Patriarchy has all but doomed Westeros. But one final hope remains for humanity: feminist values.
In Season 7, the destructive practices of patriarchy are finally getting a comeuppance. Every character struggles with the inheritances of their fathers: Daenerys, Cersei, Tyrion, Jaime, Sansa, Arya, Jorah, Sam, Theon — even Jon (especially Jon, actually).
Meanwhile, Dany, Jon, Varys, and Tyrion keep debating about how to unite Westeros. But often, it feels like they lack the proper language, values, and even historical models to execute this vision. Because what the people of Westeros must reckon with if they wish to survive winter is the concept of uniting under the common banner of humanity — as equals.
When we spoke to Stephen Dyson, a professor of diplomacy and author of Otherworldly Politics, he theorized that George R. R. Martin “is essentially telling an idealogical story about the progressive improvements to societal values throughout human history.”
“Radical egalitarianism is being injected into this medieval society.”
Granted, the characters (and arguably showrunners) may not fully understand what Westerosi feminism should look like. But at its core, A Song of Ice and Fire is narrating the slow (if often flawed) “rise of a modern democratic nation state,” Dyson said. A state where a patriarchal, class-driven social order — the whole conceit of a game of thrones, really — is more irrelevant by the day.
Dyson pointed to both Dany and Jon’s story arcs as the most obvious examples of this evolution. By freeing the cities of Slaver’s Bay, Dany introduced a “notion of universal human rights,” while Jon similarly fought for the humanity of a disenfranchised group of people cast out by an arbitrary border wall (sound familiar?).
“Radical egalitarianism is being injected into this medieval society. And now an entirely new political movement exists in the world because of it,” Dyson said.
To win the battle for humanity, which “Beyond the Wall” gave us just a brief preview of, Westerosi society must adapt — or die at the hands of its own arcane rules. Because when the only enemy is death, the only solution is a radical shift toward fighting for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In fact, infighting among the houses for power and pride has only bolstered the Army of the Dead. Whether in the The War of the Five Kings or the current War of the Mad Queens, fighting for chivalry, lineage, and territory has left a trail of corpses. Yet our greatest bastions of modern ideals in Game of Thrones are only now starting to understand what it truly means to set aside power, legacy, and pride.
“If we want to create a new, better world, I’m not sure deceit and mass murder are the best ways to start,” Tyrion warns Dany in episode 6. Yet she struggles to even believe in the possibility of a world without them.
Bastions of modern ideals in Game of Thrones are starting to understand what it means to set aside power, legacy, and pride
Like everyone else, Daenerys still only understands “winning” through patriarchal practices like birthright, tribalism, and brute force. But as Tyrion explains, if she wishes to break the wheel, she’ll need to build a new one to replace it.
And, “the world you want to build doesn’t get built all at once.” It takes generations. And without the ability to produce an heir, Dany will need a new system of succession in order to make her vision for a better world one that endures.
Perhaps a system like the Night’s Watch, he suggests, which gives every member the right to vote in its election of a Lord Commander. In other words, if Dany wishes to create a new world, she’ll need democracy.
Yet Daenerys seems dangerously close to living up to her legacy as the Mad King’s daughter. Even while she rejects it, she feels the constant need to restate the birthright his ill-fated monarchy left her. She vows to be different from Cersei’s destructiveness — to a group of men she just roasted alive.
“We both want to help people,” she says, reasoning her actions to Jon Snow. “But we can only help them from a position of strength. Sometimes strength is terrible.” The gravity in her voice reminds us that, if any character understands the terrors of patriarchy, it’s Dany. Her ruthless acts are understandable from this point of view; women who seek power in Westeros continue to feel like they must operate within the governing systems.
As another side of the same coin, the first queen to ever sit the Iron Throne basks in the legacy of her patriarch’s ruthlessness. Cersei’s evil is only amplified by her need for Tywin’s approval even beyond the grave. “We have to fight her like father,” she tells Jaime ominously. “Whatever stands in our way, we will defeat it. For ourselves. For our house.”
Westeros’ patriarchal traditions of gatekeeping, xenophobia, territorial in-fighting and honor must be left behind
Surprisingly, the characters who currently seem most primed to dismantle the territorial lines drawn by Westerosi patriarchy are mostly men. More specifically, men already cast out from this game of inheritances, like Dany’s dwarf, ex-slaves, and eunuchs — or Jon Snow’s band of bastards, Wildlings, and disowned family heirs.
While not necessarily “feminists,” these men feel compelled to fix the mistakes of the fathers who bore them, and the entire system that marginalized them. Tyrion and Jon both argue for the necessity of throwing out these old, patriarchal practices that divide them.
In Winterfell, the first bastard King of the North declared that children should not inherit the crimes of their fathers. Then he reasoned that his people could no longer afford to keep half their population from learning to fight.
While initially outraged, the northern lords now seem more than willing to name a Lady of Winterfell as leader.
But feminism, democracy, and egalitarianism are more than just the best strategy against the Army of the Dead.
Misogynistic world views have also proven bad for the survival rates of individual characters. Those who vehemently subscribed to the patriarchal practices of gatekeeping, xenophobia, tribalism, womanizing, sexual violence, slavery, and even the seemingly positive ideals of chivalry and honor, tend to meet gruesome ends.
Those who subscribe to the patriarchal practices tend to meet gruesome ends
Just ask Randyll and Dickon Tarly, Crastor, Robert Baratheon, Joffrey, Roose and Ramsay Bolton, Walder Frey (and his entire line of male heirs), Tywin Lannister, the slave masters, or even Ned and Robb Stark. Oh right — you can’t. Because they’re all dead.
Like the stuffy old Archmaesters scoffing at the existential threat that could undermine their positions of power, the men left alive in Westeros need to wise up. Or suffer the consequences. Because aside from breeding fool-hardy, short-sighted egomaniac and “heroes,” their patriarchal world order also created weapons of mass destruction out of the very women it sought to oppress.
And they’re out for blood.
Since last season, we’ve seen Sansa turn her back on every man who made false promises to her — whether it was Ramsay’s psychopathy, Littlefinger’s manipulations, or Jon Snow’s patronizing protectiveness and refusal to see her as a player in her own right. She’s even abandoned the feminine ideals she once held so dear as a young girl.
“The rules were wrong.”
Arya seems similarly traumatized by patriarchy, but more vengeful toward the social order that tried to oppress her. In episode 6, she recounts a memory of her father catching her practice archery. “I knew what I was doing was against the rules. But he was smiling, so I knew it wasn’t wrong. The rules were wrong.”
“We both wanted to be other people when we were younger,” she reminds her sister forebodingly, looking down on Sansa for ever aspiring toward those socially accepted feminine ideals.
“Neither of us got to be the other person, did we? The world doesn’t just let girls decide who they want to be … But I can now. With the faces, I can choose.”
Arya even blames her sister for doing what was necessary to survive the traumas she faced at the hand’s of King’s Landing’s misogynistic traditions of forced marriage and rape. But as Cersei, Dany, Arya, and even Sansa are proving this season, the answer to Westeros’ patriarchy problem is not just simply more women in power.
Beaten, belittled, patronized, overprotected, broken, humiliated, bought, sold, raped, enslaved — in response to the unending suffering they’ve endured at the hands of patriarchy, many of the women have lost themselves, too, in their desperate grasps for power in an anti-female society.
Still, now more than ever, Westeros needs a social revolution: An evolved world view that values every man, woman, and child as an equal soldier in the ultimate battle for humanity.
They’ll need to redefine their concept of power beyond the ruthless wheel that rolls over everyone, rich and poor, to benefit the elites. Because, as Tyrion says, that method renders “power brittle, because everyone beneath longs to see [you] dead.”
Missandei explains the core foundation of this more egalitarian, democratic society to Ser Davos and Jon after they ask her why she’s loyal to Dany. Autonomy, she says. Because Dany set her and others like her free from the chains of oppression that turn human beings into cattle.
“All of us who came from Essos, we came because we believe in her. She’s not our Queen because she’s the daughter of some King we never knew. She’s the Queen we chose.”
Again, this vision of Westerosi feminism is not without its flaws — particularly in the show’s portrayal of race. In a truly egalitarian world, a bleach blonde would not be the one with the sole power to liberate people of all colors and cultures.
But as Dyson said, “That’s still all quite true to history: the sexualization of children, sexualized violence against women, the removal of agency from people of color.” But (at least in the books) the way Martin presents these social forces of Westeros, “makes us face and think about them in ours.”
The festering wounds of patriarchy have left the kingdom of men more vulnerable to annihilation than ever before. And while the offsprings of various well-known fathers squabble over a chair, the Army of the Dead reaps the benefits of all the blood spilled over birthright.
When Daenerys asks Jon Snow how to win the war she’s losing against Cersei, he tries to remind her of the unprecedented unity they saw in the cave, which told the story of two warring factions that came together to end a common enemy. He gestures at her dragons, trying to get the Breaker of Chains to see how they could create a new world that no one thought possible before. Together.
“Build a world that’s different from the shit one they’ve always known,” he advises. “But if you use [your dragons] to melt castles and burn cities, you’re not different. You’re just more of the same.“
Daenerys only takes half his advice, destroying an army rather than a city. But after seeing the war that lies beyond the Wall with her own eyes, she’s stopped yelling about her birthright to the Iron Throne. Now, she tells Jon she only hopes to be deserving of his allegiance, by earning the right to lead the kingdom to safety alongside him.
When the White Walkers finally descend, they won’t just kill every living thing in their path. Their march on the capital will also destroy every system of political power that had governed. Westeros has been defined by patriarchal tribalism — and look where it got them. After a litany of incompetent, lazy, evil, self-interested rulers, one wonders what it will take before the kingdom realizes its fatal flaw.
But we won’t have to wonder much longer. Winter is here. And the two fundamental rules of playing the game of thrones, that you either win or you die, no longer apply in a world being eclipsed by death itself. The time for playing games is over.
Westeros must enter a new age where humanity, rather than aristocracy, rules.
And in a Westeros governed by egalitarianism and democracy, you either unify — or you die.