Hannah Drake

Feminism and the End of Game of Thrones

CommentaryHannah DrakeComment

I probably said last time that I wouldn’t post about Game of Thrones anymore, so call me an Oathbreaker. After the end of the series, I read so many tweets, subreddits, and hot takes on Game of Thrones that I just needed an outlet for all of my thoughts. So consider this my essay on Game of Thrones. (Fun Fact: I wrote a paper on hip hop in college. T.I and Dr. Dre were much of my sources. Writing essays on pop culture is fun!)

The rest of this post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones in its entirety.

Overall, I’m not upset about how the story ended. It’s fine. I believe the finale was destined to be a letdown (I’ll get to that), but I’m not bothered about how they wrapped up most of the characters’ arcs. What bothers me, like many people, is that the final two seasons felt rushed. I didn’t feel this way about season seven until we were nearing the end of season eight, though. Apparently the showrunners wanted the final 13 episodes in one season, but ultimately decided to split the episodes into seven and six for production purposes. Like so many other viewers, I feel that this was a mistake. In my perfect Game of Thrones world, season seven would have wrapped the Night Knight storyline. It would have flipped the script on what viewers had come to expect in Game of Thrones with a big, often shocking ninth episode and a wrap up tenth episode. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms would have been a relatively low key ninth episode, while The Long Night would have been action packed and ended with a huge moment, Arya killing the Night King. Open season eight with the Winterfell crew burning the funeral pyres, and then slow down. They could have built the Daenerys vs. Cersei conflict and Daenerys’s descent into madness, leading her to burn King’s Landing. They could have sat in the aftermath of the destruction of the city and what Dany intended to do with her new power for a while. All of those scenes that we were left to fill in for ourselves (Sansa and Arya finding out who Jon is, Missandei getting kidnapped, Tryion and Bran’s conversations, Grey Worm for some reason arresting Jon instead of killing him, Sansa possibly vying for Jon to be exiled so she can have the North for herself, etc.) could have actually played out on screen. The ninth episode of the final season could have ended with Jon killing Daenerys and Drogon flying off with her body. Use the entire finale to wrap up character’s storylines and take advantage of the additional seven episodes to make these big moments (the deaths of the Night King, Cersei, and Daenerys) really land. I found it incredibly frustrating that we had to read between the lines in moments that would have been shown in past seasons or watch the Inside the Episode and Game Revealed featurettes to fully understand the characters and plot points. And with 99.9% of the promotional campaign for the final season centring around the Night King conflict, when he only appeared on screen for a few moments in the whole season, it made it difficult to get back into the politics of Westeros for the final three episodes.

Probably because I agree with it, but I feel like the “rushed” complaint is the most valid for the final season of Game of Thrones. It basically lead to zero interesting Cersei scenes and she has consistently been one of the most compelling characters on the show! A lot of the “hot takes” I’ve been reading have been about how Game of Thrones was ultimately anti-feminist, usually focusing solely on Dany, sometimes including Cersei and/or Brienne, and ruined Dany’s character, though, and I have to say I disagree 100%.

Dany’s descent into madness should have been more flushed out, yes. I felt like all signs pointed towards this since she coldly watched her brother’s execution in season one, but a lot of fans felt it was a disservice to her character. Storytellers should show not tell, and it wasn’t all that clear that we were supposed to know that seeing the Red Keep from the city walls is what ultimately led Dany to ignore the bells of surrender and burn King’s Landing. Instead, that was literally insider information from the Inside the Episode that followed. But Dany going full Mad Queen doesn’t make her story anti-feminist. Dany did a lot of things over the eight seasons to warrant her being held up as a feminist icon, including one of my favourite scenes in which she holds a war council with four other women, three of whom are representing three of the seven kingdoms. (At the time of this scene in the show, episode 7.2, Sansa was about to take over the power in the North from Jon and Cersei was ruling from the Iron Throne, which means you could argue that six of the seven kingdoms were ruled by women.) It’s probably not the ending for her character that a lot of fans of the show wanted, but that doesn’t discredit things to warrant praise in previous seasons. And it’s likely where the story is headed in the books, if they’re ever finished.

I read a lengthy article about the finale and the end of many of the character’s arcs that basically said “yeah, sure, it was cool when those women were ruling across Westeros, but ultimately they showed that women are too emotional to rule.” [Insert guy blinking GIF here, please.] If that’s how you interpret Dany’s and Cersei’s arcs, then I guess that’s on you, but that article didn’t at all mention some of the other female leaders or rulers that we’ve seen throughout the show, like Margaery, queen to three kings, Olenna, the real power in the Reach, or Yara, a chosen leader by the Ironborn. I wish that they show hadn’t spent nearly all of our time with Cersei in season eight just reminding us that she loved her children, but I don’t think that’s it’s fair to say that they were poor rulers because they fall into cheap stereotypes about women in power. In the books, Cersei is more clearly not as clever as she thinks she is, and even in the show, she falls into her own traps, like the mess she caused with the High Sparrow in season five. She thought it was absurd that anyone should view her as less than her brother or husband because she was a woman, especially her father. She simply lusted after power and, as she warned us in the first season, when you win or you die. Dany especially was so reminiscent of both her father and brother by the end, it seemed painfully obvious that it was a Targaryen thing, not a woman thing. That same article briefly touched on Brienne’s and Sansa’s storylines in a way that I don’t understand at all, and had little to say about Arya.

Brienne’s arc had been taking heat since the end of episode 8.4, when we saw her crying in her nightgown after Jaime rode south for Cersei. People immediately hopped online to say they completely ruined her character, so seriously, WTF? But I didn’t get that impression at all and I really bought into the explanation of that scene from the Binge Mode podcast that she was completely emotionally vulnerable with Jaime in a way she had never been before and he was abandoning her with little explanation. In her introduction to the show, we know that she wants to be a knight, but is restricted by her gender. We find out that she loved Renly because he comforted her when the boys her father had brought to court her laughed at her and ridiculed her for her appearance. She doesn’t open herself up to anyone after that, especially not a man. Just look at how resistant she is even to Pod, who was literally just there to help her. Just because she don’t need no man, doesn’t mean she doesn’t desire love and acceptance from the person she loves and respects. What Jaime did to her was really crappy. He tried to leave in the middle of the night and when she confronted him about it, he said incredibly hurtful things to her. She knew that he would be riding to his death to return to King’s Landing. That moment would be painful and shocking and difficult to process for anyone. But we don’t see her on the couch in yoga pants eating Ben & Jerry’s the rest of the season. She picks herself up and carries on to do her duty. Brienne was knighted in episode 8.2, becoming the first female knight in the Seven Kingdoms. In the finale, she is raised to Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, another first for women in Westeros. It’s her duty as Lord Commander to fill the pages of the fallen Kingsguard (Side note: I hope Arya told her what Meryn Trant really was and how he died so she can write that down too.) and she recorded Jaime’s deeds with admiration, respect, and honesty. She wasn’t snivelling over him or being petty. She accepted that he had an addiction to Cersei and I like to think she understood that didn’t discount his feelings for her.

Sansa, meanwhile, turned out to be a major player in the game, eventually rising to Queen in the North in her own right. When we first meet her, she’s swooning over a prince and wants to have his babies. When we leave her, she’s the chosen leader of her people, she’s the queen of her own kingdom, she will likely be able to pass down the Stark name to her future children, and she doesn’t need a man by her side. In fact…

Many viewers, however, have been frustrated with the direction of Sansa’s storyline since season five when she was essentially sold to the Boltons, married to someone more cruel than Joffrey, and raped on her wedding night and repeatedly until she and Theon escaped Winterfell. She took the place of her best friend Jeyne Poole, who was married to Ramsay under the guise that she was Arya in the books. Her wedding night was an incredibly difficult scene to watch and there were complaints that we saw it play out on Theon’s face, letting a man, a bystander take precedent over a woman is getting raped. I guess my question is how did you want that scene to play out? Did you want to see what happened to Sansa rather just hearing it? I didn’t feel that it discounted what happened to her in any way, I was glad not to see it, and I thought it added another layer of torture to Theon, without saying that what Theon experienced in that room was worse than what Sansa experienced. Since her escape, her abuse at the hands of Joffrey and Ramsay has been called a plot point to make her stronger. In The Last of the Starks, she says to the Hound, “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would’ve stayed a little bird all my life”. People have complained about that quote as well and I do think those are valid points, but we should also consider that sexual assault and abuse survivors deal with their trauma in different ways. I think there’s reason to believe that Sansa would have grown into who she was in the final episode without Ramsay and I think it’s fine that she found strength in her trauma. Some women do. The reality is, Westeros is a fantasy version of medieval Europe and women were raped in medieval Europe. Women are raped all over the world today by their partners (Daenerys, Sansa), by their family members (Cersei), and by strangers and each of those women will deal with the experience in their own way. Perhaps Sansa’s line to the Hound wouldn’t have felt as much like a plot device if the season had been expanded and we could have seen her dealt with it in other ways, with other people, or by herself. I just never took it the way I’m seeing other people did, which I think is okay. But I think it’s unreasonable to think that rape shouldn’t be a part of this world and, to be honest, maybe we shouldn’t collectively channel our anger toward the women who are raped in our world instead of toward a character on a TV show or in a book.

As I mentioned above, Arya was conspicuously left out of a lot of the articles and arguments that Game of Thrones ultimately descended into an anti-feminist show. Of course things looked different earlier in the show (I mentioned Dany’s war council and the women in power scattered across the kingdoms at the time), but Arya ultimately had the most feminist arcs and ending of all the female characters on the show. In season one, when discussing her future with her father, ("You will marry a high lord and rule his castle. And your sons shall be knights, and princes, and lords,” Ned said.) Arya first said what would be her mantra: “That’s not me.” From season two up until season seven, we see Arya completely on her own. Keep in mind, she’s about 12 years old in the first season of the show. She travels across Westeros, she narrowly misses reconnecting with her family twice, she sails to another continent and trains to become a Faceless Man, she seeks vengeance for the crimes committed against her family, all before returning to Winterfell to be reunited with her surviving siblings. She was responsible for the deaths of a member of the Kingsguard (Meryn Trant), the extinction of House Frey, one of the most powerful men in the realm (Littlefinger), and the Night King. The girl can bring it! In episode 8.2, she chooses to spend what could be her last night alive with a man she cares about, but when he proposes marriage, when he asks her to be his lady at Storms End, she tells Gendry “that’s not me”. Arya chose her feminist heroes well, naming her direwolf after Nymeria of Dorne, the warrior-queen of the Rhoynar and mentioning Rhaenys and Visenya’s roles in the conquering of Westors to Tywin at Harrenhal in season two. And those women have inspired her to truly be herself, to not conform to societal expectations, and to set her own path. I mean, people still clutch their pearls all around the world to this day when women decide they’re not going to marry (or enter into an arrangement marriage) and just have babies. That is still a dangerous choice to make in some parts of the world. Throughout the series, she subverts patriarchal norms and, in a lot of ways, shatters some glass ceilings. In fact, all of the women I’ve mentioned—Daenerys, Cersei, Brienne, and Sansa—shatter their own glass ceilings! She even models her outfits after her father and brothers instead of her mother and sister. While I do love the idea of Gendry and Arya together and the poetry of the Baratheons and Starks finally joining their houses, like King Robert wanted in the very first episode, I love even more that she is the captain of an expedition to find out what is west of Westeros and flying under the Stark banner.

It’s my understanding that feminism is about the equal right to choose your own path, which all of these women did. Cersei’s path or Daenerys’s path may not have led to a place viewers wanted, but they both made the choices that pulled them further and further into destruction and madness. Feminism doesn’t mean that at the end of the show, it’s just the women left standing and everything is hunky dory and no one is too emotional because then they’re emotional because they’re women. It’s not anti-feminist to have a female character make poor decisions or ultimately turn out to be a villain. But it seems to me to be irresponsible to take one aspect of Brienne’s story and cry anti-feminism on her behalf or to completely ignore Arya’s entire arc just so you can say Game of Thrones as a whole was just one more patriarchal, misogynist show. (By all means, yes, let’s talk about how it’s a real shame that these women were written and directed by mostly men!)

What did you think about the ending of Game of Thrones or, more specifically, the character arcs of these female characters?

Header photo from Entertainment Magazine. Show stills and GIFs found via Google.