Immediately after being released yesterday, the new episode of Game of Thrones was besieged with an odd charge: being “too feminist”. Specifically, the makers of the series (the hallowed Benioff & Weiss) were criticized for making an episode that, according to many, was “tailored to please feminists”. Translation: We saw a bunch of female characters acting like male characters and We. Are. Pissed.
Yesterday’s episode featured Brienne of Tarth taking down what seemed like an entire squad of Ramsay Bolton’s men, as well as the Sand Sisters and Ellaria Sand engaging in some rather devilish badassery. Pretty normal for a show which is famed for its strong female characters and for general bloodshed. Vox aptly stated that death is always a winner on Game of Thrones. What appears to be particularly problematic, therefore, (apart from the numerous plot holes that dotted the episode) was that the persons carrying out these actions were women, and worse, strong women.
It’s not as though the denizens of the Internet have not previously made their displeasure clear when what is viewed as a traditionally male role is taken over by a woman. Daisy Ridley’s Rey was criticized in the seventh installment of Star Wars for being preternaturally excellent at all things Jedi Knight-related, even though the entire series has seen nothing but protagonists who are unnaturally skilled with the Force (see: both Luke and Anakin Skywalker). Fans were also apparently outraged that Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in the newest Mad Max defied the franchise’s traditionally male-oriented trope to become the biggest badass on screen.
This general hatred seems particularly directed at those characters who are viewed as being “usurpers” in roles that were traditionally occupied by men. Rey’s character in Episode VII is blatantly modelled on that of Luke’s, and yet Mark Hamill’s character never faced these concerns. Fans of Game of Thrones scarcely bat an eye when The Hound, the Mountain or Bronn take on an entire company of men with little to no support, but such a scene for Brienne draws accusations of being catered to feminist audiences. Women participating in stronger, more central, more “masculine” roles have been criticized across the board, whether the general furore surrounding the possibility of a female James Bond (a distant prospect, sadly, despite the continued prevalence of the ubiquitous and one-dimensional Bond Girl), or having another Star Wars movie headlined by a female star (the commendable Felicity Jones playing the new character of Jyn Erso), as though we didn’t have an entire franchise built on male stars.
Sadly, women still remain sidekicks when it comes to large franchises. Even Star Trek, lauded for its diversity in a time when casting people of colour was controversial, puts its one big female character (Nyota Uhura) in a role that is not traditionally associated with masculinity – that of a Communications’ Officer. Sometimes, their role has been dialled down in screen adaptations in order to meet the demands of the audience – Kitty Pryde’s starring role in the comic-book version of Days of Future Past is reduced to that of a mere facilitator in the movie adaptation. Irene Adler, trickster extraordinaire and one of the only persons to ever defeat Holmes (in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia), was outsmarted by our favourite misanthropic consulting detective in BBC’s beloved Sherlock.
Appearance matters. There can only be two types of acceptable femme-fatales: the overtly sexual and the mutely androgynous. The subdued, more traditionally “feminine” characters – essentially, the ones who conform to societal expectations of submissive feminity and rarely participate in violence – commit violent acts only a few times in their characters’ lifetimes, and only where the circumstances demand it. Women who defy this norm in favour of a more easygoing approach towards murder and violence are both (a) confident in their sexuality and (b) blatantly utilize it in order to achieve their ends (as though this utilization of sexuality is absolutely necessary for the achievement of their goals), as well as being strikingly beautiful according to conventional standards (see: any movie featuring a female assassin, such as Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux or The Black Widow in The Avengers). Alternatively, they can eschew sexuality and feminity altogether, adopting more androgynous tones (as Arya Stark does) or openly expressing their desire to be male.
Anything outside this norm is considered unpalatable. What made Furiosa particularly repugnant was that she was not only female, but also that she was a woman who defied reel-life standards of feminine beauty, which often demands that women appear perfectly groomed and hairless even in apocalyptic situations where hair-removal cream and wax are ostensibly scarce commodities. Female characters are often dressed in impractical outfits – Jurassic Park’s Claire Dearing wears a pair of astonishingly high heels as she’s being chased by dinosaurs, while Wonder Woman’s laughably ridiculous costume has been the subject of much derision over the years.
In the end, what is acceptable is that which is (a) feminine, as long as it serves to please the male gaze and (b) badass, as long as it doesn’t encroach on what is traditionally viewed as a man’s job. Anything outside this definition is condemnable. Intolerable. “Geared towards feminists”. All of this after a century of male-driven, male-based cinema. Where the market for women is assumed to be restricted to romantic comedies and princess fairytales. Where Disney “forgets” to release an action figure for the female lead in a Star Wars movie.
So maybe it’s time for change. Game of Thrones is one of the few shows which actually has women who break the mould, and they’ve certainly received their fair share of angry criticism for it. But what we need is precisely what discomfits all those who find this new episode too woman-based – more and more strong female characters who break norms. And we’re getting them, even if the process is slow: Jessica Jones is effortlessly dangerous. Jyn Erso will be the face of a new Star Wars film. Instead of being outraged, perhaps fuming viewers should sit down and consider why the idea of a woman “in a man’s role” makes them so deeply uncomfortable. Because the industry is finally beginning to realise that audiences want more diversity than straight, white and male, and it has finally started catering to that demand. Strong female characters are here to stay and I, for one, love it.