George R.R. Martin’s A World of Ice and Fire series has been described as “a genuine masterpiece of modern fantasy.”  The popularity of the series was aided by the creation of HBO’s television adaptation, “Game of Thrones,” which has become the most watched show in the history of the channel. Discussions revolving around Martin’s series have spread across the internet like a tidal wave. One of the most prevalent issues discussed is the role of women in the series. There are those who believe Martin’s series promotes misogynistic ideas and there are those who applaud
him for writing such strong, nuanced female leads. No matter one’s opinion on the subject, there can be no denying that Westeros is primarily a patriarchal society. This society promotes certain attributes attached to masculinity and femininity. As Caroline Spector puts it, “both men and women are oppressed by the existing power structure in Westeros,” however “It is the women who are most obviously in need of their own agency.” This paper seeks to explore and discuss how the patriarchal ideology of Westeros informs the shaping of female self and agency in George R.R. Martin’s series. In particular, it will examine Sansa, Arya and Catelyn Stark, three women with very different personalities and methods of claiming agency.
Sansa Stark (for more information about Sansa, visit her Wiki page here)
In order to understand Sansa’s creation of self, the reader must first understand the idea of hegemonic patriarchy. Michel Foucault created the term “docile bodies” to describe how humans “meet social expectations without complaint or resistance.” Sandra Lee Bartky argues that this affects men and women very differently. The feminine expectations create female bodies that are more docile than male bodies. Bartky references Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity in which femininity becomes a construction achieved by the performance of certain attributes society has associated with femininity (the same theory applied to masculinity, but that is not this paper’s concern). In the modern world these hegemonic expectations can be found within the media, which bombards the viewer with images of what a woman should be.
Clearly, George R.R. Martin’s series does not take place in our modern world. Rather, it takes place in a world that promotes a medieval atmosphere. The patriarchal ideology that shapes Westeros society supports this medievalism aspect. Women were not as powerless in medieval society as popular belief would claim, however they were considered the inferior gender to men. Like modern society, women were expected to look, dress and act in a certain way. The Middle Ages didn’t have television or magazines to promote these expectations but they did have stories and songs which could achieve the same result. For example, a comedic story entitled The Lady who was Castrated depicts a woman who refused to submit to her husband. In the end she is cast down by her son-in-law and her return to femininity is symbolically shown through the son pretending to castrate her using a bull’s testicles as a prop.
The ability of stories to promote hegemonic patriarchal ideals becomes significant to Sansa’s character when the reader considers the love she holds for stories and songs. While discussing her daughter, Catelyn says “Sansa was a lady at three, always so courteous and eager to please. She loved nothing so well as tales of knightly valour.” Throughout the novels, Sansa does her best to emulate the ladies (often damsels in distress) in these stories. She is beautiful, excels at the womanly arts and always conducts herself with poise. This careful creation of the ideal lady is not lost on the other characters of the novel. Petyr Baelish tells her, “Life is not a song sweetling. Someday you may learn that, to your sorrow.” However, anyone who mistakes Sansa for a shallow, one-sided character would be sadly mistaken. Sansa’s naivety allows her to develop a fascinating story arch in which her ‘self’ evolves dramatically.
In a deleted scene from “Game of Throne,” the Hound asks Sansa to sing one of her beloved songs.
Sansa begins the novel as a very passive character, whose sense of importance is intimately entwined with the men she is connected to. This is likely due to the role men play in the songs and stories she enjoys, in which the men ultimately save the women. She is first tied to her father, Warden of the North, but becomes thrilled when she finds out she is betrothed to Joffrey, Prince of the realm and future king. In her innocent mind, Joffrey, as a prince, must be a valiant, honorable option for her husband. This innocent view of the world is shattered when her father is beheaded and Joffrey reveals himself to be a vindictive psychopath who delights in giving pain to those around him. Having lived in such a passive role for so long, Sansa is unequipped to handle the political intrigue that is essential to life in King’s Landing. She is left vulnerable to Joffrey and others who wish to manipulate and hurt her. Interestingly, Sansa slowly becomes aware of her limitations as a passive character. Immediately after her father’s beheading, she thinks, “There are no heroes … In life, the monsters win.”Despite slowly realizing that her songs and stories were idealistic visions rather than reality, Sansa continues to rely on the males around her for help. When Maergery and her grandmother offer her an escape from King’s Landing through a marriage to Maergery’s brother, her heart soars at the thought of marrying Loras, the Knight of Flowers. When she finds out that it isn’t Ser Loras she will be marrying, but his crippled brother, her dreams are dashed. However, she agrees to the marriage, seeing no other escape from King’s land than through a male. In the end her escape comes from Ser Dontos. Though he doesn’t fit the image of the chivalrous white knight, he does recall the character of Florin the Fool who rescued the lady Jonquil in a popular tale from the Age of Heroes.
It is only under the protection of Petyr Baelish that Sansa begins to gain some of her own agency. While her actions are still largely controlled by the male she has attached herself to, Sansa knows enough now to mistrust him. At one point she observes that he is telling her lies and wonders where the line between her “protector” Petry Baelish and the conniving Littlefinger is drawn. She even ponders fleeing from him for a brief moment before dismissing the idea as she has nowhere to run to. Also, Petyr begins to instruct her in the art of court intrigue, something she failed to grasp in the earlier novels. When Sansa tells Lord Nestor that it was Marillion, the bard, who pushed Lady Lysa out the Moondoor she notes, “a tear is good.” Sansa is beginning to understand how her beauty and lady-like demeanor can aid in manipulating the people around her. Though Sansa is still far away from independent agency, her character is showing an evolution. She began as nothing more than a naïve girl who believed the world was a reflection of the stories she grew up with. Now, Sansa understands that her stories are unreliable. Though it may be a small change, her newfound ability to manipulate aids her in gaining some agency. Sansa herself sums up the arch of her character when she thinks, “My skin has gone from porcelain, to ivory, to steel.”
Arya Stark (For more information on Arya, visit her wiki page here )
When discussing the ways in which the media promotes certain feminine ideals, Charlebois notes that the viewer has the choice of either accepting these ideals or rejecting them. Sansa Stark accepts the feminine attributes promoted by the songs and stories of Westeros. Her sister, Arya Stark, rejects them completely, becoming the antithesis of Sansa. When describing her youngest daughter, Catelyn says, “Ned’s visitors would oft mistake her for a stableboy if they rode into the yard unannounced. Arya was a trial, it must be said. Half a boy, half a wolf pup… I despaired of ever making a lady of her.” Unlike her sister, Arya fails to excel at the ‘womanly arts,’ comparing her crooked stitches to Sansa’s “exquisite” ones. Arya prefers the more masculine activity of sword play. She makes a mockery of the womanly arts when she agrees to the name Jon gave her sword, “Needle,” and refers to her lessons with Syrio as dancing lessons.
Gender construction in Westeros becomes more obvious through the character of Arya. There is no indication anywhere in the series that Arya identifies as a boy. Though she rejects the attributes of femininity, she always references herself as a female. However, though fully aware of who she is, Syrio Forell always refers to her as “boy.” Similarly, the Gold Cloaks guarding the keep believe Arya to be a beggar boy when she asks for entrance after getting lost. This speaks to the expectations of females in the society. Syrio refers to her as a male because she is learning swordplay, something that is traditionally masculine. The guards at the gate believe she is a boy because females should be clean, primped, and dressed accordingly. Arya was filthy from her adventures in the castles’ tunnels and dressed in breeches rather than a dress. Though it is implied with Sansa, gender construction is most apparent in passages concerning Arya where it is actively enforced by the males around her.
Arya learns waterdancing from Syrio in “Game of Thrones”
Her rejection of female stereotypes allows Arya to seize more control over her life than her sister. One of the first examples of this is when she defends Mycah from Joffrey. Caroline Spector sees this moment as Arya taking “a piece of traditionally male power for herself.” Her willingness to take control in dangerous situations allows Arya to survive on her own after her father dies. This is best demonstrated by her relationship with Jaqen H’ghar. Though Arya trained with Syrio in the art of waterdancing and has proven herself able, sheis still limited in her capabilities. She is only a little girl after all. When at Harrenhall, Arya is powerless to do anything on her own. Jaqen gives her power when he offers to kill any three men she names. Arya’s understanding of the world is shown when she manipulates Jaqen into starting an uprising by naming his own name. Unlike Sansa, she is anything but passive and is very willing to manipulate those around her into doing what she wants.
Arya names Jaqen H’ghar
Interestingly, this control and power Arya demonstrates begins to have negative effect on her sense of self. Arya’s fight for survival ultimately leads her to Braavos and the House of Black and White. The house will help her strengthen her killing abilities, ultimately granting her even more agency than she has already claimed. But the price of this power is high. She must sacrifice everything that makes her Arya Stark, including “her name, her family and her possessions.” This raises an interesting question: is the price of claiming power as a female ultimately losing one’s self? Though it is more apparent in Arya’s character, even Sansa begins to lose her sense of self in the later novels when she begins to live as Alayne.
Catelyn Stark (for more information on Catelyn, visit her Wiki page here )
Catelyn Stark finds a balance between the two extremes of her daughters. As a woman, her life was dictated for her. Her father arranged a marriage to Brandon Stark, and when he was murdered by the Mad King, he gave her to Eddard Stark instead. Her worth in society was deemed by the alliances she could form through marriage. The reader is aware that she never truly became comfortable in the north. As she walks towards Ned, the reader is told, “Catelyn had never liked this Godswood.” She compares it to the Godswood of Riverrun, which was filled with sunlight. This passage shows the displacement women felt when they were forced from their home and into a marriage. Through her marriage to Ned, Catelyn adopts the most common role of a woman, that of a wife and a mother. Despite her discomfort with some aspects of the north, she readily accepts this role, as Sansa readily accepts the vision of the ideal lady. She begs the gods to give Ned another child. She also promotes the idea that a woman’s worth is tied to the man she marries. When Ned is displeased by the thought that Sansa should marry Joffrey, Catelyn argues, calling it an honor. “Sansa might someday be queen,” she says, “Her sons could rule from the Wall to the mountains of Dorne. What is so wrong with that?” Though Catelyn readily accepts the role society has given to her, it does not restrict her as it does Sansa. Instead, Catelyn finds strength in it.
Catelyn has the ability to influence her husband’s decisions. Ned does not wish to accept the position of Hand of the King, but Catelyn persuades him of it using his love of Robert as incentive. However, she does not persuade Ned for Robert’s sake; rather it is “for her children’s sake.” Everything she does is motivated by the need to keep her family safe. She often places her family above duty. After Bran falls and breaks his back, she refuses to leave his side in order to run Winterfell. When Luwin approaches her with a matter concerning the stables, she cries, “My son lies here broken and dying, Luwin, and you wish to discuss a new master of horse? Do you think I care what happens in the stables? Do you think it matters to me one whit?” Her need to keep her children safe often results in her crossing the bounds of propriety. Upon finding out that Bran and Rickon were supposedly murdered at the hands of Theon Greyjoy, she throws caution to the wind and frees Jaimie Lannister from Robb’s cells in an informal hostage exchange for her daughters. Her desperation to keep her children alive allows her to act more daringly than many of the other characters in the series. As Brienne puts it, Catelyn has courage, “not battle courage, perhaps, but… a woman’s courage.”
Michelle Fairley discusses Catelyn’s motivations
Martin’s world includes many women, each with a distinct personality and role in the story. The Stark women are an effective example of how different women function within the patriarchal society and how this affects their creation of self. The songs and stories known throughout Westeros promote the attributes associated with femininity. Sansa accepts these attributes as truth, modelling herself after the Ladies of these stories. This creates a very passive self that relies on male power to help her. Arya rejects this vision of womanhood, preferring the more masculine arts. By accepting this more masculine role, she is active in the shaping of her own life, relying on her own wits for survival. Likes Sansa, Catelyn also readily accepts the role society places her in. Unlike Sansa, this role of motherhood grants her the strength she needs to claim agency.There can be no denying that Westeros is a patriarchal society. However, this does not mean all women are crippled. Rather, it creates a world that allows each woman to explore their own path to personal agency.
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 Caroline Spector, “Power and Feminism in Westeros,” in Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, (Dallas: BenBella Books Inc., 2012), Kindle Edition, Chapter 12.
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 Bartky, “Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” 79.
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 Murray, “Historicizing Sex,” 135.
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 Martin, A Game of Thrones, Chapter 44.
 Martin, A Game of Thrones, chapter 67.
 George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows, (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 210.
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 George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords, (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 833.
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“A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book One).” George R.R. Martin. Accessed April 04, 2015.
Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” In The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behaviour. Edited by Rose Weitz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Charlebois, Justin. Gender and the Construction of Dominant, Hegemonic, and Oppositional Femininities, (Toronto: Lexington Books, 2011), 16.
“Game of Thrones: About the Show.” HBO.com. Accessed April 04, 2015.
Martin, George R.R. A Clash of Kings. New York: Bantam Books, 1999.
Martin, George R.R. A Feast for Crows. New York: Bantam Books, 2011.
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Martin, George R.R. A Storm of Swords. New York: Bantam Books, 2011.
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Image and Video Bibliography
“Arya Names Jaqen.” YouTube video. Posted by “Nineteen1900Hundred,” May 29, 2012.
Fig. 7. Emily Dykeman, Catelyn Meme. 2015, Meme. Created in ImgFlip.com (accessed April 4, 2015).
“Game of Thrones Catelyn Stark: Thronecast Michelle Fairley Interview.” YouTube video. Posted by “Sky Atlantic,” April 16, 2012.
“Game of Thrones (HBO) – The Water Dance (scene).” YouTube video. Posted by “Ghioca Paul,” May 1, 2011.
“Game of Thrones S2 Deleted Scenes – Sandor and Sansa.” YouTube video. Posted by “Cian Gaffney,” February 19, 2013.