‘Game of Thrones’ women govern their world. The men only think they’re in charge.
Times are certainly changing, albeit slowly. But if you grew up when I did and were a fan of fantasy comics, books and movies, there was one certainty — the heroes were men. How many video games or books could be boiled down to “saving the princess”? And even when there were women who weren’t helpless damsels in distress, they were often there to be scantily dressed and in the end still had to be saved by men. But let’s look at Game of Thrones women and their powerful roles.
Spoiler alert! While most of us are upset the next season won’t be until 2019 (and we’re still waiting for the next book), this article speaks to not only the full book series to date but also the TV series. Ye have been warned…
First published in 1996, A Game of Thrones and the continuing series by George R. R. Martin turned the fantasy genre on its head. The beautiful people are ugly inside. The men are heroic and brave, and often the heroic and brave die foolishly — exemplified when the traditional hero, Ned Stark, is shockingly killed in the first book. And those shielded most from power — women — are the ones controlling everything.
Now if you know the book series A Song of Ice and Fire, or the HBO series Game of Thrones, you’ll know there are far too many women characters to mention here, so I’ll limit this to the main movers and shakers. These women wanted or deserved power but were kept from it, making it all the more dramatically ironic that they are the only ones who actually have it.
There are also generational parallels between women characters and the types of lives they wanted to live yet were denied. For example, there are clear connections between Arya and Brienne, Sansa and Cersei, and even Cersei and Olenna Tyrell, with the older characters facing more obstacles than the next generations of women do.
1. Cersei Lannister
Cersei has to be the place to start. Though she considers herself as brilliant and deserving of ruling as her father, and more so than her brothers, she’s denied the opportunity simply for having been born a woman. Forced to use the only weapon left to her — her beauty — she schemes from behind, marrying into power, conspiring to murder the king so she can rule through her children. After their deaths, she eventually takes the throne herself. Cersei’s actions drive the plot of the entire series. So in a way, the events in Game of Thrones might not have happened if people hadn’t told this little girl she couldn’t be something solely because she wasn’t a boy. She manages to become one of the most powerful people in spite of it.
2. Olenna Tyrell
Whereas Cersei through her machinations takes the throne for herself, the generation-older Olenna Tyrell seems comfortable ruling from the shadows. Olenna also armed herself — with a betrothal and subsequent marriage — to secretly rule behind her “oaf” of a husband. Not one to hold her tongue (hence her moniker, the Queen of Thorns) she says, “All men are fools, if truth be told, but the ones in motley are more amusing than the ones with crowns.”
3. Sansa Stark
A generation behind Cersei, Sansa has a somewhat similar beginning as the beautiful one relegated to learning the traits of a good wife or hostess. However, more intelligent than she’s given credit for, she learns the rules of the game while being passed as a pawn in multiple marriages of royal convenience (one that happens in HBO’s Game of Thrones but not in the book series). Finally she decides to drop pretense and take the power she’s due. Not only does she save our second traditional “hero” Jon Snow, but she also manages to take back Winterfell. As Jon runs off to deal with the White Walkers, Sansa is the one left to steward their people. She’s the older daughter, and we’re left to wonder if she’s been through enough to become as bitter as Cersei and, if so, what her being in power will mean.
4. Daenerys Targaryen
Perhaps as important to the events of Game of Thrones as Cersei is, Daenerys Targaryen enters the story as a mere possession of her brother, Viserys. He thinks himself the heir to the throne and originally expects her to be his wife. Instead, he makes plans to have her marry into an alliance as they build an army to overtake Westeros. However, Daenerys’ marriage to a Dothraki Khal gives her ruling power of her own, allowing her to pull away from her brother’s domination. When Viserys is put to death, Daenerys finds strength in being the last (or so she supposes) Targaryen and thus the only rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. This leads to a prevailing chain of events, in which she adeptly takes power and builds armies. It starts when her husband dies. Instead of joining previous widows and living in the temple at Dosh Khaleen, she breaks with tradition and decides to destroy the temple, killing everyone inside. Daenerys finds power in herself, certainly helped by her hatching of dragon eggs and surviving a conflagration, and picks up loyal supporters and soldiers everywhere she goes, finally amassing such a force that she becomes the danger Westeros feared her brother would become.
5. Arya Stark
It’s telling that the best way to describe Arya Stark is with a sexist term: tomboy. When we meet her, we see her as the object of disapproval for her love of things “women didn’t do.” Her preference of dress and her love of archery (she outshoots her brother), fencing and exploring lead others to object to her behavior and encourage her to be more like Sansa. She uses this to her benefit, however, to escape after her father’s execution. By being able to pass as a boy, she avoids those looking for the two Stark girls. Her escape eventually leads her to the Faceless Men, and she becomes a deadly fighter, spy and assassin, continuing to check names off her list.
6. Brienne of Tarth
Compare that with the older Brienne. As heir of Tarth, she’s expected to marry into another noble house. But with her mother dying too soon as to have any influence, along with Brienne’s tall and muscular build and her penchant for “unfeminine dress,” her personality is better suited for battle. Mocked as “The Maid of Tarth” or “Brienne the Beauty” due to her unconventional ways, she’s one of the most loyal and formidable warriors in Westeros. Yet, unlike Arya, this is a woman who’s experienced a lifetime of scorn and rejection. Whereas Arya feels right in a sword fight but not in a dress, Brienne doesn’t feel comfortable in either role. But it’s this need for acceptance that drives her loyalty and makes her a fierce fighter, desperately clinging to the idea of being a true knight while most men have abandoned the façade.
7. Asha/Yara Greyjoy
With Theon and his sister Asha Greyjoy (Yara on Game of Thrones), the irony is that their father, forced into fealty, offers his son to the Starks to ensure loyalty — the usual type of “marriage” daughters are forced into to secure trust and peaceful alliance. In this case the daughter stays behind and becomes a formidable captain — commanding not only her ship but the respect of her male crew. After her father Balon’s murder, it seems as if she will be the first woman to lead the Iron Islands — and though she’s joined Daenerys in her fight, as of now her uncle (claiming the throne as his own) has made his alliance with Cersei and taken Asha/Yara captive. But since she’s still alive, one can expect her to continue to make a huge impact on the political fallout.
While the magic may not be as central to Game of Thrones as in traditional fantasy, there are still plenty of magical elements. And Melisandre is certainly the most fascinating of those wielding paranormal power. When we meet her, she appears to be working for Stannis, but we soon realize she operates on her own. Though she started her childhood sold into slavery, she has managed to finagle her way into the confidence of whoever happens to be winning at the moment — claiming her magic is responsible for the deaths of Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon and Balon Greyjoy. Probably her most instrumental act is resurrecting Jon Snow. (Note that this is the second mention of Jon being rescued by a female character while he was behaving “heroically” — and there are even more examples, including Daenarys flying past the wall with her dragons…)
By murdering the traditional hero early on, George R. R. Martin revealed one of the most important themes in A Song of Ice and Fire — that of toxic masculinity. And by turning the genre on its head in both the books and HBO’s Game of Thrones, he introduced us to a fantasy world where the women are still relegated to less-thans yet end up being the most powerful players of all. Something lost to the players themselves.