Light spoilers through Season 7, Episode 2 of Game of Thrones.
Jon Snow, newly appointed King of the North, is sharing his strategy—to fight Cersei, to fight the White Walkers, to win the many battles to come—with the assemblage of fighters who have agreed to join him in the effort. “Everyone age 10 to 16 we’ll drill daily with spears, pikes, bow, and arrow,” Jon informs the group. The warriors cheer. They like this plan: Everyone’s in this together, after all. If there’s to be any hope of victory, it’s going to require wide-scale cooperation. And, anyway, “it’s about time we taught these boys of summer how to fight!” Lord Glover bellows.
But Jon corrects him; Glover has misunderstood. “Not just the boys,” Jon says. Women will be part of the effort, too. “We can’t defend the North,” Jon points out, “if only half the population is fighting.”
It’s in one sense yet another moment of realpolitik in Game of Thrones, a show that has become increasingly fascinated with the minutiae of political decision-making as it winds down, and gears up, to its conclusion. But Jon’s decree also nods to the broader world Game of Thrones occupies, a world that is fighting different kinds of wars and negotiating different kinds of politics. If only half the population is fighting is a line that easily doubles as a slogan. It’s the stuff of hashtags, and memes, and Zazzle-friendly T-shirts.
But it’s also the stuff of Lyanna Mormont, the spunky young woman who manages to steal the scene from Jon in the most straightforward of ways: by passionately agreeing with him. “I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me,” Lyanna glowers. “I might be small, Lord Glover,” she continues, “and I might be a girl, but I am every bit as much a Northerner as you. And I don’t need your permission to defend the North.”
Which is … exactly the right thing to say. It’s on the one hand a perfectly fitting follow-up to Jon’s half the population concession, but it’s also the kind of line, outside of the show’s universe, that gives fans something to cheer for. It calls to mind the literary (Helena, of Hermia: “Though she be but little, she is fierce”). And yet it is not subtle; it is not complicated; and this is the point. “Lyanna Mormont gives an empowering speech about why women should fight,” a bullet-pointed write-up from Business Insider went. It added: “Game of Thrones fans were loving it.”
But the duo of messages from Jon and Lyanna—desperate times call for desperate egalitarianism—reflect another kind of political reality: The messages hint at how keenly aware Game of Thrones’s writers and producers are of the environments beyond Westeros. As they adapt George R.R. Martin’s books, they are also adapting to the people who have loved and hated and criticized their TV show. They are arguing for the real-world relevance of a series whose plots revolve around ice-zombies and dragons. And, in that, they’re creating a series that exists not just for entertainment value, but also to be discussed, and slogan-ed, and memed. Here, in the person of Lyanna Mormont, a girl who above all doesn’t need your permission, is tagline-friendly feminism, on display in a show that lives as much on the internet as it does within the walled gardens of HBO.
In one way, it’s awesome, all this overt celebration of lady-ness in a universe that hasn’t always been so overtly celebratory of its women. It makes the other stuff in the show—the violence, in particular—easier to take. And it brings the world of Game of Thrones into the moral universe of our own, giving it a particular relevance and urgency. Lyanna is a bold young woman who embodies the innocence of those who have not yet understood the arbitrary ways of the world. She functions as a vehicle of defiance in a world that prefers to defy her. Young and brave and not taking your nonsense—she is, essentially, an animate incarnation of the Fearless Girl statue.
The tension, though, comes from the context: Game of Thrones is a world, of course, in which “fearless” and “girl” are decidedly not redundant. Lyanna, after all, exists in the same story that found Sansa Stark brutally raped, multiple times—and that found Game of Thrones depicting her experience of that violence in intimate, graphic detail. Lyanna exists in the same story that washed Melisandre’s big reveal in regressive assumptions about feminine age and feminine beauty. And that found Talisa Stark stabbed in her pregnant abdomen. And that found Shireen Baratheon, a girl not unlike Lyanna, burned, brutally, at the stake. And that found Arya Stark transformed, through tragedy and trauma, from a Lyanna-esque tomboy into a wide-eyed revenge-monster.
There is, of course, an equalizing element to Game of Thrones’s violence: Women, here, are not spared, and this is its own embrace of Jon Snow’s if only half the population is fighting philosophy. But Game of Thrones, it must be said, also gave unto the world the Sand Snakes, three of the most insipid characters not just in Game of Thrones’s universe, but on television, in general. Stubbornly one-dimensional and “exotic” in the most boring of ways, these daughters of Dorne are the stuff of Edward Said’s nightmares—and also of Gloria Steinem’s. They seem to enjoy teasing men, just for the power of it. They seem to enjoy displaying their breasts, for the same reason. “You want a good girl,” Tyene—but it barely matters, as the main thing about these three women is that they operate as a dull unit—whispers to Bronn. She adds: “But you need the bad pussy.” Yes.
So Lyanna Mormont lives in the same universe that finds Tyene demanding that Bronn acknowledge her as “the most beautiful woman in the world” (lest, if he does not, she let him die from the poison she has administered). She operates in a narrative environment, overall, that belies the fearless-girl feminism her character is meant to advertise. In its context, I might be a girl, but I am every bit as much a Northerner as you rings true; it also, however, rings hollow.
And so, in some ways, does that other moment of lady-power sloganeering in Season 7. “The Long Night is coming,” Melisandre tells Daenerys, when the two women finally encounter each other in person. “Only the prince who was promised can bring the dawn.”
“I’m afraid I’m not a prince,” Daenerys replies.
Missandei actuallys the situation. “That noun has no gender in High Valyrian,” she notes. “So the proper translation for that prophecy would be, ‘the prince or princess who was promised will bring the dawn.’”
Daenerys’s adviser—and occasional translator—is providing yet another moment of triumphant feminism for fans to cheer: in this case, of gendered expectations, thwarted. Of egalitarianism, against all odds, winning. The moment is subtle—it’s a matter of grammar, after all—but the show plays it for drama. “The prince or princess.” BOOM.
But that moment, too, has its context: the same context that Lyanna’s moment does. What results in the juxtaposition is the kind of dramatic tension that Game of Thrones is so good at producing: Story versus slogan. Character versus caricature. Treatments of feminine power that are relatively complicated and nuanced (Daenerys’s not-always-successful attempts to be a just ruler, Cersei’s not-always-successful attempts to balance motherhood with power-hunger, Yara Greyjoy’s military ambitions, and Sansa’s struggle to survive, and Arya’s quest both to forget herself and to find herself again) chafing against treatments of feminine power that are the opposite (bad pussy).
The delight of Game of Thrones—the thing that has made it compelling not just as entertainment, but as art—has long been that kind of tension. This is a show that productively tangles the epic and the everyday, the small moments of wry humor with the fire-breath of dragons, that which is human with that which is magic. And that tension applied to its women gives the show another level of resonance: In its own juxtaposition of “empowerment” and power, the shiny message versus the messy reality, Game of Thrones reflects a truth of the other world it is operating in: the real one. The world that also claims to celebrate women who rise to power, but that also remains extremely conflicted—wage gaps, makeup taxes, “grab ‘em by the pussy”—about what such empowerment should actually entail. A world in which the Fearless Girl statue, it turns out, was installed by an investment firm with only three women sitting on its 11-person board of directors.
There’s a similar irony at play with Lyanna Mormont, the Fearless Girl of the North. In declaring her own independence, she is also, in a way, being used. She is helping to serve the needs of Game of Thrones’s showrunners, and HBO’s executives, and a show that has been criticized for giving girls a reason to be fearful in the first place. Lyanna, after all, is a character who is also an argument. She insists that things are better than they are. She glowers at the men surrounding her and, all defiance and strength, raises her voice to argue that women should fight, too. And the men cheer. They’re in this together, now. If only it were that simple.