Game of Thrones has been both heavily praised and criticised in the past for its portrayal of its female characters and women in general. Whilst many fantasy fans celebrate the demonstrations of female strength in the likes of fan-favourites like Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), we also cannot push aside more problematic representations.
Female Strength and Power
One cannot watch Game of Thrones without recognizing the power of its female characters. Not only do women such as Daenerys and Arya have whole storylines dedicated to their own solo adventures throughout the series, there is the strong female spirit present even in more background characters, such as Shae and Lyanna Mormont. For a genre which has long since been focused on telling the stories of men, see the likes of Lord of Rings and even Harry Potter, this is extremely refreshing storytelling.
Game of Thrones also expertly shows strength and power in these women through other means than simply physical strength and swordsmanship. Whilst the brutal strength of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), or the quickness of Arya cannot be denied, power can take many forms. Cersei’s ruthlessness and cunning manipulations see her eliminate her enemies at the end of season 6 and become the reigning monarch of Westeros (and the country’s first queen). Dany’s strength to wrangle her dragons and her fire-proof abilities also make her a formidable force, allowing her to conquer Slavers’ Bay, and now be one of the MVPs in the war to come.
Whilst power may be associated with exerting more traditionally masculine traits, whether that be in battle or the political world, the show tells us (admittedly more subtly) that there can also be strength in femininity. Cersei says as much to Sansa (Sophie Turner) as they wait out the Battle of the Blackwater in season 2, telling her that a woman’s greatest weapon is between her legs.
Sex aside, the show also portrays how embracing their femininity and beauty can in fact benefit its female characters. Both Dany and Margery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) both utilized their beauty to secure political marriages multiple times and in turn gained substantial power. Sansa herself is a strong example of a female character, whom whilst never trained in combat, has used her innocence as the young Stark daughter to learn the secrets of the games’ most notable players. Therefore, has rose to the position of Lady of Winterfell, able to literally eliminate threats and become one of the show’s best politicians.
Nudity, Sex and Sexual Abuse
The representations of these particular themes are where the show has been most condemned. There are multiple strong examples of the show’s most prominent female characters being naked which have positive connotations of strength, such as Daenerys emerging from smoke or flames as she births her dragons or burns down Dosh Khaleen, or Cersei committing her march of repentance through the streets of King’s Landing. Certain sex scenes also serve purpose in driving characters’ narratives and romantic relationships forward. However, we cannot forget or forgive more frequent and problematic portrayals of nudity in regards to scenes with female sex workers, especially when we consider that male characters are often not portrayed in the same gratuitously sexual way.
Portrayals of sexual abuse have also not been taken lightly. The show has always opted for brutal realism, such as in regards to deaths and battle sequences, but the violent depictions of sexual assault have caused the most outrage amongst viewers. Whilst we must not forget the society of the story-world and its sometimes horrific treatment of women, it does not diffuse from the horror of seeing some of the show’s most beloved female characters being so intimately violated.
Female characters are arguably the backbone of this show, being undeniable key players in the show’s narratives, beyond merely side characters, narrative tokens or love interests. Game of Thrones allows its women to demonstrate strengths in numerous ways, own their sexuality regardless of what that may be and prove they are worthy of respect and admiration. However, it cannot be left unsaid that the show has failed in treating some of their background or secondary female characters with the same approach. More racial diversity is also sorely needed. With the final season just round the corner, we can only hope that this story-world can rectify those issues in the confirmed prequel series.