How does hit HBO drama 'Game of Thrones' portray women?

Actress Emilia Clarke recently spoke about the program's controversial portrayal of complicated female characters as its new season sets to air April 24. 

Macall B. Polay/HBO
'Game of Thrones' stars Emilia Clarke.

With the approach of the sixth season of the HBO drama "Game of Thrones,” discussion has started anew over the program’s portrayal of its female characters.

The new season arrives on April 24 and "Thrones" actress Emilia Clarke, who portrays queen hopeful Daenerys Targaryen, recently defended the female characters on the program. The range of characters includes Cersei Lannister, the mother of the current king; Margaery, the king’s wife; Sansa Stark, whose family’s home has been taken over by their enemies; and her sister Arya, who is learning how to disguise herself with the help of those at the House of Black and White.

Ms. Clarke says the diversity of female characters depicted in the show is impressive. 

"There’s so much controversy," the actress said of "Thrones" female characters in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "Yet that’s what’s beautiful about 'Game of Thrones' – its depiction of women in so many different stages of development. There are women depicted as sexual tools, women who have zero rights, women who are queens but only to a man, and then there are women who are literally unstoppable and as powerful as you can possibly imagine. So it pains me to hear people taking 'Thrones' out of context with anti-feminist spin – because you can’t do that about this show. It shows the range that happens to women, and ultimately shows women are not only equal, but have a lot of strength."

Critics have both criticized and defended the portrayal of female characters on the fantasy drama, which has become HBO’s most-watched show of all time. 

"Amid all of the lurid goings-on, somehow, this show has slowly revealed some of the most magnificent women ever committed to the small screen," Telegraph writer Charlotte Runcie wrote in 2014. "It’s a feminist tract, shrouded so effectively in the cloak of faux medievalism that on first viewing it appears – paradoxically – to be brutally misogynist." 

Ms. Runcie names Cersei, Daenerys, female knight Brienne, Arya, and Margaery, among others, as "deliciously complicated."

"Westeros may be a society that treats women badly, but it’s bursting with female characters who come out fighting and look like winners," Runcie wrote. 

But there has been controversy at various points throughout the show’s run of the depiction of sexual violence on "Thrones," particularly last year, when character Sansa was sexually assaulted.

Following that plotline, Eliana Dockterman of Time magazine wrote that the program has a "women problem." 

Ms. Dockterman felt that depictions of sexual assault continued but there weren't as many strong scenes of female characters.

"[T]his season has felt more abusive of women than previous ones," Dockterman wrote. "Yes, there have been hard-to-watch scenes. But there also were few scenes of female empowerment to balance them out – and that marks a departure from previous seasons.… Daenerys emerging from a fire with her baby dragons, or Brienne taking down the Hound – these were were glorious moments that reminded fans these abused women had personalities, motivations and the potential to best their enemies. But this season [2015], the women on 'Game of Thrones' have felt impotent." 

By contrast, Slate writer Amanda Marcotte felt that this past season made the effort to depict sexual assault in a more thoughtful manner.

"More than any other in the show's history, this season showed the writers' deep understanding of sexual violence: that it's not about titillation or sexual gratification, but about dominance," Ms. Marcotte wrote. "…'Game of Throne''s writers finally have meaningful things to say about how sexual abuse and humiliation actually works in the world. Every terrible instance of sexual abuse in this season has a real-world analogue...."

"Game of Thrones" author George R.R. Martin has at times addressed the female characters in the program and what happens to them.

"I have millions of women readers who love the books, who come up to me and tell me they love the female characters," Mr. Martin told Entertainment Weekly last year. "To be non-sexist, does that mean you need to portray an egalitarian society? That’s not in our history; it’s something for science fiction. And 21st century America isn’t egalitarian, either.… And then there’s the whole issue of sexual violence.… [I]f you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that."

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