Warning: Spoilers. (Duh.)
In the comments on my piece "Game of Thrones' and 'Mad Men' Make Women Out to be Mothers, Whores, and Little Else," I was called a feminazi and told I should just quit thinking so hard, that some entertainment is just that: entertainment. The following is a list of female characters people claimed are "strong," and the problematic nature of their power and its entanglement with sex.
First, a few disclaimers:
There is no such thing as pure entertainment. All media is subject to criticism. All media is a reflection of the culture in which it is consumed and enjoyed. There is no self-serving agenda here, no feminist manifesto. No character on Game of Thrones, male or female, is uncomplicated. The Seven Kingdoms are populated by greedy, scheming, scarred, and ruthless people, all of whom view sex as a way to get what they need.
Secondly, these pieces are not demeaning sex or motherhood. Sex and bearing children are joyful, life-altering experiences. The point here is that they are not the only experiences that allow a woman to be valuable, loved, beautiful, and important to the world at large. The point here is that Martin and HBO have created a world populated by women whose importance relies solely on sex and motherhood.
Further, the characters' motivations, and the series's setting in a fantasy world in a different time, are not part of this argument. These pieces are critiquing the way female characters are written, portrayed, and utilized by the showrunners and by R. R. Martin himself. These pieces are critiquing the culture in which we live, a culture which has forever enjoyed watching women navigate horrible situations.
As Tina Fey says, "The definition of crazy in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore." One could argue (here I am, doing it) that this is the definition of female strength in the Seven Kingdoms: either someone wants to fuck you, someone needs your womb, or you're old, powerless, or sexless. Varys, the eunuch, the very definition of "sexless," is arguably the only person who truly cares about and fights for the Realm. Sex and power are inextricably intertwined, and only Varys has figured out a way to stay under the radar ... to affect change without using sex. Here's hoping some of our other characters (the ones who aren't doomed, anyway) find that happy place, too.
Arya is one of the series's best characters. Absolutely, she is in hiding, and this necessitates "becoming a boy." Her ability to masculinize herself, as I noted previously, gives her freedom and power she is not granted as a girl. So why is it, then, that the only way for her to become more powerful is to lose herself, to give up her femininity? Her motivations are not the point; the point is that in this world, the one we are viewing and obsessing over, the only way to obtain power is through sex or masculinity.
R.I.P. Cat. I was itching to mention in the comments that those people who named Cat as a strong character had a shock coming: the series's strongest female characters, as you'll come to find out, meet truly horrific ends. (And yes, those who've read the books know this storyline isn't over and that Cat is indeed very strong, but I don't want to spoil anything.) Further, Catelyn Stark, though courageous and amply wise, is a sexless figure, important to the tale only in her motherhood. Her fortitude, her resolve for revenge, flows from her matriarchy.
Dany is young and nubile, and her beauty is noted repeatedly, both in the books and in the series. She was sold as a brood mare to Khal Drogo, and her virginity and subsequent sexual experience allowed her to become the Khaleesi. When she discovered she couldn't bear children, she assigned herself a new title: Mother of Dragons. Once again, her only value to the Realm, to herself, to the men around her, is her sex and role as Mother. Mother to Dragons, mother to slaves. This is what Dany has chosen, and there is no shame in it — but there should be other choices.
Brienne is absolutely a strong character. She is also sexless, at least at this point in the tale. Her early infatuation with Renly, who so didn't swing that way, and the emphasis on her untarnished virtue, make this a clear point. Her increasingly complex relationship with Jaime Lannister doesn't distract from this, either: the combination of her ugliness and physical prowess is a great confusion to Jaime, who has only known women previously as sex objects or mothers (because, let's face it, that's largely all they can be in the Seven Kingdoms).
Cersei, one of the series's most hateable characters, is once again only important to the story as Queen Regent, mother to Joffrey, and as a lover to her brother Jaime.
Also, she gets what's coming to her, as all the series's "strong" female characters do.
The Red Priestess, whose beauty is intertwined with her creepy devotion to the Red God and to Stannis Baratheon, uses her ability to give birth (arguably the only thing that belongs solely to women, and historically one of the greatest threats to men) for great destruction. In the show, she uses sex to get Gendry's blood. Her connection to her deity is extremely sexual, and her methods of obtaining power revolve around sex and birth.
Olenna is elderly and, once again, sexless. She has lent her immense wisdom to Margaery, who knows perfectly well how to handle her impending marriage to Joffrey (yes indeed, Margaery is also only valuable to the realm through her sex and ability to mother children). However, her brashness, wisdom, and outspokenness make her a rarity on the show.