The Surging, Thrilling Power of Women on 'Game of Thrones'
To what is likely a good majority of its inhabitants, the worlds of Westeros and Essos are not exactly what you’d call ‘friendly’, or ‘forgiving’ to most of their inhabitants. Life, for those who aren’t lucky enough to be born into extreme privilege—and during some relatively stable period—instead aligns a lot more with Thomas Hobbes’ description of the lot of humankind while in a state of war: ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’
And women? Well, let’s just say that Cersei Lannister’s pithy, devastating insight to Oberyn Martell—‘Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls’—rings painfully true. Over the course of the show’s run we have seen girls and women subjected to the most horrifying and heinous punishment—oftentimes just because of their gender, and frequently (though not always) at the hands of men, or at the very least as a consequence of the societal machinery that men have put in place.
So now, charging headlong into season 7, it’s quite the thrilling, cathartic sight to finally get to see the surging power of women on Game of Thrones. It’s quite something that, after years of being trodden on and exploited we get to see these women standing up, straight-backed, staring defiantly ahead and taking what’s theirs. Sure, it’s not systemic—the patriarchal, feudal world order remains very much in play—but such is the nature of this medieval narrative. Individuals, at least, are rising up, righting the small injustices that are within their power to right.
And the best thing about it all is the sheer variety of individual female empowerment on show. After years of pieces being manoeuvred into place, those women now in a position to exercise their power and their agency are doing so in a number of interesting ways.
We have Cersei, a figure who, perhaps better than any other, exemplifies one of Game of Thrones’ greatest strengths: its deft playing with audience loyalty. Cersei is a murderous tyrant who after all these years has become an oddly sympathetic figure. A power-hungry monster who also happens to be fiercely loyal and protective of her children and family. She blew a crater in her city, murdering countless of souls—some completely innocent of any crime, real or imagined—and yet, after what we’ve seen her go through, we can’t help but think, ‘You go, girl. Well bloody done, you absolute terror.’ Episode one of season seven may finally be the tipping point for our sympathies, what with her seemingly callous dismissal of her last remaining child’s suicide—that she was the cause of—but nevertheless it is still a joy of sorts to see her stride around that room, a map of Westeros under her feet, each step marking leagues on its surface. Brutal, merciless power that is nothing to admire, and yet very much something to behold.
Then there is Sansa. Sansa, who has suffered so much under the hands of so many—including two of the worst sadists the Seven Kingdoms has surely ever produced—and who now has at long last returned home. Sansa who for so long remained innocent and naive in the face of untold horrors, and who now sits alongside her (sorta) brother at a King(inthenorth)’s table, counselling retribution, but willing to respect the right authority. Sansa who isn’t afraid to talk frankly with the King about her differing opinions on weighty matter, and who may well have one of Westeros’ greatest, most gifted schemers—and the army he commands—now wrapped around her little finger. Sansa’s power comes from deep within her; from the titanium spirit that has allowed her to remain unbowed and unbroken despite all the terror that has tried to destroy her. Now she speaks from experience, having returned from places no person should have to go.
Her little sister, Arya, has returned from a journey of her own. But whereas Sansa’s power now lies in diplomacy, Arya’s stems from a hidden blade, a poisoned chalice, and a mystically borrowed face. Where her (sorta) brother Jon half-avenged the Red Wedding on the open battlefield, Arya finished the job by candlelight. Arya is a girl becoming a woman whose fierce individualism, unshakeable sense of self, and—quite terrifying if understandable—bloodlust imbues her with a power unlike that of almost any character—male or female—on Game of Thrones. But in her encounter with the most wholesome band of Lannister soldiers ever, it’s shown to be deeper and more complicated than that. Arya is an avatar of vengeance who will stop at nothing to get back at those who wronged her and her family. The Lannisters are an integral part of that web of wronging, any soldiers that wear their colours an outgrowth of it, and yet there she sat, breaking bread with a group of them who happened to show her kindness. She eyed their weapons and you better believe she sized up the situation, but faced with simple humanity underneath team colours she softened, and joined them in a meal by their fire. Arya’s power might come from being able to draw blood from their foes without them ever seeing it coming, but it’s shown to be so much more thanks to her refusing to turn into a cold, mindless monster.
Meanwhile, touching down on the shores of Westeros after a lifetime in exile, power of a different sort yet: pure military might. A claim to the throne backed by fire and blood. Dany’s power has been a long time in building, and she has earned every ounce of it. Having seen her struggle and pull herself up by her (and her dragons’) bootstraps, we are on her side, and yet the power she wields does have a frightening side. She is driven by the sheer righteousness of her cause, at times seeming slightly blind to ideas of nuance or compromise, and with the kind of arsenal at her back, that could be a dangerous thing. Dany is no Cersei—despite her quite rigid nature she has shown compassion and understanding a good amount of times, even to her enemies—but there are parallels there that go deeper than using fire to destroy those who oppose them. Yes, Dany’s vowed to ‘break the wheel’, but it’s yet to be seen how much deeds will match words in the long run.
And then there is the Little Girl.
The Little Girl who embodies power thrust upon those who appear not yet ready to wield it, and who then shows that assumption to be a pile of presumptuous bollocks. The Little Girl who stands in a room full of grizzled, bearded Old Men. Men who would no doubt dismiss her in a second, both for her age and her gender. And yet there she stands, several feet shorter than the shortest among them, and yet towering above all and sundry. Lyanna Mormont, the Little Girl, is wisdom and warmth and loyalty and command. Lyanna Mormont is Power.
The girls and women of Game of Thrones are rising or have risen, and while the male-driven world they live in is still rife with injustice, they will wield what power they have to put right what they can, however they can. It’s thrilling to see.
h/t to Sandra for giving me the idea for this post
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