Sexist tropes are ruining Game of Thrones' female characters
As the end of Game of Thrones fast approaches, the question of who will control Westeros has morphed into a far more interesting dilemma: Who should control Westeros? Sadly for fans rooting for the Breaker of Chains, a shadow was cast on Daenerys Targaryen's moral claim to the Iron Throne during the season eight premiere. On top of the fact that she is not technically the rightful heir, she is also, it seems, a selfish and power-hungry leader.
This moment in Daenerys' story arc was a long time coming; I, like many others, have wondered with concern about her tyrannical streak and her rather incendiary sense of justice. I'm nevertheless disappointed in how her character has developed, and, more broadly, how the narratives for the show's strong women are devolving. As season eight's opening episode demonstrated, the heroines of Westeros are increasingly being portrayed as scheming, power-hungry, destructive women. In other words, the Game of Thrones writers are falling back on tired and sexist tropes so often used to dispatch with ambitious female characters.
Of course, everyone does a fair bit of scheming in Game of Thrones. Cersei's guile, for example, is what makes her a terrifying and formidable villain. Yet women have long been portrayed throughout history and literature as having obtained their power through self-serving cunning (see also: Jezebel, Lady MacBeth). What is particularly telling — and particularly annoying — on Game of Thrones is that the heroines' male counterparts do not exhibit the same hubris; rather, the heroes largely model opposite traits of honor and self-sacrifice.
Take the conversation between Yara Greyjoy and her brother, Theon, after his suspiciously easy rescue mission. "Euron can't defend the Iron Islands … We can take our home back," Yara realizes, to which Theon protests, "Daenerys went north." While Yara says the Iron Islands could be a fallback for Daenerys if things sour in the war against the dead, Theon's plan to fight rather than hide in the relative safety of the offshore kingdom is made to seem the more noble choice.
Sansa Stark, meanwhile, has spent a season and a half looking twitchy every time someone mentions her siblings and the threat they pose to her shiny new title as Lady of Winterfell. Part of the trouble with the writing surrounding her character is that the audience is so rarely privy to her thought process — her brooding in rooms and fretting over Arya was an irritating trick played by the showrunners in season seven in order to surprise viewers with the trial of Littlefinger in the finale. Season eight, meanwhile, is clearly setting up a rivalry between Sansa and the new threat to her power: Daenerys. Their meeting in the Winterfell courtyard was full of fake smiles. "Your sister doesn't like me," Daenerys later observes to Jon Snow after she's clashed with Sansa literally overtop of him during their meeting with the northern lords:
(Game of Thrones/HBO)
This catfight-like conflict is a particularly boring and lazy cliché, but one that is so common and easy that it defines the narratives around powerful women, even in real life. As actress Jessica Chastain has noted from firsthand experience, "There has been a stigma out there that women don't work well together. I've never seen women like this." In an article about a 2017 "feud" between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, This magazine likewise observed "that when it comes to collaboration between female performers, drama is the only art they can make." Apparently that is true even of queens in the fictional world of Westeros.
The biggest moment in the start of this new season, though, came when Sam confronted Jon Snow in the crypt about Daenerys' aforementioned poor leadership skills. As it turned out, Sam wasn't too thrilled to learn that Daenerys executed his father and older brother for refusing to bend the knee. With tears in his eyes, Sam tells Jon, "You gave up your crown to save your people. Would [Daenerys] do the same?" There is an implicit answer in his question: Not likely. While the good and honorable Jon Snow would sacrifice anything to protect his people, Daenerys has now been cast as his foil. For all we know, she has even been turning a blind eye to her dragons eating random people across the continents.
With so many female protagonists holding power in Westeros at the start of the show's eighth and final season, Game of Thrones has a real chance to reverse some of the most damaging tropes in the long history of writing about women leaders. Unfortunately, the season eight premiere clearly served as a table-setter, and that doesn't bode well for what's in store for Yara, Sansa, or Daenerys. One queen has already left her brother to protect the realm; the other two, apparently, are going to spend the season in a power-struggle over Jon Snow and the North.
What I want from Game of Thrones is this: heroines who not just coexist and support each other, but who are portrayed as being as noble and self-sacrificing as their male counterparts. After season eight's premiere, I don't have high hopes.