The same logic applies to other female characters’ experiences with sexism and sexual violence. Take Cersei Lannister, a woman whose frank appraisal of sex as a survival strategy rubs Kreizman the wrong way. Just like Daenerys, Cersei’s been treated like chattel her whole life, and just like Daenerys, Cersei’s a widow of a loveless arranged marriage. Only instead of finally achieving independence, the queen dowager is shunted into yet another engagement. It’s this tragedy that humanizes Cersei, keeping her from becoming a mere “conniving villainess” and transforming her into a true antiheroine — a figure that’s been conspicuously missing from high-quality dramas for quite some time.
Still, rape and other forms of gendered violence are more than just a means for character development in the Game of Thrones universe. Fantasy may be the opposite of reality, but it’s also meant to reflect it. Just as Game of Thrones deals with themes of power and governance that resonate with the way we do politics today — realpolitik versus black-and-white morals, obligation versus opportunity — it adopts a similar approach to gender. The women of Game of Thrones face problems still epidemic in the world off-screen, yet another reason why scenes like Sansa’s near-rape in the second season are so hard to watch. And those real problems are all too often left out of fantasy narratives altogether.
That’s why, to this viewer, the violence and sexism and cruelty of Westeros serve a purpose. A Song of Ice and Fire is not just an excellent story in its own right; it’s a deliberate response to a genre that’s often just as averse to including complicated women with serious problems as it is to killing off protagonists. Most high fantasy authors create universes that conveniently airbrush out both women and their conflicts, leaving only a token tomboy or a damsel in distress. To me, that practice does far more to encourage objectifying women than telling the story of a prostitute using her sexuality to get ahead (Ros) or a female warrior who’s just as likely to be mocked as respected (Brienne).
Kreizman is right when she argues that George R.R. Martin chose to create a patriarchal world. But he also created dozens of female characters who struggle with what it means to survive in that world in ways that render them three-dimensional and tremendously empathetic. The women of Westeros negotiate issues like exploitation and rape as if they are real, life-threatening forces — and that’s how it should be. Game of Thrones may not be a historically accurate fantasy, but it’s an internally consistent one. And when it comes to women in this genre, that’s huge.