Like most of the civilized world, I’ve zealously planted myself in front of the TV on Sunday nights for the past eight years to watch Game of Thrones unfold. I’ve largely enjoyed it, at least up until the rush-to-the-finish seasons 7 and 8, which have packed far too much character development and time hopping into a handful of episodes (how did Jaime Lannister and Arya Stark get to King’s Landing so quickly?), in an effort to tie up loose ends dangled but not yet resolved by author George R. R. Martin’s source material. As the series marches toward its final episode this weekend, I’ve come to realize that beyond poor pacing, there’s something more I deeply dislike about it: Game of Thrones has a girl problem.
From the beginning, we’ve been introduced to a medieval-esque world where women are defined by their household roles and, more often than not, treated as chattel, if not trash ripe for the tossing. Viserys Targaryen fondles his sister, Daenerys, before trading her to the Dothraki in exchange for an army. Lyanna Stark, pictured only in flashback, is known for her “wild beauty” and her willfulness in sneaking off with her lover; she ultimately kicks the bucket while giving birth to one of the series’ pivotal male characters. Cersei Lannister’s father marries her off to an old boor to keep an uneasy alliance, and, later, attempts to marry her to a gay knight in another attempt at alliance. Her own daughter, Myrcella Baratheon, is shipped to Dorne to keep a tenuous peace.
A host of women, from Daenerys to Sansa and the many wives (and literal sister-wives) of Walder Frey and Craster, are forced to have sex with men they often barely know and certainly don’t love. And who didn’t notice the creepy predator vibe of the first two seasons, where women were being raped on virtually every flat surface and in every alleyway? Let’s also not forget the endless parade of prostitutes and slaves that have inhabited Littlefinger’s brothels, the streets of Westeros, and the beds of men, from the powerful (Tyrion) to the most opportunistic (Bronn).
For all their pain and suffering, the women of Game of Thrones have a lot to go riot grrl over. And while many of them have been positioned as strong characters rising up against their stations and circumstances, they’ve largely fizzled into ineffectuality, or been punished for their ambition.
To be sure, Game of Thrones has had several memorable, often great female characters—complicated Catelyn Stark, untamable Ygritte, cunning Margaery and Olenna Tyrell, and though-she-be-but-little-she-is-fierce Lyanna Mormont come to mind. They were ultimately offed, all but two of them by men (unless you also count the giant who crushed Lyanna as a man).
The series has too often relied on a bitches-be-crazy approach to its women. Lysa Arryn was a loon who preferred breastfeeding her preteen son to strategically ruling the Vale, following her husband’s death. Gilly, rescued by the men of the Night’s Watch from an incestuous relationship with her father, tags along with Samwell Tarly, and functions solely to ask exposition-teasing questions and cheerfully churn out babies. Shae was a double-crossing whore. Cersei, one of the series TV’s most ambitious and compelling female villains, was subjected to an episode-long walk of Shame! Shame! Shame! (True, actress Lena Headey had a body double—Rebecca Van Cleave, who shot the scene in the nude for three days—but how many men on the show have been marched through the streets naked?)
Then there are the literal witches, like Melisandre, a shriveled crone who fooled men through magic into thinking she was a spicy young thing, and made a career of seducing or saving would-be kings. And the less said about the world’s worst warmongers, Ellaria Sand and her three Sand Snake daughters, who were saddled with the series’ most groan-inducing dialogue, the better.
Wherefore art thou, smart, competent, fearless Yara Greyjoy? Since being saved from certain death by her brother she has had no screen time, and only a passing mention in the final season of having resumed control of the Iron Islands. How did Missandei go from wise counsel to a queen to virtually silent, looks-hot-in-leather side piece, before losing her head in season 8? And Brienne of Tarth . . . we’ll deal with her in a minute.
Of the women left standing after the penultimate episode, Sansa has been positioned as a Littlefinger-style manipulator who may have spilled the beans about Jon Snow’s parentage in order to use his status for her own gain. Mighty warrior and gender-bender Brienne of Tarth was last seen sobbing in her bathrobe over a boy, who—let’s face it—is kind of a douche nozzle. Daenerys has lost her marbles, either via a family history of mental illness or a not-fully-explained bloodlust seemingly unmatched by any of the men on the show. Only Arya, a serial murderer consumed by revenge for much of the series, may be on an arc toward redemption . . . if Melisandre’s “green eyes—eyes you’ll shut forever” prophecy doesn’t hold true.
So even though I’ll be watching Sunday’s final episode, it’ll be with a sour taste left over the seasons, as so many rich female characters have been set up to fail. As Game of Thrones creators, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, sign off to take on the Star Wars universe, I have one message for them on the 51 percent they represent on-screen: you can do better. Much better.