Game of Thrones: The Overthrow of the Patriarchy in Westeros? (An Opinion Piece)

George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is currently one of the most popular fantasy series, both on television and in print, and some have begun to describe the work alongside J. R. R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings and J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter. As with Tolkien and Rowling, Martin borrows readily from medieval history and literature, but somewhat differently; Martin seems at times to invert certain fantasy genre expectations and stereotypes. His fantasy series centers on themes generally associated with modern medievalism, especially issues of rightful rulership, noble lineage, courtly politics, codes of chivalry, medieval warfare, ancient prophecy, arcane magic, mysterious monsters and spiritual mysticism. However, Martin’s somewhat more innovative characterizations and reimagining of traditions are what I have personally found most enjoyable about reading Song of Ice and Fire and viewing Game of Thrones.

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) with her sword, Needle

In particular, I appreciate how Martin highlights the failure of the patriarchy. At the beginning of Game of Thrones (both the book and the film), most of the powerful houses and many of the kingdoms are ruled by strong men—the seven kingdoms and the stormlands under Robert Baratheon, the north under Eddard Stark, the westerlands under Tywin Lannister, the iron islands under Balon Greyjoy, and the Dothraki khalasar under Khal Drogo. Even the exiled Viserys Targaryen held his family’s claim to the iron throne, though he could hardly be considered strong in any sense.

Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), and Viserys Targaryen (Harry Llyod)

The one possible exception is the queen of thorns, Olenna Tyrell, who is ultimately poisoned by Jamie Lannister after allying with Daenerys Targaryen in season seven, episode three [“The Queen’s Justice”]. Like her grandmother, the thrice-made queen, Margaery Tyrell, also demonstrates her social prowess by navigating courtly politics and leveraging marriage to her advantage, working the system from within. However, Margaery underestimates her enemies and becomes a victim of the wildfire arson of the Sept of Balor, which all but destroys her family, sparing only Olenna who was then safe at Highgarden and beyond Cersei’s reach.

Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer)

By the end of the series, things look quite different. The final contest for the iron throne is staged between two rival queens, Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister. The once exiled Daenerys, having been fostered by the Dothraki, holds perhaps the strongest claim to the iron throne, though Jon Snow’s recently discovered identity certainly complicates the matter of succession as determined by the patriarchal legal traditions of Westeros. Nevertheless, Daenerys has emerged as a conqueror in Essos and returns to Westeros with both armies  and dragons.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark) with her dragon, Drogon.

The Baratheon family is mostly wiped out in the war of five kings (although Daenerys names Gendry Baratheon the new lord of Storm’s End), and the north and riverlands seem to be led by Sansa Stark, despite Jon Snow’s recent title as king in the north. Cersei Lannister retains the iron throne as queen, and she commands her family’s forces as well as the Iron Fleet of Euron Greyjoy and the mercenary guild known as the Golden Company. Asha Greyjoy (or Yara in the films) is also named queen of the iron islands, and she has acted as a leader throughout the series, as has the Dornish matriarch, Ellaria Sand (a character loosely associated with princess Arianne Martell, absent from the films entirely). And, after Ned Stark’s death, Catelyn Stark took command of the north and riverlands alongside her son Robb Stark until the terrible red wedding claims both their lives.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley)

Other prominent female characters have likewise developed into formidable figures, especially the fearless assassin Arya Stark, who crucially slays the Night King, the mighty knight Brienne of Tarth, and the mystical red priestess Melisandre. The young and fierce Lyanna Mormont also shows her unfailing fortitude, even as she dies heroically during the battle for Winterfell in a David and Goliath allusive scene, in which she destroys an undead giant.

Ary Stark (Maisie Williams), Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), Melisandre (Carice van Houten), and Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey)

I am by no means attempting to exonerate Game of Thrones or Song of Ice and Fire from warranted allegations of sexism, and there is surely still much to reflect on and criticize in this regard. More blatantly, it seems that Game of Thrones is distinctly less concerned with issues of race. The films in particular consistently portray the Dothraki as exceptionally savage in a manner that upholds extremely harmful and problematic stereotypes. This characterization is especially troubling considering how in season eight, episode three [“The Long Night”], the Dothraki are essentially sacrificed. The much discussed Dothraki charge into the approaching forces of the Night King was the first and only assault by the living against the army of the dead, and the Dothraki were all but annihilated as a result. Rather miraculously, the one Westerosi knight who rides out with the Dothraki manages to make it back alive.

Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and the Dothraki screamers about to charge

Martin consistently focuses on the gritty human experience, and most of his cultures seem barbaric in one form or another. However, especially in the film, the Dothraki are presented at times in ways that reinforce a stubborn racial bias within the modern fantasy genre. It seemed to me as a reader that in the book series, Song of Ice and Fire, Martin is able to better demonstrate that savagery and the horrors which humans inflict on each other are ubiquitous and extend to every culture—perpetrated by the free folk wildlings north of the Wall, the feudal Westerosi and the pillaging iron islanders, as often as by the Dothraki horde or the ruling class in Slaver’s Bay. Of course, I fully concede that my interpretations of the books and films are necessarily limited and affected by my white male privilege, as it is for the books’ author [George R. R. Martin] and films’ creators [David Benioff and D. B. Weiss]. It nevertheless seems apparent that the various patriarchal systems are the universal root of atrocities in both Westeros and Essos.

Lord of Bones (Edward Dogliani) with wildlings and slaves in Slaver’s Bay

It must be emphasized, as many critics have pointed out, that the film series repeatedly underrepresents persons of color. The only two major non-white characters that make it to season eight are Grey Worm, who leads the Unsullied, and Missandei, who dies at Cersei’s hand this past weekend, after being captured by Euron Greyjoy during season eight, episode four [“The Last of the Starks”]. Both are former slaves from Essos who have become loyal friends and advisors to Daenerys. Missandei’s devotion to the “mother of dragons” costs her life, and I would be rather disappointed, if not surprised, should the same prove true for Grey Worm before the war for Westeros is done.

Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson)

Perhaps as unfortunate as Game of Thrones’ mistreatment of Missandei and Grey Worm is the book series’ numerous characters of color who simply do not feature in the show, including central figures from the Dornish royal family and Moqorro, a powerful red priest from Volantis, who is searching for Daenerys in Martin’s book five, A Dance with Dragons. The film also misses a number of opportunities to cast major protagonists from Essos as persons of color, including Varys, Thoros of Myr and Melisandre, all of whom are played by white actors.

Varys (Conleth Hill), Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) and Melisandre (Carice van Houten)

While Game of Thrones falls woefully short when it comes to fantasy representations of diverse and non-white cultures, and above all underrepresents women of color, it does seems to me that the toppling of the patriarchy by powerful (generally white) women is part of its narrative design. In virtually every case, with the notable exception of Cersei, female rulership is a marked improvement upon the patriarchy that existed prior to women’s rise to power in Westeros. In my opinion, even Cersei seems objectively preferable to her son Joffrey Baratheon, the adolescent-king poisoned by Littlefinger [Petyr Baelish] and Olenna Tyrell at his own wedding.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey)

I hope that the fact that an anti-patriarchal message, however clumsily handled, features so prominently in a mainstream fantasy series may at the very least represent an evolution in contemporary audiences’ expectations and sensibilities. In addition to the series’ function as a literary bridge between the modern and medieval for many readers and students, the bifurcating successes and failures with regard to expressions of feminist and racial attitudes in Game of Thrones make the film a potentially useful teaching tool for illustrating conscious and unconscious misogyny and racism in medievalism and fantasy literature.

Hopefully, they do not blow it and put Jon Snow on the iron throne.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


Related Online Reading:

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Blaise, Guilia. Games of Thrones Has a Woman Problem (And It’s Not What You Think).” The Huffington Post (May 6, 2017).

Blumsom, Amy. “Arya Stark’s Kill List: Who’s Still Left for Needle in Game of Thrones Season 8?The Telegraph (May 5, 2019).

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Dikov, Ivan. “Game of Thrones is Terrific But Why Are Humans So Enchanted With Feudalism?Archaeology in Bulgaria (October 19, 2017.)

Fahey, Richard. “Zombie of the Frozen North: White Walkers and Old Norse Revenants.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (March 5, 2018).

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Undergrad Wednesdays – Two Shrews: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” as an Inversion of The Taming of the Shrew

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

The Wife of Bath, a proto-feminist who argues for feminine power and agency, appears to undermine the patriarchy at every turn, yet the way that this ideology plays out in her tale is incomplete and problematic. In Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, a Knight is sent on a quest to find out what women truly desire above all else. On his long journey, after questioning each woman he meets, he discovers the answer: “Wommen desiren have sovereynetee / As wel over hir husband as hir love / And for to be in maistrie hym above” (Chaucer 165). The Knight is applauded for his thoughtful answer, and every woman in the court agrees with him. Thus, the Knight’s life is spared.

But it is often forgotten why the Knight was sent on this life-or-death mission in the first place. He is given this impossible task as a punishment for a crime, and if he fails to come up with the correct answer, he will pay with his life. This crime occurs as follows:

And happed that allone as he was born,
He saugh a mayde walkynge hym biforn,
Of which mayde anon, maugree hir heed,
By verray force birafte hire maydenhed. (Chaucer 163)

He rapes a woman, and yet Queen Guinevere and the ladies of the court beg King Arthur to spare the Knight’s life. Why do the women want to spare a man who poses such a threat? Perhaps they would rather pursue rehabilitation than revenge and meaningless violence, but the success of this rehabilitation remains ambiguous.

The Knight asks every woman what they desire the most, and an extremely ugly old hag claims that she has the answer. In return for the correct answer, the disgusted Knight promises to marry her. On his wedding night, the old lady asks the Knight to make a choice: should she remain old and ugly in appearance, but be a faithful wife to him, or should she be young and beautiful, but unfaithful? He responds: “As yow liketh, it suffiseth me” (Chaucer 168). Although the Knight allows his wife to choose, granting her bodily sovereignty, his response does not necessarily spring from his newfound respect for women and knowledge of what they desire.

The Knight meets the “Loothly and oold” lady. 

The Knight was so distressed by his wife’s “so loothly and so oold” appearance at the time of their engagement that there is little question that if the choice were between his wife being constantly beautiful or constantly ugly, he would not hesitate to decide for her (Chaucer 166). It is possible that he does not give her sovereignty out of respect, but out of despair. Thus, a rapist is rewarded with a beautiful and obedient wife without having paid for his wrongdoing or learning from it, and a tale that seems set out to propound a female-first agenda undermines itself by expounding male entitlement, which raises interesting questions about whether or not this tale was intended to be proto-feminist at all. Many feminists today might blindly applaud this tale for promoting a feminist vision of the world without realizing the male entitlement and endorsement of rape culture latent throughout the story. Megan Valley elaborates on this theme of how the Wife of Bath is pseudo-feminist rather than proto-feminist in her post entitled: “How the Wife of Bath Gone Girl’d Us.”

Unlike “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew appears to be intended as a kind of wife-beating romp which undermines any idea of female sovereignty. Many feminists today would reject this play as blatantly unfeminist, which is understandable if one considers the clip of the “Punch” scene below, which is from Sam Taylor’s film adaptation of the play, as a summary of the play as a whole:

If this is how we are to read The Taming of the Shrew, surely this play offers nothing to modern audiences, who often view it “barbarous, offensive, and misogynistic” (Costa). And yet, it continues to draw audiences, who must be either “secret sadists,” or else the production must offer a deeper reading of gender relations than readily appears (Costa).

Katherine’s final speech usually punctuates the arguments of those who would see Taming as the ultimate how-to guide for misogyny. Katherine, once headstrong and bold, now appears meek and docile, blathering on and on with lines such as:

But now I see our [women’s] lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare…
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot:

In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease. (Shakespeare ln 189-195)

Katherine literally and figuratively places herself below her husband, almost as his servant. Though it may seem that Petruchio has tamed this shrew completely, in many ways, the taming can be subverted.

If we examine the word “shrew” in this context, the Oxford English Dictionary would define it as “a person, esp.(now only) a woman given to railing or scolding or other perverse or malignant behaviour; frequently a scolding or turbulent wife” (OED). At the conclusion of the play, Katherine lectures and scolds the two other wives in a speech over 40 lines long. In this light, it seems like she remains “a woman given to railing or scolding” rather than being tamed (OED). Additionally, the final speech can be given ironically or sarcastically, with the power dynamics shifting, as occurs in Mary Pickford’s portrayal of Katherine, whose famous wink indicates that her flowery speech is mere lip-service (Wink at 1:18):

Thus, the play can actively work against its appearance of misogyny, and even when it is portrayed as misogynistic, this appearance is so very repugnant that it undermines its own rhetoric. (For no audience can bear to watch Katherine be utterly battered and abused for 2 hours!) A middle ground is also possible, in which Petruchio does not stomp all over Katherine, but both of them undergo a pedagogical journey which ends somewhere in the middle: not with Katherine worshiping at her husband’s foot, but with them taking hands as equals, partners in the next chapter of their life (Speech begins at 23:40; Meeting in the middle begins at 27:00):

In the pedagogical journey in The Taming of the Shrew, either Petruchio or Katherine could be the shrew, because both are undergoing an education, which ultimately brings them closer together. The Wife of Bath’s Tale also includes a pedagogical journey, that of the Knight, who is supposed to learn to respect women. Though the education of Petruchio and Katherine unveils surprising lessons for them, subverting the misogynistic expectation laid out by the surface-level structure of the play, the Knight’s education reveals that the feminist lessons he was supposed to learn never take root. Thus, the Knight is never tamed, and the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” refuses to conform entirely to the proto-feminist message of sovereignty which it appears to promote. Both stories subvert the expectations that feminist readers bring to them, refusing to conform entirely to a misogynistic or proto-feminist message.

Mary Elsa Henrichs
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed., Broadview Press, 2012.

Costa, Maddy. “The Taming of the Shrew: ‘This Is Not a Woman Being Crushed’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Jan. 2012, www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/jan/17/taming-of-the-shrew-rsc.

“Kiss Me, Petruchio, Part 2.” Youtube, uploaded by Ken Thorton, 30 December 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI9ogFdHWQQ.

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew, from Folger Digital Texts. Ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Folger Shakespeare Library, 2 April, 2018.

“Punch & Judy Shrew.” Youtube, uploaded by GoodmanDull, 2 September 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7vIQB60GjQ.

“The Taming of the Shrew Film Clip.” Youtube, uploaded by CSTONEUK, 25 September 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jz9MfjuBB70.

Undergrad Wednesdays – How the Wife of Bath Gone Girl’d Us

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a potential medieval husband’s worst nightmare: this Canterbury Tales pilgrim is bawdy, aggressively forward with her sexuality, power-hungry, and perhaps most offensively of all, average looking, at best. So terrifying are her confessions of sexual manipulation, that the Pardoner even interupts her Prologue with claims that he is now questioning his own impending marriage: “I was about to wed a wife, alas! / Why should I pay so dearly for it with my flesh?” (166–67, my translation). The Wife of Bath appears to be perpetuating negative portrayals of women; at the same time, she also appears to be satirizing men’s fears and anxieties about their wives and, by extension, all of womankind. Her extremely colorful (read: dirty and borderline-absurdist) humor could render her possibly anti-feminist tendencies to be ironic, along with her ability to engage with clerical knowledge, refusal to conform to restrictive expectations of women’s sexuality, and, ultimately, her ability to gain sovereignty, have been cited by many scholars to argue that the Wife of Bath is a proto-feminist. And certainly, there is ample evidence to suggest that she is—see, for instance, Jessica Ping’s “Big Reputation,” which argues for reading the Wife of Bath as a Taylor Swift–type, who is herself an extremely problematic figure for many modern feminists.

Regardless, for many modern readers, it can be difficult to fully distinguish these subversions of feminine expectations from a reading that understands her as a woman who fulfills all of the medieval man’s worst fears about women. Many readers are caught in a web of interpretations: is the Wife of Bath proto-feminist for wanting control in her marriages? Pseudofeminist for being promiscuous and having five husbands? Or, ironically pseudofeminist to the point of coming back around to feminist? The lack of clarity surrounding whether the Wife of Bath is normative or revolutionary makes it an extremely relevant text for contemporary fourth-wave feminism, which has seen young women, in particular, re-embrace typically “feminine” things that had previously been cast aside in a revolt against feminine expectations.

The character Amy Dunne—of the novel and film Gone Girl—also presents a complicated tension between perpetuation and deconstruction of feminist and anti-feminist tropes. Granted, Amy’s subversion of feminine tropes are far bloodier and terrifying than the Wife of Bath’s, but the plurality of possible readings are the same. Amy herself deconstructs the idea of the “Cool Girl”—the idealized woman she tried so hard to be—in a now-infamous monologue that appears in both the novel and the film:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. (Flynn 222)

Amy, by casting off her “Cool Girl” veneer, becomes a far darker version of the Wife of Bath: she, too, seeks to sexually manipulate the men in her life—via false rape accusations and pregnancies—and commandeer total power by fulfilling every anxiety, every fear that the contemporary man has about women. Chaucer’s medieval everyman fears their wife siphoning their money; Flynn’s contemporary everyman fears “crazy bitches” who ruin their lives with statistically improbable rape accusations and have complete financial power over them because they’ve been emasculated by their inability to be the breadwinner. Gone Girl’s author, Gillian Flynn, has been accused of misogyny because of her portrayal of Amy’s evilness: she lies about being raped on multiple occasions, goes to unbelievable lengths to manipulate the men in her life, and makes the typical “femme fatale” seem lighthearted and playful. Frankly, Amy’s a “psychotic bitch,” but does that make her antifeminist? Or is allowing a feminine character to revel in simply being a “psychotic bitch” without a necessarily political agenda feminist in its own right?

Both Gone Girl and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue are successful in how they tease out complicated questions of femininity and its place in society. What are the boundaries between a good woman, a good feminist, and a good character? These are the questions that force the reader to reconsider their own expectations for and conceptions of gender, which can create a feminist narrative, even if the characters end up not being so. Whether or not a character is feminist might even be an arbitrary question; while much of the discourse surrounding Amy Dunne is centered on feminism, this video from Vanity Fair analyzes her character from a psychological standpoint, with no mention of whether she’s “feminist” or not.

Regardless of Chaucer’s intention when crafting the Wife of Bath’s character as well as his other female characters, a clever modern reader can see she is an embodiment of the most stereotypical fears of men (see Tess Kaiser’s “Chaucer’s Envoy, Gone Girl, and Pseudo-Feminsim” to explore the question of feminism and pseudo-feminism in The Clerk’s Tale]. In her Prologue, the wife of Bath says “I had [my husbands] wholly in my hand / and since they had given me all their land, / Why should I take heed to please them, / Unless it were for my profit and pleasure?” (Chaucer 211–14, my translation). The Wife of Bath, claiming to use her husbands for their assets and control them with sex, plays off the same core of insecurity that Amy does: sexuality and power dynamics within marriage. The manifestations are different, but there is still some universal commentary about the nature of men—and, almost necessarily, the nature of women—that’s being made by how they toy with and fuel those fears.

Above all, the Wife of Bath and Amy are threatening because they are coded as typically masculine: they’re strong, and complicated, and clever, and crave power. Whether it’s feminist to defy gender norms or anti-feminist to suggest that the only strong woman is a masculine woman is precisely Flynn’s point; whatever Chaucer’s intention was, a modern reading of a medieval character is clearly inspirational to imagined gender relations. The strength of The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Gone Girl is that neither of them are clear-cut; the reader is forced to confront their own opinions about gender.

Megan Valley
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed., Broadview editions, 2012.

Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York, Broadway Books, 2012.