Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
SPOILER ALERT: If you have not watched Season 8, Episode 3 of “Game of Thrones,” this piece will give away major plot lines.
On Sunday night’s episode of “Game of Thrones,” poor noble Theon Greyjoy finally bit the dust, a hero. Ringing in his ears were Bran Stark’s last words to him: “Theon, you’re a good man. Thank you.”
The narrative message could not have been clearer: Don’t sweat over Theon’s betrayal of the Stark family that raised him, his decapitation of the family Master-at-Arms who first taught him to fight, his murder of two farm children in the wrong place at the wrong time or his attempted murder of Bran and Rickon Stark. And don’t dwell on how Theon’s bloodlust forced Bran and Rickon to flee, hunted and homeless, leading directly to Rickon’s murder at the hands of Ramsay Bolton and Bran’s years of vulnerable wandering in White Walker territory.
And set aside Theon’s downright nastiness before war found him, when he was just an insecure young man who spent his time insulting Jon Snow’s bastard status and trying to get freebies from sex workers. (Remember who suggested that the entire litter of dire wolves should be put down in Episode One?)
Nope, as the internet has firmly declared this morning, the redemption arc is complete. Theon is officially a “good man.” Both of those two words carry weight. The castrated Theon’s masculinity has been redeemed as clearly as his soul. But where in the show is the redemption of a “good woman?”
Theon isn’t the only male “Game of Thrones” character on a redemptive journey. As plenty of other fans have pointed out, his journey closely mirrors that of Jaime Lannister, another wannabe child-killer. Since pushing little Bran out of a tower, slaughtering a Stark loyalist in the street (in peacetime) and strangling his own cousin in an escape attempt, the incestuous Jaime reached peak redemption last week as he, like Theon, arrived at Winterfell to fight alongside old human enemies against the forces of supernatural darkness. On television, there’s nothing like a bit of magical evil to put human evil in perspective. If only real life were so simple.
Redemption is all well and good. To those of us who are practicing Christians, the capacity for redemption is what gives human life meaning – and we limit our own capacity for absolution when we deny it to others. But in our culture, it’s worth questioning which types of characters are granted redemption and why. And usually, that means men. In “Game of Thrones,” male characters have been afforded an empathy that we have yet to see granted to a woman.
From the beginning of “Game of Thrones,” Jaime has been of a pair with his twin sister, Cersei – the illicit lover with whom he’s surprised so fatefully by Bran. Together, their selfishness in the first season led to the defeat of the Starks. Yet come the final season and a newly heroic Jaime is fighting with the good guys, while Cersei stalks King’s Landing like a vampiric ice queen, torturing her foes in snuff-porn dungeons. Crucially, she’s incapable of putting aside a human fight to war on an existential one – the final decision that sets her apart in villainy from Jaime. The boy twin becomes a hero; the girl twin grows increasingly evil.
Theon, too, has a female counterpart. But for her, like Cersei, redemption was significantly less forthcoming last night. Three seasons after Theon proudly displayed the charred corpses of those slaughtered farm boys, another northern army looked on at the spectacle of another burned child’s corpse. This time the victim was the tragic Shireen Baratheon, daughter of Stannis. She was killed on the orders of Melisandre, a crone whose use of magic to lure men to her bed is another trope from the fairy-tale school of woman-hating. Should we cut the Red Priestess more slack on the child-killing registry because she was motivated by religious zealotry? Probably not. Does she have a one-up on Theon because she’d only killed one child instead of two? Again, probably not.
But after Melisandre’s lonely return to Winterfell on Sunday night, there was no assurance of crimes forgiven – even as she made three decisive interventions to change the course of the battle against the undead. In the last few moments of the episode, Melisandre quietly walked out of the castle gates to her death in the frozen wastes, rather than be executed by Davos Seaworth for her previous mistakes. She’d helped to save the human race. But there was no suggestion here that Melisandre might be a “good woman.” She received no thanks.
“Game of Thrones” has always shown a tendency to privilege the male interiority over that of its female characters. The most notorious example centers again around Theon. In Season 5, we watched as Ramsay raped Sansa Stark. Except we didn’t. We watched Theon’s face, as the camera focused in on the prisoner unable to help her. There was plenty of outcry at the time – and “Game of Thrones” reacted by moving to an admirably more female-centered approach, especially when it comes to sex scenes. (Witness Arya Stark last episode confidently requesting sex with Gendry on her own terms.) But the show has clearly drawn us to identify with Theon’s journey – even at the cost of empathy for his female counterparts.
To be fair, “Game of Thrones” now has plenty of impressive women. Not only is Arya teaching Westeros about enthusiastic consent, this week she got to be the female hero who took down the Night King. Read George R. R. Martin’s books, which revel far more openly in female sexual suffering, and it’s hard to blame showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss for failing entirely to block the series’ male gaze from infecting the television adaptation. Martin’s books are littered with cod-medieval terms for discussing sex and demeaning women – his excuse, of course, being that this linguistic framework merely expresses his characters’ socially-conditioned perspective.
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But read the online encyclopedia of Martin’s world, where biographies of female characters routinely list them as “bed warmers” and “salt wives” (a type of concubine taken forcefully in battle), it’s hard not to draw cynical conclusions about how Martin’s world appears to young male readers. Consider the description of Falia Flowers, a promised “salt wife” of Euron Greyjoy, last seen lashed to the prow of his ship, naked, pregnant, her tongue cut out and her face red with tears. It’s hard to imagine this is written with the female reader foremost in mind.
And point of view matters. Since the #MeToo movement began, there’s been plenty of pushback against a society that privileges male points of view. As then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh prepared to rage before the Senate Judiciary Committee about his injured reputation, Kate Manne wrote a powerful piece in the New York Times introducing readers to her concept of “himpathy” – “the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide, and other misogynistic behavior.”
More broadly, it can refer to our tendency to attribute full moral complexity to men, while being blind to it in women. (Though it usually still involves being overly sympathetic to sexual bad behavior in men – how many male viewers of “Game of Thrones” identified with old Theon’s tendency to frequent the Winterfell brothels?) For all the strong female characters emerging as leaders in the Westeros endgame – and as Chanya Button says, aren’t “strong female characters” boring? – “Game of Thrones” has been himpathy on steroids.
This isn’t a trope unique to “Game of Thrones.” Think of other pop culture characters who’ve been redeemed from villainy – you’ll find Spike in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Severus Snape in “Harry Potter,” Roland Pryzbylewski in “The Wire” – even Darth Vader in “Star Wars.” Where are the female moral journeys, as women redeem themselves?
There’s nothing wrong with a television show that celebrates redemption. Without a culture that forgives past sins, we’d all be lost. But we need to be clear about who is permitted a redemptive journey and who isn’t. In the world of “Game of Thrones,” that means men.