WARNING: Spoilers abound.
Today I’m going off-script for my Women of Courage series to talk about not just one courageous woman, but seven of them.
Over the years, television has brought us the occasional heroine. Perhaps you’re old enough to remember Batgirl or Wonder Woman. Or maybe you were a pink power ranger two years running on Halloween. And those were great, don’t get me wrong. But for decades, Hollywood has been serving us the female flavor of a male archetype. Sure, those women chased the bad guys and rescued kittens. They did everything the guys did and they did it in lipstick, heels, and a bustier. Isn’t that feminism? Ahem, not exactly.
Game of Thrones is a sword opera, complete with all the sorcery and dragons you’d expect. Westeros is a land where leaders compete to rule the Iron Throne.
Kingdoms, by nature of the word, are patriarchal. But women can and do rule throughout Westeros. And if you’re keeping score, it’s safe to say the ladies are in the lead.
This is not a land where all the women are dewy nymphs, where all heroines are soft-focus. There are beauties, to be sure. But the show includes fierce females from eight to eighty.
These are not your typical damsels in distress, awaiting their knight in shining armor—and not just because some of the bravest knights are women. Yes, it’s dungeons and dragons, but in contrast to dearth of female characters in the Lord of the Rings, the women of Game of Thrones are not just present, they’re central.
Note today’s installment is about the HBO series rather than the books, which I admit I have not yet read.
Top Seven Badass Women of Game of Thrones (in no particular order):
“And she is your rightful ruler. Those of you that have sailed under her, and there are many of you here, you know what she is! She is a reaver! She is a warrior! She is Ironborn! We will find no better leader! This is our queen!”
―Theon Greyjoy declaring Yara as the rightful Queen of the Iron Islands.
With her brothers lost to war, Yara was raised in Iron Country as a surrogate son. The Ironborn are a rough lot. These are a nation of plundering foragers, and it speaks to Yara’s leadership abilities that she has commanded her own longboat since a young age.
Yara is not your lipstick leader—Yara is fierce, tough, and impossible to fool. Even her brother Theon (the male heir to the throne) knows she is the rightful leader. She’s also one of the few LGBT characters on the show, in a groundbreaking sort of role that I hope leads to more central characters like her in the future.
When Game of Thrones opened, Sansa was more concerned with elegant gowns and fashionable hairstyles. She spent most of her time mooning over Prince Joffrey and being generally annoying. But instead of the fairytale ending she dreamed of, Sansa wound up a political pawn, passed around Westeros like flagon of mead. With no say in her fate, she endured horrific abuse at the hands of a series of men.
Nonetheless, she escaped her tormentors and survived. Eventually, she returned to the North to claim her title as Lady of Winterfell, where she rules as a savvy leader with keen instinct for military strategy.
Sansa has enjoyed one of the more complicated character arcs of the series, taking her from petulant princess, to tragic victim, to steely leader.
Brienne of Tarth
6’3” and powerfully built, Brienne of Tarth eschewed her highborn title to pursue knighthood. A formidable fighter, Brienne is one of the few people who could take on The Hound and prevail.
Unlike most of the players on the show, Brienne seeks no power for herself. Instead, she seeks only to serve. Mature and loyal, Brienne possesses an unbreakable moral sense. Her only flaw seems to be a talent for bad luck.
After besting all the men in a competition, Brienne asks to be named kingsguard to her adored Renly. But when Renly is assassinated under her watch, she makes an oath to Catelyn Stark. After Catelyn’s death, Brienne is determined to protect her daughters, Sansa and Arya–whether they want it or not.
“All my life men like you have sneered at me. And all my life I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.” –Brienne of Tarth
However it was through the complicated, genuine, platonic relationship she developed with then-fellow-hostage Jamie Lannister where we saw Brienne’s compassion was equal to her integrity.
Though she’s portrayed without any attempt to feminize her, it hasn’t stopped Jon Snow’s lieutenant Tormund from seeing through her armor–and many fans are rooting for that relationship to blossom.
She’s beautiful. She’s bosomy. She’s craves the throne, and she’s not above manipulation to get it. But unlike many women of her ilk, she’s charitable. This is a woman who’s grown up in a man’s world and has had to subjugate her desires to the men around her. But her desires are kind and genuine. She believes in the good of every man and woman, with the rightful exception of Cersei.
Though marriage is a political arrangement to her, her undeniable benevolence wins the hearts of both suitors and subjects. Where scheming and manipulation generally inspire an audience to hate a character, Margaery’s pure intentions have audiences rooting for her.
Sansa’s little sister Arya Stark was only a child when Game of Thrones opened. She could not have been more different than her prissy sister. The tomboyish Arya would rather best her brother at archery than do needlework. Luckily, her father approved, and arranged sword-master training for the girl.
When outside treachery tore apart the Stark family, Arya found herself far from home, compiling a growing list of grudges. An encounter with the Faceless Man ultimately resulted in the opportunity for her to train as an assassin. When her training was complete, Ayra made her way back to her beloved Winterfell with a superpower: the ability to assume others’ identities.
Like Brienne, Arya is an accomplished fighter. But where Brienne is altruistically loyal, Arya is full of vendettas and carries a hitlist. Only five-feet tall, this petite fighter is a force and a longstanding fan favorite.
She’s ruthless. She’s conniving. Let’s not mince words: the woman is evil.
Every show needs someone you love to hate and Cersei Lannister fulfills that role. It isn’t just because she cheated on King Robert. With her brother. Or that she passed off all three children as Robert’s and then worked to assassinate him. No Cersei is a never-ending source of entitled treachery and is not even above mass murder.
Nothing in the world matters more to her than her children her family the throne. When her plot to install her sons to the throne fails not once, but twice, Cersei seizes power herself.
The only greater threat to the people of Westeros are the White Walkers. By now, she’s lost everything she valued. Will she ever pause to wonder what she’s fighting for?
“I spent my life in foreign lands. So many men have tried to kill me, I don’t remember all their names. I have been sold like a broodmare. I’ve been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled. Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any gods. Not in myths and legends. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen.”
Daenerys is the only daughter of the Mad King. When King Robert seized the throne after the Mad King’s death, she spent her early life in exile with her abusive brother. When he trades her to the barbaric Khal Drogo in exchange for an army, Daenerys makes the best of the situation, and it isn’t long before the two fall in love.
This is only the beginning of the polarized nature of her fortune, and Daenerys goes through several reversals from ruler to slave before getting a firm grip on the crown. In the process she wins the loyalty of the many slaves she freed along the way.
Her sometimes wrathful nature is tempered by her socialist tendencies. She’s suffered, and through that suffering has developed great compassion. She’s also mindful of her family reputation for blind wrath, and strives to be a good leader by surrounding herself with experienced counsel.
The show features even more courageous women, such as the free-spirited Ygritte, a skilled archer who wins Jon Snow’s affection, the pint-sized Lyanna Mormont, a relative newcomer who instantly became a fan favorite with her blunt talk, and of course the worldly-wise Olenna Tyrell, grandmother to Margaery, who engineers assassinations over tea. And don’t forget Melisandre, the ancient and beautiful lady of dark arts and twisting loyalty.
I confess I resisted watching Game of Thrones for a long time, having formed a rather snobbish resistance to it. I imagined it was a swashbuckling sword opera with steamy sex scenes and epic violence. And, I was right. There’s incest! There’s rape! There’s gratuitous female nudity! There’s also a perplexing amount of castration going on. But, as I came to discover, there are more powerful women in diverse roles than any other show in the running.
The women of Westeros don’t just chase the Iron Throne. Many have cast off feminine stereotypes to pursue the life of general, knight, or assassin. Many have had complicated character arcs which have taken them from pawn to player, or Lady to leader.
In a world where Hollywood continually serves up heroines to do battle in lipstick and heels, Game of Thrones provides a plethora of refreshing women to root for.