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In Game of Thrones, men are powerless against women

- May 23rd, 2012

[This post contains spoilers up to the May 20 episode, "The Prince of Winterfell."]

There’s no vow the men of Westeros won’t break or any mistake they won’t make for a woman. But don’t let all the batting lashes and buxom bosoms fool you — in Game of Thronesthe best seductions are downright intellectual.

Cercei Lannister, the Queen Regent, warns her little brother Tyrion in “The Prince of Winterfell” about men’s failings around women: “You know why Varys is so dangerous? Because he doesn’t have a c–k. That little worm between your legs does half your thinking.”

This is an unsurprising statement from the woman who once told her future daughter-in-law Sansa Stark that a woman’s best weapon is the one between her legs.

But Cersei has a point. There’s been a lot written about the negative portrayal of women in Game of Thrones, much of it by reviewers with a clear anti-fantasy bias who dismissed the show as adolescent-boy fodder before they even tuned in. But in this season, it’s the male characters who are given the short shrift.

Tyrion’s intelligence is indisputable, and yet he retains one glaring weakness: A tendency to believe prostitutes are in love with him. All it takes for Theon Greyjoy, who has taken the great hold of Winterfell with 20 men, to lose his young Stark prisoners are the wiles of the wildling woman Osha — a fact he later beats a man bloody for pointing out.

Most of the show’s male characters take monumental risks this season for the women they desire. This portrayal of gender roles can be dangerous as it reinforces negative stereotypes that men are sex-starved idiots and women are sexual manipulators. But on closer inspection, it’s clear that in most cases, it takes more than a pretty face to tempt the men of Westeros into making dangerous decisions. Rather, the seductresses of Game of Thrones challenge the men’s worldviews in potentially game-changing ways.

Beyond the Wall, Jon Snow gets his Night’s Watch companions killed, and himself and ranger Qhorin Halfhand captured by wildlings. All because he chooses to spoon, rather than kill, the fiery ginger named Ygritte.

But Ygritte does more than make Jon blush with quips about his morning wood. She challenges his conception of what a wildling is, just by being a normal girl, rather than some scraggly monster from his childhood tales. Pretty soon, she’s dishing out real talk, questioning the value of the Night’s Watch, the merits of the monarchy and his people’s claims to the lands south of the Wall. Spitting at him on the icy wastes, she says of the men and women of Westeros: “You lot came along and just put up a big wall and said it was yours.”

Meanwhile, Jon’s half-brother Robb Stark, the self-styled King in the North, risks a strategically necessary war pact when he declares his desire to break off his politically-charged engagement and proceeds to get naked and sweaty with Volanti noblewoman-turned-war medic Talisa.

This relationship parallels that of Jon and Ygritte, as she schools Robb on the cost of The War of Five Kings on the people who aren’t waging it. “The boy was lucky you were here,”  Robb tells her after she helped amputate a Lannister soldier in “Garden of Bones.” “He was unlucky that you were,” she retorts.

Alyssa Rosenberg notes at Think Progress that Robb only seals the deal with Talisa after she tells him about how she shirked her noble calling of harp-playing and dinner-planning in favour of helping people.

Robb’s been attracted to her all along, but it’s this tale of personal alchemy that unmans the young king, leaving him unable to honor his obligations or resist a woman who performed the kind of transformation he needs to undergo in reverse. Making love to her is an act of transgression, a violation of his pledge to pay for the bridge crossing with his future. But if Talisia became what seemed impossible, perhaps Robb can find it himself to transcend his lack of training and take up his kingship, finding a way to become “one of the good ones.

Meanwhile, at Dragonstone, another would-be king, Stannis Baratheon, forsakes his marriage vows and his gods to have rough table sex with yet another red-headed temptress, Melisandre. While clearly tempted by the red priestess’s promises of power and sons, he is also expanding his narrow horizons. By bringing her into his fold, he accepts the mystical in a society that stopped believing in magic a long time ago. He embraces a new religion at the cost of abandoning the status quo.

These women are seductive because they offer new perspectives and challenge the narratives their sexual conquests had accepted as truths. Maybe the wildlings aren’t Jon’s natural enemies. Maybe Robb’s war isn’t justified. Maybe real spiritual power lies outside the dominant religion. These relationships shake things up, and as they progress, it will be interesting to see just how much they shuffle the board.

 Spoiler alert for those who haven’t read the books: If the books are any indication, in the coming episodes I expect we’ll get to see Brienne challenge Jamie in a similar way.

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