Being a feminist and a fan of Game Of Thrones has often been an exercise in the mutually exclusive: For every scene of a dragon queen emerging from the flames, there has been a close-up of yet another dead prostitute, her body trussed-up and pierced with arrows. Though each season of the show has launched an armada of think pieces about Game Of Thrones’ “woman problem,” season four saw it alter consensual sex in the source material to rape, while season five became particularly notorious for the violence and degradation inflicted upon the women of Westeros: The matrimonial rape of Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister’s everlasting walk of shame were the breaking point for many fans; Senator Claire McCaskill famously took to Twitter, announcing that she was “done” with Game Of Thrones, and The Mary Sue declared that it would no longer cover the show. This communal outcry was powerful enough to force the showrunners on a very public course correction; the most prominent headlines about season six (after speculation about the fate of a certain know-nothing Lord Commander) promised that women would “rule.”
So far, the headlines hold true: Only five episodes in, we’ve seen Brienne Of Tarth mow down Bolton bannermen; Sansa Stark vow to raise an army and reclaim Winterfell; and Daenerys Targaryen literally set the patriarchy ablaze, burning down a hut full of bro-ish warlords and walking out of that inferno with nary a hair out of place. Yet the grandiosity of these feminist fist-pump moments only underscores a sad truth: Game Of Thrones, and all of the cultural conversation around it, has neglected one of its most fascinating and complex women—Margaery Tyrell.
Margaery, who all-too-often elicits a “who, her?” response from critics and fans alike, has been arguably the most well-rounded woman in Westeros. The subtle, highly feminized nature of her machinations has made her too easy to overlook: She’s an afterthought in the merchandise (Daenerys alone inspires no fewer than three Funko Pop dolls); not often discussed in fan forums; and given considerably less screen time than the other women closely associated with the main story arcs. Her current situation is a perfect meta-reflection of how the show itself treats her: She’s locked away in a tower, isolated from the principle action but still tangentially related to it.
Yet even as a prisoner of the Faith Militant, she holds on to her cunning, mounting a quiet defiance. Clearly, she pays attention during those tedious readings of the Book Of The Seven, and is able to parrot them back oh-so-convincingly to the High Sparrow. Her face is a kaleidoscope of expression; in feigning such attentive listening, she gains the old man’s trust (he tells her the story of his own conversion)—and if the leaked set photos of Margaery standing outside the sept fully clothed, evidentially a free woman, are to be believed, then she single-handedly achieves her own emancipation. Milquetoast Tommen, the boy-king she seduced with a laughable ease, will be rendered wholly worthless, except for the stature he can give her—a true trophy husband. This moment will not be as imminently GIF-able as Daenerys standing naked in the flames, though it is forged through the same force of will, and it deserves the same rapturous symphonies of “You go, girl!”
Margaery’s brother Loras is also a prisoner of the High Sparrow, and when she is finally allowed to see him, she finds the Knight Of Flowers a broken man; he can joust with The Mountain and ride valiantly into battle, but when subjected to the same kind of personalized violence and degradation that every woman in the realm must, in some way, fear, he’s left as a shuddering husk. There is iron in her eyes when she silently realizes that she’s going to have to save them both; Loras’ kind of strength—the brasher, flashier display of power—will not work. Margaery doesn’t have training at the House Of Black And White; all she has is her drive to survive and the diamond brightness of her mind.
Her intellectual adroitness shouldn’t surprise longtime viewers. She navigates her hat trick of queendoms with the kind of ambition and savvy that distinguishes her as wholly her own person, one who is capable of making choices that can be as ruthless, logical, and self-serving as anything plotted by master schemers like Tyrion Lannister and Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish—and who can also show genuine compassion. Her first marriage to Renly Baratheon is a master class in pragmatism: She doesn’t snivel or cry at the revelation that her dearly beloved would rather bed her brother; instead, Margaery offers to bring Ser Loras into a baby-making ménage à trois. This scene has none of the gritty kink of the Lannister twincest; it is, instead, oddly poignant, showing her acceptance of her husband’s, and her brother’s, taboo sexuality. Margaery plays it off like she’s giving her man exactly what he needs—yet she came of age with the same courtly lore, the same ballads of male gallantry and unyielding love that captivated Sansa Stark. Even if she never falls into that trap of perfect maidenhood, she must still feel at least some small ache at knowing that her life will never be what the stories promised.
But we don’t get to linger in Margaery’s perspective after this moment—which is a shame. She doesn’t react to her losses with badass vows of vengeance, or quotable oaths to get what is hers, “with fire and blood”—she gets smarter and sharper. When Littlefinger asks her if she wants to be “a queen,” she responds, simply, that she wants to be “the queen.” Her determination is evident in the way that she turns the monstrous Joffrey into a violin; the wood may be warped, and the strings made of barbed wire, but she plays the hell out of him anyway. Her princess-of-the-people routine makes her the darling of King’s Landing, insulating her (as much as possible, anyway) from Joffrey’s inevitable mad dog wrath and Cersei’s desperate attempts at hamstringing her. Margaery’s “yas qween” victory isn’t about learning to fight with a bow-staff or leading an army through Yunkai, it’s when she coyly asks Joffrey if she can hold his crossbow; there is power in taking his weapon into her hands.
Last year, many viewers were excited by the prospect of Sansa Stark becoming “dark Sansa,” an acolyte of Littlefinger who’d learn to weaponize her femininity, to use craft and cunning and finally take charge of her life. Interestingly, in all the righteous (and rightful) uproar about the writers’ choice to send Sansa backsliding into victimhood, fans forgot that the show already has a character who fulfills that archetype—the noblewoman who uses the confines of being a courtly lady to advance her own agenda—in Margaery. But she is no “dark Margaery,” and she certainly isn’t Cersei, content to step on other people’s backs as she ascends to the throne.
If anything, she is one of the kindest nobles in Westeros: Her concern for the small-folk is too convincing to be entirely an act (could we seriously see Cersei, or even season one Sansa, getting out of her carriage to talk to the common people?), and she shows Brienne Of Tarth respect—even when the other woman’s size and vocation make her the subject of much behind-the-back snickering. Though it would be all too easy, perhaps advantageous, for her to join Joffrey in his incessant torment of Sansa Stark, Margaery actively befriends Sansa, and her kindly attentions fall on the poor girl like a long rain quenching the hard earth. Sure, an alliance with the North bolsters House Tyrell, but Margaery’s choices prove that power doesn’t have to be won in unsheathing a sword or plunging a knife into a back—sometimes, it is earned through the soft arts of compassion.
It’s sad, then, that even in this new renaissance for the “dames of Thrones,” Margaery has remained alone in her tower. The show may be, finally, refraining from treating battered female bodies as a narrative wallpaper, used to “pull together” character motivations and elements of the plot. It may be more genuinely invested in the ambitions of its female characters on the whole (Yara Greyjoy’s failed kingsmoot campaign against a wilier, more charismatic—if wholly unqualified—candidate is ripe for a comparison to the current election season). But too many of the moments ballyhooed as evidence of Game Of Thrones’ feminist bent feel like party balloons with “GIRL POWER” written on them, left to slowly flatten and deflate in a corner of the room. Nuance and context are sidelined for more superficial wins.
The Mother Of Dragons marches back to Meereen with a Dothraki horde, but she has yet to prove herself as a competent ruler. Cersei gets a badass line about “choosing violence” in the trailer; however, her own lack of foresight and hysterical jealously re-activated and empowered the Faith Militant. The sight of Sansa parlaying in the war room may not be worth all that she suffered last season. Margaery’s successes will never be fodder for the meme machine, yet they are no less palpable or significant—if anything, they are more rooted in the realities of the women watching at home. Her victories belong to the woman who knows how to glad-hand, even though she’s done the damn work to earn the promotion; or the woman who knows that, sometimes, smiling and saying the right thing is the only way to stay alive. She shouldn’t have to burn the house down just to be noticed.