Game of Thrones is ripe with undeniably cool, badass women. Cersei blew up thousands of her citizens without a second thought. Brienne took on the Hound in single combat, and won. Daenarys has freed whole cities, acquired three dragons, and gained the Dothraki army by burning the other Khals to death. Arya murdered the entire Frey house in one sweep. If not in the real world, women are largely in charge in Game of Thrones. But how they got to power exemplifies a brand of feminism that still largely emphasizes and values traditional masculinity. In this way, Game of Thrones' Season 7 feminism is only for one kind of woman.
That singularity is frustrating, especially when it's lauded by fans and critics alike. Entertainment Weekly ran a cover series last year that triumphantly pronounced Season 6 as "Dame of Thrones," a celebration of power finally being firmly planted in the hands of the show's most prominent women. This remains largely true as we begin Season 7. Cersei sits on the Iron Throne, a result that seemed an inevitability since Season 1. Daenarys has returned home at the head of a formidable army. Arya is steadily enacting gory revenge on her enemies. Sansa is reestablished with her brother at Winterfell, with loyal soldier Brienne at her side. Prior to Sunday's episode, Ellaria Sand and her terrifying daughters controlled Dorne, while Yara Greyjoy commanded a massive fleet. With the exception of Jon Snow, it is these women alone who are poised to win the great game.
But what makes these women the "badasses" fans admire so much? What each of these women have in common, what binds them together perhaps even more than their shared gender, what makes them cool, is their penchant and tolerance for a certain amount of brutality. Whether their cruelty is seemingly justified (Arya, Brienne) or solely for personal gain (Cersei, Ellaria), whether they physically engage in this violence themselves (again, Arya and Brienne) or merely commission others to do it for them (Cersei, Dany, Sansa), these women aren't afraid to raze, torture, manipulate, and murder in order to achieve their goals. So while many fans cheered watching Arya poison the entire Frey family in the Season 7 premiere, I gave pause.
It's not wrong to call this display of the range of female brutality feminist, in its own way. There is real value in demonstrating that women can be as physically strong as the Hound, as cruel as the Mad King, as capable of commanding armies as Jon Snow, and as willing to dispatch their enemies to rise to the top as Stannis. Mainly, depicting women as such combats the age-old stereotype of the "weaker sex," which wrongly suggests that women should stay out of messy politics, are inherently more moral than men, and don't have the constitutions or the penchant for violence that men do. Heck, even the fact that so many women watch Game of Thrones debunks that notion.
But part of the reason these women are so awesome and feel so fresh is that they embody traditional masculinity — it's only novel because these traits are possessed by a woman. Physical strength, bravery, eagerness to fight, brutality— these are all traits typically considered to be "masculine," and all traits the remaining women of Westeros posses in spades (and that real life women also do, if only society would just acknowledge that). When Cersei blows up the Sept, or Arya feeds Walder Frey his sons in a pie and slits his throat, the message is, "Look, women can be as brutal and violent as men," not necessarily that women with traditionally "feminine" traits are equally cool or capable.
In fact, most of these "feminine" women end up dead in the GoT world. Maergary Tyrell was probably the best example, a woman who used her sexuality and emotional intelligence to manipulate her way to the throne. Yet in the end she is bested by Cersei, who out-maneuvers her with her cruel imagination, and Maergary and most of the Tyrells disappear in a puff of green smoke. Catelyn Stark was beloved, but let her emotions get the best of her when she let Jaime go, hoping to exchange him for Sansa and Arya. So, when she also winds up dead, it's not really all that surprising that her motherly nature wasn't looked kindly upon by the GoT writers.
So when we cheer every time Khaleesi burns some more guys with her dragons or Arya checks a name off her list, we're really celebrating a woman just as masculine as her enemies. When we we secretly think Cersei is kinda awesome, it's because it's refreshing to see a woman as cruel as the male villains we're used to. Watching Brienne slice down Bolton soldiers and toss Podrick around like a rag doll is so fun because we aren't used to seeing a woman who can fight like a man on screen. I don't wish to minimize the significance of this. But the reason these women are cool is because they are like men, because they aren't "like most girls." But, having feminine traits should be celebrated, too.
It's worth noting that despite the fact that women are dominating Westeros, they're still operating within a patriarchal system. Examining Sansa's character development throughout the show emphasizes this point. In Season 1, she serves in large part as a foil to Arya's rebellious, more "masculine" nature. Sansa wants to be a princess and marry Joffrey, and the show and her sister mock her for it.
But after years of enduring abuse from all sides, and seeing firsthand that kindness, mercy, and empathy ("feminine" traits) often result in a bloody and unforgiving death, Sansa has wised up. She tells Jon she's learned a lot from Cersei, and warns him not to make the mistakes of Ned and Robb. She's become hardened — the great game, and Game of Thrones, will likely reward her for it.
To succeed in Westeros, it appears that these women have to adapt to a society that values strength and necessary brutality in their leaders. But this adaptation forces them to shed much of their femininity in the process. I'm happy to see a show insist that "masculine" traits aren't for men only, but Game of Thrones has left no room to celebrate femininity. So when we call the GoT women "badass," we should pause to think about what it is exactly that we're celebrating.