Femme Fatale: The Power of Women in “Game of Thrones”


SPOILER ALERT: This assessment includes all five books and up through Season Three of the HBO series so if you’re not caught up, hold off on reading this.

The picture above holds some pretty powerful characters in its midst.  For all the grievances I have against George R.R. Martin for his compulsion to kill off good characters, I’d be a fool not to admit that the man can create some striking and remarkable female roles.  Many of these women are polar opposites of one another, while others, who seem to be different, are very alike under their exterior.  Martin has created some of the most complex and sometimes cruel females I’ve experienced in fantasy literature.  Even the softer and less dominating personalities stand out in this series and I am quite glad I got into these books, and then the HBO show, because the women alone are well worth the read/view.

First there is everyone’s favorite Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen.  She (and Jon Snow) are my favorite characters for the same reason.  They both start as mere children and grow into fearless leaders.  They start at the bottom, work their way up, make enemies along the way, but ultimately earn the respect of their peers; for Jon this is his brothers on the Wall and for Dany it begins as the Dothraki and continues through every city she conquers.  Yes, Dany has the benefit of having three of the coolest fantasy creatures ever imagined to help her along her road to power, but the dragons are only a small part of who she has become.  Her brother sold her to Dothraki horse lord to be used as a token of his own rise to power, but it was she who calmed Khal Drogo’s rage and introduced him to true love.  Her dismissal of Ser Jorah Mormont, someone who had watched her change and grow, was the ultimate flex of muscle for her and now the stage is set for her to return the House of Targaryen back to its former glory.

My favorite comparison (or contrast if you will) is between the characters of Catelyn Stark and Cersei Lannister.  On the surface these two women could not be more different, but in reality, they both share a strong and inseparable bonding love for their children, and it is that love which drives them to make the majority of their decisions throughout the series.  Cersei is a calculating, cruel, and cunning (no I won’t use the term that would alliteratively fit here, though some may call her such a term) woman caught up in the middle of a man’s world and the politics that go with it.  It wasn’t until very recently that people began to realize that women were capable of killing children and while Cersei would never raise a hand against her own children, you better think twice if you don’t think she’d hurt someone else’s.  In fact, someone else’s child whom she does bring harm to is Sansa Stark, daughter of the fierce Catelyn Stark.  Catelyn has suffered so much, since the first chapter of the first book, and has overcome, but there is only so much tragedy one can endure before cracking.  Catelyn nursed her crippled son who would never walk again, survived an assassin’s blade, watched her family split apart as Ned took the girls to King’s Landing, believed she had lost her two youngest sons to a traitor raised among them, and finally witnessed the murder of her firstborn just before her own death.  In the chaos of the Red Wedding, Catelyn proved that she could be as ruthless as Cersei Lannister when she slaughtered Frey sons before succumbing to the sword herself.  These two women are the anchors on which their families rely and they push Martin’s story forward in the North and at King’s Landing.

Speaking of opposites, take a look at Sansa and Arya Stark who could not be more different if they tried, though they were raised in the same household.  Arya is a little fighter and a fan favorite of the HBO show.  She refuses to let her gender stand in the way of her justice.  She watched her father die at the hand of Joffrey’s executioner in his deceitful betrayal to Sansa.  Arya has more than proved that she can adapt to any environment and has changed identities just as often as she’s changed locations.  Sansa on the other hand, is trapped at King’s Landing.  This character has received harsh criticism from the viewers of the show and at one time I was apart of them but I have since changed my mind.  Sansa is probably the character with which I can most likely assimilate.  Sansa is young and naive and that, perhaps, is perceived by many as weakness, when in reality she is the most realistic and believable character in the series!  We all wish we could react like Arya, slip away and adapt to disappear or to be as cunning as Cersei and be powerful in addition to staying alive but for Sansa, it is all about survival.  Rebellion in her position is not easy or feasible.  The few people she has trusted up to this point have all betrayed her or been killed.  She is not a master in the game of thrones but as the saying goes, “In the game of thrones you win or you die;” Sansa might not be winning but she’s not dying either so long as she keeps her head above the water.

I do want to include briefly, though they are not pictured above, the Ashas, as I call them.  There is Asha of House Greyjoy (though she is known by another name in the HBO show) who fights to rule the Iron Islands and, although she loses out on this bid, still proves mightier than many of the men she with whom she contests.  Then there is Osha the wildling woman who accompanies Bran and Rickon on their journey north.  She and Ygritte, the wildling with whom Jon Snow shares a passionate affair, both know what lies beyond the Wall and those fighting for the Iron Throne in the south are the last thing on their minds.  In their world, women can fight; I would love to see Cersei don some armor and fight but we all know that won’t happen (which is where Joffrey gets his feminine spirit from). They are brutal and harsh but to be underestimated means certain death to those who do not fear them.

Melisandre is a very interesting character, though probably my least favorite.  She is a prime example of the damages of organized religion and cult practices and I think that was Martin’s intention.  I am convinced that Stannis Baratheon, no matter how great his claim to the Iron Throne, will not succeed because Martin wants to make a religious statement and my opinion on this matter is rather harsh though completely irrelevant to this topic.  On the point of Melisandre as a female character, she is no doubt a strong character though not without her flaws.  She has about as much power in Stannis’ court as Cersei has as queen regent.  She summons a dark magic which she claims to be for the Lord of Light and Stannis is bewitched by her sorcery, but for all her magical superiority she lacks commonplace wisdom.  The war in Westeros is for the Iron Throne and here she comes bringing up the God argument?  Quite frankly, it’s a bit ill-timed.  People are interested in surviving this war.  They don’t want to starve and they want to keep their children safe.  They want their crops and livestock to stop burning from raiders and pillagers.  Just as the last thing on the wildlings’ minds is who sits on the Throne, the people south of the Wall are focused on surviving who is sitting on the Throne at the moment and worrying about the “gods” in charge later. 

Margaery Tyrell is another feisty and steadfast woman.  She knows Joffrey is a monster and while she carries great sympathy for Sansa and does a great deal to protect her, she puts on the role of monster for herself in order to gain Joffrey’s loyalty.  It’s clever and she has proven that she can play the game of thrones on the same level as Cersei.  The two have gone back and forth to outwit one another.  There is only room for one of them at King Joffrey’s table.  It has been quite some time since I read A Feast for Crows so my memory on who got the better of who is a bit dusty but it was quite enjoyable to watch them have it out.  With Varys out of the picture (since the death of Tywin) I thought there would be a lack of intrigue without him around to stir it up but I was wrong.  Margaery can hold her own which is a family trait, I believe, and I can only imagine what the other Tyrells of Highgarden have planned.

This post ended up being longer than intended but the truth is I could have gone on even longer.  There is so much material here to cover because these characters are so complex.  In fact, Martin has created such an elaborate story that female characters aside, Game of Thrones is no quick discussion.  These ladies have more than proven themselves and they are some of my favorite personalities in not just the fantasy genre but in all literature.  For now, they have me willing to forgive Martin in his slaughter of fantastic characters…but just for the moment.

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