Forget battles and bravado. The secret to Game of Thrones' success is its women.

Ask a random stranger to describe Game of Thrones and there’s several answers you might receive. Some might tell you it’s an award-winning television show based on George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels. Some might tell you it’s the biggest cultural phenomenon of recent years. Many will respond, however, with three simple words: death and boobs.

It’s a fair appraisal. There’s death galore in Game of Thrones, with the brutal battles and massacres. There’s also, however, boobs galore. The show may have attracted critical acclaim and a fervent fanbase, but it’s also sparked controversy over its representation of women, specifically its use of nudity and sexual violence.

It was a criticism levelled more frequently in the show’s early seasons. Game of Thrones’ world is fuelled by base desires – the desire for power, the desire for revenge, the desire for flesh. Understandably, then, many scenes are sexually charged, and most characters have been shown in some compromising situation or other. At times, though, this went so far as to seem leery, especially since women did most of the heavy lifting in the gratuitous nudity department. Lenny Ann Low describes how minor female characters – e.g. the prostitutes who draped themselves over men making important decisions, or Craster’s harem of daughter-brides – are “walking boobs”, who Game of Thrones uses “like other shows use pot plants, i.e. as set decoration”.

if women had a tough lot in history, they’ve hardly fared better in fantasy fiction

That’s not to say that Game of Thrones began as a total misogynistic gore-fest. Although it reflects the poor lot offered to women in its medieval-esque setting, from day one there have been complex female characters who hinted that the show could venture beyond than the usual ‘men as players, women as pawns’ trend.

Because if women had a tough lot in history, they’ve hardly fared better in fantasy fiction. Despite writing about fantastical realms where they can create literally anything, writers who have dreamt up magic, dragons and spaceships have, for the most part, struggled to imagine a world where men and women are equal. Gender norms, clearly, are pervasive things. From Middle Earth to World of Warcraft, fictional universes tend to leave women at the sidelines. While Game of Thrones’ world is similarly patriarchal, Martin and his showrunners have gradually developed women canny enough to survive. Their world might cast them as wives and daughters, there to be bartered away and brutalised, but now more than ever the women of Westeros have other ideas.

Two clear examples are Cersei and Margaery (SPOILERS AHEAD - obviously). Both are aware of the confines under which they operate, having been married off to this king and that. Cersei usually looks as though she’s screaming internally at the idiocy surrounding her, yet by installing her son on the throne, manipulating her way into the privy council and pursuing her enemies with a determination borne of rage and red wine, she’s one of Westeros’ true power players. Margaery, meanwhile, is no stranger to revealing outfits, but her function is greater than audience titillation. Unable to storm into battle like her male counterparts, she realises that seducing kings and winning public affection are her best paths to success. Her private pronouncement – “I don’t want to be a queen. I want to be the queen” - proved that this beauty is more steely and adept than most realise. Still, under the tutelage of her acid-tongued, monarch-murdering grandmother Olenna - who has survived longer than most Westerosi men – we shouldn’t be too surprised.

One of the most exasperating phrases in pop-culture parlance is ‘strong female character’; usually uttered as lip service by producers who think that giving a woman a weapon compensates for a total lack of agency and depth (and makes it okay to continue perving on her). If there’s anyone who can truly be considered a strong female character, however, it’s Brienne. She might be wounded by jibes about her bulky appearance, but not as much as her rivals are wounded by her mad sword skills. She’s the show’s most talented fighter, and her loyalty and growing self-assurance make her a fan favourite (in spite of the main Game of Thrones rule: never have a favourite, because they’ll probably get killed off).

Perhaps more interesting, however, are the women who were initially anything but strong. Daenerys begins the series orphaned, exiled and subjugated. In most shows, breaking away from her tyrannical brother and demanding equality from her husband would be victory enough. Game of Thrones, though, goes further, giving her a trio of dragons and sending her off to conquer the entire kingdom. Steering through external perils and internal doubts, Daenerys credibly matures into the heart of Game of Thrones’ most politically nuanced plot-thread. Sansa, meanwhile, originally wanted no more than to marry a prince and swan about in a tower; even as her family were butchered she remained teeth-grindingly whiny. This season, however, she’s finally come into her own, realising a dormant badass potential. Her rape by Ramsey was a painful watch, but precisely because it didn’t glorify sexual violence – it was shot from Sansa’s perspective, and refused to underplay its emotional toll. By overcoming this, winning a battle the lumber-headed Jon Snow would otherwise have lost, then literally feeding Ramsey to the dogs, Sansa is granted the show’s most developed arc. She’s captivating not because she’s inherently strong, but because she became strong.

Placing ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘feminist’ in the same sentence would still be a stretch

Game of Thrones can’t be commended so thoroughly for all its characters, though. Melisandre is painted as the archetypal devil woman, a pseudo-prophet who uses her seductive feminine wiles to lead a moral man astray. The revelation that she is secretly centuries-old increased audience sympathy, yet even that invoked the trope of deceptive women not being all they seem. More disturbing still was Jaime’s rape of Cersei. Ignoring for a moment the fact that they’re twins and were inches from their incestuous son’s corpse (no one said this show was pleasant), the event was barely even acknowledged as rape. Despite Cersei repeatedly denying consent, director Alex Graves claims it “[became] consensual by the end”, and Jaime has since merrily resumed his arc of redemption, with audiences continually encouraged to consider him a hero. The scene played into the worst assumptions about rape – that you can’t rape someone you’ve previously consensually slept with, or that you can persist through “no’s” to reach a “yes” - cancelling out whatever points Game of Thrones earned for its sensitive handling of Sansa’s rape.

Placing ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘feminist’ in the same sentence would still be a stretch, then. It’s no small coincidence, though, that the current season, which has been the strongest in its depiction of female characters, has also been the strongest overall. By finally paying women in fantasy their dues, it’s become more rounded and involving, transforming itself from a show people liked in spite of its treatment of women to a show they like because of its treatment of women. Maybe it’ll mess up again; no doubt a million internet thinkpieces such as this will call it out if it does. Until then, however, we can cheer on Daenerys scorching patriarchies with her dragons. We can cheer on Yara mounting a coup against the male usurper to her crown. We can cheer on Arya, Sansa, Brienne, Cersei and a whole host of standout female characters.

Until they die, anyway. This is Game of Thrones after all.  

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