The Women of “Game of Thrones”: A Study on Gender Roles
The medieval-inspired society in which Game of Thrones takes place is generally viewed as misogynistic in the way that it’s structured. Land and titles are only passed down through the males in a bloodline whereas the females are essentially married off as an act of political gain or a peace pact. Women are meant to wear long flowing dresses, look beautiful, bare children, and defer to their husbands on almost all matters. The interesting thing is that in this wonderfully rich world crafted by George RR Martin, a large amount of these women go against these expectations. And they don’t just go against expectations in one clearly defined way across the board, but they defy them in a multitude of different ways which is both refreshing and incredibly realistic. All women aren’t the same. They have different strengths and weaknesses and motivations. In this article I’ve compiled a list of all the women that I feel go against the grain of society and highlight their own individuals strengths and weaknesses.
This article is generally spoiler free. Any references to the books are vague and intentionally truncated to allow show-only fans to enjoy the article. Please warn for spoilers in the comments.
Gender Non-conforming Women
The first batch of women I want to highlight go against the grain in a very visually obvious way. They don’t wear the long flowing dresses. They don’t marry for political gain or to make some sort of pact with a powerful family. They just don’t fit expectations in any way and their defiance is incredibly obvious.
Yara (named Asha in the books) is typically not included on these types of lists. Perhaps it’s because she’s on the “wrong” side of things for most of the series (debatable) or maybe it’s because her introduction scene was her basically fooling her brother into fingering her on a horse. Yeah, that was a bit much, I agree, but that shouldn’t exclude her from being respected for just how incredible she is. I feel like Yara gets the short end of the stick in Game of Thrones TV show fandom in a lot of ways. She’s either ignored or actively disliked, but she’s actually kind of amazing and deserves to be on “strong women of GoT” lists way more often.
Not only is Yara in a society that is generally misogynistic, but she’s in what is probably one of the most misogynistic regions of that world. She’s from the Iron Islands. Can you name one other female character from the Iron Islands? If you’ve read the book you might be able to name one or two others, but they never really did much so they aren’t memorable. They certainly didn’t play important enough parts in the plot to get carried over onto the show. She’s essentially taken her brother’s place as heir to the Iron Islands (be quiet, book readers, and lets not spoil the show-only fans here) and has dozens of burly, gruff, murderous men pledging loyalty to her.
When her brother, the actual heir of the islands, comes back these burly men don’t flock to him simply because of his gender. They stick with her. They respect her. They defer to her. Yara Greyjoy is capable, smart, strong, and deserving of mass amounts of respect for getting to where she is at this point in the story.
Arya is introduced as a tomboy right off the bat. She’s better at archery than her brothers. She wears helmets. She loves swordplay. Thankfully she was born in the North and is the daughter of Ned Stark, who seems perfectly willing to foster her interests even though they go against feminine expectations. When she loses her father she uses her tomboyish nature to pass as a boy while heading to the Wall to escape King’s Landing. Very little in her personality had to change in order for her to do this. She pretty much just had to sneak off and pee in the woods to avoid her ruse being exposed. That was the only possible problem, really. Besides that she fit in with the boys pretty seamlessly.
As the story progresses and Arya finds herself alone again and again as the result of terrible circumstance after terrible circumstance, she uses her strength and unrelenting determination to keep her head above water. In a world where she is expected to be married off to some Lord or Prince (and, indeed, she was almost married off at one point), she defies it all to fight on behalf of her family. Her desire to fight for the Stark name is so extreme that other characters are constantly stopping her from doing too much too soon and getting herself killed. Yoren prevents her from storming the Sept of Baelor to rescue her father and the Hound stops her from entering the battle at the Red Wedding to save her mother, brother, and Stark bannermen. Her enthusiasm to wage battle on behalf of her family is her most defining strength, though her ability to regulate when she should enter battle is a weakness that has everything to do with her age, not her gender.
Brienne of Tarth
When we are first introduced to Brienne we are led to believe that she is a man. It isn’t until she removes her helmet after the tournament that it’s revealed that she’s a woman. She’s taller than most men, physically stronger than most men, and can beat most men in battle. The only man she can’t beat one on one is Jaime, though in the show their battle was cut short before that could actually be proven. In the books it very much seems to tip in her favor.
The male characters are constantly picking on Brienne about her manly appearance, indicating that this type of gender defiance is incredibly unusual in this society and not seen in a positive light. Unlike Arya, though, Brienne isn’t trying to pass as a man. She has masculine traits, participates in men’s activities, and is often initially mistaken as a man, but she never actively tries to pass as the opposite gender. She is Brienne of Tarth and she can kick your ass.
Most of the Wildling women are pretty badass, but in some of the scenes we do get hints that not all of them as as gender non-conforming as Ygritte. Some wear long skirts and cook supper and all those traditional things that are typically associated with being a woman in a setting such as this, but Ygritte is a warrior. She travels in groups of mostly men, puts herself in peril, and fights for her cause.
The Wildlings seem more accepting of gender defiance than the rest of Westeros. There are tons of Wildling tribes, though, and we really only learn about the cultures of those we are introduced to through our protagonists. Given their circumstances, however, it’s doubtful that any of the tribes would actually relegate their women to traditionally feminine roles and forbid a woman from participating in activities that those south of the wall would see as “man’s work.” The Wildlings have no royalty, therefore women aren’t exactly seen as political marriage tools (though wildling men do have a habit of “stealing” women, but it’s ultimately the woman’s choice on if she stays). The living conditions north of the wall are harsh, so anyone who is able bodied enough to help out in any way is an asset. Why deny a woman who is willing to help raid south of the wall just because of her gender? Hell, they even have a name. They’re called “spearwives.”
Being “strong” doesn’t mean you have to always step away from being feminine. There are many women in the Game of Thrones universe who exhibit feminine traits and still participate in the play for power that is such an incredibly male dominated game. This next list of women do just that. They don’t defy the gender norms with their appearance, but they play the Game of Thrones just as hard as any man does.
It’s no surprise that Daenerys is my pick for the Iron Throne. In fact, I outlined it all in a previous article. She began as a girl being married off as a political ploy for an army, but she’s evolved so much further since her initial introduction. It began with her making the husband she was married to view her as an equal, which was no easy task considering that the Dothraki are a pretty male focused group of people. Women are essentially viewed as slaves or objects in most cases. There are a few rare exceptions. Despite this, Daenerys gains respect and power in a society that usually doesn’t afford such things to women, and gets a following who sticks with her even after her husband’s death.
Her achievements with the group of Dothraki is just the start of her journey. She leads them across the Red Waste to Qarth, where she plays politics with the Thirteen as though she’s been doing it all her life. Perhaps she’d watched her brother’s political games (though he clearly wasn’t very good at it) or perhaps she paid close attention to stories from her ancestors. Maybe the ability to lead people and navigate political battlegrounds is deeply ingrained in her blood as a Targaryen. Whatever the cause, she is incredibly politically savvy.
What happens in Qarth is very different between the show and the books, but the end result is the same. She leaves Qarth and heads towards Slaver’s Bay with ships, followers, and growing dragons at her disposal.
What happened in Astapor is something Game of Thrones/ASOIAF fans won’t soon forget. It was perhaps her best display of political prowess. Kraznys severely underestimates her, using misogynistic terms to belittle her when he thinks she is unable to understand him. She uses her perceived weakness to her advantage and destroys Astapor with the army she bought from their very own slaver’s market. This comes as a surprise not only to the Astapori, but to her political advisors as well. Even they were beginning to doubt that she was making the right decisions, but she proved everyone wrong. Daenerys ends up walking away from Astapor with an army of ten thousand soldiers willing to lay their lives on the line for the woman who freed them from lives of slavery.
From this point on word begins to spread that Daenerys is a force to be reckoned with. She is powerful, strong, and determined.
Margaery Tyrell (or all of House Tyrell, really)
The entirety of House Tyrell is filled with incredibly strong women, but Margaery is at the forefront due to her role as Joffrey Baratheon’s betrothed. She’s to be Queen someday, and is therefore the member of House Tyrell that gets the most attention. Lady Olenna’s presence in King’s Landing shows where she gets her strength from. In fact, Lady Olenna is often keen to point out just how worthless the men of House Tyrell actually are, leading us to believe that the House is essentially ruled by the women. She goes as far as calling Margaery’s father a “fathead,” which is honestly one of my favorite lines to spill from that fabulous woman’s lips. And that’s saying something because Lady Olenna’s dialogue is pretty much pure gold.
At first glance, Margaery appears to be a woman who is being married off for political gain for her House, but when it’s been proven that her House is so very female focused the whole affair becomes a lot more complex. Granted, her marriage to the King will be very good for her House, but Margaey’s ambitions to be the Queen are incredibly important to her as an individual as well. Margaery craves power for herself as much as she craves it for her House. She’s not going to be a demure Queen who defers to her husband. She’s active in building a reputation among the people of King’s Landing to cement herself as someone the people trust, love, and would want to rally around. When she has the support of the people, nothing can tear her down.
Her ability to wrap Joffrey around her finger is also admirable. She manages to feed into his vicious nature in private while still maintaining the giving, lovable persona in public. She doesn’t actually participate in the sadism that makes Joffrey unforgivably evil, but she gives in just enough to make Joffrey trust her. Overall, I support her efforts even though she’s not my ultimate end game personally. Having Margaery sit upon the Iron Throne is miles better than having the Lannisters there. At least the Tyrells are nice to the common folk, even if that niceness might just be a front to rally the people to their cause.
Some people might be surprised to see Cersei on the list. She is, after all, one of the biggest antagonists of the show. She’s essentially responsible for Ned Stark’s death. Even though she urged Joffrey to let him live out his life at the Wall, she was still responsible for him getting arrested in the first place. So Cersei is definitely not on my favorites list for those two things alone. But you know what? She still deserves a spot on this list. She’s playing the Game and she’s playing it well. While one of her brothers gave up his inheritance to join the King’s Guard and the other is essentially a black sheep of the family due to his stature and penchant for prostitutes, she works tirelessly to further to Lannister name and secure their spot in a position of power. Of course I don’t want the Lannisters in power, but that’s irrelevant really.
Cersei laments about what life would be like if she’d been born a boy. She’d have been given all the lands and titles she craved and would have never been married off to Robert Baratheon as a political pact. Things may have gone much differently during Robert’s Rebellion if she’d been a man. There might not have been any incentive for the Lannisters to join in the rebellion without getting a high level political spot in King’s Landing. Cersei would have been heir to Casterly Rock, though, and she may have very well been happy with that position. Even without sitting directly on the Iron Throne, the Lannisters had an enormous amount of political pull under the Targaryens. It’s hard to tell if that would have been enough for Cersei, but at least she wouldn’t have to settle for being a political tool. There’s no doubt that Cersei resents her marriage greatly, even if she does enjoy the power that comes with being placed directly in King’s Landing.
Cersei’s weakness comes not from her gender, but from her lack of natural political savvy. She’s incredibly ambitious, strong willed, and determined, but she’s just not very good at politics. Much of the evidence to prove that she lacks political skill comes from the books, though, so in an effort to not spoil show-only readers I’ll leave the details on that statement vague for now. Her willingness to play the game is admirable, though, and her lack of skill in those games has nothing to do with her gender.
I have no doubt in my mind that Melisandre has almost complete control over Stannis Baratheon. Stannis is one of the most strong willed, stubborn, and focused characters in the series, but Melisandre has managed to wrap him around her finger and use him for her own purposes. Melisandre’s play is a little different from most. It’s not the Iron Throne that she’s after, but rather a deeply religious and spiritual cause that she feels Stannis has a part in. The fact that the object of her religious goals is involved in a war means that she has to play politics alongside men, though, and she manages to hold her own in a playing field dominated by men.
Even fellow spiritual leaders tend to be men. The dominant religion in Westeros is structured with men at the head and women in supporting roles, but worshipers of the Lord of Light accept a woman as their spiritual leader easily. In this sense the Faith of the Seven is structured like the Catholic Church where worshipers of the R’hllor more closely resemble pagan religions where gender is a bit more equal when it comes to leadership (or where women are even dominant, as is the case with several modern pagan sects). Like many branches of paganism, however, worshipers of R’hllor are often deemed a cult. Melisandre is sure of herself and her cause, however, and doesn’t let the men around her shake her faith.
The Unassuming Ones
Up to this point in the list we’ve discussed women who have defied their gender roles in some form or another, but that’s not the only definition of “strength.” You don’t have to compete in male dominated fields to be strong. Mothers can be strong. Wives can be strong. Women who want to be these roles can be strong. Strength means being able to stand up to the challenges thrown at you. If you do so in a way that is traditionally feminine and fits into the gender role outlined for you by society, that does not mean that you are somehow weak or less important. Categorizing these women as weak is a disservice.
Sansa? Strong?! Oh my yes. In fact I’ve defended her rather extensively in my article In Defense of Sansa Stark. To put it simply, much of the criticism leveled at Sansa is rooted in her early idealistic outlook on her circumstances, but when everything goes south for her, her true strength begins to shine through. Her early idealism can be attributed to her age and her naivety about how vicious politics can be. When she witnesses her father’s beheading, her world comes crashing down around her. She learns that being Joffrey’s Queen won’t be some beautiful fantasy. She learns that attempts at playing politics don’t always work and that trusting people can be pretty dangerous.
One of the best examples of her playing her own game comes at the Battle of Blackwater. She attempts to manipulate Joffrey into fighting in the vanguard, which is the most dangerous place imaginable. This ploy isn’t some act of political defiance, but merely an attempt and getting the man who is keeping her captive killed. If Joffrey would have died in the vanguard there would have been far reaching political consequences, but her ploy was much smaller and much more personal. She wants her own freedom, a chance to be reunited with her family, and an escape from extremely dire circumstances.
Catelyn’s political plays revolve almost entirely around protecting her family. Her motivations seem to be less about upholding the honor of the North and more about keeping her husband, children, and her family back at Riverrun safe from harm. She acts as a guide to her son during much of the war, but she doesn’t attempt to gain power for herself. She’s smart and politically savvy, but she’s comfortable in the role of mother to the King of the North. She doesn’t need power. She draws her strength from her family, which is a trait that can be traced back to her roots as a Tully. House Tully’s words are Family, Duty, Honor; Catelyn takes these priorities to heart.
Many of her political moves in the early seasons are ploys to get her daughters back from the Lannisters. To many this is a sign of weakness. She is so focused on her family that she often neglects the larger political picture. She sends Jaime Lannister off to trade for her daughters, which leaves the Karstarks without their source of revenge and the Starks without their bargaining chip. When Robb Stark discovers this, she’s arrested. She could have cost them a war, which she doesn’t seem to deny, but she’s unapologetic about wanting her daughters back. She’d do anything to bring her family back together, including defying her own son. So while her political game is somewhat weak, her role as a mother is incredibly strong.
This list has been compiled before you’ve even met the Martells of Dorne. I’d tell you all about them, but, well, I’ve already discussed them at length before. It also borders on spoiler territory since we haven’t actually met them yet. You will, though. If you’re a fan of powerful women, you’re in for quite a treat.
So while Game of Thrones absolutely has misogynistic elements laced throughout the intricate world that’s been laid out before us, it’s also a treasure trove of women with diverse sets of strength and weaknesses. We have the tomboyish women who are blatantly bucking gender norms, the feminine but politically savvy women, and the unassuming mother and daughter. It’s an eclectic group of women that highlights that our gender can be incredibly strong in many different ways. Here in the real world women are strong in many different ways, too, so this diversity of traits adds a refreshingly realistic layer to this wonderfully intricate fantasy series.
Stephanie “Angel” Wilson is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and has essays published in Fandom Frontlines.
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