I broke the rule. You are never supposed to get attached to a character in Game of Thrones; George R.R. Martin will kill them and enjoy your anguish. Despite seeing Ned, Catelyn, Robb, and a host of others perish or just disappear (can we get a status check on Gendry, Osha, and Rickon?), I had real hope for Ygritte, the warrior beyond The Wall. It was a naive hope, but a hope nonetheless. There are plenty of female characters for a feminist to fall in love with on Game of Thrones; so many that Ygritte gets drowned out among the cheers for Arya and the Mother of Dragons. She was fierce, she was vibrant, and she didn’t take any shit. Ygritte’s feminism was multi-dimensional, and for me she will always be missed.
Paramount to Ygritte’s storyline was her relationship with Jon Snow. Despite her purpose in the narrative structure (and the fact that she gets fridged), Ygritte never felt like she was merely a love interest for Jon. She was interesting to watch on her own. Further, her status as a Wildling/Free Folk holds a mirror to both Jon Snow and the audience’s internalized understandings of the role of women, female capacities, and our understanding of “the other”. Jon has lived his whole life in a strict, patrilineal society and consistently been told that the Wildlings are savages, which leads him to underestimate Ygritte time and time again. The Wildling tribes/Free Folk are no Herland; the patriarchy is alive and well throughout the land beyond The Wall (just look at Gilly’s father). However, Ygritte shows both Jon and the audience that a woman can fight and excel at it, like sex, love fiercely, and kill without flinching, all in the same day.
Though there are a plethora of reasons to look up to a girl like Ygritte, her complexity as a character, her ability as a warrior, and her sex positivity earn her a slot alongside Oberyn Martell as the hardest loss so far (sorry Ned).
Ygritte is a multi-dimensional Bad-Ass:
It can be exhausting looking for female characters who are fully realized human beings in the fantasy genre. George R.R. Martin has surprised me again and again with the range of female characters and the range that exists within the characters themselves. They exist on a spectrum of femininity and express their feminism in a variety of ways. It would have been incredibly easy for Ygritte to occupy the same place on this spectrum as Arya or even Brienne. Like them, Ygritte is first and foremost a fighter, but Ygritte never falls into the tomboy stereotype Arya embodies. Tomboys on screen are frequently de-sexed, given masculine attributes, and have no interest in romantic relationships or anything remotely coded as feminine. Lastly, they are young girls, who grow up to be the “real woman” they were meant to be. Though not traditionally feminine, Ygritte doesn’t fully fit this mold. In addition to the displays of Ygritte’s sexuality, we see her capacity to love and scenes where she expresses both empathy and vulnerability.
Most notably, at the end of Season 4 when the Wildlings raid Mole’s Town south of The Wall and kill basically everyone in sight, Ygritte spares Gilly and her baby. She recognizes Gilly as a fellow Free Folk and tells her to keep quiet. Anyone else would have killed her and the baby, too. It’s not that Ygritte can’t kill; we see her do so time and time again with precision and ease. Instead of the scene demonstrating that Ygritte is the “weak” member of the pack, who can’t kill a girl and her baby, it shows strength in Ygritte. Despite being committed to the cause, she is not blindly fighting a revenge mission. She is fighting to take back what was stolen from her people and to create an opportunity for them to be safe when winter comes. Gilly is in some ways kin, and Ygritte sees inherent value in her life that the men alongside whom she fights surely wouldn’t.
Lastly, she loves. Ygritte sees both the joy and the pain of being in love. Jon is a man of duty, and when he chooses his duty to The Night’s Watch over his love and promises to Ygritte, it’s a devastating blow. Despite the pain, Ygritte continues on the mission and eventually faces Jon in battle. Ygritte’s pain is both visceral and real, so is her love. Game of Thrones shows strong women in love, shows them with crushes, and shows how love and trust in men has caused them pain. Despite having a fierce tongue and a strong sense of self, Ygritte never becomes a trope because her vulnerabilities round her out.
You Know Nothing Jon Snow or There’s Nothing to Read Beyond The Wall:
The Wall is an unjust place. Men and young boys are sent there because they lack access to opportunity in this classist, feudal society. Jon Snow’s superiority complex from his wealthy, noble upbringing goes with him North of The Wall. Ygritte cuts him down to size fairly quickly. Her catchphrase “You know nothing Jon Snow” is used in a variety of situations to showcase that despite Jon Snow’s education and refinement, which is both valued in Westeros and by the audience, his form of intelligence lacks importance in “The Real North”, and Jon lacks the competencies that allow The Wildlings/Free Folk the ability to survive (he doesn’t even know what warging is).
As soon as either Jon or the audience wants to dismiss Ygritte as simple, she proves that not only is she intelligent, but her view and understanding of the world might even make more sense than ours. Below is an exchange that proves that Ygritte is practical, honest, and not here for your gender essentialism.
Ygritte: Is that a palace?
Jon: It’s a windmill.
Ygritte: Windmill…Well who built it? Some king?
Jon: Just the men that used to live here.
Ygritte: They must’ve been great builders stacking stones that high.
Jon: If you’re impressed by a windmill, you’d be swooning if you saw the Great Keep at Winterfell.
Ygritte: What’s swooning?
Ygritte: What’s fainting?
Jon: When a girl sees blood and collapses.
Ygritte: Why would a girl see blood and collapse?
Jon: Well, not all girls are like you.
Ygritte: Well, girls see more blood than boys, or do you like girls who swoon? *Gasp* It’s a spider. Save me Jon Snow. My dress is made from the purest silk from Tralalalalalede!
Jon: I’d like to see you in a silk dress.
Ygritte: Would ya?
Jon: So I can tear it off you.
Ygritte: Well, if you rip my pretty silk dress, I’ll blacken your eye.
She’s completely right. Feminine weakness is contrived BS. Masculinity and femininity, both social constructs, were created in opposition to each other and dictate a lot of our rigid gender norms. They have taken years to create and maintain, and in seven words Ygritte shows them for what they really are: bullshit.
A Skilled Archer:
There is no doubting Ygritte’s skill with a bow. It makes me proud to see Ygritte fighting alongside men. As a woman, she doesn’t just have to fight Westerosi Northerners and Crows at The Wall, she has to fight sexism within her own ranks. She rebuffs their sexism with skill and braggadocio. When women fight sexism on screen, we never expect them to be “crude”; crude women aren’t “likeable”. Ygritte does not care if the sexist, cannibal Styr who makes lewd comments at her thinks she’s likeable (Her line “You been thinkin’ about that ginger minge” comes to mind). No woman should feel the pressure to be “likeable.” Watching Ygritte not give a fuck feels incredibly liberating.
Ygritte is a bad ass, but she’s the only Wilding/Free Folk woman we see for many seasons. This reminds us that though it may seem that The Wildlings/Free Folk might have more access and opportunities for women, women are never completely safe or completely free.
“You Pull A Knife on Me in the Middle of the Night”:
Ygritte might talk about sex as much as Tyrion Lannister, and that’s no easy feat. While Game of Thrones is full of sex scenes, few women not employed as sex workers frequently talk about sex and sexuality. Ygritte often taunts Jon about his inexperience or discomfort around sex, and we see that she thinks sex is both fun and funny. I’m not advocating teasing virgins, but Ygritte and Jon’s exchanges illustrate how much of our societal understandings of sex and sexuality are linked to gender identity. Further, their role reversal forces us to question how our ideas about sex have been constructed. Though our larger cultural understandings about sex have evolved over time, we can see parallels between Westeros and our present day society.
Jon’s understanding of sex has always been linked to his status as a bastard. While he knows Theon and other men visit brothels, for men of their stature they are supposed to be concerned with knocking up their future wives. Growing up as a bastard, Jon knew that his brothers’ futures of marrying noblewomen and having children might not be available to him. Moreover, when he joins The Night’s Watch and takes a vow of celibacy, he does so hardly knowing any girls or women he’s not related to. Jon knows little to nothing about sex or love and has lost the one parent he’s ever known. Enter Ygritte.
By contrast, Ygritte understands that sex is a natural, normal part of human existence and doesn’t quite understand what Jon’s hang up is (it’s a special brand of duty, honor, and angst). There is a lot of sex on Game of Thrones, and there is unfortunately a lot of rape (even when it’s not in the books). There are few scenes like Ygritte and Jon’s playful, tender, and loving first time. It was a love story I invested in, and I felt a loss when it ended.
In a show where women characters are frequently treated as disposable (see treatment of sex workers), it was truly terrible to see one of the best characters die, and by the weapon they wield with such power. Sometimes I curse George R.R. Martin in my head, and other times I put my feminist hopes in Daenerys and Margaery. It’s always hard to lose a character you love, but on a show where women have such few avenues to power and are restricted by the men that surround them, Ygritte was a hero.
Jackie Johnson is a writer combining her love of sociology and pop culture. You can find her drinking chai and trying her darndest not to spend any money. She blogs at https://blackpopsocial.