Game of Thrones AKA The Widow’s Revenge

I quite enjoy HBO’s Game of Thrones and after accounting for all the sex and violence have often wondered why I find it so entertaining; I’m not inclined toward the fantasy genre under normal circumstances and do not think I had read any of its productions before Game of Thrones. (That has changed; I have now read the first novel of George Martin‘s epic series).

Daniel Mendelsohn provides an answer of sorts, beginning with:

This has a great deal to do with the complex satisfactions of Martin’s novels, whose plots, characterization, and overall tone the series reproduces with remarkable fidelity—and whose mission is, if anything, to question and reformulate certain clichés of the fantasy/adventure genre about gender and power.

And concluding:

Whatever climax it may be leading to, however successfully it realizes its literary ambitions, George R.R. Martin’s magnum opus is a remarkable feminist epic.

Quite correctly, Mendelsohn’s central reason for regarding Game of Thrones as a ‘feminist epic’ is the position it accords to Daenerys Targaryen (and to a lesser extent to Arya Stark). Her struggle for power, wherein she will challenge men for the throne of the Seven Kingdoms is an often dominant plot line. She might be assisted by men, she might take advice from them, but she remains her own boss (and as Ser Jorah Mormont often finds out, she is not shy about letting him know this fact); all too often, she commands and rules them.  She is not shackled and dependent on male sexuality: 

The pubescent Dany…is no innocent: deprived of the attentions of her dead husband, she now and then accepts the ministrations of a teenaged handmaiden.

Mention of her dead husband, the Dothraki chieftain Khal Drogo, serves as a reminder that a crucial component in realizing Martin’s feminist vision in Game of Thrones is Daenerys’ status as a widow.

The widow, of course, is the archetypal weakened and destitute woman: she lacks a male guardian, protector, provider, and lover. She is incomplete in many ways. For instance, she lacks that which will realize her motherhood–her sole raison d’etre–a father for her children. From now on, she can only be a dependent, cast out to the not-so-tender mercies of other men, or the sympathies of her own family. The loss of her husband has marked her out as a singular unfortunate; the more superstitious might regard her as the bearer of misfortune for her husband, and seek to consign her to the margins of our world where she may infect us no more. Those women who know the standing of widows in a society like the Dothraki–and many of ours have approximated theirs in the past and sometimes even in the present–may find any inner resolve crumble when confronted with a fate as terrible as that which befell Khal Drogo. But not Daenerys Targaryen. Her mighty man–it is no coincidence that Martin made him the epitome of rugged, virile strength–is brought to his knees by a witch’s sorcery, but this loss, while tragic, does not detract her from her quest.

It is the refusal to embrace the Dothraki widow’s fate that makes Daenerys the strong woman that she is, and that allows Martin to give his epic a feminist hue.

6 thoughts on “Game of Thrones AKA The Widow’s Revenge

  1. I enjoy the TV series as well, and Daenerys Targaryen’s is my favorite storyline. The series does tend to objectify other women, though, so I’m not sure I would consider it feminist as a whole. Still, it’s nice that there is at least one strongly feminist character who regularly outsmarts men.

    1. LV: I had the novels more in mind than the series actually, which does, as you say, indulge in some objectification. But yes, even there, there are strong female characters that stand out.

  2. The question of whether or not Game of Thrones could be considered to have a feminist narrative is a complicated one. Without doubt, there is a lot of nudity, sex, objectification of women, etc. And in the HBO series especially, all the female characters, perhaps with the exception fo Aria, adhere to conventional notions of beauty and demonstrate healthy does of t&a.

    However, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to believe that the state of affairs for women in this era and this mystical world are not ideal. Our supposed enlightened state, where women are still viewed as sex symbol and still can’t make as much money as men reminds us that something that looks like medieval history may not be so far removed. What allows for the argument of a feminist narrative is the heroines that come out of the story, despite the state in which the majority of women find themselves.

    Daenarys is one such character, but not because she turns our idea of what a widow is supposed to be on its head, but because she reminds us of a sexy version of some of those archetypical women with power in history, such as Queen Elizabeth I, or Indira Gandhi. And Daenarys seems even a step above them, genuinely fighting for the rights of the underclass in society.

    Other hints of a feminist storyline emerge in the character of Aria, who from the start defies gender norms and makes a place for herself in a world traditionally inhabited by men. In this world, she appears truly genderless. And most suprising of all is the feminist undercurrent in the character of the Circei, who towards the end of the first season finally speaks up about how her gender has prevented her from rising higher in her father’s esteem.

    Anyway, clearly I am one of those swept up into the Game of Thrones craze, and thus the need for this justification.

  3. Mendelsohn’s piece captures so much about what’s great about the ASOIAF series. Thanks for sharing and adding your perspective. But it’s funny that he organizes it around its feminist themes without addressing the wealth of commentary out there suggesting that the series is actually anti-feminist.

    Of course, as Noor said, Westeros itself is deeply patriarchal and misogynistic, but Martin constantly problematizes that. Retweets do not equal endorsements. The show also often instrumentalizes women and children as canon fodder to arose our emotions, which has its pros and cons, I suppose. As for the sex, well, I think it’s pretty mostly pretty classy, and there are babes of both genders aplenty in this show. Even Tyrion and Brienne, who are supposed to be two of the ugliest people in the realm, are easier on the eyes than nearly anyone I’ve met IRL.

    Other critics I’ve read take issue with the fact that most of the women who transgress the patriarchy do so by adopting male trappings (e.g., Brienne, Arya, Asha). Then there’s also Cersei, who embodies everything that’s ignoble about the “lean in” school of “feminism”, and is to assertive women what Al Goldstein was to secular Jews.

    I think Mendelsohn would agree that such criticism is misguided, even reactionary. First, there are many powerful, feminine characters with unique and authentic voices. Not just Dany, but also Melisandre, Ygritte, Margery (the Princess Dianna of the fantasy realm), Lady Olenna (one of my faves), maybe even Sansa as she matures, and other lesser characters like Penny and Val (read on).

    Moreover, precisely what makes ASOIAF so damn good is that it simultaneously obscures all kinds of binaries (good/evil, masculine/feminine, fantasy/reality, honor/pragmatism, family/strangers), relentlessly highlights structural forms of privilege and oppression (gender, class, caste, station, physical handicaps, religion, even sexual orientation to some degree), and treats ordinary and extraordinary people alike as three dimensional individuals and agents, to a degree that is rare in fiction and probably unique to this genre.

    I could go on and on; suffice to say, this was a fun read and it’s nice to see people giving this series the literary treatment it deserves.

  4. I’m a big fan of the show too. But I feel like I have to comment on the following: Daenerys’ story arc has a bit of a “White Man’s Burden” flavor to it. (I spent some time here deciding between “White Man’s Burden” and “White Women’s Burden” here. Clearly the gender has changed from the traditional trope, and that’s a notable subversion).

    I get that her mission to abolish slavery fits in with her past (she was practically sold off by her brother). And we’re rooting for her as she moves closer to becoming a, just, ruler of Westeros. But something about a platinum-haired, blue eyed woman essentially forcing her moral views on all these “Eastern” lands (I’m guessing they’re inspired by the Middle-East and North Africa) is a bit uncomfortable. Look, I’m not advocating for slavery in some kind of moral relatavist terms either…but something does seem wrong here.

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