Game of Thrones is an Excellent Lesson in Patriarchy, Sex, and Power

Queen Cersei and Sansa Stark

Knights and queens, high-walled castles, brothels full of exquisite lady companions, more wine than anyone can drink—this is the world of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Though the show is set in a medieval land of chivalry where men hold most of the legal power, women find ways to pull the strings in Game of Thrones’ tales of conquest and copulation.

As Queen Cersei Lanister advises one young lady, “Tears aren’t the only woman’s weapon. The best one’s between your legs.”

Denied legal titles to control seats of power, the women in Game of Thrones use sex as a tool to enact their plans.

[Spoiler alert!]

Queen Cersei herself is the best schemer in the land’s seven kingdoms, employing spies in every corner her country. After her husband dies, following the country’s patriarchal rules, official control of the country goes to her son. Queen Cersei keeps tight control over her son and country, but her power slips when the Lady Margaery Tyrell becomes betrothed to the king. Margaery knows the young king is secretly a monstrous ruler who enjoys torture and death, so she plays a careful role. Toward the public, she’s friendly and tender. In private, she amuses her fiancé by talking about sensuality and violence. Lady Margaery feigns stupidity, manipulating the king with her good looks, sexual innuendo, and outward subservience.

In the show’s many intersecting plots, there are plenty of other examples of female characters using sex as a way to obtain power that’s legally denied them. Melisandre, a red-headed priestess, assists another man on the throne through magic while promising him sex and sons. However, when impregnated, she literally births a murdering spirit-like force, which killed his enemy, and dissipated like smoke. Queen Talisa of Volantis is married to Robb Stark, who also seeks the throne as king. He was previously engaged in an arranged marriage, but broke his betrothal after one steamy night with the charming Talisa.

Only one woman seeks to rule the land as the lone monarch: Daenerys Targaryen, nicknamed Queen of Dragons. Targaryen was exiled to a land across the sea and sold by her brother to marry a tribal leader after her father—a king—was murdered. Her husband’s tribe had little regard for women, treating them as slaves. But after she takes control in bed, her husband falls in love and begins treating her like a queen. After her husband and son die, Targaryen is forlorn. But she finds her strength when she helps hatch three baby dragons, previously thought to be extinct. Now in possession of something more powerful than sex—fire-breathing dragons—she heads for the mainland to claim her throne.

Like ruling ladies, lower class woman in Game of Thrones also use sex as a way to climb the ladder. Prostitutes are shown using tantric-like tricks to gain a foothold on power, for example. Though she’s destitute, the character Osha— a free woman from the north—is skilled with all types of weapons and certainly counts sex among her tools. At one point, Osha saves a boy and his younger brother from certain death by offering to have sex with an invading army commander, only to drug him, kill his guards and escape.

But not every woman on the show uses sex as a means to power. Two women with other legal options open to them climb the ranks by taking paths traditionally reserved for men.

Yara Greyjoy gets away with acting like one of the guys by conquering with ships instead of seduction—but she’s different from the other women on the show: she has untraditional backing from her father. Yara is from the seafaring people at Castle Pyke; her father, lord of the castle, entrusts her with military conquest and his fleet of ships. Yara rides horses in pants, kicks her feet up and mouths off to her brother when he returns to claim his title. Yara’s father backs her as the rightful leader instead of his prodigal son; she is elite with a father’s blessing.

Then there’s Brienne of Tarth, a female knight who fights with bravado and bests many men. She uses a sword as her tool of power, instead of her lady parts. Because of her sword-wielding skills, other characters mock her for being unladylike.

Within Game of Thrones’ rigidly patriarchal society, the female characters pursue their own plots with as much determination as the men. But barred from legal paths to power, they have to find their own ways to get a leg up.  

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