Why do the Women of Game of Thrones Suffer So Much?
There is no doubt that Game of Thrones is one of the most popular television series currently on the air. Based on the series of epic fantasy novels, Game of Thrones is set within a fantasy world, and primarily follows numerous Great Houses as they fight for power over the continent of Westeros.
Although the series has received critical acclaim, it has received some criticism for its treatment of women, particularly its depictions of sexual violence against women. Some critics have accused Game of Thrones of being misogynistic, while others have argued that the series embraces feminism.
There is one fact that cannot be disputed: the women of Game of Thrones live within a patriarchal system, in which they are frequently subjected to intense emotional and physical pain. Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen and Brienne of Tarth are all women to be reckoned with, and all of them have achieved varying degrees of political success throughout the series, but they have undergone a lot of suffering, ranging from degrading public punishments to marital rape.
Even though the men of Game of Thrones have suffered throughout the series as well, some critics have argued that the showrunners exploit the suffering of the leading women for shock value.
Nevertheless, one cannot deny the fact that the emotional and physical pain that the women of Game of Thrones have endured over the first seven seasons is reminiscent of a key issue that affects women today: gender-based violence.
Just like our world, the world of Game of Thrones can be a very dangerous and violent place for people to inhabit, but more so for women.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 35% of all women around the world will “experience either intimate partner or non-partner violence” at some point in their lives. This means that 1 out of 3 women will suffer from gender-based violence, which is a horrifying fact. The showrunners of Game of Thrones have never been afraid to showcase horrific acts of sexual violence against its leading women. In fact, the four leading women that are mentioned above are all subjected to sexual violence at some point in the series.
One of the most horrific acts of sexual violence in Game of Thrones occurs in the third episode of the fourth season. Following the death of their inbreed son Joffrey, Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister share a moment of privacy in the Great Sept of Baelor, a place of worship in the royal capital city of Westeros. Jaime initially comforts Cersei as she mourns the death of their son, but Cersei backs away, declining Jaime’s advances. After calling her a hateful woman, Jaime aggressively forces himself onto Cersei, and proceeds to rape her next to their son’s corpse. Although the episode’s director stated in an interview that the ‘coupling’ becomes consensual by the end of the scene, nearly all critics of the series agree that Cersei does not give Jaime her consent.
In the first episode of the series, a young Daenerys is forced by her cruel brother Viserys Targaryen to marry Khal Drogo, a fearsome warlord. After their wedding ceremony, Drogo brings Dany to a private area on a beach to consummate their marriage. Having been ordered by Viserys to please her new husband, Dany allows Drogo to undress her. However, Dany is visibly terrified, and cries as she covers her breasts with her hands. Drogo removes her hands, and forces himself onto Dany.
Although she is a formidable knight, Brienne is repeatedly threatened with acts of sexual violence by several men throughout the series. During the third episode of the third season, Brienne has been captured by Roose Bolton’s bannermen while escorting Jaime back to King’s Landing as her prisoner. After setting up a campsite at night, several bannermen proceed to drag Brienne into the woods to gang rape her. Brienne tries to overpower the bannermen, but they beat her, and the bannermen continue to assault her while Jaime convinces the leader to spare Brienne. The bannermen might not have gang raped her, but Brienne is badly assaulted by them.
A very horrific act of sexual assault occurs in the sixth episode of the fifth season. In this episode, Sansa is married to Ramsay Bolton, the son of the man who conspired with Walder Frey to murder her brother Robb Stark and mother Catelyn Stark. After they get married, Ramsay brings Sansa back to his chambers, where he tells her to undress. Theon Greyjoy, Ramsay’s prisoner and former Stark ward, is ordered by Ramsay to stay in his chambers and watch Sansa “become a woman.” Ramsay then rips the back of Sansa’s dress open, and the camera focuses on Theon tearfully watching Ramsay rape Sansa as the episode ends.
These are just some of the brutal acts of gender-based violence that happen to the leading women on Game of Thrones. As the series’ Great Houses fight for power throughout the first seven seasons, lots of supporting women and unnamed women are subjected to gender-based violence as well.
Some of the most infamous examples are as follows: Stannis Baratheon allowing Melisandre to sacrifice his daughter to the Lord of Light in order to be victorious in his upcoming battle against House Bolton, Petyr Baelish handing the prostitute Ros over to Joffrey for him to murder after finding out that she was a spy for Varys, and several of Drogo’s men taking Lhazareen women to be used as sex slaves.
Despite the fact that the characters of Game of Thrones live within a patriarchal system, some of the leading men in the series have also been subjected to gender-based violence, especially Theon. After he is taken captive by House Bolton in the second season finale, Theon is repeatedly tortured by Ramsay throughout the third season. In the seventh episode of the third season, Ramsay castrates Theon after he mocks his sexual prowess. Following this episode, Theon is never the same man he once was. Theon remains a prisoner and servant of House Bolton for the next two seasons, in which he is forced by Ramsay to do his bidding out of fear of further mutilation, including betraying his fellow Ironborn to the Boltons. But after he witnesses Ramsay rape Sansa, Theon eventually musters enough courage to help the two of them escape from the Boltons in the fifth season finale. Nevertheless, Theon is still subjected to ridicule by others for being a eunuch, particularly by the Ironborn in the fifth episode of the sixth season. It takes another season for Theon to prove to the surviving Ironborn that he is still a strong person to be reckoned with.
What Critics Think
Critics that have defended Game of Thrones as embracing feminism argue that these acts of gender-based violence are part of the series’ realistic exploration of political power in a world that is reminiscent of the early modern period of modern history. They also point out that the leading women survive these horrific acts of gender-based violence and continue to drive the story arcs forward, which makes Game of Thrones feel fundamentally feminist.
Even though gender-based violence against most women on Game of Thrones has contributed to the advancement of the story arcs, critics that have accused the series of being misogynistic argue that gender-based violence against all women, especially rape, have become frequent, unnecessary occurrences that are just meant to shock viewers.
For example, a lot of people think that it was not necessary for Ramsay to rape Sansa because they already knew that he was a sadistic person, so they did not need to see him harm yet another person. Furthermore, Ramsay did not have to rape Sansa to persuade her to extract revenge on him, given that the Boltons betray the Starks and occupy their ancestral home before Sansa marries Ramsay.
George R. R. Martin, an executive producer of the series and the author of the novels that Game of Thrones is based on, has stated that gender-based violence against women has been a part of every single war in reality, and if it were to be omitted from the story arcs, it would undermine a prominent theme of his novels: that the horrors of human history are not derived from “orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves,” or, in other words, oppressive men.
Changes Made by the Showrunners in Game of Thrones
That being said, it is important to mention that the acts of gender-based violence against Cersei, Dany, Sansa and Stannis’ daughter Shireen Baratheon did not happen to their novel counterparts. This is another reason why some believe that the showrunners added these scenes for the purpose of shocking viewers, thereby exploiting the suffering of these characters for entertainment.
Unlike their screen counterparts, Jaime does not rape Cersei in the novel A Storm of Swords. Although Cersei initially declines Jaime’s advances, she changes her mind and gives him consent. So why did the showrunners change this scene in their adaptation? To cast a negative light on incest, to make viewers want to hate Jaime again after he started redeeming himself, or to ramp up the shock value of an already disturbing scene? It does seem like the showrunners were trying to ramp up the shock value.
In the novel A Game of Thrones, Dany gives Drogo her consent before they consummate their marriage. So why did the showrunners decide to make Drogo rape Dany in the series? To show the horrific truths of child marriage (which is of itself another serious issue that affects young girls and women today), or to just shock viewers that a husband would sexually assault his newly-wedded wife? Maybe both, but most likely the latter.
Ramsay does not rape Sansa in the novels, but he does rape another character named Jeyne Poole. So did the showrunners make Ramsay rape Sansa so that viewers would have another reason to hate him, or to shed a light on marital rape? As it is mentioned above, most people feel like it is the former.
Stannis never sacrifices his daughter Shireen in the novels. While some might think that this added scene shows just how desperate Stannis is to win the game of thrones, others think that the showrunners just wanted to shock viewers by showing a young girl get burned at the stake by her own father in a massive plot twist.
Regardless of how you feel about the gender-based violence in Game of Thrones, you have to admit that the series is reminiscent of statistics on violence against women in reality. It can be seen as a reflection of the suffering of women today, in which the most privileged and powerful women can still be subjected to gender-based violence, as exemplified by the Weinstein effect.
However, one cannot help but feel that the showrunners are willing to ramp up the violence against the women (and some men) in Game of Thrones for the purpose of shock value.
This does not mean that gender-based violence should never be incorporated into a narrative, but it should never be done with the simple intention of shocking viewers.
Fortunately, most of the characters who survive acts of gender-based violence in Game of Thrones still retain a human voice, and they emerge from these experiences with a sense of inner strength, except for some supporting women such as Shireen and quite a few unnamed women such as the Lhazareen women.
Although Game of Thrones begins as a series predominantly about the men of the Great Houses of Westeros, women such as Sansa and Dany slowly establish their political power, and by the end of the sixth season, they become the leading figures in the fight for power over Westeros.
Cersei, Dany, Brienne and Sansa are vastly different characters that hold various positions of power throughout the series, yet they all suffer from the oppressive patriarchal system of Westeros, which says a lot about the female experience within the world of Game of Thrones.
The eighth and final season is expected to return in 2019, and we will finally find out who survives the advancing Army of the Dead and emerges victorious in the game of thrones.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Thinking of all of these women playing the Game of Thrones I am reminded of Elizabeth I of England, who had a pretty hard time of it at the beginning but with time she grew the teeth and claws she would need to overcome her enemies and hold on to power. And by the way, the Elizabethan Age was a Golden Age for England. So give Dany and Sansa and even Cersei some time. who knows what great things will come of it.
Whatever can say about “Game Of Thrones” it is “addictive”.
GoT will end horribly for most of these women. (How can it not, after the previous seasons).
Or the ‘moral of the story’ will be something along the lines of: “unless we’re attacked by aliens or a plague of zombies we’re probably just going to go on killing one another because that’s how we roll.”
I am glad for the focus on gender in this article. Thanks for the analysis.
What a fine analysis. I have to admit that I have focused largely on the sword and sorcery elements of the series, not looking for any larger meaning.
I love Ayra. She may be the most dangerous of them all because she will always be underestimated due to her small stature and lack of position. But her abilities, while subtle are just as dangerous and Dany or Cersei. I was blown away at how she matched Brienne in swordplay and when asked “who taught you that” she simply responded “No one”. She will always be able to surprise her enemies just like that. Ayra is also just a capable of mass murder as Cersei. She poisoned an entire house that betrayed her family and cooly told the sole survivor to let everyone know what happened and why. Her ability to assume any identity will allow her to slip into just about anywhere. She is the most lethal of them all in my book.
I’ve always thought so as well. I wondered if she’d end up on the Throne.
A really interesting article.
Not much of a GOT viewer. Seen a few episodes here and there. May someday start from scratch and take in the whole ball of wax. What I want to say is that I really appreciate the feminist message of it.
GOT is just entertainment, which has captured the interest of many.
Good piece. I gotta say, I’m not a big fan of Dany. She is not the queen, and of course no one will trust her as queen because there is a chance she can come down with the “madness” that has afflicted o, I don’t know, every single one of her family members. With counseling, I’m sure she would be a great leader, but I can’t stand her arrogance. Jon would be a good leader, and there is no reason for him to bow down to her until he knows who she is as a person and as a leader.
I’m with you about Dany. She is just too callow and arrogant to make a good leader, no matter how many slaves she emancipates. Jon is really the best choice as king. He has the experience, humility, and wisdom and Dany and others lack.
I love the focus on the female leaders. We have Dany, Sansa, Lyanna, Cersei, had Olenna, Ellaria, and Yara, and Arya (who I know isn’t a leader, but she is still a b.a.)
Don’t forget little Lady Mormont who has just as much backbone and leadership ability as the others without the apparent sexual violence background. She appears to be a force of nature and I would love to see her in her own story.
I suppose the question is, if any of these women is able to hold on to power in the long run, will they be able to be more magnanimous than their male predecessors, and in the case of Cersei, will they even want to? Dany tried that in Meereen, only to be faced with the Sons of the Harpy. They live in a brutal world. Changing that would likely take generations.
Good article. I like to see Game of Thrones as a reflection of modernity in feminist thinking.
One one hand, I think the way that Game of Thrones uses violence to reflect our world history by showing it through the lens of a fantasy setting is often quite excellent and does a great job of showing how utterly cruel humanity can be. It shows how even in fantastical worlds – the world can be made painfully real and reminiscent of ours by grounding the story in themes of cruelty, bigotry, and sexism.
However, it ultimately fails women. As pointed out, way too many of these scenes where women suffer are simply unnecessary. They hardly ever lead to meaningful developments outside of “this bad guy is real bad, look at him! He’s a rapist!” which is pretty mediocre story-telling.
We knew Ramsay was evil the day he fed his baby brother to his hounds. Him raping Sansa didn’t make us hate him more in any true meaningful way. This character was beyond disgusting since he mutilated Theon. And don’t even get me started on that bizarre scene where Jamie rapes Cersei. Utterly baffling and pointless scene that not only leads to nothing, but is so out of character for Jamie. At that point in the show especially.
Game of Thrones does a lot right, but unfortunately, it fails its women too often.
A lot of the people who’ve caused these acts of violence have all suffered. Joffrey dead, Ramsay dead, Stannis dead, Drogo dead, Jaime is missing a hand, Cersei kills everyone who was associated with her shame walk. So it looks like everyone got what they deserved at some point on this show.
Just out of curiosity, why is Shireen death considered a gendered base violence?The reason why she died wasn’t because she was a girl but because she was the child of a king. Had she been a boy I’m pretty sure she would have still died, especially if the kid has Stannis as a father. Or maybe I’m just not understanding exactly what is gendered base violence.
Also about Shireen’s death although it hasn’t happened in the book yet, there is at 98% chance that her death will be executed in the same manner in the book based off of the last few scenes we see with Stannis. So in regards to Shireen dying, yes shock value definitely contributed, but I also think the show runners knowing that she will die is the main reason they included the scene since its around at that moment that the book left off with Stannis’ storyline.
As for Sansa although showing the rape scene was unnecessary it isn’t surprising that Ramsay would rape Sansa considering how much of a creep he is. As a book reader I was piste at that scene and with Sansa’s storyline in the show. They didn’t need to show the rape scene even if it is within Ramsay’s character. I feel like they should have found a way to imply that Ramsay rape Sansa in passing maybe during a dinner or breakfast scene or something of the sorts.
A good discussion, I’m not a huge fan of this series so I’m a little biased in saying this, but largely it seems to be glorising and normalising violence against women in a period (now) when society is already experiencing these issues. I understand the argument by many that it is “realistic” to the setting of the story, but I don’t think any more that is a good enough reason, and if they are going to show this it needs to be more than a HD “rape fantasy” of attractive people and a greater emphasis on the emotional fallout, the psychological damage and the ugliness of what they are actually portraying.
I’m overall a bit sick of this sort of thing, especially by HBO, as being normalised.
Part of the issue with these women transcending is that they were wall beneficiaries of that same system in one way or another. They’re all from the advantaged class, and even though they may be disadvantaged within that class and have been brutalized because of their position as women, they still have internalized the idea that the lower classes should follow them because…. well, just because… that’s they way it is…. Even Dany, with all her thoughts about free people following her believes that they will do this, not because she’s going to give them political power, but because she’s divinely invested to be a better monarch than they’ve had in the past. They won’t be having elections anytime in even the distant future if she becomes queen.
Game of Thrones is a fantasy story. However, much of what people love about it is that it has a reality about it.
You are 100% bang on the nail about the show. Thank you!
The popularity of “Game Of Thrones” is a yet another sign of the times. Like it or not, feminism is here to stay. Educated men know that the only constant is change, and we evolve. While self-identified “Alpha”males continue to beat their chests, and whine about the good old days.
I Love the show however this forced feminism on the show is just unbearable, but then I come to terms that its just a show a fiction and I continue to watch and support.
Several men, Jon Snow, Tyrion, and Davos have all changed–or are changing–their allegiances to support Danys in various ways. Will this “gender-splicing” affect, positively or negatively, Danys’ ethical trajectory? At the same time, Jamie’s relationship to Cersei seems also to be shifting dramatically. Jamie, to me at least, has always seemed a kind of androgynous character. He has been the “female” side of Cersei. As he watches her increasing cruelty, will he become mindful again of the duty he owes the realm–slaying her as he had before slain the “mad Targareon king?” We can only wait and see.
Ayra is by far my favorite! I’ve loved watching her become the independent badass she is today over the seasons. I can’t wait until the final season comes out next year!
According to what I’ve seen of the series, it appears most people in the series are cursed with suffering. Children are murdered, mass murders and torture occur: it’s presumed to be primarily for shock value, though shock loses its value the more it’s used. It makes people become desensitized to the fictional violence occurring in the series, much like a soldier becoming accustomed to killing the enemy, or an executioner used to flipping the switch. Basically, people care less and less the more something is shoved in their face.
GoT has many themes, but the biggest one is that tragedy comes to everybody. There is not a single character in the show who has had a uniformly happy life. The only one who did was Cersei’s daughter, who lived a charmed life right up till her death. Everyone else has had to face murder, beatings, betrayals, rape, mutilation, torment, and unjust suffering.
This is quite interesting. Very nice analysis. I beleive though that the Stannis scene with him burning Shireen is still set to happen in the Winds of Winter (though correct me if I’m wrong). For me like anything in a story it needs to be in service of the ideas that the writer wants to communicate. For the most part I think that is the case in Game of Thrones. However, as you pointed out there are points where it is overly indulgent and favours shock value.
Thanks for writing this article. The whole thing with Jamie and Cersei really bothered me – ” Although the episode’s director stated in an interview that the ‘coupling’ becomes consensual by the end of the scene, nearly all critics of the series agree that Cersei does not give Jaime her consent.” Let’s pretend that she did “become consensual by the end of the scene” – it still doesn’t mean that it wasn’t assault or that it was okay. If someone says no or hesitates, you STOP. The mentality that she changed her mind mid-way and that it becomes romantic or sexy is dangerous, and can’t just be shown on screen casually like that and then ignored.
A really great article! I, too, have struggled with the violence against women in GoT, mostly because as a cis woman, it’s hard to watch. It makes the show feel very heterosexual-cis-male-centred. And yet, there are scenes where these women overcome their hardships in very feminist ways. It’s hard to navigate, but you put it into fine words!
An interesting counterpoint to this line of argumentation is Rebecca Hawkes’ article “Sexual violence in George RR Martin’s novels is far worse than in the Game of Thrones TV series” (The Telegraph, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/game-of-thrones/11632939/Game-of-Thrones-sexual-violence-in-Martins-novels-is-far-worse-than-in-the-show.html), where she points out that George RR Martin’s novels have four times as many instances of rapes than in the TV show, albeit with two differences: the rape victims are often relatively minor background characters (rather than point-of-view characters) and that emphasis (in terms of character development as a result of these rapes) is placed on the perpetrators, rather than the victims. Rather than interpreting the TV changes in regards to gendered-violence as an appeal to shock value, Hawkes puts forth that it portrays rape in a more serious, emotionally impactful way.
I don’t think I agree with Hawkes’ final sentiments about the TV show, but she brings forth a welcome criticism of the Game of Thrones novels that could be more deeply explored. Rape as a minimized background detail (that quickly shifts narrative focus away from the victim) in service of building the general feel/tone for a fantasy world could be as equally problematic as the shock-value use.
Thank you for this article. Shoutout to Lady Lyanna Mormont!
I really think the GoT show-runners appeal, whether consciously or unconsciously, to a male fetish for violence against women. There is no reason why multiple instances in the book needed to be warped into sexual assault. And yet its a pattern that only continues as each season is developed with no sufficient reason or added value to the plot or character development. Sure, this did happen in wars throughout time/women are always bear violence at the hands of men/historical accuracy yada yada but why is this “historical point” reiterated so much more than anything else, such that almost every prominent female character in the show is victimized by it? I’m sick of male directors enacting violence against our bodies for the sake of “art” and subversive “grittiness.”
Interesting take. It feels like, although his world is a complete fantasy and involves dragons, R.R. Martin thinks that the default world should be cruel to women.
I think others have mentioned, but I wonder how Arya stands in comparison with this topic. Very well done!!!
I’ve recently binged watched GoT and must agree that the violence and inequality towards woman is quite apparent. I can totally see how it comes off as merely serving as shock value. However, I do think that it shows a lot about the characters’ world while also creating more drama and conflict to the show. It kind of keeps you on edge.
I like the point you make about how the women do seem to emerge stronger after living through such traumatic experiences. Loved seeing Sansa transform from someone naive and vulnerable in the first few seasons to Lady Stark of Winterfell! And totally do agree with others in the comments about how Arya’s strength fits into this topic. Great article!
I believe that the show was doing an accurate portrayal of the times when it came to the treatment of women. It may not be right, but the show also does highlight all of the main female characters as they break out of their shell and eventually become tougher than all of the men on the show.
The suffering endured by the female characters in GOT is representative of the suffering women have endured since the beginning of time. Rape, incest, sexism, misognyny, and utter disrespect are common experiences women navigate through on a daily basis, and unfortunately, there is no end in sight. Nevertheless, the women in GOT aren’t simply victims of their circumstances. They are round characters who have arcs that bring them to their destinies in far from prosaic ways. Sansa goes from damsel in distress to yielding Little Finger’s manipulative ways against himself, Daenerys is the mother of dragons…enough said, and Arya cannot only fight better than men she can become them too. So, the suffering they endure onscreen (whether exploited or not) don’t box them in as just women, but as humans -coming into their own.
It’s pretty clear that the writers are just misogynists who want to normalize rape and belittle women and exploit our bodies and then disguise it to themselves and us by making them fighters also and call it feminist the whole show is a glorifyied everything brutal and a joke waste of oxygen time and space and resources . Could have written it far better myself and so could a two year old
I enjoyed reading this but oh how I would’ve loved it if you shortened your sentences for ease of reading. If you were to write another article about to what extent gender-based violence against women has been a part of every single war in reality – I’d be very interested in reading it.
I agree with everything you have to say, and believe it goes back to the blunder of the male gaze. Women—and often their traumas—are never true to reality, but to the sexualization for the [male] viewer.
I think your point on shock-value is quite interesting as I’ve always seen it from the perspective of a show that portrays the violence and shows the power of the women overcoming it.
In my opinion, to avoid certain scenes of horrors that happen to women would somewhat neglect real life suffering, and personally I think this brings greater light to some important issues happening in real life.
Particularly, as a lot of the time the women (Dany, Cersei, Arya, Sansa, etc) all overcome their adversity and grow as characters, I think the show does promote a great deal of strength in women to stand up for themselves and fight (theoretically or literally) against that treatment.
As you say, some scenes are not necessarily needed and may only serve to shock, but is that a slight on women or a characteristic of tv drama? To that, I don’t know but enjoyed the article.
Gender-based violence will forever exist as long as the path of inequality continues, which it has for many centuries. Although feminism has helped with strides into equality, a large portion of the world still believes this inequality is”how things should be.” Game of Thrones representing all the different ways women are harmed throughout the series shows that women are easily vulnerable in countless scenarios. While raising awareness for gender-based violence was the intent, I don’t believe it was necessary for the constant degradation of women. There are so many ways to raise awareness for such issues but to stray from the original plots of the books for such an intense replacement questions if this will raise awareness against gender-based violence or is it an unnecessary form of humiliation for women who have had that representation happen for them personally.
Super interesting, thank you!
Great article. I feel like the show runners relied on the shock value of their explicit scenes to generate a “buzz” about the show and get people talking about it. Later seasons move away from the high frequency of violent scenes and explicit scenes, possibly because they’ve already captured their audience. That and, actors likely had more negotiating power to prevent themselves from being subjected to filming scenes like these as they tend to be awkward and uncomfortable. All in all, I wish the show runners would have taken a more thoughtful approach to gender based violence. However, in an industry where “fridging” is a highly popular and utilized trope, it seems like there is still a long way to come.