Brienne of Tarth being knighted, Daenerys Targaryen earning the respect of the Dothraki hoard, Sansa executing “Littlefinger” and Cersei negotiating terms with the heartless Iron Bank — HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has so many instances of when female characters’ actions moved the story forward. Paralleling pushback in the real world, when these female characters set forward the reaction of men around them is that of discomfort. We’re conditioned to picture women as the beautiful damsels, the protective mothers, the loving wives, while the man plays the role of the protective warrior, the material provider and the possessive husband or father; the woman is essentially passive which allows women to keep their idealized image intact but also takes away their agency in the morally-ambiguous realms of war and politics.
“Game of Thrones” gets rid of all this separation by both using and subverting the type of gender expectations that one would expect in a medieval-era fantasy world. There are both women who act in line with convention and those who do not. In both, women are shown sensitively and with real character depth. These women can, and do, act in line with female stereotypes, but they often surpass the expectations of people around them with their resourcefulness, wit and ambition.
This reminds me of an oft repeated criticism of affirmative action that people (often men) present, claiming that this practice is artificial or forced in the workplace. The suggestion is that if women are truly equal in capacities to that of a man’s that they should be able to get that promotion without help. That is the way a meritocracy works, right? Somehow, these men feel incredibly threatened by the real possibility that women could disrupt the bro atmosphere of their workplace. This reaction also shows that they are subconsciously insecure about their own masculinity — after all the sole responsibility of providing is a key aspect of what many believe it means to be a man.
At the same time I see the reason for this reaction, even if I cannot empathize with it. The moment that a woman starts taking on conventionally masculine roles, it can be uncomfortable and it is normal to be ambivalent about it. I see this phenomena of awkward first times paralleled in “Game of Thrones.” In one of the most recent episodes titled “Battle of the Bastards,” Sansa dared to stand up and confront her brother Jon about his lack of consultation with her in forming his battle plans to defeat Ramey Bolton, an enemy who she spent a considerable length of time with within the walls of Winterfell. Jon clearly underestimates her value as a source of inside information on his enemy.
In another instance a woman who shows great skill and general toughness finally get a kind of respect formerly reserved for men only. The emotional gut-punch moment in Episode 2 of Season 8, where Brienne of Tarth gets knighted by Jaime Lannister, is touching because of just how far she has gone to get to this point. Jaime clearly believes that she is one of the most honorable and dependable people he knows, as well as a decent swordfighter. Brienne grew up with the mocking nickname “Brienne the Beauty” because of her height and learned that no man was willing to marry her because her appearance. She turned this to her advantage by learning to fight with armor and a sword in that way avoiding falling into the role of a passive victim. She has a long history with Jaime; when they were both captives, Jaime saves her life and she helps him recover after the traumatic amputation of his right hand.
Together again, several familiar characters sit around a fireplace waiting for the arrival of the Army of the Dead. Brienne has to explain to Tormund that in the Seven Kingdoms women are barred from becoming knights.
“If I were a king, I’d knight you 10 times over!” he replies overly-enthusiastically. At this moment there is a rather awkward moment where everyone mourns the unfairness this is denied someone as deserving as she by an accident of birth.
We see that the character dynamics have changed because of this somber moment of silence; no one laughs at the notion of this woman receiving this honor because they know her. Jaime commands Brienne to kneel on the floor and receive her knighthood right then confers on her a place in the brotherhood that she had previously been excluded from.
Affirmative action, in many ways, is analogous to what happens in this fantasy series. In both the real world and in “Game of Thrones” women demand and receive respect from male colleagues and companions only after an unavoidable stage of awkwardness. Yes, at first affirmative action seems like something alien and antithetical to the normal flow of things, but in giving women a leg up, they motivate women to persist through that initial uncertain, awkward period that will occur when they begin having a say in traditionally-masculine roles such as that of a university professor, a soldier or a politician. It is a conscious reversal of gender bias to combat the unconscious tendency to assign more responsibility and authority to the one with the deepest voice and most intimidating presence.
When the traditional gender norm sees women as passive guardians of home and hearth and men to be the active, creative and destructive ones, it will take some fighting to break the mold. We must see women as leaders, too, who are not just imitators of masculine traits, but show a whole new way of being for our species that avoids the destructive hierarchy implicit in the present gender duality.