As the Game of Thrones opening music played and the crowd at my watch party grew silent, I smiled as we braced to watch two powerful, badass women battle for the Seven Kingdoms.
In this eighth and final season, it is Cersei and Daenerys who have survived and hold the most power—not the male characters who have come and gone before them. The two go after what they want. No apologies. They don’t wait for permission. They embody female agency and unwavering confidence.
Not only is this antithetical to the typically male-centric nature of the fantasy genre (where women are typically portrayed at the mercy of men), it also diverges from the relationship so many women in the real world have with power and control.
Even as six women have announced their candidacies for the 2020 presidential race, the reality remains that female public figures have a thinner line to walk than their male peers if they are to remain in the public’s good graces. “Likability” continues to be a test mostly reserved for female politicians only.
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For many women outside the public eye, too, being compliant, doing as told without question, passively letting things happen rather than risking argument, letting others get their way instead of vocalizing resentment: These are not bygone behaviors of the last century.
Social sanctions can lead many women feeling as if we must present ourselves as “good girls.” Seen as peacekeepers in our families and communities, we are often the ones expected to neutralize conflict and back down to keep our relationships even-keeled.
I have grown frustrated by the number of times I have pragmatically stated my beliefs about social issues directly affecting me, only to be judged as too emotional or intense.
Unsurprisingly, I felt uplifted watching Daenerys defiantly proclaim to Jon Snow: “I have been sold like a broodmare. I’ve been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled. Do you know what kept me standing, through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any god, not in myths and legends. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen…I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms, and I will.”
For many female fans, Game of Thrones has become a fantasy world where women can act outside gendered tropes that require them to be accommodating and unassuming.
Even so, the show is certainly not without its problematic and misogynist storylines, complicated with unnecessary and repeated use of rape as a plot device.
However, a central theme has been women realizing the full extent of their agency. Cersei, Danaerys, Sansa, and Arya all come to recognize that their circumstances are not fixed and absolute. They stop thinking of their worlds as being controlled primarily by outside forces. They claim their agency upon making a clear mental shift, realizing they have a hand in determining the outcomes of their lives.
It is not lost on me that the record number of 17.4 million viewers who tuned in to the season eight premiere—roughly 80 percent of whom are estimated to be male—were actively engaging with a series boasting two women in the strongest positions of command.
Unfortunately, I have not witnessed the same kind of excitement in the real world.
As Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kristen Gillibrand, Tulsi Gabbard, and Marianne Williamson have each announced they will be running for president, the reaction to their campaigns has been mixed.
And just like they did in the 2016 presidential election, many are again asking if the United States is ready for a woman president.
Certainly, there are encouraging signs. Unprecedented numbers of women, especially women of color, are running for public office and winning. For the first time, women make up nearly half of the Time 100 of notable Americans. A recent NBC poll found more than 90 percent of voters said they would be “enthusiastic about or comfortable with” an African American or female candidate. The poll also found roughly 70 percent of voters would feel similarly about an LGBTQ candidate.
Still, 13 percent of U.S. men and women polled still believe men are better “emotionally suited” for politics than women. That is a great deal considering Hillary Clinton received 2.1 percent more of the popular vote than Donald Trump and still lost the Electoral College. Every percentage point counts.
While 13 percent is certainly better than the about 50 percent who believed men were better suited for politics back in 1975, women are still judged more harshly on everything from their facial expressions to their clothing choices.
Gender-specific narratives are also used to discredit and even vilify female candidates. For example, Klobuchar has been labeled a “mean girl” due to her staff management style. Harris’ entire dating life has been scrutinized, with commentary that she is a “gold digger” who “prostitut[ed] her way to the top.” Male politicians who are difficult to work for and who have an extensive dating history do not receive this level of judgment for it. Let alone make the news cycle.
And why are women’s policy ideas taken less seriously? Elizabeth Warren has offered serious proposals over and over, yet Bernie Sanders remains the acknowledged policy-wonk candidate.
Perhaps Game of Thrones contains the lessons we need now. Like the suggestion that women’s intellectual commentary needs to be taken more seriously. In one scene, Jon Snow suggests to Tyrion that Sansa has started to “let on” how smart she is and Tyrion smugly replies, “Good.” We could use more presentations of young women as strong, surefooted leaders such as in the scene where 10-year-old Lady Mormont continuously puts old men in their places, gaining her a reputation as “the people’s champ” among adoring fans.
I remain hopeful that the shifting to love of strong female characters in fictional stories foreshadows a continued shift to love of strong women in real life.
Until then, I will look forward to these next several Sundays when Americans gather before their screens to cheer for women unapologetically wielding power in a world of dragons, walking dead, fire, and ice.