Women in Game of Thrones


As promised in my last post, today I would like to focus on the attitude towards women in Game of Thrones.  I have recently finished reading the novel, so this will focus on the attitude towards women in the book and what a fantasy writer could learn from this.
“You are a woman, my lady,” the Greatjon rumbled in his deep voice.  “Women do not understand these things.”
The attitude towards women in Game of Thrones, as with life, is complex.  On a base level, they are not worth much.  Even the high born women are nothing but mothers, although they may be dressed as queens.  Throughout the novel, Eddard and Catelyn both think about returning to Winterfell and birthing another boy.  This emphasises the importance of giving the world sons, despite having already had three.  And what will become of these sons?  The eldest, Robb, will inherit Winterfell and his brothers, Bran and Rickon will become his bannermen.  Sons are required to spread across the land and pledge allegiance to their blood.  What of their daughters?  The only thing that Sansa and Ayra have to look forward to is becoming wives and mothers.  At least Eddard hopes to marry Sansa off to someone good and kind, although love is not mentioned.
High born daughters are effectively sold into other high born families to create allegiances and maybe help their father gain access to power.  If they’re lucky, love will bloom from the arrangement.
The view of women among the Dothraki is similar.  The Khaleesi, despite being a princess, cannot give orders or lead her own khalasar.  The men are the warriors and leaders, however I find it very interesting that Dothraki women are expected to ride their horses up until the moment they give birth.  This may just reflect the importance of the horse in their society or an ignorance in men, but it may suggest that they perceive women to be strong.  Strong enough to ride their horse despite having an uncomfortable, huge belly and this image of strength has to be maintained.  For example, Daenerys continues to ride her horse in front of the men for as long as possible, but away from Khal Drogo, she is carried, which is much more comfortable.
 
Prostitution is riff in fantasy’s such as this.  Kings Landing is filled with brothels and young girls, boys and women are sent to work there.  Maidens, or virgins, are highly prized by many men who use the brothels.  Although they are using women who have sex for a living, they want them pure and untouched.  Never mind that these girls will be young and scared and possibly entirely unprepared.  These maidens are often impregnated and left.  This serves to show the reader what kind of man they are reading about and is used frequently in fantasy.  One example that springs to mind is an episode of Firefly.  The use of prostitution reinforces the idea that men have a low opinion of women – they are viewed explicitly as sex objects or mothers, but also speaks volumes about the men.  In some cases it shows the men for the vile beings they are, in others, for example King Robert, it can serve to show the loss they have suffered and their coping mechanisms.
Then there is Tyrion, who fell in love with and married a prostitute in his youth and then meets and falls in love with prostitute Shae.  Again, this speaks volumes about his character and could be linked to his childhood and the way he has been shunned by his family and society, maybe he feels he has something in common with these women, perfectly justified in their existence but frowned upon.
Sex positions should also be noted.  The most common position in Game of Thrones is the man taking the woman from behind.  This is generally seen as a disrespectful position and is often one used when having sex with slaves, which is mentioned in the Game of Thrones series.  However, in the novel, the only people to truly practise this position is the Dothraki.  This is the position that stallions use to mount mares and so this is the position that Dothraki men use to mount their women.  The position of the slave is not mentioned and the only change is when Daenerys takes control to conceive their child under the stars.
All of this does not mean that the good men are not gentle or that love does not exist.  Of course they are and of course it does.  What it does mean is that the men severely underestimate women, as they have done throughout our history.
I cannot think of one truly weak female character in Game of Thrones.  Even Lysa Tully is strong in her determination to keep her son safe, despite her madness. 
What do we mean by strong women?  What makes a woman in fiction strong?  To me, a strong woman is one who survives, who knows her own mind, who can take charge when needed but is intelligent enough to know when to back off. 
Cersei Lannister plays the Game of Thrones as only a woman can: through men.  She quietly arranges the court and people live and die by her hand, all under the guise of the king, or ‘natural causes’.  That is until Joffrey is crowned, then her strength wavers as she begins to lose control.  Catelyn Stark is a family woman and that is where her strength lies.  She will stand tall and enter war to avenge the atrocities against her family and save her daughters.  Ayra is rebellious and stubborn, quick and clever.  Sansa is a true lady and grows up quickly when Joffrey betrays her, she turns on him and quickly realises that the only way to survive is to play by Joffrey’s rules.  Daenerys – the wonderful Daenerys – is sold as a wife, falls in love, loses her child and husband and turns the Dothraki culture on its head by becoming the first female ruler of a khalasar, albeit one of old men, women and children.  She is the blood of the dragon and not afraid to inflict pain or kill.  A barrier has gone up since she lost everything and has left a bloody-minded determination which not only makes her strong but also an enjoyable character to watch/read (can you guess who my favourite character is?).
So what can a fantasy writer learn from George R. R. Martin’s amazing work?  Everyone loves a strong woman, these days it is a necessity in a fantasy story.  What makes the women in Game of Thrones sparkle is the complexity of the world in which they are set.  The cultural expectations, the oppressive male opinion and the reality all working together beautifully to allow each character to come into their own.  Every culture in the world has this level of complexity with regards to sex and gender.  It is this complexity that makes the story plausible and every fantasy story must be rooted in reality in order to keep the reader turning the pages.
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