TV Women Still Fighting Inequity

Sarada Symonds, Editor-in-Chief

Warning: There are spoilers for Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad in this article.

I’m obsessed with Game of Thrones, but the popular HBO series brings up concerns about how women are portrayed in the media.

Author George R.R. Martin says he’s a feminist at heart, according to The Telegraph. Currently in its 4th season, the fantasy television show, based on Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire, has been the subject of debate amongst feminists. Cited by sources like the The Daily Beast and Entertainment Weekly as an upstanding model for feminism due to its cast of complex, three dimensional women, reviewers at the New York Times believe the exact opposite, noting the illicitness of the series and the inability of women to move into actual positions of power. 

As a fan of the show, I tend to side with those who see the show’s characters as empowering for women. 

It’s true that, despite their plotting, women remain relegated to subservient roles. However, this is simply a necessary aspect of the medieval setting, where women were often limited by their gender. In fact, part of the appeal of Game of Thrones is that the women often overcome this obstacle, such as Brienne of Tarth, a woman who can hold her own with any man in combat. And while plenty of the women on the show work in less than respectable professions, prostitution was one of the only ways women could achieve independence during the time period.

The women on Game of Thrones truly are well-developed characters, from Cersei, who has just as much ambition as her father but continues to care for her children, to Catelyn, whose loyalty and political knowledge make her a valuable character.

Of course, one can’t talk about great female characters without talking about Danerys, who has conquered cities and leads her own army. So, yes, the female characters are human, and, like their male counterparts, are simply trying to navigate their brutal, violent world of power politics.

Yet, it seems strange to me that, in the 21st century, one of the most shining examples of feminist television takes place in a setting where a woman cannot actually attain a position of power (unless she has dragons). Is a show “feminist” simply because women are, for once, portrayed equally with men, as actual complex human beings?

Why does Game of Thrones stand out in that respect, when we live in a modern world where women are widely considered equal?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that feminism means men and women should be treated equally. However, in most media, especially on television, they just aren’t.

Just look at recent critically acclaimed shows. On the Internet Movie Database, the top ten highest rated television shows currently include Breaking Bad, True Detective, Fargo, Sherlock,The Sopranos, and The Wire. Other than Game of Thrones and the documentaries Cosmos (2014), Cosmos (1970), and Planet Earth, each show on the top ten list features a male dominated cast, with most of the women being either poorly written or minor characters.

My sister and I particularly noticed this in Breaking Bad. In the span of the series, there are only 3 notable female characters who are developed in their own right and not just around to be killed off for the development of the main characters (I’m looking at you, Jane and Andrea).

Skyler, who is perhaps the strongest female character, intent on protecting her family no matter what, is often unaware of many of the events going on around her. Marie is simply one of the most annoying characters on television, and Lydia, the only woman who is really a part of the criminal underworld Walter White enters, is portrayed as a nervous wreck, especially when compared with the collected Gus and stoic Mike.

Even the television show Fargo, based on the 1996 Coen brothers film, lost some of the feminist cred when the writers relegated competent policewoman Molly Solverson (portrayed by Alison Tomsen) to deputy, stymied by men who are higher on the chain of command, whereas her movie counterpart Marge Gunderson was the sheriff and led the investigation on her own, while pregnant.

One of the excellent aspects of the Game of Thrones‘ female characters are painted in shades of gray, each with their own flaws. Martin has stated that his chief concern was making his characters human. Most of the highest rated television shows center around morally ambiguous (or not so ambiguous) characters, such as Tony Soprano from The Sopranos or Walter White from Breaking Bad. And, while it may seem odd to request that there be more female “antiheroes,” I think that it’s important that women get an equal chance at playing these complex characters. After all, it’s not as though men have a monopoly on murder.

There are certainly shows on television that feature strong female leads, such as Scandal, Revenge, and Homeland. However, this sometimes  seems like a gimmick to me, something to attract viewership. These shows often portray one strong female lead, while other female characters fall into stereotypes. Furthermore, women that are initially portrayed as capable and goal oriented are often led astray by their love interest. While this isn’t a shortfall limited to women, well written male characters tend to be faced more with moral decisions or challenges rather than romantic issues. And while there are a few shows featuring well written women as their leads, most of these, such as HBO’s Girls or Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, fall in the comedy genre, and remain off network television.

While I have focused on television, there are certainly still issues in movies and video games as well. This is perhaps most clearly represented by the Bechdel Test, which has three seemingly simple conditions to pass – a film must have 2 women who talk to each other about a topic other than men. Of just over 5000 films tested so far on, only 56.3% passed. Mind you, this is not about whether or not there are female leads, just that there are two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men.

However, Huffington Post noted that, in the past year, there has been a rise in films that pass the Bechdel Test, notably Frozen and The Hunger Games trilogy. Comedies are now often geared towards women, and not just romantic comedies, but movies like Bridesmaid and The Heat.

More and more movies are adopting capable, sometimes dark, female characters, such as The Avengers‘ Black Widow, who may be getting her own solo film (and yet, there is still no Wonder Woman movie).

In short, television tends to feature stronger male leads, often leaving female characters undeveloped. And while I find many of these shows brilliant, it’s disappointing to me that we don’t have more shows where women take the lead, where their dialogue is well written and developed and thought provoking, and the focus of the the show isn’t the “strong female lead,” but the themes and quality of the story and characters themselves.

Both Fargo and True Detective are anthology series, and my personal hope is that these shows will take advantage of their now solid fan base and introduce more female leads next season. Furthermore, I hope that networks choose to invest in more shows that demonstrate complex and well written women.