How Game of Thrones Failed Its Female Characters in Adaptation, Part One: The Stark Women
Despite some of the flaws in the books, and the long wait it will take for the next one to come out, I do enjoy the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. While I do have a good amount of favorite male characters, what have kept me engaged with the series for so long are my feelings on the female characters that Martin had written.
ASOIAF is at its best when it is a deconstruction of typical fantasy tropes and, through the various points of view, gives voice and feelings to characters who very often do not get to be protagonists—the damsel in distress, the mother of the chosen king, the disabled, the female “chosen one”—and analyzes what that can all mean in a world where the old ways are dying and new heroes are rising.
While the Game of Thrones TV adaptation has done a good job in some ways, in many others, it has failed to capture the nuances of some of its quieter female characters in order to tell a story that, while it keeps a lot of the complexity of Martin’s story, edges towards traditional fantasy tropes more often than not.
From the very beginning, it felt like the show didn’t truly understand either Catelyn Stark or her point of view. At almost every turn, she was made crueler than she really was for ultimate woobie Jon Snow, and dynamic decisions she did make in the books were often relocated to other characters. Cat has never been a popular character; her coldness towards Jon and many of her decisions have been labeled as evidence of her stupidity when, in many ways, she was working with the best information she had or, in the case of releasing Jamie, attempting to save her children when it seemed like all else was failing.
The thing that proves to me that HBO showrunners Benioff and Weiss just do not get Cat is the invented monologue when she talks about how terrible she is for not loving Jon Snow, even though he was a motherless child. It’s a speech that, to this day, makes me roll my eyes.
Was she mean to him and disliked him? Yes, and that may not be “nice,” but the speech ignores context for Cat’s hatred. It’s not just that Ned had a bastard—like many noble women, she was expected to turn a blind eye to it—the problem is that raising a natural born child (in the words of Shakespeare) in the household of your legitimate children is an insult. More importantly, it is also a threat.
Historically, raising bastards in the same house as your legitimate children legitimizes them in the eyes of the other nobles. It’s the reason why people follow Jon, in the show, when he takes over his surrogate father (but really uncle) as the Warden of the North and King in the North. People know that Ned Stark raised this boy, and that makes him “worthy.” Cat’s fear was that Jon, when Ned died, would pass over her own children with Ned to become the leader because of his age, resemblance to his father, and the love that existed between him and his siblings from growing up together.
And that is exactly what happened.
Martin said he picked the POV of Cat because he wanted to explore what it would be like to be the mother of a king and to tell that story—the story of a woman who helped rule beside her husband for years, but because of her gender, must instantly step down and follow her son’s rule. Robb makes his own mistakes, sending Theon to the Iron Islands, marrying Jeyne Westerling, not attempting to make peace with the Lannisters. Cat didn’t know that Petyr Baelish, her childhood friend who almost died for her, and her sister could not be trusted. Robb did know that he was engaged to marry a Frey and married a random girl because of “honor” once they slept together.
On top of it all, we were denied seeing Catelyn as the vengeful, undead Lady Stoneheart. She’s just gone.
Ah, Sansa. I found Sansa at a time in my life when I really came to terms with my own feminine side, and as a result, I very deeply felt for her. Here is a girl raised up with all these expectations for goodness and nobility, completely socialized to be a passive woman and then put into an environment she was not at all prepared for. Manipulated by people smarter and more experienced than her, she eventually comes to realize her situation and survives.
Much like her mother, Sansa has never been popular, but in many ways, I feel the show did her a massive disservice by not finding a better way to show her character development. As a POV character in the books, we are privy to Sansa’s thoughts and, due to being a hostage, she keeps a lot of her snark and thoughts to herself, but it is through those thoughts that we see Sansa grow from a passive character to a player in the game, and that’s missing on the screen. A lot of things were cut and changed from her story, but one of the big ones was in season two, when the show completely removed Sansa’s attempted escape storyline.
In Clash of Kings, Sansa is held hostage, threatened with cruelty constantly, and very often beaten. However, she uses all her training in courtly manners to hide her inner feelings and sometimes tries to save people. One of the people she saves is Dontos Hollard, who Joffery almost kills for coming to his name day ceremony drunk. Sansa, with Sandor’s help, convinces Joffrey to spare the man’s life and make him a court fool.
Dontos, out of gratitude, helps her plan her escape. Throughout the book, she fakes finding religion and, while also being wary of it being a trap, meets up with Dontos in the Godswood. All of this is cut in the second season of the show. In fact, it’s Dontos who gives her a hairnet adorned with dark purple amethysts that hold the poison Lady Oleanna will use to poison Joffrey in the third book.
In the third book, as we know, Sansa is married to Tyrion Lannister. However, almost everything about the path to that point was changed in some way, including the fact that Sansa is told by Cersei that she is to marry Tyrion the day of the wedding. Also cut out was Sansa’s small show of defiance by not kneeling during the wedding, and unlike what the show did, Tyrion doesn’t just nobly understand that Sansa is thirteen and being forced into a marriage during their wedding night.
In the books, they undress, and Tyrion does very much want to sleep with her. He just doesn’t because he can tell Sansa does not want to sleep with him, but it plays out very differently in comparison to the show:
She kept her eyes on the floor, too shy to look at him, but when she was done she glanced up and found him staring. There was hunger in his green eye, it seemed to her, and fury in the black. Sansa did not know which scared her more.
“You’re a child,” he said. She covered her breasts with her hands. “I’ve flowered.”
“A child,” he repeated, “but I want you. Does that frighten you, Sansa?”
“Me as well. I know I am ugly—”
He pushed himself to his feet. “Don’t lie, Sansa. I am malformed, scarred, and small, but . . . ” she could see him groping ” . . . abed, when the candles are blown out, I am made no worse than other men. In the dark, I am the Knight of Flowers.” He took a draught of wine. “I am generous. Loyal to those who are loyal to me. I’ve proven I’m no craven. And I am cleverer than most, surely wits count for something. I can even be kind. Kindness is not a habit with us Lannisters, I fear, but I know I have some somewhere. I could be . . . I could be good to you.”
He is as frightened as I am, Sansa realized. Perhaps that should have made her feel more kindly toward him, but it did not. All she felt was pity, and pity was death to desire. He was looking at her, waiting for her to say something, but all her words had withered. She could only stand there trembling.
When he finally realized that she had no answer for him, Tyrion Lannister drained the last of his wine. “I understand,” he said bitterly. “Get in the bed, Sansa. We need to do our duty.”
“My lady,” Tyrion said, “you are lovely, make no mistake, but . . . I cannot do this. My father be damned. We will wait. The turn of a moon, a year, a season, however long it takes. Until you have come to know me better, and perhaps to trust me a little.” His smile might have been meant to be reassuring, but without a nose it only made him look more grotesque and sinister.
Look at him, Sansa told herself, look at your husband, at all of him, Septa Mordane said all men are beautiful, find his beauty, try. She stared at the stunted legs, the swollen brutish brow, the green eye and the black one, the raw stump of his nose and crooked pink scar, the coarse tangle of black and gold hair that passed for his beard. Even his manhood was ugly, thick and veined, with a bulbous purple head. This is not right, this is not fair, how have I sinned that the gods would do this to me, how?
“On my honor as a Lannister,” the Imp said, “I will not touch you until you want me to.”
It took all the courage that was in her to look in those mismatched eyes and say, “And if I never want you to, my lord?”
His mouth jerked as if she had slapped him. “Never?”
Her neck was so tight she could scarcely nod.
“Why,” he said, “that is why the gods made whores for imps like me.” He closed his short blunt fingers into a fist, and climbed down off the bed.
Sansa’s growth happens in many ways, but it is often undercut in the show, because they don’t know how to show it. So instead, they resort to things like rape (a storyline that doesn’t exist in the books) in order to streamline both empathy for her character and allowing the viewers to know Sansa is “cool” now that she can sic dogs on people.
What I loved about Sansa’s character was that Martin understood that just because her strength came from a different place than Arya’s, it didn’t make her weak. Her kindness was what kept her alive and gave her allies. Instead, the show made her more naive in moments where she was smarter and took the knowledge she did have, and the relationships she formed, and gave them away. It’s frustrating as both a fan of the books and a fan of the character.
Arya Stark is such a popular character on the show that it could seem strange to list her here, but my problem with Arya’s character is that the show goes out of its way to make her badass, while removing badass moments from other characters. In season two, Arya is taken to Harrenhal. In the show, it’s a way for her to have scenes with Tywin Lannister, wax about how dumb other girls are, and leave the rest of us wondering why Arya didn’t just kill Tywin all the time she could.
The answer is that, in the book, the person she is in front of is actually Roose Bolton. What has also bothered me about the writing around Arya is that she would often be a mouthpiece for bashing women or feminine tasks. Her “most girls are idiots” line is one of the most aggravating and eye-rolling lines to come from her.
Yes, Arya is a badass, but there’s also a painful loss of innocence that the show glosses over. We watch a nine-year-old girl with dreams of exploration and adventure get those things in the most extreme way possible. While the archetype of the warrior/feral child is one that often gets played up as fun, it really comes with a lot of emotional trauma, and the reality that Arya has lost her entire childhood.
I mean, in the excerpt from Winds of Winter, she seduces a man in order to kill him—Arya, who started off the books at nine years old and is now only eleven years old, the same age Sansa was at the beginning of the series.
Anyway, these are my very drawn out thoughts about the Stark women in Game of Thrones. I look forward to your opinions down below, disagreements, agreements, all of it—not to mention the forthcoming parts:
Part 2: Dany, Shae, and Cersei
Part 3: The Women of Dorne
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