Game of Thrones

Elaine O'Neill explain why HBO's new swords and sorcery epic isn't just a man's game

, 22 July 2011

Please note – this review contains spoilers for season one of Game of Thrones


Averaging over 2.5 million viewers per episode in the US, it is fair to say that HBO’s fantasy epic Game of Thrones, based off the Song of Ice & Fire series by George R. R. Martin, has been a major success.

The fantasy series, dubbed “The Sopranos in Middle Earth”, follows the fate of several families in the medieval-era setting of Westeros. When the Hand of the King (the second most powerful position in the realm) dies in mysterious circumstances, King Robert (Mark Addy) dubs his old friend Ned Stark (Sean Bean) the replacement and summons him to the capital, where he will have to face the power-hungry machinations of House Lannister, including Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) as well as a court made up of schemers.

The female characters challenge this society, fighting it in different ways with different weapons, be they sex or swords

The show was initially accused of being misogynistic, portraying its female characters as downtrodden and at the whims of the male characters. However, it soon shows its true colours as arguably the most feminist mainstream fantasy shown on television. The world is deeply patriarchal and misogynistic, yet this reflects the realities of its setting. The female characters challenge this society, fighting it in different ways with different weapons, be they sex or swords.

Nor are they mere footstools. Queen Cersei is shown to be clever, careful and ruthless, and is the power behind the throne as her husband drinks and feasts, eventually removing him when he poses a threat to her position. A scene added for the TV series where she reminisces with the King about their marriage shows her softer side and her actions seem more sympathetic given her treatment by her husband. She is certainly not there just to look pretty.

catelyn-stark-hbo-475x315.jpgCatelyn Stark, Ned’s wife, is similarly strong and her actions to protect her family include fending off an assassin, taking the Queen’s brother hostage and bartering with a rogue lord on behalf of her son. Like Cersei, she is shown as strong, often stronger than the men around her, who learn to respect her voice as much, or perhaps even more, than that of her husband.

In contrast, their young daughter Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) challenges the gender roles expected of her absolutely. She turns from her embroidery lessons to watch the men fight in the yard and later gets both a sword called Needle and a ‘dancing master’ who teaches her how to dance – in this case, with her sword. The expectations laid upon her are turned on her head, and at the end of the season, she is shown to be capable, escaping the fate of the rest of her family and joining a pack of vagabonds. Although these actions get her mistaken for a boy, she protests and claims her own place against the expectations of the world she inhabits.

The minor female characters are also multi-faceted and varied, from the governess Septa Mordane (Susan Brown), who fearlessly sacrifices herself for her student Sansa, to the wild woman Osha (Natalia Tena), who drily rebuts the unwanted advances of chauvinist young lord Theon (Alfie Allen), to the prostitutes who use sex to get ahead in the world, and both Ros (Esme Bianco) and Shae (Sibel Kekilli) make it clear that arrangements are under their terms.

The series itself challenges perceptions of women in the fantasy genre

dragongot.jpgIt’s not perfect. The ‘sexposition’ scenes, whereby characters give exposition whilst sex or nudity takes place, have been criticised as unnecessary and cheap, the best example being where Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) explains his history whilst teaching two prostitutes how to titillate their clients. The woman-on-woman sex in this scene is utterly gratuitous and this stands at odds with the tone of the rest of the series.

Overall, Game of Thrones should be lauded for its portrayal of how in a world where patriarchal gender roles are taken to the extreme, the female characters refuse to submit, fight back and attain their goals. They are not perfect, but they are complex, and the series itself challenges perceptions of women in the fantasy genre. Roll on season two!

Comments From You

Kim // Posted 22 July 2011 at 9:09 pm

What do you think about the race aspects of GoT? Personally I got put off by the first episode, with the obvious “savage” black tribe – does it get better as it goes on?

Schnee // Posted 23 July 2011 at 1:32 am

I agree with everything here, great series, strong female characters, but completely gratuitous female nudity.

And just to be picky….

Personally, since it’s a fantasy series, and even though it looks like a mediaeval society, it’s not Earth’s history, I would like to see more effort being made by scriptwriters to avoid the use of ‘he’ when gender neutrality could be used.

Also, disappointingly, when I looked for the first series on Amazon, it says ‘Starring..’ and then lists four male actors.

Elaine // Posted 25 July 2011 at 4:48 pm

Thanks for your comment, Kim.

I’d say that it does get better – the Dothraki are not entirely the orientalist savage stereotype they appear in the first couple of episodes – however not by much. They are based off a rough combination of the Mongols and the Sioux, but they, with the possible exception of Khal Drogo, are not as fleshed out as many of the more Western cultures are, and remain largely savage, wild and brutish. George R R Martin defends this by pointing out that his Westerners aren’t any better – despite their claims of cultural superiority they will still rape, kill and pillage given the chance – but this remains one of the major weaknesses of the series in my view, especially when so much else is so strong.

Elaine // Posted 25 July 2011 at 4:49 pm

Schnee – thanks for your comment!

This is one of the big debates with the books – to what extent is the world replicating medieval society, with all the prejudice inherent in that, and to what extent is it a fantasy, and thus free of needing to conform to historical truths? Does the society need to be misogynistic, for example, in order to more closely reflect the Middle Ages? Or does that function simply as an excuse, and a society can be depicted as uneducated and prejudicial without taking it to such an extent as in ‘Game of Thrones’? I can see arguements for both sides. Personally, I think that they could tone things down a little – keeping the society misogynistic without needing to reference it quite so often.

As for the Amazon listing, that is inexcusable. I’ve had to look to see which actors they have mentioned, and it does not correspond at all with the protagonists. The most clear example is how they mention Harry Lloyd, who played Viserys Targaryen, but not Emelia Clarke, who played his sister Daenerys who got far more screentime and is far more important to the plot!

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