Once upon a time, ‘womens’ shows’ was a category of television considered with derision. Daytime soap operas, cooking shows, domestic dramas. Not high drama, full of swordfights, politics and intrigue. Not thoughtful, subtle dramas critiquing the past exploring the 1960’s advertising game.
Yet now, we have Mad Men and we have Game of Thrones.
(Spoilers for Game of Thrones‘ first season follow after the cut.)
I think few would argue either is specifically marketed to women; after all, Game of Thrones‘ first season was headlined by a man, and Mad Men spends much of its time ruminating on the crisis of manhood that started in the 1960’s. And yet, both are dominated by powerful, interesting female characters who provide as much, if not more, interest than the men. People are just as apt to discuss Peggy Olsen as Don Draper, or Joan Harries (nee Holloway) as they are Pete Campbell. And while Mad Men aptly balances its men and women, I’d argue that Game of Thrones, as of the end of its first season, is totally dominated by its lady characters.
In the same way Mad Men skewers sexism in the 1960’s, Game of Thrones uses fantasy trappings to do the same to the medieval ages. While they are in a world of Seven Gods, dragons and ancient magics, they are also in a world where marriage is a tool for allyship, jockeying for the throne is constant, and lives are brutish and short. And just as Peggy Olsen and Joan Holloway broke out into the scene in Mad Men‘s first season, the strongest characters in Game of Thrones‘ first season play similar roles.
Sansa Stark, the preteen daughter of ostensible lead Eddard Stark, is a great example. At first shown to be a ‘silly’ girl who moons over a crush and loves her needlework, she spends the series’ first season learning a long string of hard lessons. Her beloved father is imprisoned and, despite being promised mercy, killed by those she believed to be her allies. The boy she idolizes is revealed to be a callous, vicious dictator who refuses mercy for her own father. She is forced to question the morality of everyone in her life. She is so changed that, by the finale, she is tempted to murder her ‘beloved’. Whether in revenge for her father’s death, or to protect Westeros from his poisonous leadership, is never said explicitly, but both could have easily passed through her mind.
Cersei Lannister, the queen of the kingdom and the true power behind the throne, is complex and dangerous. Hours after having Ned Stark’s young son thrown from the top of a tower to protect her secrets, she commiserates with Catelyn over the trials of mo0therhood. In the midst of plots to unseat her husband in favour of her brash son by another man, she shares conversations with him about their problematic relationship. She shows vulnerability as she admits she once held him in high esteem, before realising he felt nothing for her but disinterest and, later, contempt. Her entire life’s work has been to rise above the limits of womanhood in this world, and in doing so has become terrifying
Daenerys Targaryen begins the series as a quiet young woman, following her abusive brother’s demands without a word. Through her marriage to Khal Drogo, she begins to build up the strength she never had, allowing her to shed her odious brother and pursue the taking of the Seven Kingdoms as her own destiny. She accepts her own strength – and weakness, as her naivete and her desperation to save her love leaves both her husband and unborn child dead. Unlike Cersei, who holds power through her thrall over the men in her life, Daenerys is the sole female contender for the throne in the series, and goes through a journey to womanhood much like Sansa – and comparable to the ‘coming of age’ stories fantasy typically reserves for young men.
Even those pushed into more supporting roles, such as strong-willed mother Catelyn Stark and boyish Arya Stark, are colourful explorations of what it’s like to be a woman in this world. Every scene with them is tangled up in that reality, and made all the more complex by it. And, as a result, they are almost by default more interesting than any of the male players in this world.
This isn’t entirely true for all comers. Characters like Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow also inhabit complex places in this world, and each has a specific way of interacting with it; one by living for what sarcastic joys he can, one by spending his days in a haze of angst. And the veritable whirlwind of male characters in the series do have interesting stories, from Jaime Lannister’s complex romance with his twin sister, to Ned Stark’s doomed attempt to divide the Lannisters from the throne, to Robb Stark’s ascension to King of the North. But there’s something simply less compelling about them. There is a lot of seriousness to them, a lot of sober-minded warmongering that gives them a blanket sameness underneath their otherwise interesting personalities. And some don’t seem to have nearly as rich inner lives as the women. Unlike the series’ very diverse range of ladies and young women, only a handful of male characters have a spark to them: Tyrion’s sardonic approach to the world, Jaime Lannister’s arrogance and wit, Sam Tarly’s earnest pathetic nature, Littlefinger’s sly smiles and double entendres. Beyond these, the Stark men (who make up most of our cast) and the rest of the prominent men pale to their female counterparts.
Women are, in my experience watching, are most of the characters who experience obvious character arcs (development from A to B over the course of the season), have dialogues with other characters with greater emotional complexity, and are ultimately more interesting than the male characters of the series because of these things. I find the men are more typically agents of the plot than of their characters; either because they have little definable character (like Robb Stark), or because their developments stem from the decisions of female characters around them (like the death of Robert Baratheon) or to service the female characters around them (such as Viserys Targaryen and Khal Drogo).
Compare Robb Stark largely becoming king by accident to Sansa being forced to look upon her father’s decpatitated head and, in doing so, beginning to grow a spine.
Compare Bran, who doesn’t have anything near a distinct character arc, to Arya’s development towards becoming a warrior.
Compare Jaime, who spends much of the season on the edge of the narrative and on the same emotional note, to Cersei, whose scenes with Robert Baratheon, Catelyn Stark, Ned and Joffrey explore a whole range of emotional beats.
Compare Ned Stark’s development to Daenerys’; Ned goes through a plot (discovering the illegitimacy of Joffrey), Daenerys goes through an arc – slowly developing the strength to lead, and ultimately matching that arc with a realisation of her own naivete that threatens her ability to do so.S
o, I understand that Game of Thrones may be considered a ‘man’s show’, in how it would be historically be considered – swords and dragons are the signs of high fantasy, long a bastion of maleness. But Game of Thrones is also a place where women, if not able to wield the power of men, are able to dominate the narrative and prove they are just as interesting – if not more – in this fantastical world.
This article is about the television series. Discussion about what happens beyond the first book in the series – or anything else that would spoil the television show – will not be posted.