When I was younger, I was a huge fan of fantasy and science fiction. As I grew up though, I found myself increasingly alienated by the genre which provided about four options for women:
1. The sweet, virginal (usually white and blonde) feminine lead usually awarded to the male lead at the end of the book.
2. The evil seductress who uses her body to get what she wants.
3. The wise old crone who gives enigmatic advice.
4. The warrior princess who is basically a man with shapely breasts.
It did not help that one prominent fantasy writer said that it was not “realistic” to write fantasy worlds where gender roles did not exist. Dragons and elves, it seemed, were more likely than strong women being respected in society.
So when I found George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which was made into HBO’s Game of Thrones series, I was immediately pleased by the representation of, as one friend put it, a “constellation” of female characters. While Westeros and the GoT universe is undoubtably misogynistic, women are able to rise to prominence and influence the game of thrones, rather than merely being buffeted around by the actions of the men around them.
I saw a Tumblr post once that complained that writing female characters were different because he couldn’t make them villains, which would be misogynistic, or attractive, because that would be stereotypical, or a sidekick (too subservient), or a hero (a male fantasy). It was clear that the writer did not think women could actually fill any of these roles, and that when faced with this task, he imagined himself creating a character that embodied all women.
The obvious solution to this problem is, write more women. Women are capable of being evil, yes, but not in the jealous, beauty-obssessed manner of Disney villains. Melisandre and Cersei Lannister are clearly both on the wrong side of things, but they are not unsympathetic. As Tyrion Lannister observed of Cersei, “Your love for your children is your only redeeming feature. That and your cheekbones.” Cersei’s internalized misogyny runs deep – she often wishes that she had been born the man, and she mocks the weakness of the women who mill about her at court. Her power hungry machinations contrast sharply with Sansa Stark, an innocent and idealistic girl who is doing her best to stay afloat amidst a game she does not understand. Many feminists might criticize Sansa for initially liking the despicable King Joffrey, but feminism does not insist that female characters always be flawless and worldly.
It’s also gratifying to finally see a sex positive character in the exiled queen, Daenerys Targaryan. While the show depicts her marriage to the horse lord Khal Drogo as initially characterized by rape, in the book Drogo asks for consent on their wedding night and she gives it to him. She learns from her handmaids the ways of lovemaking (“Are you a slave, Khaleesi? Then do not make love like a slave.”) And in the books she is not shy about pleasuring herself either. Compare that to the virginal Arwen and Galadriel of Lord of the Rings, who limited themselves to chaste kisses when they descended from their pedestals.
A friend criticized Arya, the young tomboy, as a poor feminist character because her willingness to kill essentially makes her a man in woman’s clothing. Like Mattie from True Grit, her apparent strength comes from her lack of empathy and masculine behavior. While I see the logic of this argument, I think Arya is, in essence, characterized not by masculine strength, but by her ability to adapt, wherever she travels. Unlike her sister Sansa, she is not attached to romantic ideals of fairy tails. She sees that physical ability is power, and so she seeks it out.
At its very core, Game of Thrones is a series about power – the eunuch Varys gives Tyrion a riddle, “A king, a rich man, and a priest all ask a sellsword to kill the other two. Who lives and who dies?” Does power come from a title, money or religion? Or is the man who holds the sword the true ruler of them all? The women of Westeros deal in all of these currencies, whether they are subtle and graceful like Margaery Tyrell, or wild and sensual like the wildling Ygritte. When characters rise and fall, and sometimes die (and yes, characters do die), they are men and women alike, strong and weak, loved and hated. The game goes on ruthlessly, crowning monarchs and making casualties. There is not time to dwell on the limitations and consequences of gender. The object of the game is to survive.
An interviewer asked Joss Whedon why he wrote strong female characters, and he answered “Because you’re still asking me this question.” Like in comedy, politics, academia, and a variety of other fields, when a woman becomes prominent, she remains a prominent woman. You never hear about male actors or artists being asked, “How does being a man affect your work? How does your work reflect on other men? Are you a good male role model?” Men are still the unmarked, the default. Whenever a woman does something it is marked indelibly with her femininity, and her success or failure is taken as representative of the rest of her gender.
The important thing is to escape this binary, of equating masculinity with strength and courage, and femininity with a demure self-effacing beauty. Women are not either good or evil, either weak or strong. Their deaths do not occur in order to further the development of a male character or give motive for revenge. The Bechdel test asks that a show or movie have at least two women with names, who talk to each other about things other than men. You would be shocked to find how many movies fail this humble exam. As Brienne of Tarth told Catelyn Stark, “You have strength. Not fighting strength, but, I don’t know, a woman’s strength.” Hopefully future producers will follow Martin and HBO’s example and continue to create women of strength.