Arya Stark played by Maisie Williams
image from fanpop.com
Last month Girl Museum celebrated the women who have inspired us in the Heroines Quilt project. In the world of fantasy, however, there are very few strong role models for young women: they can be a scantily-clad “Xena” warrior; a demure elvin princess; or, at worst, the damsel in distress.
One fantasy epic bucking this trend is HBO’s big budget Game of Thrones, which had its season two premiere last week. Based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series, the story centres on the noble families living in the mythical land of Westeros as they battle for power and ultimate control of the kingdom. Among the traditional cast of noble knights, thugs, and boy-kings, Martin has created several strong female leads. The point-of-view style of storytelling in the books means that the first thing we usually learn about these women is their physical attributes and attractiveness as rated by the current male protagonist. However, this is countered when the female characters lead the narrative; sharing their thoughts and motivations to produce individuals which audiences can identify with.
The youngest of these leading ladies is Arya Stark, a girl of only nine, who refuses to conform to the role of well behaved “lady” embodied by her elder sister, Sansa. Arya prefers sword play to dancing and shows extraordinary strength, surviving alone when she is separated from her family during a time of war. Martin has used a medieval time frame for the age of his players, meaning that many of the characters at the heart of the power struggle are children or teenagers by modern standards. The best example of this is the fourteen year old girl Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled daughter of the former King. She is introduced as the submissive pawn in the plans of her bullying brother who sells her into marriage in an effort to regain “his” lost throne. Throughout the series, however, she develops into a strong leader; a woman in control of her sexuality; and a figure of hope to those who have been oppressed through slavery.
The older generation of women are just as strong, with the scheming Queen Cersei proving a formidable opponent in the fight for power. She is cast as ruthless and power-hungry, but her determination stems from a resentment of playing a “man's game” and her desire to do anything for her children. Although not the most likeable of characters, Cersie’s strength is undeniable.
Season two will see audiences introduced to the character of Brienne, the Maid of Tarth, who also fights, this time literally, in the man’s world. This female warrior bests men in battle and actively refused her intended betrothals. Taking on a male role, she is shunned by fellow soldiers and is threatened with rape by those who see her as a challenge to their superiority. It is only her noble name, and the promise of ransom, which saves her. Brienne’s experience demonstrates the violence that pervades Westeros. Only the noble women have a small degree of protection from the fighting, misogynistic treatment and casual rape which is witnessed by all, including the young Arya, in war. The brutal backdrop in which Martin sets his story does not weaken, however, but strengthens his female leads and their achievements.
In a genre of fiction where the word “fantasy” can usually be ascribed to a male-centric dreamland of warrior knights and seductive maidens, it is reassuring to see an epic with such a strong well-rounded female presence. From the young child, Arya, to the villainous Cersei, women are represented at each stage of life as real people with developed personalities who fight for their own family and goals. Although often treated as second class citizens in the land of Westeros, George R.R. Martin’s heroines are on an equal footing with the male protagonists in terms of narrative and power-play; making Game of Thrones one of the most gender-balanced fantasy epics to grace our screens.
Girl Museum Inc.