeply insightful and subversive. The strangest thing about the show is that its fully aware of showcasing the worst of the patriarchy yet making us more aware of the need of feminism. Looking forward to future pieces.

  65. I haven´t seen an episode. I will start from this month. Which is the best season to start, the first one, in cronological order?

    • ralphpolojames

      Yes, absolutely, it’s necessary to watch this series on chronological order. The first episode “Winter is Coming” is a tone-setting episode that really captures the entire essence of the show in the first 60 or so minutes.

  66. ralphpolojames

    I really appreciated the comparison and specific similarities between Cersei and Arya. It makes me more appreciative of Cersei as a character, because although Arya physically contributes to one of the highest kill totals of all the characters in GOT, Cersei contributes to that same achievement through her constant scheming of sitting on the Iron Throne (like blowing up the Sept). It makes me curious as to how these characters would react, whether it be similarly or differently, to each other’s circumstances. Wouldn’t Cersei have the same amount of vengeance and desire to make something right out of something that was wrong like Arya’s determination immediately after she witnesses Ned’s beheading? This analyzation of feminism in the world of Westerns is incredibly enlightening as far as my appreciation for female characters in GOT goes and the immense amount of powers they display.

  67. This article went in a different direction than I thought it would, and I really like it! This is the first time I’ve heard of the Alienation Effect, but it makes a lot of sense. I enjoyed this article because it got me to thinking about the many strong women who are in the series and how they achieve agency in whatever ways they can. Now I want to re-watch the series and analyze the women and their progression in the show. Thanks for writing this!

  68. Deana

    What is your favourite character? I think most people will tell that it’s Daenerys Targaryen.

  69. I think that part of the motives and maneuvers of the female characters particularly is that they are interacting with the world of political/geopolitical intrigue, which is particularly cutthroat. These women have a certain ruthlessness because, evolutionarily they are the ones that adapted and thus survived. Just a thought.

  70. After watching the first season of House of the Dragon, with both a clear head female protagonist and antagonist (these roles are set up as fuzzy and gray from the start) it will be interesting to see how much farther they stray from the Game of Thrones vibe. I personally loved the first 5 seasons, and there was a lot more dialogue and bits of sardonic dark humor that made it all the more entertaining, which HOTD is severely lacking so far.

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