'Game of Thrones' finale: Bran Stark highlights the 'iron ceiling' for Westeros women

A couple of woke bros does not a revolution make. In Westeros — as in the real world — winter is far from over.
From left, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead Wright and Sophie Turner in the series finale of "Game of Thrones."
From left, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead Wright and Sophie Turner in the series finale of "Game of Thrones."Macall B. Polay / HBO
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By Lynn Stuart Parramore

The Iron Throne may have been melted by dragon breath, but it looks like an iron ceiling remains for the female characters of “Game of Thrones.”

(Spoilers below.)

The finale for the HBO series aired Sunday night with mixed fan reactions. At least in the TV version of the story, the show ended with the key female characters either dead or passed over to rule the lands of Westeros. (Author George R.R. Martin has not yet finished the book series, “A Song of Fire and Ice,” on which the show is based). A male monarch (Bran, played by Isaac Hempstead Wright) is in charge, with yet another man (Tyrion, played by Peter Dinklage) acting as his chief advisor. This, despite several capable women left standing in the final episode.

For a fantasy show, it feels remarkably like real life.

The Iron Throne may have been melted by dragon breath, but it looks like an iron ceiling remains for the female characters of “Game of Thrones.”

Just before season eight launched in April, four of the show’s female actors gathered for a Vogue magazine interview, in part to address complaints that the HBO hit had a misogynistic streak.

Lena Headey, who portrayed the ruthless Cersei, assured Vogue that “upending the patriarchy of Westeros” was the goal of author Martin and show creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. “That’s why they could shoulder all of the criticism,” she explained. “They knew what was coming and what they had in store for these women.”

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But it kind of looks like what was coming for women was not so very different from what had already happened to them.

Critics have long pointed out that the “Game of Thrones” women granted the highest respect were those who inhabited roles valued in a patriarchy, a phenomenon that remained true right up to the finale. Characters like Daenerys, Arya, Brienne, Yara Greyjoy and the tiny chieftain Lyanna Mormont became beloved heroes because they were warriors and fighters extraordinaire.

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On the other hand, women whose strength is primarily intellectual, like Cersei, or based on shrewdness and emotional resilience, like Sansa, were subjected to extreme physical violation and assault at the hands of men — as if in punishment for their femininity. Cersei is a monstrosity who must be killed and Sansa, despite her wise benevolence, is overlooked for the top job in Westeros.

Not that fighting like a man breaks the iron ceiling, either. Even a great warrior like Brienne, known for her judgment and discipline, is passed over by King Bran for his second-in-command, instead awarding the role of King's Hand to Tyrion.

That’s not to say the wheel of patriarchy rolls on unimpeded. Sansa plucks a juicy compensation prize as the head of the independent North. Even better, primogeniture — the preference for the eldest son in lines of succession — is abolished. Not, mind you, because women fight for their rights, but because a man, Tyrion, graciously decrees it. And since Bran is unable to have children and Tyrion decides that future leaders will be chosen by councils rather than born, that presumably puts the brakes on the endless war-mongering of Westeros.

“Sons of kings” who can be “cruel and stupid” will “never torment us,” promises Tyrion. “That is the wheel our queen wanted to break,” he says, speaking for the slain Daenerys.

It’s true that the British medieval world the story is based on was a feudal patriarchy, but the argument that this limited how the show could depict women is nonsense.

Progress, to be sure. But is the patriarchal wheel really broken? Even under a king as woke as Bran, whose physical limitations and moniker, “The Broken,” suggest a break with toxic, might-as-right masculinity?

It’s true that the British medieval world the story is based on was a feudal patriarchy, but the argument that this limited how the show could depict women is nonsense. The male-dominated world of the Middle Ages offered better roles for women than those presented in “Game of Thrones.” (Some historians argue that the misogyny of the period was actually a backlash against women’s increasing power, at least among the aristocracy).

Eleanor of Aquitaine, the 12th century queen of France and then England, was not only a political powerhouse, but an enlightened champion of the arts, influencing concepts of courtly love that may have expanded sexual roles for women.

Noblewomen whose husbands were off to fight the Crusades were spared endless childbearing and could enjoy some independence in running their estates. Many found empowered lives in religious communities. All without picking up a sword.

In Westeros, however, anything construed as feminine is despised. “I don't plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me,” Lyanna Mormont announces on the eve of the battle against the White Walkers. “I might be small…and I might be a girl, but I am every bit as much a Northerner as you,” she insists to a male associate.

That speech sounded to some like egalitarianism, but was it?

The technologies of weaving, spinning, and knitting — activities associated with women — have been as critical to human survival as the ability to fight — even more so. Textiles are a key part of the story of scientific advances, economic development and global trade. The Industrial Revolution was launched in part by the spinning jenny. So don’t tell me that knitting is a backwards and cowardly act.

Riane Eisler’s popular speculative history “The Chalice and the Blade” discusses egalitarian social structures as those in which values like caregiving traditionally assigned to women (represented by the chalice) are not diminished in favor of those patriarchy assigns to men, such as war-making (represented by the blade).

Westeros, in the end, is still mostly blade and precious little chalice.

In order to exercise real power, women must first be free to transcend the roles that patriarchy has assigned them: breeders, unpaid helpers and sexual objects.

Under such conditions, patriarchy most certainly won’t disappear. That requires cultural, political and economic shifts that are usually agonizingly slow. In order to exercise real power, women must first be free to transcend the roles that patriarchy has assigned them: breeders, unpaid helpers and sexual objects. Such freedom is never granted through enlightened male decree, but fought for through the tireless slog of generations of women and their allies.

A truly egalitarian world will always remain elusive until women are able to make choices about their reproductive and sexual lives — a freedom now under assault, as Tyrion might put it, by “cruel and stupid” men, right here in 21st century America. And as long as women are consigned, as they still are, to the default primary role in early childcare, their full participation in society can’t be secured.

Many hundred years and political structures after the Middle Ages, women remain oppressed through physical violence, economic unfairness and lack of political representation.

Let’s be frank: A couple of woke bros does not a revolution make. In Westeros — as in the real world — winter is far from over.