Warning: Spoilers through season six, episode four, though none if you are caught up.
After enduring five seasons plus of marital rapes, walks of shames, and numerous other degradations, "Book of the Stranger," last night's episode of Game of Thrones, showed the women of the seven kingdoms wielding true determination and power. Starting with Sansa Stark's reunion with Jon Snow, and continuing through the fiery moment of Dany's non-immolation, we were treated to scene after scene of women telling the men of Westeros what's up. Even Tyrion, lover of women and relatively fair-minded, gets a schooling from Missandei when he claims to know the plight of her people. "How many days were you a slave?" she asks. "Long enough to know," he says. "Not long enough to understand," she replies.
In a time when a woman's status is defined by name and marriage and socioeconomic status—like most times in human history—what happens when a woman's destiny aligns with her desires, and what happens when her desires are thwarted by society? Game of Thrones provides a number of case studies—here are the eight most prominent.
"I am Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home. And you can't frighten me." —Sansa Stark
Desire: to stand up for the Stark name and claim her home at Winterfell
Like most of the strong Westerosi women, Sansa has gone through hell. Despite witnessing her husband's murder, being a pawn of Littlefinger's, and surviving wedding-night rape by the heinous Ramsay Bolton, she's emerged only more determined.
Mopey, resurrected Jon Snow is going to have to get used to his grown-up half-sister, and he'll have to do it soon. After all, Winterfell belongs to them, and they'll have to fight for it. "I want you to help me," she tells him, "but I'll do it myself if I have to."
"I will do things for my family you couldn't imagine… I love my brother, I love my lover." —Cersei Lannister
Desire: protection of her children and devotion of her brother
Cersei is a fierce mother hen who will do anything to protect her offspring. She wholly believes in her ability to influence, but she is, ironically, one of the most powerless characters we see. In a show so focused on family, it's appropriate that her Achilles' heel is her children. Westeros is full of Lannister enemies, and, through six seasons, the show has proven that even a helicopter mom can't prevent the poisonings of her son, the king, or her daughter, the exiled princess.
When Sansa was still to be betrothed to Joffrey, Cersei offered her this piece of advice: "The more people you love, the weaker you are." Self-projection much? Cersei appeared to become broken down with the steady loss of her children, but she's pouring everything into her remaining Tommen.
"I want to be the queen." —Margaery Tyrell
Desire: to be Queen of the Iron Throne, by whatever means necessary
Unlike Cersei, love for one's children (or sibling) doesn't cloud Margaery's decision-making. Whether it's being married to a man who'd rather lie with her brother, only to find that husband killed by a flying shadow demon, or getting hitched to a monstrous boy-king—or, after he's poisoned to death, marrying his even younger brother—everything is but a means to an end.
Despite getting herself locked in a cell, thanks to the maneuverings of her equally power-hungry mother-in-law, Margaery remains undeterred and resilient, unlike her brother Loras.
"All my life men like you've sneered at me, and all my life I've been knocking men like you into the dust." —Brienne of Tarth, to Jaime Lannister
Desire: to be a fearsome knight and loyal oathkeeper
Brienne has refreshingly different priorities to many of the women in Westeros: She wants to be judged on her combat merits and knightly honor rather than her ability to marry the correct man or produce powerful offspring.
Notably, Brienne pledges her service primarily to women—first Catelyn and then Sansa Stark. In the service of the former, she even wins the respect of such male doubters as Kingslayer Jaime Lannister.
Theon Greyjoy/Reek may have helped Sansa Stark with her initial escape from Ramsay Bolton, but it was Brienne who was primed, as a master swordswoman with a unflagging sense of duty, to trudge through the snow with Sansa to find her brother Jon, leading to the most hyped Stark get-together since the disastrous Red Wedding.
"Valar morghulis." —Arya Stark
Desire: to be an assassin, not a lady
Dream power duo? Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth. Here are two fierce warriors who couldn't care less about the societal expectations of them as women.
Westeros ignores diminutive Arya at its own peril. Whether it's sponge-cleaning dead bodies, suffering beatings by bo staff, or getting blinded, the Girl with No Name can't be broken easily. Even witnessing her own father's decapitation only drives her further to be a justice-seeker at any cost. In certain ways, falling in with Jaqen H'ghar and the Faceless Men of Braavos is perhaps the best place Arya could have found herself. By denouncing her societal identity, she can truly become the righteous killer she wishes to be.
"Stop crying. Look at me, tell me what you want." —Yara Greyjoy
Desire: to be recognized with her rightful place on the Salt Throne
Despite some of the grumblings of the men of Pyke, Yara has never hesitated to step into the role of commander and lead a good mission. And she's not one to be disrespected. After attempting to save her ungrateful brother from Winterfell and losing her best men in the process, Yara has very little patience for the recently arrived Reek/Theon.
But if Theon/Reek can get one thing right, it's recognizing when he's in the midst of someone who can truly overpower him. He pledges to help his sister in her ruling of the Ironborn, for no one has earned that power more than she.
"All men must die, but we are not men." —Daenerys Targaryen
Desire: to be recognized for the powerful woman she is and to free all men
Dany may carry a sense of entitlement ("I am Daenerys Stormborn and I will take what is mine with fire and blood"), but after setting the temple of the Vaes Dothrak ablaze, it's safe to say the Mother of Dragons has arrived at the next level of badassery.
Until last night, Dany's devotees have largely been men. Post-episode four, she looks to have found herself at the head of the entire Dothraki horde, along with the widows of the Dosh Khaleen.
"It's always changing, who we're supposed to love, and who we're not. The only thing that stays the same is we want who we want." —Ellaria Sand
Desire: to take matters into her own hands on behalf of those she loves
Ellaria accepts her illegitimate status—why pretend to be something she's not? A fan of both men and women, she has no shame in her origin or in her sexual desires, and this lack of shame gives her a fearlessness that morphs into power.
When the peacenik Prince Doran refuses to kill Myrcella as revenge, Ellaria takes care of it herself and, while she's at it, rids Dorne of Doran as well. Don't mess with Ellaria—she's a woman determined to get what she wants. With her trio of Sand Snakes working alongside her, Ellaria may be setting up Dorne as a powerful matriarchy with a will to kill.
While most of the slaughter on Game of Thrones to date has eliminated men from the cast of characters (unless you're Jon Snow—he may know nothing, but nothing can keep him dead), there have been a handful of leading women who have met an early end, among them Catelyn Stark and Shireen and Selyse Baratheon. However, the remaining leading women seem pretty determined not to go anywhere. And if they do, they are going down fighting.
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