With every season of Game of Thrones, one question has become more insistent out there in the blogosphere: “Is Game of Thrones feminist?” Maybe because critics deemed the show’s hearty female viewership “surprising” (since it’s not like women have ever enjoyed fantasy epics or stories about powerful, doomed clans before, right?), journalists and bloggers feel tasked with finding a reason for Game of Thrones’ appeal beyond its storytelling and characters. Thus, we’ve seen a rash of blog posts and articles parsing the show’s up-with-women bona fides.
Can a series with such gratuitous sex, violence, and sexualized violence truly be feminist? Can “real” power be gained by female characters who must use sex as a means to getting it? Did you know there are fewer rapes in the TV show than in the book? Fewer rapes is definitely a win for feminism! What if the show’s not feminist in the political sense, but simply provides an interesting way to talk about feminism? Is that enough? These are interesting, valuable conversations. But in the run-up to the third-season finale this Sunday—after nine episodes that have seen women used as numerous pawns in the titular game, treated like chattel, commanded to show men their “cunts,” threatened with rape at nearly every turn, stabbed viciously in the uterus, and, in one case, crucified by crossbow—critics seem to be trying way too hard to make fetch happen.
It’s not that Game of Thrones can’t, or shouldn’t, be considered through the lens of feminism. But I wonder if such a conversation would be happening if the larger landscape of television looked a more like it: Game of Thrones has more women characters than any other hit show in recent memory. (This seems like a good place to add that when I was doing an image search for “Game of Thrones women” for this post, the first two subcategories to appear were “Game of Thrones women breasts” and “Game of Thrones women hot.”)
When people talk about wanting to see “strong female characters,” this is what we’re talking about. Not an army of superhuman, you-go-girl ass-kickers with no complicating romantic lives or moral failings, but a glorious array of faceted, complex, problematic, not-sure-if-they-can-be-trusted human beings. The knight who swings her sword fearlessly but knows she’s just as vulnerable to rape as a lady without armor; the girl whose angry bravado outpaces her experience; the steely, uncompromising dowager with plans; the witch who you thought was going to kill that one guy during sex but instead just put some leeches on his junk. These ladies pass the Bechdel Test so fast they break the sound barrier. They’re not stereotypes, they’re not archetypes, and if we pin our feminist hopes on any one of them, we’ll probably be disappointed.
Game of Thrones is not the only primetime cable show with complicated, edgy female characters, obviously. Nurse Jackie has been killing it for five seasons with women whose issues have issues. Homeland and Dexter give us female characters who are as unnerving as they are fascinating. But what GoT has going for it is sheer numbers. Characters like Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Arya (Maisie Williams) and Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) and Melisandre (Carice van Houten) (to say nothing of Daenerys and Catelynn and Sansa and Cersei and Margaery and Ygritte and Shae and Osha and Gilly and Ros—and yes, I can keep them all straight even though it did take the the entire first season to begin discerning between Robb Stark, Jon Snow, and Theon Greyjoy—may not do something crucial and plot-moving every episode, but they are key pieces of the show’s larger purpose. They are why George R. R. Martin is asked about feminism in so many interviews. They are the reason that articles keep feeling the need to assert that, yes, female audiences really do love them some swords-sex-and-dragons action. And they are what more TV shows—and movies, for that matter—need to look like so that we don’t have to look so assiduously for sparks of feminism in the ones that we have.
So does it matter if Game of Thrones is feminist? Maybe not. But what does matter that it’s one of few shows to give us a reason to even argue the case—and if it yields a richer array of characters in the TV shows that will inevitably try to rip it off, all the better.