In 'Game of Thrones,' women are winning - USA TODAY

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In 'Game of Thrones,' women are winning - USA TODAY
Mar 28th 2012, 21:29

It's a man's world on HBO's Game of Thrones, but it's the women who remain standing.

  • Icy queen: Lena Headey plays Queen Cersei. Headey says the show's women "are fascinating, admirable, frightening. They possess all qualities of a being, whether it be a man or whatever." Season 2 premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

    By Helen Sloan, HBO

    Icy queen: Lena Headey plays Queen Cersei. Headey says the show's women "are fascinating, admirable, frightening. They possess all qualities of a being, whether it be a man or whatever." Season 2 premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

By Helen Sloan, HBO

Icy queen: Lena Headey plays Queen Cersei. Headey says the show's women "are fascinating, admirable, frightening. They possess all qualities of a being, whether it be a man or whatever." Season 2 premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

They are survivors in a harsh land that is harsher to them, denying them the rights and powers of their male counterparts.

Survival is an impressive accomplishment for anyone in the mythical, Medieval-like land of Westeros, where the struggle for dominance never ends. Death and destruction rained down on many during Season 1, claiming the lives of King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) and — in a shock to many viewers — his most trusted adviser and Thrones' lead character, Ned Stark (played by Thrones' best-known actor, Sean Bean).

Bloody war and a devastatingly long winter are approaching in Season 2, premiering Sunday (9 ET/PT), as multiple would-be rulers vie for the crown now worn by Robert's cruel and impulsive son, Joffrey, whose illegitimacy remains a guarded secret. (The dire situation does not extend to the ratings: The season finale of HBO's first foray into fantasy drew 3 million viewers, but the season's average over all HBO viewing platforms was 9.3 million.)

Life likely will become even more challenging for the women, all of whom come from some connection or claim to power, and all of whom faced daunting situations as Season 1 concluded.

Ned's widow, Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), is bereft over her separation from her two young daughters, Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams), whom she believes are held by Joffrey and the rival Lannisters; Queen Cersei (Lena Headey), the Lannister matriarch and Robert's widow, fears she is losing control of Joffrey and her power; and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), one of Westeros' would-be rulers, finds herself wandering in the desert with a small, beleaguered following and three baby dragons.

Social standing or, in Daenerys's case, a claim of destiny, offer only so much protection.

"It's not an easy world. That's why the women are incredibly strong, from (lowest born) to highest nobility," says Fairley, whose character serves as the steely, respected adviser to her son, Robb, commander of a growing army battling the Lannisters. "They have to be strong. They can't go through life thinking, 'Oh, I'm so lucky.' They're there because they have plotted and planned."

For the most part, their power has to come indirectly because of the nature of their world. "They're second-class citizens. They're intelligent. What makes them more dangerous than men is that they take a longer time to work their revenge because they have to scheme it. You don't expect it to come from them. You do not expect ruthlessness from women at all," Fairley says.

Filling a gender gap

The women in Thrones, based on the best-selling fantasy book series, "A Song of Ice and Fire" by George R.R. Martin, are one of the elements that drew the interest of executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

"I think there's a mistaken notion (that) fantasy is a boys' club and aimed more at teenage boys. These books are aimed at adults and had, if anything, more strong female characters than male," Weiss says. "Television is such a great place to fill that gap that seems to have opened up in film, where I don't think you see the strength and depth of female characters. It was something (we) wanted to emphasize in the show in the second season."

Other strong women join the cast this season, including Melisandre (Carice van Houten), the red priestess and adviser to would-be king Stannis Baratheon; Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), a warrior who protects Stannis' brother, Renly, who also claims the crown; Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), the ambitious, astute young wife of Renly; and Ygritte (Rose Leslie), a wildling woman from the savage land north of The Wall.

Headey credits Benioff and Weiss with drawing richly defined characters, which isn't always the case with women in fiction. "I think the women in Game of Thrones are fascinating, admirable, frightening. They possess all qualities of a being."

Although the women are survivors, their positions vary. Catelyn and Cersei find themselves in traditional roles as advisers to the ruling males, one listened to more than the other. Daenerys, who feels destiny is on her side, seeks a way to marshal her forces and restore the Targaryen name to power.

All widows now, the three have had to be submissive at times, Headey says. "But underneath lies the true power with these women. They've all survived their husbands. I think they're all going to get stronger. Whether or not that lasts is a bit different for each woman."

Clarke says the characters derive at least one benefit from their lower station: "Perspective. We're not expected to rule and to lead. We have had time to watch the men make their mistakes and see where they've gone wrong. The fact that we're women means we have a bit more of a flexible brain to see the areas men would fail to."

The challenging circumstances apply to all women in Westeros. "Whether it's Queen Cersei or (her brother) Tyrion's consort, the former prostitute Shae, who come from completely different backgrounds and social strata, both had to learn how to cope with a world where they don't have most of the advantages in terms of gaining power," Benioff says.

Sexist or empowering?

Some in Thrones' passionate fan base have debated whether its depictions of this world and its women, which includes a pay-cable-worthy amount of nudity, are sexist or empowering. The actresses vote for the latter.

"The women do not come over as victims. (They) seem to be in control of their own destinies," Fairley says. "There is a lot of sex in it because that's the nature of the world they live in, the time they live in, which could be said about today and the way women in the media use their sexuality to further their careers. But if they're the ones controlling it and guiding it, is that sexist?"

Clarke sees the women's strengths. "The world we're describing is not the world we're living in today. In my mind, it's loosely based around medieval times where women weren't even close to being thought of as equal to men. When you put it into perspective and look at what these women have accomplished and what they are capable of doing against all odds, I definitely think it's empowering."

Still, some things may not have changed as much from mythical times to real time, she says. "You turn on the television at any point and nine out of 10 times, you're going to see more naked women than naked men. I cannot wait for the day when that is very different."

Going forward, the women are going to have to be even more resilient as they face the hostile circumstances of Westeros, a land where even Ned Stark wasn't safe. "It's not always going to be the women who survive," Benioff says. "There are bloodbaths ahead. Characters from each gender are going to go down into the dirt."

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