It’s happened every season, but this year the criticism against how women are portrayed on Game of Thrones has ratcheted up. While much of the ire has been focused on violence against women, I’d argue that an even larger problem is that the show believes that the most important characteristic of a woman is their physical attractiveness (and that’s not to minimize the violence issue).
Characters on Game of Thrones derive their strength from one or more of the following three characteristics: shrewdness, physical strength, and beauty. (There’s a forth rogue characteristic, honor which works in the short term but ultimately gets people killed).
Among the primary female characters only beauty and strength are utilized, and for most of the characters it’s just beauty.
Now I’m sure that some people are saying, “what about Olenna Tyrell,” but she’s not a primary character. The show (and books) follow the stories of Daenerys, Cersei, Sansa, Arya, and Brienne. Olenna is simply a supporting character.
And, out of all of the female characters on the show, she’s the only one capable of any kind of Sun Tzu Jujutsu, where as there are many men who lack strength and beauty but make up for it with shrewdness: Tyrion, Littlefinger, Varys, Tywin, and Sam.
The one primary female character that does attempt to hatch Machiavellian schemes is Cersei, but they tend to blow up in her face. Women, apparently, aren’t cutout for the game of thrones.
One of the primary aspects of Game of Thrones that makes it so compelling and unique is that being a handsome knight doesn’t put you at the top of the food chain, which is normally the case in fantasy (e.g. Aragorn in Lord of the Rings). Everybody loves Tyrion because he inverts so many stereotypes. And yet, when it comes to women, the show is extremely conventional.
Think of it this way: there isn’t a female equivalent of Tyrion — someone who lacks strength and beauty but is still able to grab power with just their wits.
In fact, Game of Thrones plays to one of the worst Hollywood clichés: Most of the women on the show could get second jobs as models, while most of the men could not.
Further, beauty is the main way the women in the show advance their goals. Margaery and Cersei obviously seduce men; is there any doubt that Danyers would have gotten as far as she has if she looked like one of Walder Frey’s daughters?
Consider Margaery and Sansa.
Margaery is able to avoid abuse by men and grab power because uses her beauty to manipulate men. Whether intended or not, Sansa is so ineffectual because she doesn’t take advantage of her body. And, up until this point, she has been utterly witless.
Brienne and Arya are the outliers who rely on their physical prowess — and it’s because they are not considered beautiful. While I think they are among the most interesting characters on the show, it’s note worthy how little they’ve accomplished.
Brienne is kind of a major loser. She completely fails at being a King’s Guard — her king is murdered with her in the room — and on she’s been on a quest since Season 2 to rescue the Stark girls and both have refused her help (in fairness she does even less in the books despite having so many chapters devoted to her story). Similarly, Arya has set clearly defined goals for her self — her kill list — and she has yet to kill anyone on it.
This isn’t to say the measure of a well-written character is goal accomplishment, but the women rarely take decisive actions that impact the narrative of the show. The narrative is propelled by the actions men take. (The major exception is Cersei, but the outcome is rarely what she intends).
Let’s finally discuss Daenerys.
She’s the most self-assured primary female character, who is kicking ass and taking names. But, she relies on a brain trust of men who are constantly schooling her in her naiveté. She has all of the ingredients of being a good leader, but men have to mold her into leader. And, that’s a major storyline this year with bringing her together Tyrion — she’ll never be able to conquer Westeros unless she has the right man advising.
Let’s also remember that a cabal of men have essentially decided that Daenerys should be the ruler of Westeros — she is their vehicle to cast out the current leaders who they do not like. If the show and books won’t to do justice to the character, Daenerys should not go back to Westeros. Let the men conquering the country on their own.
Game of Thrones is certainly not unique in any of these flaws, but it’s certainly frustrating how easily it could do a better job, but doesn’t.