Screengrab via HBO

Why ‘Game of Thrones’ is still killing it when it comes to amazing female characters

Television's war on women has already been won, and the victor has dragons.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Published Feb 3, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 3:26 pm CDT

In case you missed it, the trailer for season five of Game of Thrones recently leaked online, and the Internet (including me) is having a collective shit fit over it. We’re talking scene-by-scene breakdowns and endless speculation—which, you’ll be thankful to know, I won’t subject you to. You can hit up eight gazillion sites for that stuff. 

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No, what I’m more interested in is how Game of Thrones handles women—and how it’s one of the strongest shows on cable for female characters. The women of the show are incredibly complicated, and while some might fall into the suspiciously narrow “strong female character” archetype, which seems to manifest as “acts like a man,” others explore different aspects of femininity—which is good, because strong female characters should be about balance, not about reinventing the wheel (but you better do that quick before Daenerys breaks it). 

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One thing to get out of the way: The women of Game of Thrones are much more complex and fully realized than those of the Song of Ice and Fire series (by the by, book six isn’t coming out this year, sorry friends). The show’s writers and producers made a smart move by expanding the female characters, beefing up their roles, bringing characters like Margaery out of the shadows, and giving them a much more assertive role in the TV version of the text. Given George R.R. Martin‘s support of and involvement with the show, I’ve love to see that coming out in future installments of the book series, too.  

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Fantasy too often takes the ridiculous task of oppressing women on the grounds that it’s “historically accurate.”

Let’s face it, Jon Snow isn’t the only dude who knows nothing on this show, OK? The women basically run everything no matter what the guys think they know. So for that alone, Game of Thrones is a rather remarkable adaptation and a slap in the face of many entries in the fantasy genre, where women are often just tools used for plot advancement (usually with a side of rape, because, you know, why not?). Fantasy too often takes the ridiculous task of oppressing women on the grounds that it’s “historically accurate” (because fantasy is about history?) when it has great big dragons flying around and direwolves and who knows what else, so it rather stretches the grounds of believability that things needed to be “accurate.”

In Game of Thrones we have Daenerys Targaryen getting ready to rumble, after several seasons of kicking ass and taking names—the powerful warrior princess who definitely fits into the archetype of embodying masculinity as a “strong female character.” But at the same time, there’s more to it than that. She’s convinced that she belongs on the Iron Throne, but she also has an unexpected streak of compassion and a firm sense of what she believes is right and wrong. Even as she’s determined to take what she thinks is rightfully hers, she uses politics and other tools, not brute force, to do it. Arya Stark, too, is a warrior, though she’s still growing into herself and her journey is as much about revenge as it is about anything else, which is why she is my absolute favorite character of all time. (Tyrion is a close second.)

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Cersei Lannister is a brilliant schemer and highly talented politician, and I suppose some people might see her as the stereotypical scheming witch and the worst sort of female character, but it would be a mistake to treat her as such. She’s a really complicated woman who, in a lot of ways, was really mistreated, taken as little more than a pawn by the men around her, and figured out how to come out on top, and how to aggressively retain her position. Cersei might be nasty and cruel, but she’s that way for a reason.

Cersei might be nasty and cruel, but she’s that way for a reason.

But it’s Sansa Stark who particularly interests me, because a lot of people write her character off as some sort of weak, weepy princess who can’t get her act together. That’s a grave underestimation, because what Sansa does is brilliant, and unlike that of any other female character on the show: She adapts. She’s one of the most determinedly adaptable characters on Game of Thrones, and she’s focused on survival first and everything else second. That moment at the end of last season’s finale where she gave the camera the most disdainful of looks, that’s Sansa. Her character growth over the series has been really wonderful to watch, and I hope this is the season where everyone comes to love Sansa and recognize what a badass she is. 

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And these are just some of the most prominent women on Game of Thrones, which is honestly remarkable in and of itself. In a show with a huge ensemble cast that sprawls completely out of control, a large proportion of that cast is female. And many of those women are powerful characters who stand on their own and are powered by their own motivations and desires, rather than being the tools of the men who surround them. That’s remarkable, and so important to recognize when looking at the show. 

Game of Thrones is great for women because all of these characters represent such diverse expressions of human existence, as women and as people. And they’re all attempting to resolve the horrible situations they’re in by unique ways—Sansa adapts and flies under the radar, biding her time, while Daenerys musters loyalty and steamrollers with massive armies, and Arya prepares to wreak her own havoc. 

All of these characters represent such diverse expressions of human existence, as women and as people.

The statements that Game of Thrones make about women are sometimes difficult to piece together and dig out—let’s not kid ourselves, the show has its fair share of rape as plot device and violence against women—but it’s developing these women and taking them in fascinating directions. There’s a reason I conveniently “drop by” the houses of friends who have HBO when Game of Thrones is on—and why I’m excited that HBO Go‘s standalone online subscription service will be debuting just in time for the season five premiere. 

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Sophie Turner (Sansa) has been outspoken on the nature of Game of Thrones an adaptation of the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor era with a sharp feminist twist: “They can put in these really strong female characters who have a voice in the world, really empowered women who can say what they want.” 

Maisie Williams (Arya) has also been pretty vocal about the show and her experiences as an actress (and her surprise that it got so big). She’s also been open about her experiences being bullied and how those have been exacerbated with her fame. Those experiences definitely come through in the way she plays Arya, both in the sense that she brings the vengeance with, well, a vengeance, but also that as her character matures and her relationship to other people shifts, so does her approach to people who are trying to push her around. 

It pushes the boundaries of conventional representations of women in fantasy.

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Game of Thrones is amazing for women because it challenges notions about femininity, power, and control without being anti-feminine or suggesting that there’s only one way to be a strong female character. It’s great for women because it pushes the boundaries of conventional representations of women in fantasy. It’s great for women because people are just as likely to cite the women of the show as their favorite characters as they are the men—and this includes male viewers. It’s great for women because it would be easy to turn into a sausagefest, and the producers resisted that in favor of building up the female characters and making them a critical part of the narrative, which is a really empowering thing to see in an environment where the war on women is waiting for us long after we switch off the television. 

Photo via YouTube/HBO

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*First Published: Feb 3, 2015, 12:00 pm CST