Feminine Agency...Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Game of Thrones

Hello my name is Anna and I love Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Also there will be some spoilers for the first season of Game of Thrones.

If you are surprised at all by the first part because of my gender my reply is, really? Have you been on the internet? Have you heard of fan-fiction?

The stereotypical sci-fi Fantasy aficionado is often portrayed as too thin/too fat, usually white and straight but always male. That, my dear readers, is a load of bull because anything more than a cursory glance at the nerd community will reveal that there are a few very nice looking men, that it is made up of people of many races and sexual preferences and, as I pointed out above, it contains a sizable female population.

So why then are most characters (I’m not even talking about protagonists, just sheer characters) in science fiction and fantasy stories straight, white and male?

Science Fiction is usually better than fantasy in terms of representation, but its not great. I may go more into the good (ex: Battlestar Galactica) and the not-as-good (ex: Star Wars) examples of this in a later post. One of the arguments that has been made for this, is that Science Fiction takes place in the future, where things can be more progressive, while fantasy is usually tied into a romanticized version of the western middle ages, and is therefore less flexible in terms of gender roles and races represented. I consider this a load of baloney because if you can make up new creatures, countries and religions, you can include different races and women outside of the often passive gender roles assigned to women by classical stories from early western civilization.

For this post I’m focusing specifically on fantasy and gender on the issue of feminine representation and agency. A character with agency is someone who takes action to produce a desired result. It seems a simple enough characteristic but only about one out of three (and there are seldom more than three female characters, if that, in a fantasy novel) possess this basic attribute which renders them passive characters while their male counterparts are active.

Think of any fantasy novel or series. Name three male characters with agency. Now do the same for women. I would argue Eowyn from Lord of the Rings was the only female character (I case could be made for Arwen but I see her as more passive) in the series with agency and thus my favorite to the point where I dressed like her for the LOTR marathon at my cinema leading up to ROTK’s premier, but I digress.

Active characters are more fun to follow on their journey, they are the ones driving the story. The passive characters, on the other hand, are objects, they may serve as a tool to impart wisdom or to provide motivation for another character, but they have no storyline of their own, serving no purpose when they are not related to others.

Game of Thrones, and I’m talking about the HBO series not the books which I have just started and am not yet qualified to review, has its issues with the objectification of women, particularly when one looks at the way in which marriage is conducted in this world. However the series is exemplarly in portraying women who take action in the hopes of achieving a desired result, and the sheer number which do so. Here’s a list of examples (horribly simplified only given one singular action for the sake of time):

Cersei Lannister: Arranges the death of her husband and works politically to secure power for herself and her son.

Daenerys Targaryen: Becomes more sexually assertive and challenges her husband and her people through her words and actions to earn respect in her new land so that they will help her reclaim her throne.

Arya Stark: Seeks a teacher to become a warrior. (worst simplification this girl is a BAMF).

Catelyn Stark: Goes to plead assistance from a friend of her fathers for aid in a war against the Lannisters.

Sansa Stark: Annoying as this girl is, and while she does allow herself to be a tool for the Lannisters, this is a choice she makes in remaining in their court so that she can achieve her messed up goal of becoming Geoffrey's Queen.

Lysa Tully: Imprisoned Tyrion Lannister as revenge.

Ros: Moved to the south to seek a better life as a prostitute (she does serve as a fairly objectified character in the beginning and later in the season, but we see the mechanics briefly behind why she does it making her an active character: I would argue her scene with Little Finger’s speech (if you’ve seen the show you know which one I’m talking about) could be described as an explanation of Little Finger’s personal motivation, but also as that for all of the characters in the field of manipulation. She does this so she can get ahead, make her money, and get her power in the world. It may be messed up but that’s what she does.)

That’s SEVEN female characters. As an added bonus we see a noticeable journey from changes in character based from their actions from Daenerys and Arya (rumor has it Sansa stops being annoying and also has a change based on her actions later in the book series), and we see more of the complexities behind the actions of Cersei, Catelyn and Ros as the story develops. True, their relationships to husbands/husbands-to-be provide the backbone for 5/7 of these examples and their power is limited in the world in which they live. However they fight, they take power, they are so much more than mere objects that provide motivation or wisdom for the men in the series.

I would argue that giving women characters agency is not a sign of feminist writing, because Game of Thrones is not feminist by a long shot. I would argue, however that it is a sign of good writing. As a writer you want as many active characters as possible because it makes them better, and more fun to read. Women active characters show that you know that they are people to, and from a marketing perspective, we are a sizable group and I personally love to read about the menfolk, but I like it more when there are some women mixed up with them and I feel represented in the story.

P.S. This post will also be eventually appearing on my blog "The Cookie is Obliterated," a blog in the making talking about theater as well as science fiction and fantasy (yes this is self-promotion), but I wanted to share it on here first to get some feedback, as this is the first blog I've done since high school economics. Also its a topic that I think applies to F-Word and I'd love to hear others' thought on the topic.

- Anna Grossman

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