Ladies Watch the Throne: A Feminist Examination of Characters on Game of Thrones

by: Mariann Devlin

Note: Spoiler alert for the first season

Everytime I watch a new film or television series, I’m attuned to the way certain races and genders are portrayed, not because I get a big kick out of debunking certain stereotypes in front of my friends, but because certain images do produce and sustain our biases. What can I say, I like to keep my guard up.

Sometimes I applaud certain female characters, like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. The movie wasn’t all that great, but I did take pleasure in seeing the female lead as being of courageous moral virtue, lacking the sass, impulsivity, or cold-bloodedness that a lot of strong female characters are known for.

But how does Games of Thrones compete, even in its depiction of villainous women? There are two characters I find most fascinating. And no, one of them isn’t little Arya Stark. Although she’s awesome, Arya- who is strong-willed, “tomboyish,” and flouts traditional gender roles- is way too straightforwardly feminist.

For me, the two female characters who are most interesting from a feminist standpoint are Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen.

Cersei Lannister (after getting hit by King Robert): I shall wear this as a badge of honor.

Robert Baratheon: Wear it in silence or I’ll honor you again.

I used to be a fan of Cersei, because I pitied her plight- an all-too-young woman wed to a drunken, womanizing rogue for a king. Emotionally neglected to the point of spiritual ruin.

It’s become more and more difficult for me to feel for her, after she advises her brat son Joffrey to adopt a life of selfishness similar to King Robert’s. Despite her hatred of her treatment at the hands of her husband, and even if she’s using Joffrey to secure her own power, Cersei is continuing the destructive cycle of power by raising a tyrant- one who, when he chose to behead Ned Stark, shows a blatant disregard for the authority of his own mother.

However, I don’t think anyone can blame Cersei for her initial grief at being an “extra” in the life of her husband, who she once felt devoted to. She’s even abused by her brother, despite their incestuous relationship. For Cersei male relationships are based on use at the expense of authentic love and respect. Her character reminds us that to be treated by men- especially men whom we place our love, respect, and devotion to- as trophies or bargaining chips, is poisonous to our moral selves.

Daenerys Targaryen

Doreah: The Dothraki take slaves like a hound takes a bitch. Are you a slave Khaleesi?

Daenerys Targaryen: (shakes her head)

Doreah: Then don’t make love like a slave.

Oh, Daenerys. Khaleesi. I know that, according to most GoT fans, you are a shining, feminist exemplar. But right now, as we are still in the beginning of the series, Daenerys’ character feels like a true sufferer of Stockholm Syndrome. The girl was raped, for goodness’ sake, and is then instructed on how to be a better victim. “Use your sexuality to control your master,” she’s told by her handmaiden.

I was half-expecting her to succeed at dominating her husband Khal Drogo through her strength of will, and on a shallow level it seems like she did. Drogo would die protecting her because he loves her. Oh, wait. It’s because she’s the vessel holding his unborn child, who will “mount the world.”

It is moving that Daenerys is making the best out of her enslavement, by taking on a moral responsibility for the Dothraki and the victims of their raping and pillaging. But how on earth can we support her slow-blooming love for her oppressor?

At least she’s not Cersei, I guess. Raising up another cruel patriarch.

At least this aspect of her story, gradual love for an oppressor, rings of truth- even if its one that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. A more challenging aspect of Daenerys’ story is the white ethnocentrism. A pure-white virginal maiden is defiled by the darker-complexioned barbarian king, played by actor Jason Momoa (of Hawaiian and Native American descent). In an earlier scene, Daenerys is shocked by the barbarism of the Dothraki, their primitive ways exposed to her at a violent orgy. (Here, we see the only women of color so far in the series.) A big part of Daenerys’ journey is dealing with the “primitive Other” without losing face.

Not cool.

Like most stories which fall under the fantasy genre, Game of Thrones excludes people of any color except white- and even worse, when they are included they’re depicted as vulgar and uncivilized. They’re also “extras” within the white patriarchal narrative. Daenerys, even if she is a woman, is still the Dothraki’s white savior.

Barring that, I do think Game of Thrones is a positive television show for women, because it creates an imaginary space where we can explores women’s roles in a deeply patriarchal society- and also examine how it reflects our own experiences in a culture that still isn’t totally egalitarian. Even more importantly, female characters in the Game of Thrones have found a place of empowerment in a system that oppresses them- and so can we. We can be an Arya, who from an early age recognizes that she can do anything a boy can. We can be a Daenerys, who finds the inner strength to withstand an unfathomably lonely place, and protect those who are even more oppressed. We can even be a Sansa, whose innocence is shattered by other people’s evil, and takes up the burden of rectifying the injustice.

Let’s just not be a Cersei, okay?

Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.

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15 responses to “Ladies Watch the Throne: A Feminist Examination of Characters on Game of Thrones

  1. Surprised you think that Cersei is being Abused by Jaime. Seriously, where are you getting that? (odd to say that the incestual relationship is the most consensual, but…)
    new season is doing stuff to counteract the whole “dark==savage” meme

  2. Let me make something clear: Dany is not white. In the books she has violet eyes. And she has silver hair. She belongs to her own fictional race, the one that the Targeryan belong to.

    • The violet eyes and silver hair have nothing to do with her race. They’re recessive traits caused by generations of inbreeding practiced by the Targaryens.

    • It’s fairly obvious though that the Targaryens are white, maybe even historical stand ins for Indo-Europeans? I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the obvious parallels between the Targaryen conquest and the Norman conquest and the racial and cultural issues that lie there. However, I think it’s clear that Valyrians are white people. No one in GoT is European, so we have to accept different ideas of what Whiteness is in a fictional landscape, but I think a solid working idea in this context would be that Whiteness is a result of proximity to Westeros.

  3. It is interesting, and kind of proves the point, that in this adaptation she is portrayed as pale skinned, blonde haired and blue-eyed. Quite, quite different from silver haired and violet eyed. It couldn’t have really pushed the make-up team too far to have created a more accurate look. Surely it’s bad enough that it’s racist without spooning in a dollop of our own western stereotypes?

    • It’s fairly obvious though that the Targaryens are white, maybe even historical stand ins for Indo-Europeans? I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the obvious parallels between the Targaryen conquest and the Norman conquest and the racial and cultural issues that lie there. However, I think it’s clear that Valyrians are white people. No one in GoT is European, so we have to accept different ideas of what Whiteness is in a fictional landscape, but I think a solid working idea in this context would be that Whiteness is a result of proximity to Westeros.

    • I’m sorry I don’t understand, why do you think Game of Thrones is racist? can you come up with some examples please.

  4. Since the second season concluded a while ago, do you have any thoughts on how Cersei or Daenerys have changed with respect to a feminist reading of the show? I don think the white savior thing has changed (and it has not really changed in the books either, though there is a bit more criticism for it there) but there’s the part where she is trying to get her dragons back and says “I am Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen and I will take what is mine. With Fire and Blood I will take it.” And I was like, “oh shit, this is maybe the most powerful and commanding character in the series at this point.” She owns her power, and it is hers.

    Two more things:
    Any thoughts on Osha (the wildling woman) or Yarra (Theon’s sister)?

    A point of information, in the books, Daenerys wasn’t raped by Drogo, the sex was apparently consensual. The show depicted it otherwise. It still doesn’t change the fact that she was basically sold by her brother.

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  7. I don’t think the show was portraying the non-white characters any worse than the white characters.

    Dany’s brother (white skin, blonde) emotionally and physically abused her (even the first scene between them is molestation), traded her for an army, said he’d let her get raped by 40,000 men and their horses if it got him what he wanted, and threatened to murder her and her baby.

    Joffrey (white skin, blonde) and his lies led to an innocent boy being executed *and Lady*, he had Ned Stark beheaded, forced Sansa to stay with him knowing she now finally saw the real him and hated it, forced her to stare at her father’s severed head on a pike, ordered a man’s tongue chopped off, and brought about a war that cost thousands of lives just so he could be king now instead of in a couple of years.

    Jaime shoved10 year old Bran out a window and smiled while doing it. And then there was what the Lannister father did when he found out that Tyrion married a prostitute.

    While Cersei was teaching her son to be ruthless, she did not count on him being blindly bloodthirsty. She was surprised when he ordered Ned executed. She was all about subterfuge and playing the game while Joffrey was a worse version of Viserys.

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