Iron, Roses, Ice and Fire: Game of Thrones and Gender Imagery

By: Elizabeth Rae Stevens

Before the scientific revolution in the 16th century, the natural world was seen as as an organism with a feminine soul. It has been argued (perhaps most notably by Carolyn Merchant in her 1980 work The Death of Nature) that as the culture moved to a mechanistic worldview and began seeing the earth as a collection of resources, the dominion over nature was concomitant with the subjugation of women. Centuries later, we are still using metaphors of nature as female, and the dominion over nature as a masculine evil.

As a species of storytellers, we consistently fall back on centuries-old tropes and motifs as a kind of shorthand. In a modern culture of sound bites and “too long; didn’t read” memes, it is a particular challenge to leave behind those stereotypes and tropes to engage the audience in a new, subtle, and progressive take on character and story. In our media-saturated and hyper-literate world, even when we subvert those expectations we are drawing on the assumption that the audience will recognize the stereotype before the twist.

This is particularly evident in one of the most successful and influential pop-culture phenomena of recent years: the HBO TV adaptation of George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, Game of Thrones. In this series, we can clearly see how gendered images and metaphors for the natural world influence our expectations.

The Iron Throne

The Iron Throne

The Iron Throne itself is a definitively masculine structure. Dark, metallic, hard edged, composed of weaponry, it bespeaks a ruthlessness and physical strength that is closely connected with classic masculine traits, and reminiscent of the ancient beliefs and texts that the mining of ores is an act of violence against Mother Earth. Here, her riches have been plundered, forged, and turned to political purpose.

By season seven, the reigning monarch on the Iron Throne is female. Queen Cersei, however, has undergone a dramatic evolution from her early representation as a classically feminine character with flowing tresses and sweeping gowns to donning a much more masculine costume that speaks to her increased ruthlessness and hunger for power, traits of her Lannister lineage.

Season One Cersei will teach you how to achieve soft waves with your flat iron

Season One Cersei will teach you how to achieve soft waves with your flat iron

Season Seven Cersei will kill your children.

Season Seven Cersei will kill your children.

Margaery Tyrell.jpg

On the other end of the gender spectrum, we have House Tyrell. Their house crest is a rose and their words are “growing strong”. Their costumes are soft and flowing, and their ancestral home is called Highgarden. In every way, they are set up immediately as the feminine side of Westeros, contrasted with the masculine strength of the North.

Margaery Tyrell, one of the most powerfully feminine characters in Westeros.

The florals, soft colors, and draping fabrics of House Tyrell.

The florals, soft colors, and draping fabrics of House Tyrell.

Living in the North means leather and fur and the exploitation of the natural world. The Stark family is a fascinating study of gender and power in a patriarchy.

Living in the North means leather and fur and the exploitation of the natural world. The Stark family is a fascinating study of gender and power in a patriarchy.

Then, of course, we have the Targaryans. Classically feminine in style and character, Daenarys is an archetypal Earth Mother Goddess, ruling with mercy and justice, beloved of her people. She brings a certain balance to this hyper masculine world, and as “Mother of Dragons” works in concert with the natural world. Season One Daenerys and her brother, Viserys, both portrayed as being stereotypically feminine, particularly when opposed with the exaggerated masculinity of the Dothraki horde.

Daenerys and Viserys

Daenerys and Viserys

Daenerys, Mother of Dragons, mastering  natura naturata .

Daenerys, Mother of Dragons, mastering natura naturata.

Game of Thrones is in many ways a study of opposition and contrast: summer and winter, North and South, West and East, civil and savage, life and death, and, of course, ice and fire. Each of these conflicts is given form in the metaphor and imagery of the oldest conflict in human narrative, the masculine and the feminine. Even as Game of Thrones evolves and subverts the established stereotypes of the fantasy genre, it is drawing upon and adding to the complexity and texture of our ancient shared culture, and to our understanding of the ages-old connections between the natural world and the feminine. There is a deep well to draw from here, with connections to the more stereotypically masculine kingdoms being at war with nature and the more feminine kingdoms embracing sensuality and the natural world, the theology of Westeros, the harnessing of feminine power, the subjugation of women, the subversion of traditional gender roles in characters such as Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark, and examinations of maternity and paternity. However, even a cursory glance shows us how many character traits and themes are established with outmoded gender stereotypes and their explicit link to the natural world, and how immediately and subconsciously we recognize the metaphor.