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.
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.
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.