Game of Thrones - A Bechdel Test, Feminist, and Inclusivity Analysis

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“It’s pretty disappointing that a man who could come up with White Walkers, dragons and could create approximately 1000 characters couldn’t be a bit more imaginative with gender and race throughout the seasons.”


Words by Sophie Palk

*Trigger Warning: This article contains analysis of rape scenes*

This article contains spoilers.

Like most of the world, I love Game of Thrones and have waited so impatiently for season eight.

But something I have thought about a lot is how feminist is Game of Thrones. It’s often praised because of the high number of female characters who have strong personalities. Especially considering in the fantasy genre, there is usually a lack of female characters.

Quick note on the Bechdel test though, it can be applied to movies, books and TV and if you answer these three questions with a yes, it passes the Bechdel test and they are:

  1. Are there two or more female characters?

  2. Do they speak to each other?

  3. Do they talk about something other than a man?

Although there is usually some dispute about question three, some people think that if a woman speaks to another woman then it should pass. I think if the second woman doesn’t reply, then it isn’t a conversation so it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. Many people also think that if they talk about a man who they aren’t romantically involved with this also passes. I disagree with this too, I would say the vast majority of conversations men have don’t revolve around women, romantically linked or not, so why is it okay when the women do?

The thing that bothers me about the Bechdel test is that when something does pass, people seem to celebrate that as if that means that something is truly inclusive and diverse which often isn’t the case. Having two women speak to each other is a pretty low bar to set so when something does pass, it is meeting the absolute bare minimum. With this in mind, the huge amount of media which doesn’t pass the test is absolutely astonishing.

The thing that bothers me about the Bechdel test is that when something does pass, people seem to celebrate that as if that means that something is truly inclusive and diverse which often isn’t the case.

The fantasy genre as a whole is pretty dire for passing the Bechdel test. For example Lord of the Rings, although there are some female characters, they don’t ever meet and discuss something other than a man. Commentators have argued online that despite this, LOTR meets the “spirit of the Bechdel test” because it has strong, female characters. In my opinion, if they don’t ever speak to each other, then they aren’t strong enough.

Despite the huge universe and multitude of characters in Game of Thrones, only 18 out of 67 episode pass the Bechdel test (season one to seven was analysed). But, every episode of season four passed and I would say that every episode of season eight has probably passed due to Dany and Missandei, and Sansa and Arya.

I would argue that Game of Thrones has become a feminist show because of the variety of characters and personalities. Look back to season 1, the key female characters were Cat, Cersei, the Stark girls, and Daenerys. They were all defined by their marriages (and father in terms of the Stark girls). All of the wives were pretty powerless at this point, Cat fucked up and started a massive war by kidnapping Tyrion, Cersei had no control over her life while Robert was around and didn’t wield that much control or influence over Joffrey. Daenerys had been sold off by her brother and was raped pretty routinely until Khal Drogo died.

George R. R. Martin has said before that Westeros is based on Medieval society which you see in the women’s roles at the beginning of the show. The lack of diversity in Game of Thrones has also been justified by this reasoning - pretty disappointing that a man who could come up with White Walkers, dragons and could create approximately 1000 characters couldn’t be a bit more imaginative with gender and race throughout the seasons.

But, as the seasons have gone on, the women have grown and taken control over their lives and have also steadily become more violent. Even Sansa, who has probably committed the least amount of murder and violence, still fed Ramsey to his dogs.

I’ve heard others criticise Game of Thrones for simply making the women too much like men, too masculine, too aggressive, and to lower women to a man’s level isn’t feminist at all. I think this view in itself is pretty unfeminist, the suggestion is either that women can’t be violent or shouldn’t be violent and they should be able to rise above it and solve their problems without violence. Why should they? Why should the women in the show be held to higher moral and ethical standards than the men? This would just play into the fragile female stereotypes that we see. Game of Thrones is feminist because we judge the men and women in the same way. They can both be equally evil or capable of evil.

We love Game of Thrones because of the variety in characters, because they are 3D, flawed characters. We have the violent characters like Arya, the assassin who rejects the typical “lady of the manor” roles, but she also has searched for and avenged her family. We have Cersei who burnt the Sept but would do anything for her family and Brienne who is defined by her honour. We also had Margaery who used her sexuality to manipulate the men around her. Then there’s the quick witted Lyanna Mormont and all the way back in season 1, the easily manipulated, foolishly in love Lysa.

Why should the women in the show be held to higher moral and ethical standards than the men? This would just play into the fragile female stereotypes that we see. Game of Thrones is feminist because we judge the men and women in the same way. They can both be equally evil or capable of evil.

This show would be less feminist if the women were not capable of violence. Feminism is always about choice, being empowered and free to make our own decisions that affect and define our lives. These women are now all able to make their own choices. Cersei and Daenerys have both been absolutely epic and have made huge decisions that have affected the future of the entire Seven Kingdoms.

Something that is disappointing though is the representation of rape. It’s often said that because Game of Thrones is based on this Medieval society, if rape wasn’t included then it wouldn’t be historical accurate. Rotting teeth and the plague was often common then too, but I haven’t seen that in Game of Thrones for historical accuracy. An issue for me is how rape isn’t as common in the books as it is in the TV series. In the books, Daenerys consents to having sex with Khal Drogo and Cersei isn’t raped by Jaime.

In terms of Sansa’s storyline, not only did we see Theon’s face as Sansa was raped (because of course the man observing but powerless was more important than the powerless woman), but now we’ve heard her explain her growth as a person on the abuse she suffered from the various males in her life. Although I do think that maybe this was Sansa’s way to come to terms with what happened by trying to see the strength that she now has, if she regretted and fretted over how her life was instead of revelling in her freedom now, how would she be able to come to terms with what happened to her?

Like most things, there are parts of Game of Thrones that are feminist and parts that are less so. As the seasons have gone on, the women have become more complex and multidimensional characters. They have been violent, sexually manipulative and maternal. Ultimately some of the most important characters in Game of Thrones are women. Arya killed the Night King and Daenerys and Cersei are two of the three people who are most likely to sit on the Iron Throne.


References

https://www.glamourmagazine.co.uk/article/game-of-thrones-feminism
https://winteriscoming.net/2017/05/13/fight-like-a-lady-the-promotion-of-feminism-in-game-of-thrones/

https://www.bustle.com/p/game-of-thrones-season-7-is-feminist-but-only-for-one-kind-of-woman-70659

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/10/books-interview-george-rr-martin

https://www.marieclaire.com/culture/news/a29305/game-of-thrones-sexism-bechdel-test/

https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/5/10/18536009/game-of-thrones-season-8-episode-4-recap-sansa-the-hound-last-of-the-starks