Backstabbing and Backing Out: Feminist Fails of Game of Thrones

With Dany and Arya arguably standing as representatives of the upending of gender roles, the decisions to eliminate Dany and ship Arya off fail to provide a subversive female character in a patriarchal world.

The mere addition of a heroine like Arya Stark (left) or Daenerys Targaryen does not mean a heroic narrative is successfully feminist or forward-moving.

This year, 2021, marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the mega-popular television series, Game of Thrones. Only two years ago the show ended with a disappointing fizzle to a decade of endless fireworks. The most problematic sputtering came with the ending of our supposed feminist storylines—our female heroes were written as girlbossing a bit too close to the sun.

Like Icarus’s flight that burned out his wings, Dany’s and Arya’s storylines reached a similar bursting into flames at the very height of their possibilities. The endings given to two of the strongest female characters in the show were questionable, problematic and left them with finales that were so unsatisfactory as to be verging on detrimental to female representation across all fantasy television. When their hero’s arc is compared to the male heroes of the show—such as Jon Snow, or shall we name him as the sole remaining Targaryen that he is?—we can see decisions made to move our possible feminist icons into spaces that sacrifice them from their ideals or erase them from the surrounding society altogether.

For many of us who have lived and loved the few fantasy films that came prior to the arrival of Game of Thrones, having not one, but a multitude of main characters who were women came as what many of us saw as a progressive moment. (As quintessential as it is to the high-fantasy canon, Lord of the Rings doesn’t even pass the Bechdel Test!)

But the mere addition of a heroine does not mean that the heroic narrative was successfully feminist or forward-moving. The pain of the Game of Thrones ending drove me into two years of deep research and eventually a master’s thesis around why these narratives failed when, on the surface, they should have worked in meaningful ways. And they did, in a lot of ways. But ultimately, what I have struggled with is that the ways that the narratives of our female heroes ended seemed only to upend the possibilities of subversive, feminist progressiveness that many of us yearn to see represented on screen.

To reach this conclusion, I charted the hero’s journey of all the main characters of the show, female and male alike, and compared them against each other. I focused on both the mother of dragons, Dany, and our face-shifting assassin, Arya. The narrative aim of a hero’s journey is to deliver the character to a sense of transformation, one that changes not only the hero themselves, but also the very world around them. Their actions, their beliefs, their failures all shape the way that we leave the fantasy world when those pages finally—devastatingly—draw to a finale.

While we can find some women in hero’s journeys prior to modern fantasy, for the majority they were pushed along a narrative that helped them transform as only from maiden to mother, without the option of full possibilities that is allowed to our male hero. The modern feminist heroine is supposed to move past this restriction, setting the narrative of maiden to mother as only an option for her storyline, rather than as her only option. Regardless of the path that she takes, though, any heroine (or hero) should be able to make it to the final two steps—the first is to become the master of the worlds, and the second is to live freely. For both Arya and Dany, this last step is never reached which, arguably, is the reason why their narratives fail at being subversive.

Dany does reach the “Master of Two Worlds” step, by conquering the Red Keep and the iron throne, becoming the master of [seven] worlds, and mastering her desires and drives that have manifested since her early narratives. Her aim was to ‘break the wheel’, upend the system of the West[erosi] society, act as an agent of feminist change. *Spoiler alert*: Until Jon kills her. She is sacrificed before she has a moment to act and live freely within the very world she has designed.

Instead of providing us with moments of subversion, these narrative decisions reinforce the idea that the only place for female heroes to act with freedom, selfhood and agency is beyond the very fringes of existence itself.

Arya is drawn to a point where she cannot master her two worlds—she cannot exist as the badass assassin that we have seen throughout the show and be an acting, recognized, citizen of Westeros. (You know, that whole weird proposal moment?) Instead of being able to maintain this sense of freedom, instead of being able to be recognized as a participant in the West[erosi] social system and be a face-shifting shadow stalker, she has to choose one. And she chooses the latter, which ultimately means that she has to leave Westeros. Not only does she leave, but she sails into the unknown and leaves the entire fictional canon that Martin developed—she leaves to a place that does not canonically exist.

Instead of providing us with moments of subversion, these narrative decisions reinforce the idea that the only place for female heroes to act with freedom, selfhood and agency is beyond the very fringes of existence itself. For the narratives of Dany and Arya to have been productive and subversive narratives, they would have had to remain free within the West[erosi] society, to live and act within the world that they designed.

When the hero reaches the end of his journey, he becomes anew, he is allowed to be a master of his worlds and is granted the right to live and be free in the new world that he not only controls but had spent his full narrative designing and imagining. While Dany died in his arms and Arya sailed out of his world, Jon traversed beyond the remains of the wall, backed by friends, to the North that he had belonged to since the very beginning—an idealization that our heroines never got to see.

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Alexandra (Alex) Stamson is an adjunct professor of philosophy at SUNY Purchase. She holds an M.A. in women's and gender studies from the Graduate Center, CUNY, as well as a B.A. in philosophy from SUNY Purchase and a B.A. in media and communication from the University of Southern Maine. Alex is also a co-chair for the Pop Culture Interest group at the NWSA. Alex has a background in media theory and feminist philosophy and works on the analysis of gender and sexuality representation in popular fiction. Follow her on Twitter at @aestamson