Game of Thrones and the problematic stereotype of powerful and so-called 'hostile' women
The relationship between Arya and Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones shows that the powerful-woman-in-a-tall-dark-tower syndrome is a stereotype in need of some dying out.
By Shruti Sunderraman
When Arya Stark returned to Winterfell in Game of Thrones’ seventh season, everyone who ever rooted for House Stark rejoiced. The Stark kids were home at last – sisters and brothers united. But within ten minutes, Arya and Sansa got back to Season 1 with their bickering and differences. The two sisters meet after years of individual hardship and torture, and they still want to go over their ‘lady v/s tomboy’ conundrum?
So it was another catharsis of sorts in the season’s final episode to watch them unite against Littlefinger, the man behind the entire rivalry between the Starks and the Lannisters. No Stark victory here yet, but nevertheless there is deep satisfaction in watching two powerful women with immeasurable differences finally finding a friendship to keep them warm through a winter that has finally arrived.
Friendship between the powerful women has been fairly uncommon throughout the show’s history. Although the seventh was hailed as a ‘feminist season’ with its slow march of previously oppressed women to the forefront of power, we never actually saw any spark of kinship among its formidable women, save the finale's Stark union.
Women with power are capable of forming cordial relationships, even friendships, with each other. But Game of Thrones as well as much of Indian pop culture likes to isolate women in power, showing them as cold and incapable of affection towards anything beyond their own motives. Sure, power is isolating. The old adage of ‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ might apply to the loneliness that comes with being a leader. But these same shows and movies have no problem portraying powerful men capable of forgiveness and kinship.
The finale saw Jon Snow forgive Theon Greyjoy, who betrayed Snow’s father and was responsible for the Starks losing Winterfell. It also saw the reunion of Tyrion Lannister and Bronn – who’ve had an on-off friendship since the beginning. It even saw a moment of nerd bonding between Brandon Stark and Samwell Tarly, as they excitedly discussed Jon’s lineage.
But Cersei Lannister and Brienne of Tarth are left to share venomous stares, while Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei compete with power displays and distrustful words. In that entire congregation, nobody thought of bringing a friendship band.
We saw similar pairings with Baahubali’s men. Kattappa and Amarendra Bahubali are best buddies, best travel partners and best co-fighters – they even use the same weapon to fight. Who needs two swords when you can cut the enemy’s throat with friendship? Kattappa even acts as wingman to Baahubali.
Meanwhile, it never occurred to SS Rajamouli that women in power need wingwomen too. I was rooting for Sivagami and Devasena – two powerful, fierce queens united by dharma and silk sarees. I vote for Bharatiya Friendship Party. But these two ladies had no plans to chill. They got on opposite sides and deprived Maahismati of the greatest friendship goal – being besties and ruling a kingdom of masculinity pornstars together.
GoT’s powerful women similarly always do katti and never batti. Margaery Tyrell and Cersei Lannister practically had everything in common – large and powerful families, loads of wealth and a quest for power. But they couldn’t find common cause. Like Sivagami, Cersei loathed her daughter-in-law Margaery. Margaery, too, stood her ground like Devasena – beautiful, intelligent and friendless.
In Chak De! India, Preeti Sabharwal and Komal Chautala echo the weird Sansa-Arya relationship. Preeti is the hotshot lady with a hotshot boyfriend while Komal is the tomboy with her bhains ki poonch jokes. They constantly bicker over the maximum goals, their differences underlining their tension, even as they play in the same team. And like the Stark girls, Komal and Preeti unite to score a victory for the team. (I clapped harder for them than I did for Shah Rukh Khan, and that’s saying something).
Imagine a pop culture where ranking women do get along with each other. Imagine Cersei and Dany drinking wine, petting dragons and talking about political strategies to rule Westeros against the men out to get them; where they laugh about the foolishness of the world; where lion and dragon exchange notes in ferocity and wit.
Powerful women failing at alliances are almost always shown to be due to two things – men, or the idea of ‘masculine power’. Cersei and Brienne have a silent tug-of-war going on over Jaimie. Margaery and Cersei had their sons to fight over. I foresee a potential stand-off between Sansa and Daenerys over Jon (the latter two have been up to naughty things).
The only time we saw two powerful women in GoT get along to chill was when Margaery and Sansa sat together three seasons ago to bitch about the monster-husband Joffrey Baratheon. What a pity – the one true moment of friendship between two important women in GoT, and it didn’t even pass the Bechdel test.
In another period drama from a parallel universe, Chakravartin Ashok, the Maurya king Ashoka has three queens. Three powerful women who influence and shape the empire in their own right. But you know what they never do? Become friends. They always silently plot against each other to fight over their husband or their sons.
We got Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla in Gulaab Gang, possibly the two women in Bollywood with the most charming smiles, and it turned out all we actually got was them grimacing at each other. Dixit leads a gang of harassment-fighting women while Chawla plays a politician, but they don’t even acknowledge each others’ power as credible, let alone dazzle us with pearly whites. Is power really that isolating for only women? (Sometimes not entirely. In Bajirao Mastani, although Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone’s characters are fighting for Bajirao’s affections, they learn to respect each other, however grudgingly.)
If temperamental differences apply to women, how do they not apply similarly to men? Men can go fight wars arm-in-arm with ex-enemies, but women can’t form a league of extraordinary ex-girlfriends?
The powerful-woman-in-a-tall-dark-tower syndrome is a stereotype in need of some dying out. It’s a convenient stereotype that a woman’s power only comes with isolation; that she needs to show that she can take care of herself and the entire kingdom only in brooding isolation. It consolidates an impression that expressing emotion and forming kinships is a sign of weakness (while it’s a sign of leaping character for men).
Look at what a single moment of understanding between Sansa and Arya did. A few gales of laughter and friendship amongst powerful women could actually add to their power. And what a horror that would be, no?
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