Does It Matter Whether “Game of Thrones” Is Feminist?

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.

by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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29 Comments Have Been Posted

Bechdel Test

Uhm... But actually? I'm not sure many of the most recent episodes actually DOES pass the Bechtel test.

Do any of this plethora of female characters actually TALK to any other female characters, now that the Stark family is dispersed? It seems to me that in the past several episodes, each female character is basically an island of her own in a sea full of men in every scene. Oh, okay, Cersei and Margarey had some dialogues, where Cersei threatened to have Margarey murdered in her sleep... And Margarey talked to Sansa-- about getting married and being sisters, which doesn't count. Catelynn and Talisa were in the same room together on several occasions but I don't recall them ever speaking. Daenerys, I think, is down from three handmaids to the one woman she purchased (freed from slavery?), and they did discuss language proficiency. So I guess that counts. In most scenes though, she's silenced unless as a translator, and that's not dialogue.

The Bechdel test isn't *the* test of women's representation, but we should be clear about what it actually is before declaring that it's been passed.

Catelyn and Talisa do

Catelyn and Talisa do converse in at least one scene: S3E2. They discuss the prayer wheel Catelyn is making and that segues into her relationship with Jon Snow. Catelyn and Brienne also have an important relationship and we see them together several times. Likewise Shae and Sansa, Cersei and Sansa, etc. etc.

Also, Shae and Ros discuss

Also, Shae and Ros discuss Sansa, and I'm pretty sure that Sansa and Shae converse fairly regularly. Plus, Osha and Meera Reed, even if it's not really friendly conversation.

A lot of this is complicated by how focused this season is on marriage alliances in general, but I'd say Margaray's conversations with Sansa do count. She focuses more on the 'being sisters' part than the 'marrying Loras' part of the conversation.

I guess whether Osha and

I guess whether Osha and Meera pass the Bechdel test depends on whether the rabbit was a buck or a doe.

The Bechdel test is arbitrary

The Bechdel test is arbitrary nonsense. Nothing more, nothing less. Any construct that is that outdated, created by someone who is so absolutely obsessed with victimology thought process, needs to be dismissed. It simply is unimportant for the advancement of our society.

True equality will never exist as long as the destruction of rights is used to elevate those who are seen as not having them. Feminism is a bad joke, and everything therein is tarnished by the veracity of its excesses.

Interesting because I refuse

Interesting because I refuse to watch GoT because of its disgusting portrayal of rape and violent sex. From what parts I have scene, it simply including complicated, strong women cannot make up for the depictions of violence that do not deal sensitively with the subject but rather exploit it. I felt within ten minutes of the first episode that the author/producers were creepily enjoying Daenerysis's (spelling?) vulnerable nudity, not empowering her or exposing any complicated theme but just plain exploitation. I know she later becomes super kickass but is falling in love with her rapist husband an okay plotline to just toss in without any discussion? Is the CONSTANT reference to "cunts" and rape acceptable, or does it simply remind the viewers throughout that women are always at risk for violent sexual experiences? I felt shamed and unhappy watching it, instead of empowered, educated, or thoughtful.
I just don't think the show deals healthily with these issues but rather throws them in for shock factor, entertainment and viewers' darker sexual urges.

This show is extremely empowering

Julia, it sounds like you need to give the show another chance. The show does some things better and some things worse than the book. Daenerys and Khal Drogo was one thing they got wrong. In the book, that first sex scene is a lot less rape-y--she actually enjoys their first sex scene and quickly embraces her new status as the key to freedom from her domineering dick older brother. But she doesn't stay just the wife to a powerful man, as you'll find out if you keep watching. Daenerys becomes badass later on because she CONSISTENTLY REJECTS ALL FORMS OF MALE POWER. I'm not kidding. Every man walks into her life thinking "I'm going to take her and her dragons and be really effing powerful" and she consistently is like, fuck to the no you are not. She is an incredible female force that I find extremely empowering. Who among us wouldn't like to burn every man who ever told us "No you can't, because you're a woman"?

I love the show because I empathize with these characters, being a woman in a world run mostly by men. They show me that, even being surrounded by the constant threat of rape, death, and all things terrible, they're still climbing the ladder of chaos, and they're making it to the top. It's incredible. The show also shows women that retreating into stereotypic gender roles (as Sansa, Catelyn, and Lysa do) will get you into a huuuuuge amount of trouble. It encourages women to be active participants in the world and to take control of their lives and situations, no matter how shitty.

But even beyond the obvious Daenerys, Brienne of Tarth, Arya, or Margery, there's Yara (or Asha in the books) who is set to inherit the Iron Islands, a right that should belong to her brother. But Yara is so effing badass that even the particularly lecherous men of Pyke see her as their future king. When her brother asked her where her husband and suckling babe were, she threw down an axe and said "This is my husband" then drew a dagger from between her breasts and said "This is my suckling babe". It literally does not get more empowering than some of the female characters in Westeros.

Give it another shot... I swear it's worth it.

Actually, the book got it wrong

I have read the first book, but I haven't seen the TV show. I would disagree - I think Daenerys's rape in the book is much more troublesome than in the TV show. When I read the book, leading up to Daenerys and Khal Drogo's wedding night I was very concerned. I was steeling myself for a horrible rape scene. When it turned out to seem "ok" I was initially very relieved. It was only on later reflection that I realized how wrong what I had read had been. Making sex between a 13-year-old and and adult seem "ok" is actually quite horrible. It is terribly unrealistic and frankly pretty gross. George R. R. Martin has actually said he regrets writing it that way. I haven't seen the rape scene in the TV show, but I feel that portraying rape as rape rather than playing into dudes' fantasies that statutory rape of a 13 year old might be just fine is the better way to go.

I'm with the original poster. After reading the first book, I felt gross and I just didn't enjoy myself. There is so much better fantasy out there written by women that I just won't waste my time with this series. I really wish that women-written fantasy and science fiction got more attention. N.K. Jemisin, and Amanda Downum are two examples that come to mind. Looking at my reading list, I realize I read a lot more science fiction than fantasy, but regardless I find it much more satisfying to read work by women.


The problem you, and other feminist sexists have is that they -assume- these rape scenes play into male fantasies.

To assume that I, or any other man, for instance, has flaming fantasies about raping a 13 year old, is dishonest, unfactual nonsense. And I find it highly offensive that, as a law abiding, happy male, I am automatically put in the sardine can with real rapists and child molestors, because some faction of ignorant know-it-alls says all men are evil, all men fantasize about rape, etc etc etc.

The only thing stopping you from opening your mind, and questioning this absolute balderdash you've been force fed, is yourself.

Feminism is a phoney, false movement. There never was any "struggle" for rights as it were. The entire concoction even went so far as to blacklist it's original founders because they actually accepted equality as an idea, not the suppression of male rights and destruction of social male images to elevate female images and social standing.

The hilarity in this comical diatribe really becomes apparent when you read posts and comments on sites like this; the proverbial hand wringing is ever apparent, as if you have some big "gotcha" moment. Then you go on and on for ages about feminism and misogyny and whatnot, all together ignoring the other brutal actions in GRRM's books - Theon is a perfect example. Tortured, humiliated and castrated. Varys. Castrated at youth for his father's benefit. The ENTIRETY of the unsullied and the eunuchs therein. The brutality of war and the vast amount of male characters beheaded or murdered therein.

You crave equality so much you've lapsed it and now demand elevation, all the while bleating the social protocol and ignoring facts to the contrary. Pathetically structured, emotionally charged nonsense.

Ah, the trolls, the trolls.....

Where are these "Anonymous" and hateful troll-men coming from? How'd you get here, through the sewers? Take your male insecurities and BURY them. "Trampling on male rights"?? You MENZ only have rights because you bullied your way there. Get out of here and go cry on an MRA board. Nobody here is buying what you're selling!!

And for the record, while I wouldn't call GOT totally empowering to women, the show DOES have to try to keep with the time period, and during that era, women WEREN'T much empowered. I do think that the show is a good conversation starter.

with suspension of disbelief,

with suspension of disbelief, it's legal in that world. She was old enough to be married and therefore bedded. There are girls in the world being married off at a much younger age. But that isn't the point. In that world it is ok.

Also i have only seen the show, so I did not know that Daenerys was THAT young. I thought she was like 16 or 17.

It's established in the show that in that world these things are the norm. And at one time it was everywhere in real life. To expect today's morality in a medieval setting is foolish. Also rape is not ok. It has been established in that world that it isn't ok. It's just a crime women don't get justice for. That entire world is misogynistic. You have to suspend your reality to really get into it. It's a terrible world for women but there are places that mentality isn't accepted and that's in Dorne. But if it's too much for you then i'd say watch something else. But despite the misogyny It's a great story.

I am with Jenna and Julia

I am with Jenna and Julia here. I watched the last ep. on a whim and really regreted it. The Sam Peckinpah level of violence done in general and done to women in particular gets me as well. For some reason, however, when I tell people my misgivings, people feel the need to convert me back into the show's fold. My feelings on that are that if people feel that the show gives them all that much then I'm ok with them watching it. I only wish that people would take us more squeemish people a bit more seriously when we say that it bothers us.

I got as far as you did with

I got as far as you did with the show. However I actually felt that Daenerys' scene was powerful and necessary and I would think i would have tolerated it if it had not been preceeded by the unecessary orgy scene with the dwarf(can't remember that dude's name) and all the nearly naked prostitutes. For me the sexual nudity undercut the Daenerys' perhaps necessary nudity. Because regardless of how our society does react to nudity I don't think that moment with Daenerys' was meant to be sexy. What I am wondering is the unnecessary scene had not come just before it would you have tolerated it better?

A Feminist Man Weighs In

I find your comment about Daenerysis' nudity in the first episode interesting because, while it was without a doubt super-creepy, as a dude (with a younger sister) I saw it as setting up what a worthless piece of shit her brother was. After that went down, it wasn't a matter if he was going to get killed, just a matter of when.

using women's bodies

Why does a woman's body need to be used to illustrate something about a man's character? That's exploitation. Nudity and sexualized violence are overused to tell us something about men. How do you determine the character of a man? Apparently you put a naked child in front of him and see what happens. Children aren't really people and women aren't either so their reaction to their own nudity and the violence they are subjected to isn't really relevant. What remains important is the man's reaction/character.

I'm sorry, 'children aren't

I'm sorry, 'children aren't really people and women aren't either?' Last time I checked it was common knowledge that women and children are people, each woman and child in possession of more humanity than you could ever claim to hold in that tiny numbskull you call a brain.

If children and women aren't

If children and women aren't REALLY people, then it goes to follow that neither are MEN. Because of that we're all made of the same chemistry, you know. Might DOESN'T make right, unless you're a brain-dead BULLY.

Re: The Nudity

Daenerys' vulnerable and fragile nude scene is paralleled by one at the end of the season where she literally rises out from the ashes the first female leader of an army in the misogynist Dothraki culture with 3 baby dragons in her arms, and everybody bows. It's part of her character development. We watch her become powerful.

Great question!

I've read & loved all of the books the show is based on, and because of the inconsistencies between the show & the books, I couldn't even watch the first season. For some reason, though, I am totally sucked in this season, and I love talking about the episodes with my little brother (26), who has also read all the books.

In one of our recent talks about what had been changed for TV & whether it was appropriate, I was talking again about how annoying it is to me that they've excluded things we both loved in the books in favor of ADDING all the gratuitous sex scenes in the brothel. They do visit brothels & interact with prostitutes in the books, but there's nothing like the non sequitur "let me teach you how to have sex, other woman" scenes in the show.

My brother responded that he was annoyed by the way they've changed the rapes for TV. He pointed out that the rape in the books is purposeful-- it drives the story forward by vilifying the attackers and changing the course of the victims' journeys. In the show, he said, they're using it differently and not staying true to who was involved in rape in the books.

A good example of not-in-the-book violence against a woman is Joffrey playing target practice in his bedroom with the nude prostitute Littlefinger gave him. That assistant/prostitute isn't a character in the books, and Joffrey is mean as a snake, but he doesn't do that particular thing.

Is the story feminist? In some ways, yes. George RR Martin deliberately contrasts Sansa's adherence to feminine norms against Arya's less-gendered choices. He didn't need to introduce a character like Brienne of Tarth, a warrior despite constant derision for her unfeminine lifestyle. And Daenerys is way badder-assed in the books than in the show, although she's come a long way towards her character's strength in the show this season.

What all of the characters have in common, though, (male and female) is striving towards their own sense of right against the restrictions inherent in the positions they were born to, which makes it less of a "feminist" story, and more of a *human* story.

Everyone's screwed

I don't think it makes a lot of sense to analyse or judge the role of feminism in this series.
The basic concept is 'everyone's screwed, women are screwed a little more.'.
The world the show is set in is a sort of medieval, very grim and brutal world where women have no power and honorable people often end up dead. The introduction of magic shifts the distribution of power a little bit, but it still is what it is.
I prefer to just see the characters as humans struggling to make it in that world with the means they've got.

(Female) Persons of Interest

This is slightly off topic, but Person of Interest doesn't get a lot of credit (at least not that I've seen) but like GOT its a series with several interesting, multifaceted female characters. Sure outwardly it may look like a show for the fellas, but its not all damsels in distress, there's is a lot for feminist ladies to really dig too.

a true warrior female

Hey, look, I'm a former US Air Force aircraft mechanic.

It was surprising to a lot of the guys that I had a sense of duty, that I was patriotic, and that I had unquestionable integrity. As a result of being my true self, my team honored and respected me. And I, them. I was always the only female on the flightline.

It is refreshing to me to see a female character with loyalty, integrity, and a sense of duty. You have to admit, there has never been a character like her on any popular show before. She knows her duty. She accepts her fate and the consequences of her choices. Her word means something.

The show brings the ugliness of war, the passion of love, and the motivations of politics to the screen. It's intense. And, despite the parts that are hard to watch, I still like it.

"These ladies pass the

"These ladies pass the Bechdel Test so fast they break the sound barrier."

No, they don't. The only character who passes the Bechdel Test at all is Sansa, and that's because she's the only female character who actually interacts with other female characters regularly. Arya didn't interact with a female character once in season 2. The show consistently fails the Bechdel Test, which is a shame considering how many female characters it has.

I'd argue that Catelyn and

I'd argue that Catelyn and Brienne also pass the Bechdel Test. What with Brienne making her promise to save Sansa. Admittedly, most of my knowledge of the series comes from the books so maybe it's different in the show?
Later in the series Arya is able to pass too, though it does take her quite a while. I think that may be due to her not really wanting to have a conversation with anyone, women or otherwise.
You are correct that the series doesn't do terribly well with the Bechdel Test, or at least not as well as it could.

Book to SHow Translation

The serious screwed Catelyn. Her POV Arc about trying to rescue her daughter while dealing with her 14 year old boy King making rash decisions becomes Robb's arc about being a true king who falls in love. Cat releasing Jaime made about 2% of the sense it made in the books, and when you watch it you're kind of like "Oh, you silly mother's."

In my opinion the books are much more feminist than the show. Even for their gratuitous and problematic gendered violence every book passes the Bechdel Test and it's female characters are just as complex and interesting as the female ones. The show is also doing some weird things to female characters aside from just giving away their arcs. Irri for example, who should still be alive and getting Dany off died randomly at the end of Season 2. There's a gross (thankfully unaired scene) where Doreah strangles her that really never should've seen the light of day.

(Also I love Sansa Stark so much in both the book and the show, because she is a very feminine character, but she is not less of a person for her traditional femininity, which is a huge step up hyper-masculine girls that we are often encouraged to hale as feminist symbols for being like men.)

Drunk Feminist Films: Game of Thrones edition

Have you guys seen this? A lovely group of women watch and critique Game of Thrones through a lense of feminism and drunkeness. So good!

you can't have an honest

you can't have an honest conversation about the virtues and/or complexities of the lead female characters without addressing the fact that women's bodies are constantly used as props for sex and/or violence. the tv adaptation, spoilers ahead, went to the trouble of creating a whole new exotified love interest whose entire purpose in the narrative was to win the sympathy of the audience then get horrifically murdered in a vile act of gendered violence because it wasn't shocking or painful enough that an older mother figure died standing her ground. you can't even start a conversation when shit like that is going down.

Emma, I think your

Emma, I think your interpretation of Talisa's character is a little simplistic. Admittedly, I haven't yet read the books, but I do know that Talisa is not a character in the books, but I disagree that her purpose is solely to create sympathy for the Starks (and Robb in particular). Robb's marriage in the book is to a woman he slept with out of grief over believing his brothers are dead and a sense of obligation and guilt. It furthers the "noble Stark identity" which is already abundantly clear throughout the story, and seems to place him above the fallible nature of the rest of the characters. He marries Talisa out of love, not obligation, and in fact disregards his obligation to his people by putting them in danger when he breaks his oath while serving his own self interests. Talisa also doesn't just swoon over the handsome noble lord who is showing interest in her from the get go. Instead she chastises him for participating in the death and destruction of war, even if his intentions are noble. She humbles him a bit. She also serves to expose Catlynn's flaws. Catlynn is depicted throughout as the epitome of virtue, the anti Cersei if you will, fiercely defending her family without the conniving, threats, and backstabbing. However, she admits to Talisa that she wished death upon Jon Snow to release her from the shame he represented. When her wish seemed to be coming true, she redeemed herself by nursing him back to health and vowing to raise him as her own, only to disregard her vow because she wasn't strong enough. She once again redeems herself once again by having the self awareness to recognize her weakness and not just excusing it away.

Anyway, that's just my take on it, but I think Talisa is much more than just a love interest to generate sympathy from the audience when the Starks are slaughtered because somehow seeing Catlynn die trying to defend her family wasn't enough. She's a character with her own depth and purpose beyond the sympathy factor.

Misuse of 'archetype'

I think the author of this blog post has a serious misunderstanding of what an archetype is. ex. "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."
It is Jung who would be disappointed with the misuse of the term.