Emma Brankin | Contributing Writer | Thursday, 31 August 2017

Why Are We Still So Surprised By Game Of Thrones\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\' Strong Female Characters?

Why Are We Still So Surprised By Game Of Thrones' Strong Female Characters?

The Debrief: Surely by 2017, we've got over the shock that female characters can be more than one-dimensional?

Actresses are forever interrogated in interviews about their femaleness. There’s Jennifer Garner being grilled on juggling movie-making with parenthood (which her ex-husband Ben Affleck said he never has once been asked). Megan Fox being asked about how comfortable she is with the hyper-sexualised roles she has chosen. Catsuit wearing superheroines being implored to graphically document how they lost weight so they could squeeze into their skintight costumes (specifically asked, of course, in that creepily breezy manner if they had to forgo underwear to complete the feat). 

And all of them are repeatedly asked about female representation on screen and in the industry as a whole. 'Were you pleased to get the chance to play such a strong/interesting/complex/three-dimensional/central/not-just-a-walking-talking-pair-of-tits female role?' Do we ever expect their answer to be anything other than yes to this important but loaded question?

WATCH: What does it mean to be a woman in 2017?


Yes, it is crucial that we call out the industry’s sometimes-questionable portrayal and prominence of women on screen so the imbalance (hopefully) continues to improve. But by constantly asking the question it highlights that these female roles are still a spectacle we must all take the time and effort to acknowledge and applaud. It suggests that the act of crafting compelling women on screen is something that must take real guts, effort, and exertion. 

Enter Game Of Thrones star Gemma Whelan. The 36-year-old has brilliantly called out the, well, world for its well intentioned but patronising incredulity that the TV show she stars on has female characters that do more than sit and wring their hands.

The British actress plays the Iron Island’s iron willed warrior Yara Greyjoy. Commanding. Driven. Lustful. Loyal. Strong. Cunning. Yara’s capabilities are of course all the more magnified when compared to Alfie Allen’s Theon, the broken, weak brother she exasperatedly attempts to protect.

And in real life Gemma is equally as impressive a human being - she made her name initially as a stand-up comic, is an accomplished stage star with a mezzo-soprano singing voice and a professional dance background. She was also a little bit brilliant in TV drama The Moorside, about the real life kidnapping of Shannon Matthews, earlier this year. Oh and she’s also incredibly articulate and passionate - especially on the topic of the show’s portrayal of bad-ass women as The Debrief discovered during an exclusive chat. 

Over to Gemma for the most epic of all empowering speeches. She told us: 'I’m always asked "oh isn’t it amazing that there’s a lot of strong female characters in a show". I think, you know, why aren’t we asking a man what is it like to play a weak vulnerable man. As long as it’s a question, we’re still fuelling the fire, do you know what I mean? I’m really passionate about talking about it as well. I get asked this in every single interview – "What is it like to play strong women, isn’t it wonderful that there are so many strong women".'

She quite rightly points out that strong women exist in films and TV shows because, well, in case you hadn’t quite noticed yet, strong women also exist in real life. The star matter of factly explained: 'Look, like there are five or six strong women in this room alone who would eat us all alive if they had to. I just think like we are all strong and independent and full of our own energy and we have all aspects of our personalities. We have the vulnerability and the softness and those sides of ourselves but we have huge amounts of strength and independence and power and so yes, of course, in Game of Thrones I get to turn up certain elements of my own character in terms of my strength and front footedness but they are all elements of every single woman in the world. And so I think it’s brilliant that the show is going in that direction because obviously it means more work for women but it doesn’t matter what sex you are, it shouldn’t matter. It should just be, "Isn’t it brilliant that these amazing strong humans are going forward with this storyline’".'

Gemma encouraged viewers to drop the fanfare and consider empowering female characters as 'normal' pointing out that until we accept characters as they are and do not assess their personality traits in relation to their gender, she will forever be stuck answering the same question. She explained the complex double-edged sword nature of the debate, earnestly stating: 'It’s not that I’m saying it’s a shame people should ask it, I’m really pleased people ask it, but it’s also a conversation we need to be having that why is it asked now.

'You know there’s so much brilliant TV going on and so many strong female leads in all of it, it should just be normal. It should have been normal since day dot but of course it wasn’t, so yeah I think it’s fantastic and long may it last but I also think it shouldn’t be an unusual or a sort of anomaly that women are sort of given opportunities because it’s a battle that we continue to fight, all of us, male and female, you know.

'We’re all aware of it but the more we talk about it I suppose the more fuel we give to the idea that it’s a good or a bad thing. When really it should just be a thing. Is that alright?' Yeah, that’s alright Gemma. 

The series finale of Game Of Thrones is available on Sky Atlantic catch up for the next month. Check it out to see if Yara (mini spoiler alert, she's kind of, sort of, a little bit a prisoner of war at the moment) will live to fight another day and to see the other kick-ass female - and male - characters from the series demonstrating their agency and awesomeness. Come on Theon, be a little bit more like Yara and grow a pair of iron tits.

Some more Game Of Thrones women we love on and off screen 

Daenerys / Emilia Clarke

The Mother of Dragons has come a long way from being that meek, submissive pawn in her brother’s quest for power. After somehow turning her nightly rape at the hands of her brutish husband into an equal, loving marriage, she has only grown as a leader with an unshakable moral centre.

The woman behind Daenerys is just as feisty. Emilia Clarke has blasted those who criticised her decision to appear nude on the show (she called them 'anti-feminist' for calling her 'anti-feminist'). But she has equally not ignored the lack of flesh parity between the sexes, admitting she personally thanked the writers for finally giving her a scene where her covered up character demanded her male lover strip for her.

She called out the showrunners publicly for not showing as much male nudity, branding the eventual emergence of a full frontal penis as 'junk equality'. One of the most memorable scenes in the series was when the flame retardant Khaleesi walked triumphantly out of an ablaze building full of her burning enemies totally nude as her clothes burnt off. She said: 'I just wanted to come out and do an empowered scene which wasn’t sexual. I’m kicking ass naked. If you can do it without any clothes, then you’re a real badass.'

Arya Stark / Maisie Williams

When we first meet baby-faced Arya Stark in season one she declares 'I don’t want to be a lady'. By the time, a few years later, she was enacting her bloody, violent revenge on those involved in a child prostitute sex ring, viewers didn’t realise they were only just seeing the start of this warrior’s capabilities.

After a troubling spell where she had her confidence knocked out of her as The Girl With No Name, she’s back on her merry murdering ‘Say My Name, Bitch’ way. And, of course, Maisie Williams who plays the independent young woman who has had to fend for herself in the unforgiving world of Westeros, is pretty badass herself. She has renounced claims that Arya is a 'feminist', stating: 'We should stop calling feminists "feminists" and just start calling people who aren’t feminist "sexist" and then everyone else is just a human. You are either a normal person or a sexist.' Plus she re-wears dresses on red carpets, shooting down the appalled fashion police with an awesome: 'It’s a nice dress. All that stuff is bullshit.' 

Sansa Stark / Sophie Turner

From a spoilt little Madame ignoring the evil around her so it wouldn’t compromise her wedded bliss with Westeros’ most eligible sociopath Joffrey Baratheon, Sansa Stark has had the biggest transformation throughout the show’s run. Of course, her rise to a formidable, ruthless and impossible to second guess leader has come at some expense. Her brutal rape at the hands of Westeros’ second most eligible sociopath Ramsey Bolton was horrible viewing. But Sansa’s calm and uncompromising conversation with Littlefinger, the man who handed her over to her abuser, where she laid out - and asked him to repeat - all the harrowing ways he hurt her was a character defining moment where she stopped being a victim.

The initially hostile reaction from the audience to Sansa's rape scenes 'angered' Sophie Turner. But she has brilliantly turned her character’s ordeal into an opportunity to work with real rape survivors who are rebuilding their lives with Women For Women International. She has pointedly said: 'I was angry that there is such a taboo surrounding rape and that depicting it on screen was seen as vulgar. Sexual violence happens every day all around the world and yet for that to be represented on television, when other forms of violence are so often represented and more importantly, accepted and even welcomed in some cases, was considered disgusting instead of important. It made me think: why such a taboo?' 

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Tags: Game Of Thrones, Sexism