Why Littlefinger’s manipulation was patriarchy personified


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 The penultimate season of Game of Thrones ended this week, and the internet is simultaneously sighing with relief and gleefully air-punching over sisters Sansa and Arya Stark teaming up to take manipulative sociopath Petyr Baelish out of the game. (And by take out, I mean dispassionately and poetically slit across the throat with his own knife – a long awaited cathartic moment of comeuppance.)

Along with having my pet fan theory on Jon Snow’s parentage confirmed last season (totally knew it), this perfunctorily violent scene now holds a special place in my heart, as it represents the moment that Game of Thrones finally, unequivocally, celebrated the smashing of patriarchy.

Trailer: Game of Thrones finale preview

‘There’s only one war that matters. And it is here.’

Prior to his bleakly satisfying end, Baelish spent seven seasons commodifying and influencing women in a quest to amass personal power. From running exploitative brothels to seducing and murdering a mentally unstable noblewoman (in order to commandeer her army), to arranging horrendously abusive marriages for political capital, he is both the employer and reinforcer of womens’ disadvantage, turning their sexuality and relatively vulnerable position in society into instruments of profit.

On a show where physical and sexual violence against women have regularly been depicted in arguably exploitative ways, it is Petyr Baelish, who barely engages in physical violence, that effectively embodies the systemic nature of gender inequality.

In a memorable burst of exposition, Baelish tells the tragic tale (paraphrasing here) of being friendzoned by a young Catelyn Stark, who went on to marry a more traditionally strapping man. Baelish’s controlled but seething rage over this unforgivable act of emasculation plays out over a soundtrack to make Meg Ryan blush, as two naked women perform orgasms as an audition to work at his brothel.

“I’m going to f— them,” Baelish says. “That’s what I know. That’s what I am.” When asked what he wants, he replies: “Everything there is.”

It’s a rant that wouldn’t be out of place in certain areas of the “manosphere” – perhaps an MGTOW or anti-PUA blog. The kind of thwarted male entitlement that seems to motivate the Elliot Rogers’ of the world along their embittered path of destruction.

Indeed, Baelish manages to orchestrate a devastating five-way civil war, beginning with the execution of his romantic rival.

But it is his obsession with Catelyn’s daughter Sansa that is Baelish’s eventual undoing. Taking full advantage of her vulnerable position as a prisoner of her political enemies (a situation he is largely responsible for), he presents himself as a saviour even as he exerts control over her movements and relationships. In the tradition of domestic abusers, he practices techniques of isolation, attempting to drive a wedge between Sansa and her sister Arya, who is a potential threat to his influence.

In patriarchal societies, women are encouraged to compete with each other for the scraps of power left to them by men, and then judged harshly for their lack of solidarity.

“Women are their own worst enemy” we are told. We are “catty” and “bitchy” and sabotage each other for men’s approval – for the status that can only be inferred upon women by men. By keeping women in competition with one another, such patriarchal conventions effectively distract women from outright challenging men.

In Sansa and Arya (the Becky and Darlene of Westeros), we see two women responding to gendered expectations in polar opposite ways. Sansa initially plays by the rules, embracing her prescribed role as a largely ornamental romantic figure. She’s the girl who devotes herself to traditionally femme pursuits, knitting, sewing, dresses, pretty things, whereas Arya forcefully rejects traditional femininity and all associated adornments. Arya’s the girl who is “not like other girls”, essentially engaging in a kind of misogyny in order to claim an identity which feels more like herself.

Society defaults on the promises offered to both women for taking these paths, with Sansa left vulnerable to the machinations of powerful people, and Arya never granted the same privileges as the men she seeks to emulate.

It also leaves them at odds with each other, Sansa resenting Arya’s relative freedom, and Arya holding Sansa in contempt for her compliance. The antagonism is heightened dramatically by the potential for deadly consequences in their respective choices.

To Baelish, it’s a no brainer to fan the flames of this estrangement, because the moment the women realise they are stronger together than apart, Baelish loses control.

Which is why it was so very satisfying when they finally put their differences aside this week and openly acknowledged his bullshit.

“That’s what you do, isn’t it?” asks Sansa, at Baelish’s surprise trial. “It’s what you’ve always done. Turn family against family, sister against sister.”

“I loved you more than anyone,” Baelish protests, perhaps honestly. But, for Sansa, the love of men is no longer the goal, and the love of a man who used her to consolidate his own power has no appeal.

In the end, it’s a lesson in collaboration and solidarity in the face of a common struggle. Like Baelish, patriarchy works behind the scenes, pitting women against women as they struggle to exist within a paradigm designed to keep them off balance.

But when sisters support each other, and refuse to play the game, the system can be revealed for what it is, and collectively we can rise up and reclaim power for ourselves.

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