Who Runs the Seven Kingdoms? Exploring Gender Through Game of Thrones

Jul 28, 2017

Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons
Credit YouTube

Thanks to the popularity of the books and television series Game of Thrones, a Virginia Tech Professor of Medieval Studies has no problem filling his classes of the same name.  The saga has offered many teachable moments, and he told Robbie Harris it looks like this is the  season of the women, presenting a chance to explore gender relations in history and the present.

Daenerys Targaryen, also known as the ‘Mother of Dragons’ is a force to be reckoned with in the struggle for the Iron Throne that’s the central plot of the show -- and she’s not the only woman whose power is on the rise, says professor Matt Gabriele.

“They’re really focusing on women. The main characters going forward are clearly going to be the women who have played marginalized rolls up until now but who are starting to assert their authority in really interesting ways. What I try to explore in the class is to show that, yeah that happened in the Middle Ages too. The European Middle Ages was a patriarchal society but women could exert their power in really interesting ways, something very explicit and sometimes very subtle.

Gabriele points out that earlier seasons showed strong, even powerful women, nonetheless thwarted by the men in their lives in ways that reflect the social norms of the middle ages. Like the character, Cersei, a member of the wealthiest and most powerful family in the Kingdom of Westeros.

“In previous seasons no matter how much power any woman held there was some man who was more powerful who could just tell her what to do. So Cersei for example, is going to be forced to marry against her will by her father because that’s what her father wanted. It didn’t matter that she had been married to the King and that she was the mother of the current King, her dad wanted her to do something and she was going to have to do it.”

Gabriele suggests that setting this kind of misogyny in what we call the dark ages, a time we think of as an era of superstition,  brutality, and constant war,  sets up a distinction between the bad old days and the new -- and that it offers a comment on modern society and feminism’s place in it.

“It’s using the medieval to try to distance modernity from it, meaning that they’re trying to show, ‘look at this, this stuff happened a long time ago. It shouldn’t be like this.' And my guess is the way it’s going in this new season is we’re going to emerge into a new world in which there’s more equality of the sexes, where women can wield power, where people listen to what women have to say and ultimately the world will be a better place in Westeros for it.”

Gabriele says of course there is so much more to the actual middle ages than we see in Game of Thrones, but the fact that his classes are filling up presents a perfect opportunity for teaching.  He’s offering the class again, you guessed it, this winter.

“It just seemed a perfect fit to teach a course on Game of Thrones when 'Winter is Coming.'