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The Women of Game of Thrones: They Fight. They Conquer. They Totally Rule.

Game Of Thrones

Welcome to Westeros, where the night is dark and full of terrors — and there’s a good chance you’ll get beaten up by a Lady. Winter is Coming, and even in sunny King’s Landing, that ominous warning of an impending deep freeze, and its accompanying terrors, hangs like a pall. While the coming winter is a clear and present danger for the men of the Night’s Watch, it’s the female characters of Game of Thrones who face the harshest climate, no matter where in the Seven Kingdoms they find themselves.

We have these women — these brilliantly written female characters — that give us a three-dimensional view.

Author George R.R. Martin began writing his volumes-long tale in 1991, setting the story in a kind of alternate medieval history where women are at a serious disadvantage in terms of power and equality. In contrast, he drew the vast majority of his leading women as smart, strong, and completely capable of manipulating that world to their advantage (insofar as the cruel hand of fate would allow it). But as the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, began to adapt Martin’s novels for HBO, they went deeper than the author had, re-imagining characters like Brienne of Tarth, Margaery Tyrell, and the mysterious Shae to be even more complex and multidimensional than the original incarnations.

It’s these empowered and intriguing women that have helped win Game of Thrones its devoted female fan base — despite certain elements that some critics assumed would put women off the series altogether. “Look at the female characters on the show,” says Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, who stars as one of Game of Thrones’ excellent is-he-or-isn’t-he villains, Jaime Lannister. “They’re great. I mean, they’re just amazing. Cersei — such a powerful, complex woman — Daenerys, Brienne, Lady Catelyn, Arya. They’re beautifully written, interesting, strong. ... I think for a piece that’s set in this world, in this genre, it is unique.”

At the outset of Game of Thrones, a main bone of contention in the response to the show was its many sex scenes and gratuitous female nudity — a characteristic typical, as Coster-Waldau points out, of the fantasy genre. Women were without their clothes so often in the show’s first couple of seasons that it became something of a running gag even among fans; Saturday Night Live lampooned the series in 2012, joking that HBO had hired a hormonal 13-year-old boy to act as creative consultant. Other critics took a more serious tone. When the show debuted in 2011, New York Times critic Ginia Bellafante decried the show’s “Playboy-TV-style plot points,” labelling it as “boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.” The licentiousness of the show, she opined, was injected into the plot to lure women viewers, not turn them away. She wrote off the series entirely, unable to imagine why women (or anyone, really) would want to subject themselves to its “Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic.”

Over and over we’re surprised by the actions of Dany, Arya, and Margaery.

But four seasons in, it has become obvious why people are overwhelmingly drawn to the show: We watch to see what happens to the characters we’ve come to be fascinated by, whether they’re clothed or not. We want to see what will happen to the gender-bending knight Brienne. We want to find out if Daenerys Targaryen will lose control of her dragons. We’re itching to know if the so-called Lord of Light will bless Melisandre with another creepy shadow baby. Fans of Game of Thrones almost always have favourites — often chosen long before we can possibly figure out whom we should be rooting for.

That’s because the characters, the women especially, aren’t predictable clichés — their motives and allegiances aren’t so easily guessed. Over and over we’re surprised by the actions of Dany, Arya, and Margaery. Even the seemingly hapless Sansa has some secrets up her voluminous sleeves. “In Germany there is a saying,” explains Sibel Kekilli, who plays Shae, the noble-hearted concubine-turned-lady-love to Tyrion Lannister: “As a woman, you are a ‘cherry on top of the ice cream’ — you have to look good and that’s it. And here the women are really strong. They are even more evil ... more dangerous.”

“We have these women — these brilliantly written female characters — that give us a three-dimensional view,” says series star Gwendoline Christie. “I think it has been the case that many female characters have been presented in perhaps a two-dimensional way, in supporting roles. It’s really exciting to see these women on the screen in Game of Thrones where you don’t know whether you love them or whether you hate them. ... It’s that polarity that is thrilling and rare.” 

She adds: “I really hope this signals a slew of more multi-layered, multi-dimensional female characters for women to connect to, to be entertained by, and for actors like me to play.”

Corrina Allen writes for