The HBO hit series Game of Thrones has a complicated relationship with feminism and the idea of gender equality at the best of times. Part of this stems from its lack of shyness in portraying the harsh and dark conditions of its medieval-inspired world of Westeros.
If it were just the brutality of the world the characters inhabit that was the problem, matters would not be anywhere near as complex. However, things are complicated. As is the case with anything in the show, it is because of the characters that wicked webs are woven.
First, we should dismiss the quip-ish, slogan-like feminism embodied by Lyanna Mormont and Daenerys Targaryen. Both seem excellent examples of feminism on the surface but are flawed in deeper analysis. In particular, both are considered equal due to factors they had no hand in creating.
The first mistake some people make is in interpreting Cersei Lannister (technically, it’s Cersei Baratheon) as a feminist icon.
Yes, she does secure a position of authority for herself, shattering the glass ceiling that hovered over her for multiple seasons. Yes, she becomes Queen in her own right and head of House Lannister in all but name.
Cersei is also a mass murderer, an incestuous adulteress, and all-around unfit to rule. If she is to be taken as a feminist icon, it says the message that any woman seeking equality has to do it through means that involve anything but earning her place at the table.
Some point to Ellaria Sand, who rose to power by assassinating Doran Martell.
The assassination was part of a plan to avenge her lover Oberyn, Doran’s brother. A brother who was killed by actions instigated by the Lannister family. Why that plan involves killing off Oberyn’s family remains without a satisfactory explanation.
This same revenge plan included killing Myrcella Baratheon, Cersei’s daughter. The fact that this dishonours Oberyn’s memory – “We do not hurt little girls in Dorne,” he once said with pride – is not brought up.
Some point out she is smashing the patriarchy and taking a position of authority from someone who holds it only because he is male. These people are missing the point that Ellaria’s arc is an obsession with revenge that is misdirected and ineffective.
She is as incompetent as Cersei.
More often overlooked is Olenna Tyrell, particularly early on in her appearances.
The curmudgeonly old lady took no sass from anyone. She spoke to and played the game as equals with Tywin Lannister and Petyr Baelish, two of the most dangerous schemers and masterminds in the show. She displayed incredible wit, independence, practicality, and wisdom.
In other words, Olenna Tyrell is an excellent character. It just so happens that she’s female. Yes, she’s an old woman. Yes, she didn’t have as dramatic an ascension to power over her house as Cersei. However, she displays just as much competence as the men and commands respect.
In a similar vein, her granddaughter Margaery Tyrell seemed to set up to follow the same path. It is a softer path, a less bombastic path, but one that requires more competence and grace. Unfortunately, we do not get to see her progress as she was blown to bits by Cersei’s ascension.