A fantasy of female subjugation

Some female characters can survive in the patriarchal world of Game of Thrones but that doesn't make it feminist, contends Rebekah Owens

, 27 December 2013

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.

Under the convenient banner of the fantasy epic is a hearkening back to a mythical Dark Ages when women were second class citizens

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.

She can only be seen to have power over large numbers of men if they are utterly ’emasculated’ according to traditional thinking

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.

But since it is part of the fantasy genre, why does it not present women as powerful in their own right?

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.

Image description:

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.

Rebekah Owens is an ex-teacher and ex-librarian, now a freelance writer and author of Travels With My Oxygen

Comments From You

Megan Stodel // Posted 27 December 2013 at 3:46 pm

Interesting article. I agree with a lot of it, and also think it’s frustrating that while there are a lot of Strong Female Characters, they are all isolated from each other – so while it seems like there are more interesting, dynamic and individual female characters, they seldom get to interact.

However, I’m not sure about the way in which women are shown as property being as problematic as the writer of this suggests. I agree that the series is set in a place and culture that is reminiscent of the Dark Ages. However, I think there is a lot of criticism of this. Part of this is through the Strong Female Characters – problematic in their own way, perhaps, but the fact that almost every storyline features one seems to critique the patriarchal system in which they operate. I also think the points at which women are viewed as bargaining chips and property are often points that are implicitly or explicitly criticised by the narrative. How do we feel about Sansa being married to Joffrey, or anything that subsequently happens to her? How do we feel about Robb rejecting the normal way of doing things and marrying Talisa? Isn’t Cersei only ever sympathetic when we see how little power she really wields, and how she is reliant on a husband she doesn’t love initially and then a son who is little more than a monster? I’m pretty happy that the ways in which women are used in transactions is pretty deplored by the portrayal of these sorts of events in the show.

Saranga // Posted 27 December 2013 at 10:43 pm

I’m finding it really difficult to agree with this review.

First up, to be clear, I’ve not seen the telly show, just read the books, once each.

I think to proclaim the show ‘not feminist’ is to ignore the complexity of the characters and the plots. Sometimes the characters carry out feminist actions, sometimes they don’t. I think the books make clear that the selling of women into marriage is a bad thing. The women try and manage their lives in a world that is often set up to crush them, and the fact that some of them do succeed (at least thus far, a bit e.g. Arya Stark), and that some fail, and that some just cope with what life has thrown at them the best they can (e.g. Sansa Stark), shows the problems in the societies portrayed within the series. I do think it’s worth pointing out that the books also show the ways in which the patriarchy hurts men too (any man at the Red Wedding, Tyrion, Jon Snow).

No one in the series is particularly happy. The ongoing themes are those of struggle, and heartache, and tragedy, and havign to fight for your life, no matter your class or occupation. Focusing on Dany as a liberator of women, for example, is to reduce her to a stereotype. To ignore the richness of her character and her life experiences. Referring to Cersei as being punished for her transgressions in a Dance with Dragons does the same thing, I feel. I just think that to approach the characters that way is to treat them as symbols, as ciphers, and they simply aren’t. They all have likeable and unlikeable aspects to their characters. They are complex.

I don’t thinkw e can say that the series shows that ‘women can’t win’ – so far, no one, man or woman, can win. We have no idea how the series will pan out, but I’m pretty sure it won’t have a happy ending.

“This suggests she [Dany] cannot simply inspire the loyalty of legions of soldiers, willing to fight and die for her cause” If I recall correctly, the books are pretty clear that Dany can’t inspire the loyalty of male soldiers. That’s one of her struggles. She is constantly fighting to keep them under her command and how she does so is a major plot point for her.

“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.”

I totally agree with this! It’s a major annoyance of mine that so much fantasy is so utterly traditional and writers don’t use their imaginations and do regurittate the same old crap. However, I believe (quite strongly!) that A Song of Ice and Fire is differnet – it challenges heirarchy, it challenges patriarchy, it challenges a lot of the traditional fantasy tropes. It does this by portraying characters that are nuanced and sympathetic and flawed so that no one if entirely a hero or a villain. It may be using systems of bartering women, of patriarchy, but it doesn’t always support these systems. Some characters and some institutions do, some don’t. There’s a massive variation. Just like there is in real life. That to me is a key part of my fondness for the books.

zakalwe // Posted 28 December 2013 at 4:16 pm

This analysis seems just so lazy it borders on dishonest. Not a single mention of Brienne of Tarth? What about Olenna? Not even a single mention of Ayra, one of the most important female characters in the series, or even Asha, Theons sister. What about the Red Vipers daughters? These are just the ones off the top of my head. How can any discussion of women in the series omit mentioning even ONE of these characters?

Its one thing to to write a reasoned criticism, god knows there are some good points to be made, especially about race, but to simply omit key aspects of the story and some of the most important characters because they dont fit your argument makes me wonder if the author actually read the books.

Put in the context of these omissions, the critique of Cersei also falls doubly flat. Its implied that Cersei is unable to handle power because she is a woman. Absolutely false, its even there, in the text for you, when Tywin tells her: ‘Its not because you are a woman, its because you aren’t as smart as you think you are’. Cercei’s failings are explicitly about her personality, not her gender.

The ‘its fantasy so why cant you fanatise what I want’ argument is also just so lazy. You could flip that and argue that the fantasy in this series is the degree to which women are able to act independently, gain power and posses feminist consciousness and attitudes that would have been unrecognizable to someone from the historical period its loosely based on.

I want to give the author of this piece the benefit of the doubt, but the lack of engagement with the text makes it difficult. Given that there are far more interesting, obvious and substantial points to be made about race and orientalism in this series kinda makes this analysis seem a bit #solidarityisforwhitewomen.

Apologies if this comes off as harsh, but if you want to tear something down, at least engage honestly with the text. The GOT series is hardly high art or literature, certainly not above criticism and critical readings should be welcomed, but a discussion of race in the series by someone willing to read the books closely would have been so much more interesting.

Holly Combe // Posted 28 December 2013 at 8:47 pm

Just a quick note to say this was a review of the TV series, not the books (though I appreciate a review of one would benefit from attention to the other, with this particularly applying to engagement with the TV series after reading the books).

I agree it would have been better if there had been some more substantial points about race in the piece though. If anyone would like to submit something with more of a focus on that, do please e-mail me at holly DOT combe AT thefword DOT org DOT uk.

Saranga // Posted 29 December 2013 at 11:07 am

Thanks for the comment Holly.

Initially I thought the article was focused on the Telly series but then A Dance with Dragons was mentioned, so I thought it intended to discuss the books as well. Hence my comment. I probably should have included that assumption in my comment, and I think that all 3 commenters thought the article was looking at the books too.

As it’s just looking at the TV show, I find the article better. I am very interested in how the series was transferred to the small screen, partly because I believe telly cannot be as complex (and nuanced) as books. I think the display of nakedness in telly is usually more demeaning than it is in books, which tends to make it more sexist so I get Rebekah’s criticisms more now.

I disgaree with Zakalwe that it’s a lazy analysis. It’s just not as deep as perhaps others might have written, and surely it has worth as it is? Mind you, I also think the books are pretty close to high literature.

Now I want to read a comparison of the TV series to the books! Or perhaps I should watch the telly series or re-read the books. Or both. ;)

iorarua // Posted 30 December 2013 at 10:39 am

‘I think to proclaim the show ‘not feminist’ is to ignore the complexity of the characters and the plots.’

That’s like saying that to proclaim French pastries as fattening is to ignore their culinary complexity and variety of taste. Of course feminist critiques of film, television and literature are going to reduce complex and often masterfully created plots, themes and characterisations to fit a feminist template. That does not make the feminist critique any less important or relevant.

GoT is highly enjoyable and very well made – I’m a HUGE fan. But it hopelessly and shamelessly promotes archaic patriarchal tropes about both women and men. The women are all interesting and complex but do not operate in their own right. They exist almost entirely in relation to men: as either whores, nubile virgins, Amazonian warriors, supportive wives/mistresses, manipulative mothers from hell, evil temptresses and/or stoic survivors of male violence. Their actions and motives entirely reflect the agendas of the men in their lives.

The male characters are mostly patriarchal tropes of ubermasculinity – oversexed, overdrunk, over-addicted to war and over-committed to violence as the solution to every problem. No matter how much they might love or empathise with the women in their lives, their actions and motives are driven entirely by their own and other men’s agendas.

This can be said of just about every film and TV series we watch – because the overwhelming majority of executive and creative input is still firmly controlled by men (about 90+% film, about 80+% television) and thus reflect male cultural conditioning. That’s not going to change anytime soon and that’s why we need as much feminist criticism as we can get.

Saranga // Posted 30 December 2013 at 3:11 pm

iorarua – I didn’t mean to say or imply that the critique was not important, not relevant, or that it shouldn’t have been written. I disagreed with the conclusions and the arguments within the critique, and I left my comment as I had something to add to the discussion.

“Of course feminist critiques of film, television and literature are going to reduce complex and often masterfully created plots, themes and characterisations to fit a feminist template”

Why should they do this? Why can’t feminist critique acknowledge and discuss the complexities of the story? I think that most pop culture products will have feminist themes/messages/actions as well as having anti feminist themes/messages/actions. Apart from anything else, these products are created by humans with a huge complex mess of pro-feminist and anti-feminist ideas, so it’s to be expected that their creations are a mix of both. Add to that the wide variation in thought as to what is feminist and what is not.. well, that’s where critiques get really interesting!

TV shows (and books) can depict a patriarchal reality but can criticise and condemn it (and that’s where it becomes a feminist/feminst friendly show), and I think that A Song of Ice and Fire does do this. I said in my second comment that I wasn’t clear whether the article was referring to the books or the TV show, and as I’ve not seen the telly show my comments were largely about the books.

Basically, I think it’s worth acknowledging both pro and anti aspects of a product within a critique and I didn’t feel that the article delved deep enough into this, hence my response.

iorarua // Posted 31 December 2013 at 9:25 am

Sarnaga: ‘Why can’t feminist critique acknowledge and discuss the complexities of the story?’

My glib response to that would be: Why should they? The essay is a feminist critique, not a literary critique or film/TV review – and this is not a fantasy genre website. It’s also a 1500-word blog article, not an academic thesis where more complex and nuanced arguments about female cultural identity can be raised (and which only a handful of people would read anyway).

By way of comparison, a left-wing socialist writer could write a similar blog article about how the common folk in the series are little more than chattels, their lives having no visibility other than as whores, servants and battle fodder for the rich. One could then counter-argue that there are many complex common-folk characters in the series who have empathetic storylines and that the series doesn’t condone its treatment of the poor. But so what? That’s not what socialist criticism is concerned with, so why waste print space covering issues that are not about socialism?

I do understand and agree with many of your points – from a story-telling perspective. And also, you are right in arguing that more characters could have been covered, not just Cersei and Daenaerys. However, I feel that you are slipping into the common trope often used to discredit feminism in general – that is, to condemn it for not doing what it’s not supposed to do in the first place.

Saranga // Posted 31 December 2013 at 2:28 pm


Interesting point and not one I’ve come across before. I really didn’t think that was what I was doing. What you are suggesting seems to allow for a very narrow spectrum of analysis. What I was suggesting would (so I thought) improve the feminist critique.

With regards to your example about socialism, I don’t see how looking at the sympathetic characters and considering whether the text supports an oppressive capitalist system is not about socialism. Same goes for feminist analysis of a text.

Kirst // Posted 5 January 2014 at 12:25 pm

I was thinking a bit about this today. I am happy that all the major female characters are different. Cersei, Catelyn, Lyssa, Sansa, Arya, Brienne, Ygritte, Daenerys – they’re all very different – different strengths, weaknesses, skills, morals, choices. They’re not just virgin//whore/good/bad/strong/weak. They’re as varied and three dimensional as the male characters, and I count that as feminist win. And the rapiness – well, I think it’s depicted fairly. It’s clear that some of the male characters rape when they can, particularly when sacking a castle or a city (which, let’s face it, is not a stretch of the imagination), but not all of the men rape, and several of them condemn it outright and punish rapists when they can. It’s not shown as natural behaviour for men, it’s shown as a choice some make because they want to do it, not because they couldn’t help themselves. I think the only way to improve on that is to have no rape at all, which would make for a less gruesome but possibly less realistic story.

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