Women in the hit show Game of Thrones play an interesting role as a whole. The only women shown on screen are placed in the dichotomy of prostitutes or highborn women — there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. And, despite appearances, these two classes of women have more in common than would be expected. Both classes struggle for power over their rights to their own bodies and fates. In a world in which women are born into this binary, who has more agency? The prostitute who chooses her clients but whose life is deemed worthless, or the highborn lady whose existence depends upon being sold to fulfill a peace treaty or to act as a breeder? This article contains spoilers from the latest season, so proceed with caution if you have yet to catch up.
Highborn Westerosi women are taught from birth that they will be married off, essentially sold, when they come of age. This is brought up time and again, from Sansa Stark being shuffled around like a plaything by men more powerful than her, eventually escaping from King’s Landing where she is able to manipulate the Council at the Vale by using her status and thus regaining a fraction of control.
Cersei fights with her father, Lord Tywin Lannister, over her engagement to Loras Tyrell, and about how horrible it was to be forced to marry Robert so many years before. She attempts to
regain her agency by destroying her reputation and telling the truth about her incestuous relationship with her twin brother which resulted in all of her children, but, at least in terms of the show at this moment, it is unclear if her ploy will come to fruition.
Arya Stark essentially rejects her name and status in order to survive, because as a highborn lady she would be used as a pawn, but as a nameless girl she is able to take control. All are seeking power over themselves as a means of gaining agency.
Adversely, Shae, a prostitute in Westeros, attaches herself to power. She is reactive to others’ power in her desperate attempts to improve her status. Her plan certainly gains traction for some time, though it is doomed to be short-lived. She only follows the trail of power and thus is comfortable betraying everyone in order to maintain power. She betrays Tyrion in court, and then is found in the bed of Tywin, Tyrion’s father, where she is murdered by Tyrion. Her death will be meaningless, however, because in Westeros the death of a prostitute is akin to the death of a neighbor’s pet.
In fact, Joffrey tortured and murdered prostitutes for fun. It is safe to say that the prostitutes have little to no agency at all in Game of Thrones. Slavery is illegal in many of the free states; however, it is often circumvented by wealth, and in Lys it is common, as women and men alike are sold as concubines and bed-slaves. Doreah, one of Daenerys’s handmaidens, was given to Daenerys Targaryen as a wedding gift and instructed to teach her the womanly art of love making. This is a common practice, but the Lysene are highly respected in their skills as concubines/bed-slaves, and most are portrayed as having pride in their abilities.
Agency is power. No one is able to have any agency whatsoever without power — at the very least power over herself — and of all the women in Game of Thrones, Daenerys is the most powerful. Her power derives from her legitimate claim to the Iron Throne, as a Targaryen, and through her status as the mother of dragons. The dragons provide military prowess, and with them she is able to reign sovereign over many lands in Essos. She also chooses not to remarry after she is widowed by Khal Drogo, granting her further agency, though it is only accepted due to her status as a Khaleesi and mother of dragons. On the other hand, Cersei’s power derives from her father and from her sons. Alone, she has very little agency and desperately grasps at straws in order to maintain her fragile hold on that power.
Highborn women are often viewed as more valuable in death, because, if murdered, there is cause for war. They are treated as prized objects whose ability to think and rule is diminished because of their sex. None of the women in Game of Thrones has any agency at all. Daenerys is the only exception to this rule, and even she has had multiple attempts on her life since birth — in large part to eradicate any Targaryen claim to the throne. All of the highborn women can only have power through men, and what little power they have of their own accord has to be hidden through clever manipulations.
The world depicted in Game of Thrones is heavily reliant upon the subjugation of women. Whether those women are considered valuable (highborns) or worthless (prostitutes), their lives and statuses are heavily reliant upon the men who surround them. Whether bought and sold repeatedly for little money as sex workers or for large sums as political trading pieces, the women of the series are little more than pawns. The fight for agency, the fight for power, is the fight for survival upon which each woman’s plot lines is based.