Defining Strong Women in Media: Game of Thrones

I spent the last few days of my summer break catching up on HBO’s epic series Game of Thrones. I was an avid fan of the show during it’s first and second seasons, but fell behind in 2012 when I began my Master’s program at the University of South Carolina. I completed Season 4 a couple of weeks ago.

I do not have time to complete the novels (albeit, I did read the first one and thoroughly enjoyed it) but I hunger for the background lore that fleshes out the show’s settings and characters. As such, I occasionally lurk online wikis dedicated to A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, and other popular message boards and forums, like the one offered at IMDB. I noticed from reading conversations online among fans that the show’s female characters are a popular topic of discussion. Fans praise the attributes of many of the depicted women, particularly the strength of characters like Brienne, Arya, Daenerys, Ygritte, Catlyn, and Sansa.

What I think is interesting about these female characters is that they are strong in many different ways. Arya and Brienne are physically strong; a lot of their featured screen time on Thrones involves sword fighting, blood-letting, and challenging conventional notions of women in combat. They also standout because they forego traditional attributes of femininity. Arya and Brienne frequently wear armor, pants, and have androgynous short hair, in contrast to other members of the female cast who have long hair, adorn themselves in beautiful brocade dresses, and elaborate jewelry.

Brieene of Tarth & Arya Stark.

Brienne of Tarth & Arya Stark.

Ygritte and Daenarys boast not only physical fortitude, but also fierce conviction. Daenerys’ growth in the first season from the reluctant wife of Khal Drogo to the unyielding Mother of Dragons was an inspiring and captivating story arc. It also earned her a legion of fans and admirers. Ygritte’s love for Jon Snow did not waiver her dedication to the Free Men’s cause (or vice versa). These two women, in particular, are fierce and live to not only see change, but to make it happen by their own hands.

Less blatant than the physical toughness of Brienne and Arya or the strong leadership and minds of Daenerys and Ygritte (but no less important) is the emotional strength and perseverance of Catelyn and Sansa Stark. Emotion, generally considered the realm of women and a sign of weakness, is the weapon of choice wielded by the matriarch of the Stark clan and it’s eldest daughter. Mother and daughter alike find themselves in desperate situations, but rarely do we see them despair. Catelyn perseveres to protect her family after the death of her husband. Sansa, while timid and naive early in the series, emerges as a shrewd and cunning survivor at the end of season four.

My brief analysis of these characters highlights how Game of Thrones demonstrates a range of female archetypes with different attributes of strength. The show is wildly popular for many reasons: a rich, captivating fictional world; abundant plot twists and cliff-hangers; dimensional characters that keep audiences guessing what happens next… and the female characters, especially, standout to viewers because they realistically demonstrate strength in unique ways.

I contrast these characterizations to other “strong” female characters in mainstream media, especially many commercial video games, that equate strength with sex appeal. Many (but not all) female characters in video games certainly kick ass and look amazing, but tend to do so at the expense of deep personality and realism. It is true that this trope is starting to change; increasingly, videogames feature strong female protagonists who are more than simply eye-candy (I’m looking at you, Uncharted and The Last of Us). However, even a cursory glance of the results page for  “female videogame characters” on Google image search favors a pretty face that also kicks ass. In contrast, Thrones showcases a range of personalities and strengths for female characters.

"Female videogame characters" on Google image search.

“Female videogame characters” on Google image search.

What inspired this blog post was my interpretation of the female characters on Game of Thrones, which led to subsequent observations of other, very different types of strong women in media (especially videogames). I can’t help but ask some broad questions here, about strong women in media, because I wonder if others observe the same patterns that I have discussed above. What characteristics establish a female character as strong as opposed to weak? I’ve outlined what I believe are some of the strengths of the female characters on Thrones, and contrasted these characterizations with a common trope in video games. Do others share a similar observation, or a different one? What patterns do others observe about the variety (or lack thereof) of strong women characters in all media representations? In what ways are they realistic or not?

Why do we, men and women, need to see strong women in media? Why is it important? Do different portrayals of strong women in media affect the real women who watch? If so, how?

These are the types of questions I think about as I consume and enjoy media.

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