Maidens, mothers, matriarchs: The women of Game of Thrones

Ana Stevenson reviews a recent research monograph about gender and Game of Thrones in conjunction with the HBO Season 7 television premiere.

Anne Gjelsvik and Rikke Schubart, eds. Women of Ice and Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones, and Multiple Media Engagements (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). RRP $28.99 AUD (paperback). ISBN 9781501302923.

Women of Ice and FireIs Game of Thrones sexist? Is Game of Thrones feminist, anti-feminist, or, indeed, post-feminist? These are just some of the questions and musings considered in the volume Women of Ice and Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones, and Multiple Media Engagements (2016), edited by Anne Gjelsvik and Rikke Schubart.

This collection of essays examines the characterisation and depiction of women in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (1996–), the HBO television adaptation Game of Thrones (2011-2018), and its transmedial universe. It collates scholarship by feminist theorists as well as scholars of gender and sexuality, cultural studies, media studies, film and television, and English literature. Both editors bring to the project their expertise in film, media, and cultural studies, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the University of Southern Denmark respectively. Gjelsvik and Schubart interrogate the uncertainty which Game of Thrones produces amongst audiences, cultural commentators, and scholars alike. But the collection is nonetheless certain that women are at the heart of Game of Thrones. Across these essays, authors consider how the characterisation of women spans from the archetypal to the subversive.

Maiden, mother, and matriarch are some of the key archetypes that Martin initially embraces and challenges. Another recent edited collection, Brian A. Pavlac’s Game of Thrones Versus History: Written in Blood (2017), explores how history and the fantasy genre interact in Martin’s world. Women of Ice and Fire likewise considers such questions from the perspective of gender. As in the medieval and early modern eras, the marriages of lords and ladies in Westeros are contracted for political and financial reasons, with women, married wives, and unmarried daughters being regarded as belonging to the husband’s family (20). Martin does not romanticise historical idyls of courtly love or chivalric ritual, and thus obliquely critiques such patriarchal marriage patterns (171-172). The competing transformations of the maiden, mother, and matriarch archetypes, through adaptation for television and the transmedial universe, offers insight into the production and consumption of ideas about gender and womanhood in the twenty-first century.

Many essays chart the clear differences between novels and the television series, especially the characterisation of women in each. Often, these scholars argue, Martin’s novels present more developed female characters who exercise autonomy, traits which are subsequently diminished through television adaptation. Mariah Larrson interrogates the adaptation of rape (17-28), while Shannon Wells-Lassagne demonstrates how and why the adaptation expands the representation of sex workers (39-56). In transforming the depiction of sex, gender, and power, Gjelsvik argues, the television series creates the further sexual victimisation of female characters (57-58). This extends to aesthetic decisions. Significantly, Larrson observes, there is “a clear hierarchy” about “who, when, and how” nudity is depicted in the television series. “Higher-ranked people are more rarely shown in the nude, whereas sex workers, slaves, servants, and minor characters are shown naked far more often” (28).

Understanding how women operate in the political world of Westeros is also key to these analyses. Elizabeth Beaton, applying a historical account of Machiavellian principles, demonstrates the power with which many of the female political actors are imbued (193-218). In contrast, Marta Eidsvåg charts how the television adaptation renders aristocratic and royal mothers as more nurturing and loving, but ultimately less authoritative, characters (151-170).

HBO exhibition of court costumes worn in Game of Thrones, Oslo, Norway, 2014. Photograph by Benjamin Skinstad. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
HBO exhibition of court costumes worn in the Game of Thrones television series, Oslo, Norway, 2014. Photograph by Benjamin Skinstad. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The behind-the-scenes elements are equally important to the depiction of women in Game of Thrones. Yvonne Tasker and Lindsay Steenberg analyse the significance of HBO and the production values of what has been described as “quality TV” (171-192). Helle Kannik Haastrup considers how the series produces alignment with certain characters (131-150), especially Daenerys of House Targaryen, also known as the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Shackles, and Mother of Dragons (Emilia Clarke).

The transmedial universe is becoming equally important for the way audiences and fans experience the depiction of gender. In the digital realm, Felix Schröter argues, stereotypes based on gender and sexism are replicated in video games, particularly in the abilities and limitations accorded female and male role-playing characters (79-104). Paradoxically, this can sometimes be empowering for the gamer, yet it is in fact only under very specific circumstances. As Susana Tosca and Lisbeth Klastrup’s analysis of YouTube television episode reviews suggests, women can gain cultural influence in knowledge production by creating Game of Thrones fan expert reviews (219-242).

A deep sense of ambiguity about feminism and its discontents is perhaps what audiences must really take away from the Game of Thrones universe. As Schubart suggests, post-feminism may be the most useful analytic tool for interpreting the television series, stating: “Daenerys can be seen as a model for creative experimentation and, even, female agency and liberation” (106). In contrast, Stéphanie Genz observes sexist liberalism as being central to the narrative; this can “easily slide into [a] liberal sexism that is blunt and unsentimental in its portrayal of physical violence, sexual abuse, and torture” (253).

The depth and complexity of the women of Game of Thrones is clear nonetheless. While these essays are largely attentive to differences among women, especially based on class, status, and wealth, they largely overlook how questions of race and ethnicity operate throughout Martin’s books and the series as a whole. Such a limitation echoes the analyses of scholars such as Helen Young, who critiques the historical imaginary through which fantasy literature becomes a conduit for the celebration of whiteness. Focusing on the significance of the fantasy genre, however, another book review states:

The women in Game of Thrones don’t live in a perfect world, and they aren’t all great feminist heroines. But there are more of them than the usual token female characters, they come from widely differing backgrounds, and each of them finds their own ways to survive in a dangerous, sexist world.

In conclusion, this collection of essays does not manage – nor does it seek – to provide definitive answers for all the questions it initially presents. Perhaps for different readers, different viewers, and even for different parts of the Game of Thrones narrative, the series can be all these things and more. Women of Ice and Fire revels in the uncertainty which the novels, television series, and transmedial universe produce. These questions, and many more, may be kept in mind as Season 7 airs in the weeks ahead.


AnaStevensonAna Stevenson is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State, South Africa in the field of transnational social movements. Her research interests encompass the development of feminist rhetoric in transnational social movements between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries and the media’s representation of political women. Some of her work can be read at The Conversation, the Queensland Historical Atlas, and U.S. Studies Online. Ana is one of the Managing Editors of VIDA blog.

Follow Ana on Twitter @DrAnaStevenson.

Copyright remains with individual authors who grant VIDA holding a perpetual, world-wide, royalty free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, reproduce and promote content. For permission to re-publish any VIDA blog post, in whole or in part, please contact the managing editors at

This entry was posted in Book review. Bookmark the permalink.