The fantasy genre has a bad record when it comes to making female characters. While it’s true a lot of genres also fall prey to Mary Sues and not passing the Bechdel Test, fantasy shows, books, and movies are especially noticeable in the way their female characters tend to be bad. The pseudo-medieval settings become excuses for reductive characterization that leaves characters as caricatures even if they’re technically main characters.
That’s not the case for A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) and Game of Thrones (GOT). A few caveats before we start. Yes, it’s true that female characters in the book are sexualized in oddly specific ways, that they are aware of their bodies in a way that women typically aren’t, and that they are on the receiving end of a questionable amount of sexual violence. But when all that is said and done, George R.R. Martin’s female characters are real in ways that few fantasy female characters, or female characters for that matter, tend to be.
1. They’re not all badasses
The women of GOT and ASOIAF are tough, but they’re not all action-girl badasses. So many of the female characters we see in fantasy are sword/bow/dagger-wielding badasses who fight their way through the story. That could be because it’s the easiest way to make a character interesting or to give her a reason to join the main cast of characters who are setting out on adventures.
But here, the only badasses are Arya and Brienne, with Arya being the more stereotypical characterization of the two. Other female characters in the franchise are believably real women, whether that’s because they’re mothers and grandmothers just trying to protect their children in morally dubious ways or young women who understand that there are more ways to fight than just with a sword.
2. They actually talk about womanhood and its limitations
While the franchise has female characters like Margaery who use their beauty as a weapon, the franchise acknowledges that being a “seductress” is thin comfort and really, no real power in a world where your life is at the mercy of the men related to you. Case in point, Olenna has to poison Joffrey because Margaery’s beauty, touted in other fantasy books as a power capable of moving armies, can’t protect her in any substantial way.
Cersei is brutalized by her husband, Sansa is sexually assaulted, and Olenna Tyrell has no choice but to use underhanded means because she isn’t Lord Tyrell. She doesn’t get the option to go in swords blazing like her counterpart, Tywin Lannister does. Sure, they’re both smart, but Tywin has options. Olenna only has this, and even then, part of why she has so much power is that no male contender in her family thinks of getting in her way.
Even in the company of men who love them, the female characters of GoT and ASOIAF face barriers that make sense in the context of their story. Catelyn Tully finds herself infantilized and ignored by a teenage son who isn’t expected to listen to her because he’s a man.
Speaking of Catelyn, her sworn sword, Brienne of Tarth, doesn’t get a cool girl/one-of-the-guys pass for being a great fighter. Her skill, her true self, just highlights how far off she is from what a woman should be in Westeros. And unlike Arya, she’s aware of it and responds to the pressures of the world she exists in, making her a much more nuanced take on the fantasy swordswoman we see in fiction. Similarly, Daenerys’ competence is questioned even after she proves herself a capable leader simply because she’s a woman. That’s while ignoring how young she is because, clearly, fewer people had issues when it was Robb playing king.
3. They play off each other in a way that highlights the stages of a woman’s life
Arya moves through life with the cheeky confidence of a young girl. Sansa, who is coming of age, tries to find her place in the world by playing the perfect lady. Brienne falls short of it and is in the finding yourself stage people get into in their 20s when things don’t go according to plan. Cersei embodies the bitterness that comes with having to compromise who you are to fit in as an adult woman. Catelyn all but loses herself with very little of her motives separating her as a person from her family, even in death. As for Olenna, she’s the maturation of all of them – the woman who exists after they’ve learned how to do what they’re technically not allowed to.
4. They have varied ages
Another notable thing about the women of GoT and ASOIAF is how the women are at different ages. It might not seem much, but when was the last time you’ve seen a show, book, or movie star women who weren’t still in their young, hot, and capable-of-fighting phase? More often than not, all we get are dead mothers, dead wives, and dead lovers for other still-living characters to fight for.
5. They are strong in different ways
Brienne of Tarth says it best in Season 2 Episode 5 when she pledges herself to serve Catelyn, telling her that she has a “woman’s courage” to the more overt, battle-ready courage that she herself has.
Most of the female characters in the series aren’t capable of fighting nor have dragons to do their fighting for them, but they find ways to push through, especially in situations where fighting isn’t an option. Sansa’s seeming passivity and ability to compartmentalize keep her together throughout the series. Meanwhile, Catelyn is determined to save all of her children despite not getting much support from other people in her family.
Even Cersei, no matter how much we all agree she’s not a good person, musters a lot of courage in the face of an abusive husband, a cruel father, and losing her children.
6. Their flaws make sense and are real flaws
Sometimes, the flaws are their own kind of strength. Many characters in the series are set up as foils for each other or as a set of characters that, when viewed together, fill a certain theme. Brienne and Sansa are both naive believers in the virtues of chivalry and ladyhood, mostly because of their youth, and it gets them into humiliating and dangerous situations. Brienne is a joke because of her looks and love for Renly, while Sansa is nearly assaulted by Dontos.
The female characters of the series are punished for their flaws, but they’re also rewarded for the positive side of those flaws. Brienne and Sansa’s unwavering sincerity is shown as their own kind of strength, to the point that it strikes a chord with Jaime and the Hound, two characters who also go through traumatic events but, unlike the women, are shattered and embittered by it.
The female characters of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire aren’t the only well-written ones out there. If you have your own fantasy faves, comment down below and let us know what makes them so great.