Last year feminists lost their minds over Game of Thrones. They declared the show “sexist” show because sometimes on the show female characters have bad things happen to them, particularly rape. Never mind that the story is essentially a fantasy version of the real life War of Roses between the Lancasters and the Yorks. Never mind that it is set in a medieval world and therefore abides by the rules and social norms that applied in medieval Europe. No, feminists expected things to be different because they wanted to feel “empowered”.
Of course, feminists completely ignore the mountains of violence and cruelty committed against males on the show, including in the first episode in which a little boy is pushed out of a window and crippled. Feminists had no outrage for the murder of dozens of children who had the misfortune of being Robert Baratheon’s bastards. They did not care about the set up of Jon Snow. They seemed to rejoice in the torture and mutilation of Theon Greyjoy.
Season six, however, presented a change in tone on the show. This past season saw women rise to power. Granted, these are not the most elegant, egalitarian rises. Only one of the women is acting out of honor or valor. All the rest act out of revenge or entitlement, or what feminists call “empowerment”. Because of the focus on these women, feminists now support the show. They also now declare it a secret “feminist fable”:
Season six of Game of Thrones has been more of a feminist love-in than a Hillary Clinton support rally. Admittedly, Thrones women are usually beautiful (with suspiciously good teeth for pseudo-medieval times), and frequently naked, but bear with me.
In this series, there has been a relative dearth of decorative prostitutes, a slew of uplifting moments and more strong, nuanced female characters than you can shake a sword made of Valyrian steel at. George RR Martin has long declared himself a feminist: here are six reasons why the latest run of the HBO adaptation of his books is true to that statement.
Quick correction: Martin does not consider himself a feminist.
The series has always had strong, nuanced female characters. This was obvious from the first episode. It seems, however, that feminists missed this because they were too focused on Tyrion Lannister’s whores. Yes, there is a lot of naked female flesh in the first couple of seasons. There is also a gratuitous amount of violence, most of it against men and boys. Yet only one those bothered feminists. The numerous brutalizations and murders of boys paled in comparison to seeing Theon have sex with a naked prostitute.
Ceri Radford, like many feminists, seems to forget that as these scenes happened we watched characters like Cersei, Margaery, and Olenna scheme and plot within a social structure that often kept them out of direct power. To accuse the show’s writers of sexism against women would be akin to accusing the NBA of being racist against black people.
Radford tries to backtrack the feminist complaints about Games of Thrones being complete garbage because of misogyny by claiming that it is really a feminist show. You can tell her arguments will be weak when she begins with one of the most flawed feminists “tests” available:
You mean the iron-clad test in which films like Men in Black fail while films like Transformers and TV shows like Sex in the City pass?
Let us read Radford’s defense of this useless “test”:
The litmus test for on-screen sexism asks whether at least two women talk to each other about something other than a man. Um, easy. One of the best scenes of Thrones to date came in episode seven of this run, when Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) urged Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) to unite against the creepy fundamentalists who look like they’ve been branded with Wagon Wheel biscuits, and Olenna peered at her and asked whether she was the worst person she had ever met.
You had one job: find a scene in which Olenna and Cersei spoke to each other, and yet you chose a scene that technically fails the test because they are talking about a man, the High Sparrow, throughout the entire discussion. You had four seasons worth of conversations to choose from and you picked this one?
In any normal drama, one of these characters would be a blessing: a Cersei, malevolent, magnetic and strangely sympathetic; an Olenna, stalwart and hilarious.
It is curious that Radford, like so many other feminists, find Cersei sympathetic. I noticed this early into comments about the show. I suspect it is because Cersei is the most feminist character in the show and the series. Her motivations are a desire for power, overturning the system so that she can rise, declaring the system “wrong” because she should be the one to rule, and a grand sense of entitlement to positions of power she has never earned.
The fact that Cersei has sex with her brother, orders the murder of children, viciously kills anyone who gets in her way, and seemingly caused the death of her one of her children does not matter. All that matters is that she got her way.
How very feminist.
2. Women are warriors, not just princesses waiting to be saved
The knight in shining armour of series six is undoubtedly Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), whose sword-swinging entrance to rescue Sansa (Sophie Turner) in the opening episode is the leitmotif of Thrones feminism. More interestingly, she doesn’t quite fit the usual fantasy mould of a slender beauty shoe-horned into leather (think Xena, Warrior Princess, Tomb Raider and, admittedly, Daenerys).
Most of the women in the show are waiting to be saved. A handful of women act differently, yet that is largely due to the nature of their circumstances. It is worth noting that the same thing applies to male characters. Tommen is a good example of a useless, powerless male character. This is largely due to him being the youngest and therefore useless in the grand scheme of realm.
The question is not whether there are warrior women. The question is whether those characters are interesting. Brienne is interesting because of how she deals with her situation. She is built like a man, so most men want little to do with her. She falls in love with a man who loves other men and then for a man despised by most other men. She pledges her loyalty to a woman who is murdered, and yet still carries out the pledge, even to the point of threatening the man she now loves.
That is an interesting character. That she wields a sword and wears armor does not matter.
Of course, it would not be a feminist article if there were not an immediate contradiction of a prior point. We saw Radford argue that women can be warriors. Now she argues:
3. But they don’t have to act like men to be powerful
One of the debates of contemporary feminism is to what extent women are expected to ape men – bonding over golf, scoffing at their rival’s powerpoint – to get ahead. While characters like Brienne and Arya act in a conventionally masculine style and even silver-haired Daenerys has a stubborn penchant for crucifixion, this isn’t the only way to wield power.
Catelyn Stark embodied a more traditionally feminine forcefulness in the first series, and this time round, no one comes close to Margaery , a character with the cunning of a hacker and the smile of a Princess Diana. She uses every tool available to outwit the High Sparrow, including a royal sex strike.
“Power is power,” as Cersei once so memorably told Lord Baelish ( Aidan Gillen) . In the amoral universe of Thrones, power is anything that works, and it doesn’t automatically have a gender.
Again, you had one job: pick a scene in which a woman usede non-physical force to prove she has power, and you picked a scene in which Cersei uses armed guards to physically threaten Littlefinger.
As for her broader point, this is what most of the men do throughout the series. Tywin, Tyrion, Littlefinger, Varys, and even Ramsay Bolton all use manipulation and talk to demonstrate their power. To ignore this and pretend that it is somehow unique to women is laughable.
What makes Radford’s point worse is that this is the very behavior is historically the most common method women used (and still use) to wield their power. So it is not very feminist.
4. It confronts the ugliness of sexual violence
One of the most spellbinding moments of the series came when Sansa told Lord Baelish, the world’s worst wedding planner, just what it had been like to be raped by Sadist-in-Chief Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). “Ladies aren’t supposed to talk about those things,” she told him; but she still felt the pain, “not in my tender heart, I can still feel what he did in my body, standing here right now.”
One scene that dances around the topic is not a “confronting the ugliness of sexual violence”. Nothing happens as a result of that scene. Baelish is not punished, Sansa does not avoid him, and Ramsay does not face his comeuppance until later.
Sansa’s transition from pawn to powerhouse, able to articulate and defy the sexual double standards of her time, is a hugely enjoyable strand. Enjoyable in a dark kind of way admittedly, given that this is Thrones, so instead of moving on with some therapy and a walking holiday in the Lake District, she had her tormentor eaten alive by his own slavering hounds.
Sansa is a powerhouse in the same way that Bran Stark is a sprinter. She is still the useless little princess expecting everyone else to rescue her. The only difference is that now she realizes how stupid and useless this makes her. Yet she still does next to nothing to resolve situations. The one exception is during the battle to retake Winterfell. Of course, she fails to tell Jon Snow that she has Littlefinger’s army at her disposal. Instead, she allows her “brother” to go into a hopeless battle in which he almost dies (again), only to swoop in at the last moment with Baelish’s forces. It would have helped if she had told Jon about the army to begin with.
Over in Essos, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) got the ultimate revenge after enduring rape threats from the Dothraki khals: torching the lot of them then emerging naked and victorious from the flames. Not an option available to most women walking past a building site, but gratifying nonetheless.
In a show in which male death is treated with casual glee, only feminists would need the men to be would-be rapists in order for the scene to truly satisfy them.
5. And it gave us that scene between Daenerys Targareon and Yara Greyjoy
Do you mean the scene in which two women who have killed their way to power and are not the slightest bit interested in anyone else’s lives talked about how they were going to ravage a continent, slaughtering tens of thousands of men and boys, to seize the Iron Throne? That “empowering” scene?
How can you not have risen from the sofa with a small cheer at the sight of iron-born tough nut Yara (Gemma Whelan) winning over the imperious Daenarys, making common cause as the daughters of terrible men in a world where most people didn’t want women to rule.
Again, these are not the best women to choose from. Yara raids and rapes her way through coastal villages. She has so little concern for the torment her brother Theon suffered that she takes him to a brothel, mocks him for no longer having a penis, and then tells him to kill himself if he cannot get over the years of torture he suffered.
Daenarys is much worse. She has compassion for slaves mostly via projection. She has no compassion for anyone or anything else, no understanding of how to win people over, no concern with whether the slave masters are kind or cruel to their slaves, and no concern for the welfare of the free people living in the cities she conquers.
Dani would conquer a city, free the slaves, set them upon their former masters, and leave. It is only when she reached Meereen that this changed, and that was only because the masters destroyed all their ships, preventing Dani from going to Westeros. Yet what does she do while in Meereen? Does she try to stabilize the city? Yes, but only to prevent the masters from killing her. Outside of that, her intention is to leave.
Daenarys upends an entire society with no intention of fixing it. Her sole goal is to conquer Westeros and seize the Iron Throne. So when she has the ships to leave, she has them painted with dragon emblems and sets sail, leaving her boy toy in charge.
Neither of these women are people you want in power.
6. But for all the feel-good factor, the Iron Throne room still has a glass ceiling
Let’s pause a moment here to remember what Yara was doing in distant Meereen in the first place. If you were iron-born, you should obviously have backed her as queen. She’s battle-tested, loyal enough to stick by poor Theon (Alfie Allen), not a total psychopath, inspiring, in short everything the surly seaweed-lovers could hope for.
But when it came to it, along swaggered Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), and one penis joke later, he was pronounced king.
That is likely because Euron convinced them that he would win over Daenrys and bring her and her dragons to Westeros, conquer the land, and he would sit on the Iron Throne. He planned to woo Dani by bringing her ships. Yara steals this plan and presents it to Dani herself, even suggesting that she be Dani’s “husband”.
In a similar vein, Sansa got yet another feminist soapbox moment when she berated Jon Snow (Kit Harington) for not asking her opinion about how to defeat Ramsay Bolton, even though she was the only one who knew anything about the twisted mind of TV’s most petulant psychopath.
What important information did she give Jon? That is not a rhetorical question. Look at the scene and try to find anything that she told Jon that he did not already know. Even the remark about Rickon being a dead man walking was something Jon already knew. He simply did not want to accept it.
Sansa had one piece of important information: Peter Baelish had an army at the ready and needed only her call to get his men to the battlefield. Sansa chose to withhold that information and ride off to Baelish by herself. That is not a “glass ceiling”; that is Sansa being her usual self-interested, petulant self.
In sexist times, even the whitest of Jon Snows, the purest of heroes, were sexist. It’s a system of thought that traps the best men – and the best women. Despite the far-flung setting and the dragons and the laser-eyed ice zombies, it’s a theme that brings the Seven Kingdoms uncomfortably close to home.
Radford, like many feminists, keeps forgetting that this is a medieval fantasy story. The story must function within the confines of that setting. In this case, women were not usually in positions of power. They were not usually regarded as men’s equals. They were not usually warriors or expected to fight at all. One can find that sexist as much as one wants, however, that is how medieval Europe worked. If one wants to tell a story in that setting, one must abide by those rules.
If Radford wants something different, she can read a different book or watch a different show. Feminists do not have to engage with popular things if they do not want to. However, they do not get to tell writers what stories they can tell or how to tell them. They also do not get to co-opt a show and claim it is really about their politics when it is anything but about feminism.