3:00 pm EDT, June 14, 2015

How the feminist representation of Arianne Martell could have improved this season of ‘Game of Thrones’

“I was a foolish willful girl, playing at the game of thrones like a drunkard rolling dice.”

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We’ve waxed on before about Game of Thrones’ Dorne problem this season, in which we were presented with a plot line that was not only disappointing in terms of story, but simply underwhelming after the Red Viper’s introduction last year.

Related: How Game of Thrones is underserving Dorne and Westeros’ people of color

The sensible Ellaria went Bolton-level crazy, demanding she be allowed to chop a little girl up into pieces, while the Sand Snakes arrived on scene only to be relegated to making terrible, outlandish speeches and doing strip teases while playing patty-cake.

The Sand Snakes have become caricatures of their Dornish counterparts, and while I don’t believe it’s necessary for an adaptation to preserve or replicate its source exactly, I do think that it’s important to honor the spirit of who a character — and in this case, an entire nation — is.

Sand Snakes

In the novels, the Dornish princess Arianne allowed us a unique perspective from those we had seen in Westeros before. Her logic and sense of duty made us feel like we were getting a fair representation of the key power players in her life because she was smart enough to be self-reflective about her own faults, as well as perceptive about the faults of the people whom she loved. And yet, her fiery personality made her fascinating to watch as she time and again found herself thinking with her heart instead of her head.

As the eldest child of Prince Doran Martell, Dornish law of primogeniture stated that Arianne follow in Doran’s rule. However, after finding a letter her father wrote to her younger brother promising him Dorne someday, her heartbreak leaves her wary of her father’s decisions. In A Feast for Crows after Doran locks up her beloved Sand Snake cousins and refuses to start a war with King’s Landing, Arianne takes matters into her own hands.

Desperate to prove that she has the chops to lead Dorne, she convinces Myrcella to run away with her so that they can claim her primogeniture right to the Iron Throne over Tommen. Their adventure ends in devastation however, as Myrcella is severely wounded, and Arianne’s lover is slain after a betrayal. The Dornish princess ends up chastised like a child in a fairytale, confined to a tower to mull over all the horror she’s unwittingly brought on.

Arianne tower

Because of her up and down arc in A Feast for Crows, in so many ways, Arianne is the most modern point of view character in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and as a young person, she is by far the most relatable. She’s calculating and methodical, and too clever for her own good. She makes mistakes, and then she learns from them, coming to the horrifying realization we all reach at a certain age: that perhaps our parents did know better all along. In my favorite scene in A Feast for Crows — simply because it is the most human — Arianne continues to scream accusations at her father, even as we listen to her internal monologue realize that she’s wrong, and he’s one-hundred percent right.

As a woman watching Game of Thrones, it often feels like the writers have a preconceived notion of what feminine strength needs to be. Arya stabs people with her needle. Brienne beats up the bad guys. These are the women we’re taught to cheer for, and this seems to be the mold that the writers were trying to follow when they introduced the Sand Snakes this season. We’re told that an interesting woman is someone who is loud and flashy about her power. Unfortunately, in focusing so much on the Sand Snakes’ “power” on screen, their inner strength was lost.

Dorne’s inclination as a socially progressive nation where bastards are treated like family and women are given the same respect as their male counterparts is an outlier in Westeros, which is why it’s so frustrating to see how on Game of Thrones the entire Dornish plot line has been reduced to the redemption of a man. Game of Thrones has a habit of utilizing women to fit into the male narrative, and so even as the Sand Snakes fight to steal Myrcella, or Myrcella whines that she wants to stay with her boyfriend, it is never actually about the girls — it is about how the girls are hindering Jaime’s ability to redeem himself.

Myrcella Tristan

With Arianne at the center of the Dornish “kidnapping” plot in A Feast for Crows the narrative is instead a coming of age tale that explores familial and female relationships. It’s a story both of women supporting other women, and women manipulating other women as Arianne convinces Myrcella to take back her natural right to the throne. The Dornish idea of primogeniture gives Myrcella the chance to become an actual power player in the game of thrones, and as they trek through the hard desert conditions, Myrcella’s bravery shows how she probably does have better natural instincts to rule than either of her brothers ever did.

Arianne’s relationship with Myrcella is a fascinating portrayal of female friendships that is quite common in life, but rarely shown on television. While on Game of Thrones, Myrcella is portrayed as a lovesick season one Sansa 2.0, in A Feast for Crows, it’s the young princess’ adoration of the older, cooler Arianne that convinces her to strike out on their desert adventure. It’s a realistic example of what young people are willing to do to impress their heroes, and the faith and trust that girls place in the women they emulate.

Despite her manipulation of Myrcella, Arianne’s care for the little girl is very real. The relationships Arianne creates with others are genuine— and therein lies their power. Her ability to empathize is a gift every bit as dangerous as Tyene’s poison, or Nym’s daggers. People find it easy to trust Arianne, maybe because she allows herself to become emotionally invested in them as well.

Arianne's Conspirators

It’s her ability to create such strong bonds with people that Doran realizes is both her greatest weakness, and her greatest strength. Her unabashed love for her Sand Snake cousins makes it hard for him to trust her with his Targaryen secrets, and yet because of that same love, once he finally confides in Arianne, together they are able to unite their family behind a more cautious revenge plan.

To put it simply, the most important reason that Arianne is a feminist icon in A Feast for Crows is because she’s allowed to be three-dimensional—something the Sand Snakes certainly haven’t been shown to be on screen. She isn’t just the spicy sex kitten from Westeros’ southern paradise. It’s the role she’s learned to play to keep people guessing at her game— but it’s still just that: a role that she has complete control over.

Arianne is someone who occasionally does bad things, but never with the intention of them being bad. Her revenge plot to crown Myrcella is poorly thought out, but it comes from idealistic intentions. She doesn’t want to hurt her father, or even Tommen — she just wants to be the kind of leader she believes her people want her to be. Her relatively peaceful life has made her naive, but she wants to be a good person, and despite her selfish behavior, she still is at heart, basically a good, kind person.

Arianne and Doran

As far as female characters go, Arianne, for her part, is as colorful and interesting as they come because she feels so real. Resentful that her own father didn’t have the forethought to instill in her the survival skills Oberyn gave his daughters, she makes due by using her brains and sexuality as weapons instead. But despite her boldness, she is also vulnerable. Her relationship with her father is complicated in that she loves him, but does not always respect him. She’s insecure not from a lack of confidence in herself, but from the fear that others won’t recognize her full self-worth. And in the end, she is someone who grows from her mistakes and benefits not from gaining pride, but humility.

Humility is an important lesson many point of view characters in the books are forced to grapple with, with the characters who know when to let go of their pride (such as Arianne and Sansa) moving forward, and the ones who refuse to succumb (such as Tyrion and Dany) seemingly falling into a pit of their own making. Once Arianne finally takes responsibility for her actions and acknowledges that she was wrong, she has the opportunity to grow into a more mature woman, finally becoming her father’s confidant by learning to not only lead, but to know when to follow.

The Dornish storyline in A Feast for Crows then is much more complicated than that of a group of ruffians fighting over pieces of a pretty, blonde princess. Arianne’s relationship with her father shows a different approach to leadership — one in which maturity chooses patience and caution over instant gratification through violence. It might not be the fastest way to get one’s heart’s desire, but in the long run, it’s the surest way to remain unbowed, unbent, and unbroken.

Images used from the A Song of Ice and Fire wiki.

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