Some female characters can survive in the patriarchal world of Game of Thrones but that doesn’t make it feminist, contends Rebekah Owens
Is Game of Thrones – the television series adapted from the novels by George R R Martin – a female-friendly franchise? The debate has raged ever since the television series first aired on the US channel HBO in 2011, with a fourth season due to be broadcast early in 2014.
This summer, Wired published Nielsen data meant to provide objective evidence that the TV show is female friendly. The statistics show that the series was watched by an almost even mix of men and women, the numbers for the third season indicating that 42% of the audience was female. This, for Underwired reporter, Angela Watercutter, demonstrates that the television show is not just for boys with a penchant for daggers and dwarves; women are also quite fond of a dose of loincloth-and-leather.
The debate, however, goes far beyond simple statistics to show the series is enjoyed by almost as many women as men. It is not about the women who watch the programme, but the women who are actually in the programme. Are they well-defined, well-drawn characters in their own right? Or are they simply present to bolster the viewing figures by showing their boobs? This has led to additional debates about whether the ‘boobs per episode’ count is a case of objectification or empowerment.
The series is notorious for the number of exposition scenes which take place during sex scenes, meant to make the lengthy, plot-expounding dialogue a little more interesting. New York journalist Myles NcNutt coined a new word to describe these scenes – sexposition. Naked women form part of the scenery, their presence a gratuitous attempt to bump up the viewing figures.
But other commentators consider that the female characters are not there to boost audience numbers. For them, it is demeaning to focus on boob counts or sex scenes. Instead, these scenes contribute to depicting these characters as well-rounded creations who are flawed but believable.
One particular character frequently put forward as the best representation of the franchise’s feminist credentials is Daenaerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). This dragon-handling queen certainly seems to show promise as a feminist icon. Indeed, while there have been criticisms of her role in the series as a ‘white saviour’, Daenaerys could also be seen as a liberator who fights injustice. Overcoming the subjugation of forced marriage, rescuing her sisters from rape and freeing slaves means this character has arguably entered popular culture as a symbol of female resistance and strength. For example, in Stephen King’s latest novel, Doctor Sleep, a sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining, Abra Stone is able to fight off an attack from a soul-leaching vampire by conjuring up the figure of Daenaerys with her powerful psychic abilities.
However, to suggest one major character is indicative of the feminist credentials of the series avoids the subliminal message embedded in the whole of this fantasy epic. A look at the franchise from a wider perspective shows that it is not at all female-friendly. The entire Game of Thrones franchise, whether in print or broadcast, represents that most insidious of all fantasies: the subjugation of women. Within the novel’s quasi-Medieval set-up, there is ample scope to indulge in fantasies of female subordination. These fantasies embedded in the novels are then enacted on television.
In Game of Thrones women are typically shown as property. Under the convenient banner of the fantasy/historical epic is a hearkening back to a mythical version of the Dark Ages when women were historically second class citizens. Thus, that tired old truism of history is re-enacted: the coin of ‘virginity’. The books – and therefore the show – present women as a form of currency. Women are bartered in dynastic unions. They are scrubbed clean, dressed and daubed in the appropriate places with perfume before being presented to a potential mate for the taking. In fact, in Game of Thrones, female characters are frequently ‘taken’ – either in marriage, to bed or from behind.
Any man, whether royal, a knight, a lordly member of a King’s retinue or a mere soldier, finds all women are there for the taking. After a good bout of sacking and pillaging, it is presented as positively their duty to rape women, as seen in the first novel, A Song of Ice and Fire. The invading army are described as resentful when the young Daenaerys prevents them from raping their way through the conquered women. While this can be seen as a heroic act of sisterhood on the part of a popular heroine, it is worth remembering that one of the women she saves, Mirri Maz Duur (Mia Soteriou in the TV adaptation), turns out to be a sorceress. Of course, she does. For a start, she is an older woman and therefore almost certain to be a witch according to the typical rules of fantasy novels.
Despite their status as merchandise, some of the women in Game of Thrones do attempt to direct their own destinies. It could be argued that these are characters who represent feminist values because they operate successfully within the bounds of the patriarchal world of Game of Thrones. Such an argument was proposed by Elaine O’Neill when the TV series was first broadcast. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is cited as just such a character. She openly uses the currency of her sexuality to form the alliances needed to obtain power. Some commentators claim that this makes her an icon of feminism, since in achieving the position of Queen Regent using these means, she has successfully subverted the patriarchy to which she is subject.
But she does not succeed. For a start, she can only be regent, not Queen in her own right. In addition, as regent, she is shown as unable to handle the power she is given. More importantly, her downfall does not come about because of her attempts to usurp masculine power. It is due to her perceived transgressions as a woman. In A Dance With Dragons, she is actually punished for confessing to adultery and, thus, subjected to the humiliating Medieval-style ritual of being forced to walk, shaven-headed and naked before a crowd. This means that even a woman who follows the rules of power-playing in Game of Thrones is still compromised because she is a woman. So even though Cersei gains power because she operates according to the rules of the patriarchy to which she is subjected, she is still not allowed to be successful. Whatever they do – women can’t win.
Daenaerys is hailed as the breakthrough feminist role of the whole franchise – but she has to make too many compromises in order to be powerful. It is true that she breaks free from ownership. Viserys (Harry Lloyd) her brother, considers her to be his for the taking and selling, marrying her off in exchange for an army. It seems that she is the one character who overrides her status as chattel when, despite this forced marriage, she develops the self-realisation that enables her to be independent. Daenaerys learns how to integrate herself into the traditions of the Dothraki, her husband’s people. Enduring great hardship, she learns to ride alongside them, use their language and, in doing so, earns the respect of the Dothraki and overcomes the fear of her tyrannical brother. By the time of the death of her husband Drogo, (Jason Momoa) she has gained the will and charisma to make her own claim for the Iron Throne.
She cannot, however, achieve this without compromise. For her to win power in the context of Game of Thrones, she needs to command an army. This she does, but they are the Unsullied, an elite slave army made up of warriors who are trained from birth to be brutal and uncompromising soldiers and forced to undergo a full castration, their genitals burned, as part of their training. So Daenaerys commands a fighting force of 8,000 castrated men. This suggests she cannot simply inspire the loyalty of legions of soldiers, willing to fight and die for her cause. She can only be seen to have power over large numbers of men if they are utterly ’emasculated’ according to traditional thinking. She frees the Unsullied but she cannot be allowed to obtain power by following the rules of the world she inhabits. There has to be a compromise.
Then there is the matter of her dragons. It seemingly needs to be pointed out that for Daenaerys to occupy a position of power successfully, there has to be other-worldly, or supernatural assistance. For her to have authority she has to be accompanied by three dragons – mythical creatures of masculine potency that are one fictitious step up from serpents, that favourite Freudian phallic emblem. Implicit in the association of these dragons with Daenaerys is they provide the masculine qualities that she lacks as a leader. She has already demonstrated those qualities within herself as leader of the Dothraki but, to go any further and conquer more, she has to have dragons.
It can, of course, be pointed out that the presence of dragons shows the whole franchise to be a fantasy and should therefore not to be taken as reflecting reality either historical or present. But since it is part of the fantasy genre, why does it not present women as powerful in their own right? It’s fantasy. Put crudely, you can make stuff up. You can write about a political system that doesn’t involve bartering women to forge convenient alliances. You can present women as having access to power in their own right without being compromised by the trappings of patriarchy or the assistance of a bunch of dragons.
The very fact that the debate is still ongoing is because somewhere, in the collective feminist subconscious, we know this. In these arguments, we are expressing our uneasiness that what is really being shown is that most insidious of fantasies: the subjugation of women. Because we intuitively recognise that even though Emilia Clarke can bring Daenaerys to vivid life on our TV screens, she is still expected to show her boobs.
Taken from the DVD cover for The Complete Second Season of Game of Thrones. This shows a tilted golden crown, with a shadow of a sword battle scene running along it, against a black background.
For an alternative view of Game of Thrones, you can check out Elaine O’ Neill’s take from back in 2011.