Game of Thrones is all about injecting real-world cynicism into a fantasy story, and George RR Martin does that exceptionally well. One of his favorite techniques is referencing actual historical horrors: the Black Dinner, the execution of Thomas More, Habsburg inbreeding, and so on. So he’s drawing from the lives of real women when he makes his female characters the power behind, or on, the throne. Is that an excellent acknowledgement of female power? It is indeed. Does it make for an environment rich in admirable human beings? No, it does not.
Let’s take a look at the female characters who are most frequently held up as examples of grrl power:
(Here be spoilers if you’re only watching the show)
Daenerys Targaryen: What happens when a white lady rolls into town and proclaims herself the Savior of the Brown People? Famine, assassination attempts, and a whole lot of plague.
Arya Stark: When you surround a girl with murderous sociopaths, she’s not going to develop a healthy respect for human life. Arya’s resilient and courageous, but the world has turned her into a weapon with no morals and no sense of identity.
Brienne of Tarth: She’s really good at killing people and switching sides. It makes sense in the context of the book, but in real life? Not the kind of woman you want to hang out with.
Catelyn Stark: Arguably lost the war by letting a valuable captive go free, shunned a child in her household so brutally that he decided that voluntary exile beat hanging around with her, murdered a mentally handicapped child as her final act of revenge, came back from the dead because she hasn’t had enough revenge yet.
Margaery Tyrell: Married husband #1 for power while (presumably) knowing that he didn’t like the ladies, switched sides to marry husband #2 and murder him on their wedding day, currently married to a young child.
Is Game of Thrones a good piece of literature, from a feminist perspective? Yes, I would argue that it is. But it’s not because the female characters are admirable–nobody’s admirable, especially not the characters who believe themselves to be the saviors of this fucked up fantasy world. No, what makes the story feminist is that women are allowed to be just as bad as men. They scheme and plot and forward their own interests just as well as everyone else. They kill their enemies with poison, swords, knives, magic shadow babies, and dragons. They are not nice people. And in a genre that has a long and frustrating history of letting women stay beautiful and impotent, that’s a bold statement.