In the game of feminism, you win or you… well, no, you pretty much just win.

A SYTYCB entry

In a recent interview, George R.R. Martin, the author of the fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, on which the popular HBO television series Game of Thrones is based, said something that brought a triumphant grin to my face.

George Stephanopolous: There’s one thing that’s interesting about your books. I noticed that you write women really well and really different. Where does that come from?

George R.R. Martin: You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.

Yes, that’s right, folks: George R.R. Martin is a feminist. And, consequently, so is his series.

Although there are many reasons to love Game of Thrones (the story is fabulously compelling, packed with enough war, politics, intrigue, murder, incest, and homoerotic subtext to keep even the most attention-challenged reader entertained), the series’ strength lies in its characters. As I continue to devour both the novels and the TV series with obsessive fervor, it becomes apparent that this is especially true of its women.

With the possible exception of Tyrion Lannister, a cunning and quick-tongued dwarf, the female characters in Game of Thrones are always far more intriguing and complex than are their male counterparts. While most of the men in the series either strut around like unintelligent peacocks, drinking and whoring and plundering (King Robert, Jaime Lannister, Theon Greyjoy), or brood darkly and incessantly (Eddard Stark, Stannis Baratheon), or just complain all the time about being cold, hungry, and horny (Jon Snow), the ladies fight, plot, suffer, weep, and triumph with confidence and grace.  This is an enormous deviation from the norms of the fantasy genre, which is often unapologetically sexist. Rather than only throwing in female characters as sex objects or wives or mistresses or mothers or people to cook the strong menfolk food, George R.R. Martin works hard to deliberately portray each of his many women as strong, separate, flawed, and complex beings.

But going even further than just mere inclusion of interesting female characters in his books, Martin faces each and every one of them with a classic feminist issue. To illustrate this, I’ve compiled a list some of the franchise’s most feminist female characters and provided commentary. For brevity’s sake, I left out some equally badass ladies (Catelyn Stark, Lady Melisandre, Asha (Yara) Greyjoy), but know that they too are strongly appreciated (Warning: contains spoilers).

Margaery Tyrell

Margaery has every reason to be clinically depressed. She’s been married off to not one, not two, but three different kings. The first was a gay would-be usurper who had an affair with her brother and was subsequently murdered by a regicidal shadow, the second was a sadistic psycho who was poisoned at the wedding reception, and the third one is about eight years old. To top it all off, she is supposedly still a virgin, as none of her nuptials have been consummated. But does Margaery hide in a tower and weep for her misfortune? Not a chance. Margaery is an ambitious politico as well as being a damn good actress – she plays the part of the tragic, virginal twice-widow so well that almost no one suspects that she is dead set on winning the throne. Despite frequently being used as a bartering chip, Margaery uses her womanhood to her advantage, knowing that producing an heir will shoot her to power. In her determination to get Renly, husband number one, to knock her up, she is entirely accepting of alternative sexualities, telling him with all kindness that she doesn’t mind that he prefers men, offering to have a threesome with her brother if it will turn him on enough to nail her. By manipulating her biological capacity and her chaste image, she makes herself a fierce yet silent competitor in the game of thrones. In one defining diva moment during the show, Margaery is asked if she wants to be a queen. She replies, “No. I want to be the queen.” Damn straight.

Ygritte

Ygritte is possibly the most obviously feminist character in the franchise. Although she lives in a harsh, anarchical and patriarchal society where “stealing” women is the equivalent of legal marriage, this feisty, outspoken redhead is by no means oppressed. My favorite thing about Ygritte is that she refuses to take any shit from her “captor”, the ever-annoying pretty boy Jon Snow, constantly reminding him that he knows nothing (but actually, her catchphrase is “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”). She does end up falling for the guy, but she remains decidedly on top during their relationship, both literally and figuratively, teaching Jon the ways of the wildlings as well as the ways of sex. This reversal of typical gender roles marks Ygritte as a pioneering feminist.

Queen Cersei Lannister

Queen Cersei isn’t outwardly very likeable. She’s a scheming, short-tempered, two-faced diva who shares a bed with her twin brother. Cersei’s main issue, though, is that she is single-mindedly obsessed with gaining as much power as possible. And that’s precisely what makes her such a badass feminist.

Cersei may be crazy, but it’s not entirely her fault. She was born into an extremely powerful family but was taught all her life that she would never be able to attain this power, due to her lack of appropriate below-the-belt equipment. But Cersei rejects these misogynistic values, recognizing that a woman’s best weapon is “the one between your legs”.  And when you’re a rich and sexy queen who is the inspiration behind wet dreams throughout the Seven Kingdoms, that weapon gets you pretty far. Sure, it may not be the most moral of conquering methods, but hey, neither is killing people. Cersei is also a feminist icon in that she’s a resilient victim of domestic abuse. She is constantly being told by her drunken, boorish husband, King Robert, to shut her mouth. When he hits her, giving her face a nasty bruise, she holds her head high and declares, “I shall wear this like a badge of honor”. Finally, Cersei earns feminist points for being a fiercely protective mother figure. Her desire to safeguard her children may be the only thing on par with her desire for power. When Cersei’s younger brother ships her daughter off across the sea, the queen furiously curses him, saying, “One day I pray you love someone. I pray you love her so much when you close your eyes you can see her face. I want that for you. I want you to know what it’s like to love someone, to truly love someone, before I take her from you.” Now that’s one fierce mama tiger.

Sansa Stark

As the great playwright William Shakespeare once wrote, “Some are born feminist, some achieve feminism, and some have feminism thrust upon them.” Okay, so that wasn’t exactly it. But if it was, then Sansa Stark would definitely fall into the third category. When I first started reading the series, I, like many others, hated Sansa. She embodies the classically irritating thirteen-year-old-girl who we all secretly want to maim – beautiful, snobby, good at stitching, loves stories and songs about romance and damsels in distress, wants nothing more in life than to be swept off her feet by a handsome prince. Doesn’t sound very feminist, right? Well, not voluntarily, at least. Sansa’s dreams of blissful patriarchal domesticity are promptly squashed when she is quite literally swept off her feet by a handsome prince – only said sweeping is done via domestic abuse, and said handsome prince also happens to be pure, unadulterated evil incarnate. Indeed, Sansa’s Prince Joffrey is so sweet and considerate that he even hired his guards to beat his fiancée for him. And after he dumps her for another woman, he reassures her with the knowledge that even if she can’t be his wife, she’ll still be his whore. Clearly not okay in any sense of the word. Despite this horrific treatment, however, Sansa comes out of it a stronger woman. Disillusioned with her ideals of a male savior, she plots to escape the abuse that surrounds her and return home. I expect great triumphs from this inspiring survivor.

 Arya Stark

At first, I worried that Sansa’s younger sister Arya would simply function as a stock character, the token “spunky” girl who dresses up as a boy, included solely to appease the feminists. But the more I read, the more I came to realize that nothing about Arya was stereotypical. Sure, she would rather shoot an arrow than sew a dress, she hates acting like a lady, she always fights with her girly sister, blah blah blah, but there’s a lot more strength to Arya than her Mulan-esque tendencies.  When the evil brat Prince Joffrey threatens her best friend, Arya whips out her miniature sword to fight. When Joffrey then calls her a “little cunt”, she, with the help of her pet direwolf, pins him to the ground and throws his prized sword into the river. Following this, and with her father’s blessing, Arya takes “dancing lessons” – a.k.a. sword fighting – with a renowned teacher, learning to defend and empower herself. But the most striking thing about Arya’s character is her anger. Throughout the saga, Arya suffers the loss of nearly everything she holds dear, and is forced to essentially feign her own death and disappear into a long string of aliases. Rather than giving up, however, Arya fuels her grief into a bitter, determined rage. Although she’s no more than eleven years old, she vows to kill each and every person who has ever wronged her or her family, whispering their names before she sleeps as a sort of prayer. That kind of grit is more than just spunk – it is empowerment.

 Lady Brienne of Tarth

Brienne is an obvious challenger of typical gender roles. She’s a tall, bulky woman, often mistaken for a man, and a fierce and talented swordsperson. Unfortunately, this makes her a target in the sexist world of the Seven Kingdoms, where she is continually punished for not conforming to accepted standards of feminine beauty. Making her even more of a feminist icon is the fact that Brienne also doesn’t conform to sexual stereotypes of “butch” women. Some of the ladies in Game of Thrones have lesbian or bisexual tendencies – Daenerys and Cersei both have sexual relations with women – but Brienne, who “looks the part” of a stereotypical lesbian, is, definitively straight. In writing a “butch” female character who is not a lesbian, as well as in writing “straight-looking” female characters who have homosexual encounters, George R.R. Martin challenges traditional associations of appearance and sexuality. Perhaps the most strikingly feminist aspect of Brienne, though, is that in A Feast for Crows, the fourth novel in the saga, we find that she is a victim of rape apologist theory. When she recounts how the men she trained with made a bet as to who would take her virginity, she is told “The blame is yours… Your being here encouraged them. If a woman will behave like a camp follower, she cannot object to being treated like one… If you have any regard for your virtue or the honor of your House, you will take off that mail, return home, and beg your father to find a husband for you.” Of course, Brienne refuses to do this, further proving her trailblazing feminist badassery.

 Daenerys Targaryen

Daenerys Targaryen. Where do I even begin with Daenerys Targaryen?

Let’s start at the beginning. Daenerys is the Anastasia Romanov of the Targaryens– the young girl who escaped the slaughter of her ousted royal family and who now lives in exile. Except that, unlike Anastasia, Daenerys is actually alive, and she’s got her surviving older brother, Viserys. When we first meet Daenerys, or Dany, she is thirteen years old, and about to be presented to Khal Drogo, a terrifyingly large and dangerous warlord from an astronomically different culture, to be his bride. Viserys is selling her to Drogo in order to gain the warrior’s army so he can take back the family throne. When Dany expresses her fear to her brother, he smilingly tells her, “I’d let his whole khalasar fuck you if need be, sweet sister, all forty thousand men, and their horses too if that was what it took to get my army.” Ah, familial bliss.

Despite having her sexuality exploited as a political pawn, though, Dany triumphs several times over. She ends up falling in love with Drogo and becoming the khaleesi, or queen, of his army, she quickly adapts to her new language and culture while thwarting several attempts on her life, she doesn’t blink an eye when Drogo kills her brother by pouring molten gold all over his head, and this is all while she is continually stunning Drogo with her talents in the sack. But what I love most about Daenerys is that she doesn’t truly come into her own until after the men in her life are lost. In her grief following the deaths of both Drogo and her unborn son, Dany throws herself, along with her three petrified dragon eggs, onto her husband’s burning funeral pyre, in an apparent act of suicide. But the next morning, Daenerys emerges, phoenix-like, from the ashes, along with the first three live dragons that her world has seen in centuries. Thus, Daenerys becomes herself, the Mother of Dragons. She goes on to conquer city after city, single-handedly smashing the slave trade while crafting a powerful matriarchy and becoming the beloved Mother of not only her dragons, but of her people. She is fierce and ruthless when she needs to be, not afraid to swiftly punish injustice, but is also kind, thoughtful, and wise. She represents the franchise’s strongest example of positive female power, and she does it all without a king by her side. There are many contenders for the Iron Throne, but I’m rooting for Daenerys until the very end. It’s just like she declares in the show: “Don’t you understand? I’m no ordinary woman. My dreams come true.”

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