Vikings is a show that gets its women so very right that it never fails to send my shrivelled little feminist heart a-flutter with each new episode. Season 3 is exactly two weeks away, which is the perfect opportunity to vent some of my excitement by publishing a celebration of the ladies of Vikings that I’ve been sitting on for quite a while.
Before we begin, I want to point you towards Sophia McDougall’s excellent essay on the trope of the Strong Female Character, which is recommended background reading before we dive into Scandinavia circa 800 AD. McDougall’s view is that it’s limiting and reductive to evaluate female characters solely on their strength; especially when “strength” almost always means “being able to swing a sword” or “being feisty and not taking bullshit”. This essay forms the basis of a lot of my thinking on what makes a good female character. When I refer to a Strong Female Character in this post, I’m referring to the trope as outlined in McDougall’s work.
And without further ado, I give you my thoughts on the ladies of Vikings. SPOILER ALERTS FOR SEASONS 1 & 2 THROUGHOUT, so if you’re planning to watch the series and also need some excellent lady characters in your life, just take my word for it, go, go watch it right now, shoo!
One of the first things we learn about Lagertha is that if you try to rape her, she will hit you in the crotch with a red hot poker. She has a sword and she sure as hell knows how to use it. We are told she is a famous shield-maiden in her own right, but when we first meet her, she is firmly relegated to the role of Ragnar’s wife and the mother of his children. In many ways, Season 1 Lagertha ticks all the Strong Female Character boxes. To paraphrase McDougall, her strength lets her briefly dominate bystanders, but she never dominates the plot. She fights in the shield-wall, but she still has to convince Ragnar to allow her to come raiding in the first place. She stops a man trying to rape a Saxon woman, then kills him when she tries to rape her too, but ultimately Ragnar is the one who takes the credit for this act of self-defence.
We know Lagertha is strong and fierce and proud, but the first time we see these qualities manifest in a significant way – and in a way that drastically alters the plot – we are far away from the chaos of the battlefield. The beautiful Princess Aslaug arrives in Kattegatt, heavy with Ragnar’s child and determined to claim him as a husband. Ragnar drunkenly hints that he would rather like having two hot wives and, with that one clumsy suggestion, dooms his marriage to Lagertha. Lagertha has always considered her marriage to Ragnar a partnership of equals. When he suggests demoting her to one of two wives, she realizes he perhaps does not view her as a partner after all and cannot abide the insult.* And so she leaves, taking their son with her. Ragnar pleads with her and although she is visibly heartbroken, she does not relent. This woman has pride and principles and they are not going to be swayed because her husband wants her to accommodate his shitty choices.
Ragnar: I love two women. Both of them have given me children.
The Seer: And you suppose you must choose between them?
Ragnar: No. I don’t want to choose. I would like to have both of them.
The Seer: […] You are only fooling yourself, Ragnar Lothbrok, if you think the choice is yours to make.
Four years pass, and when we next meet Lagertha, she is married to an Earl named Sigvard, who treats her like his property and is generally an abusive asshole. We never learn how she ended up married to him; possibly because despite her strength, she is still a woman living in a patriarchal society and she had her young son’s welfare to consider? This is probably the weakest link in Lagertha’s story. The idea that she would put up with someone like Sigvard, even briefly, seems utterly inconsistent with everything we have learned about her so far. Not to say that independent capable women are immune to domestic abuse, but generally when writers chose to place an otherwise badass female character in the way of abuse with no explanation, it’s a sign of lazy writing. Also worth noting that Kathryn Winnick, the incredible actress behind Lagertha, did not want her character’s story to go in this direction. In any case, her role as a victim is short-lived. She thwarts her husband’s attempt to rape her, then he sends a gang of men to beat her for disobedience and finally attempts to humiliate her by exposing her breasts at a public feast. At which point, Lagertha stabs her drunken idiot of a husband in the eye with a dinner knife and claims his seat as Earl of Hedeby.
Gunnhild: You must be the famous shield-maiden, Lagertha.
Lagertha: Oh, you are more famous, Gunnhild. The poets talk of your exploits. They tell how you killed Sweyn Forkbeard when he invaded Gotaland.
Gunnhild: And they say that you are now an Earl in your own right! How did it happen?
Lagertha: I killed my husband when he invaded me.
Now a ruler in her own right, she rejoins Ragnar, as an ally and an equal, for further raids on England. “Yes, we are equal,” she tells him, after revealing her new status, “I’m sure this is difficult for you.” By the end of Season 2, Lagertha has found her own path and in many ways it is far more expansive and exciting than anything she could have achieved had she stayed in Kattegatt in the shadow of her famous husband.
When we first meet Siggy in her role as the wife of Earl Haraldson, we immediately learn that she is a master manipulator; she expertly indulges her husband’s vanity while deflecting his burgeoning paranoia away from herself. She is shrewd, resourceful and driven by ambition, though power and status are not the only things she wants out of life. She is cunning and ruthless, but she is not an Ice Queen. By contrast, she has a hot temper and a strong sex drive; her tumultuous relationship with Rollo seems to be motivated by equal parts lust, calculation and frustration.
“You see, Rollo, you need me as much as I need you. That is, if you really want to be something.” -Siggy
Beneath all the scheming, there is a core of compassion in Siggy. What makes her unusual as a female character is that this compassion predominantly reserved for other women; even those who should by rights be her enemies. Despite all her political canny, she is outraged at the thought of her daughter marrying a fat old man three times her age, even though it’s an advantageous match. (She goes on to stab said fat old man at the first opportunity). After the death of her husband, she offers her service to Lagertha in what seems to be an entirely political move designed to get her into to Ragnar’s inner circle. But as she supports Lagertha through a devastating miscarriage, it becomes clear that Siggy is developing sincere affection for the wife of her husband’s killer. By the time both women lose their only daughters to a plague that sweeps the village, there is an undeniable bond of friendship between them.
She also forms bond of convenience with Princess Aslaug, and neither woman is under any illusion about the nature of their relationship. But when they are forced to flee together into the countryside after the attack on Kattegatt, we see Siggy speak to Aslaug as true friends speak: i.e. bluntly. She tells the Princess to get her shit together, stop whining about the dirt and cold, and be grateful that her family is still alive and together. During this episode, we also learn that – despite her taste for finery and in stark contrast to the rather delicate Aslaug – Siggy has no qualms about getting her hands dirty and doing what needs to be done to ensure her survival. Because above all, that’s who Siggy is: a survivor. Men may rise and fall around her, but damned if she’s going down with them.
Siggy is also an almost frustratingly ambiguous character. By end of Season 2, we are still not sure where her allegiances lie. It seems as though she has cemented her loyalty to Ragnar by double-crossing King Horik, but we also know that her ambition has not been dampened and that she still craves her old position of power. Whatever her endgame, Siggy plays her hand close to her chest. Whether a villain or not, she is almost certainly one of the most dangerous pieces on the board and she’s fast become one of my favourite female characters of all time.
“I am bitter and I am angry. Everything I had, everything I possessed, everything that I was has been stripped away from me. And my anger is like a stone… a stone that I carry inside me that… weighs me down. I… I cannot lift it.” – Siggy
What I like about Princess Aslaug is not so much her character in and of itself, but the fact that writers never took the easy route while crafting her role in the story. It would have been so easy to write Aslaug as an enormous bitch. She is beautiful, haughty, mysterious, the daughter of legendary Norse royalty. She appears from seemingly nowhere at the end of Season 1 and seduces Ragnar. At the start of Season 2, she pitches up pregnant and demands that he takes responsibility for his unborn child. In many ways, she is the archetypal Other Woman who destroys the perfect love between Ragnar and Lagertha. What’s more, she is not a Strong Female Character. She is neither a warrior nor a farmer, and she seems to be accustomed to a much softer life than a typical Viking. She does not have many practical skills, but she is very good at having babies.
Popular media has a real problem with devaluing traits that are traditionally coded as feminine, such as compassion, overt displays of emotion, aversion to conflict and violence and concern for cleanliness and order. Very often, a Strong Female Character’s “strength” is established via the Not Like Other Girls trope, where other “normal” girls are vain and frivolous and incompetent, but Strong Female Character has gained special approval by adopting traditionally masculine behaviours. Since Aslaug is the most traditionally feminine character we have met so far, it would have been easy to position her as someone we are expected to dislike. When a Girly Girl character is presented as a rival to a fan favourite Strong Female Character (Lagertha), she rarely fares well in terms of likeability.
Aslaug: What about your parents?
Lagertha: They were just farmers.
Aslaug: Surely nobody is just a farmer.
Lagertha: Believe me, princess, that is exactly what some people are, and are happy to be.
Refreshingly, Aslaug does not fit neatly into the homewrecker role, nor is she presented as an automatic inferior to Lagertha (a choice that would have done a disservice to both characters). The show is clear and unambiguous on the point that Ragnar and Ragnar alone ruined his first marriage. The show does not blame Aslaug for desiring him or for expecting him to step up to his duties as the father of her child. She certainly experiences insecurity around Lagertha (as any normal human would), but it neither consumes her nor defines her characters. In time, we see genuine respect and even mutual admiration start to flourish between the two women. They will perhaps never be fast friends, but they are courteous and dignified in each other’s presence. Lagertha seems to bear no animosity towards Aslaug, which in turn makes it difficult for the audience to hold a grudge.
Aslaug: I like her.
Ragnar: My former wife?
Aslaug: Hmm… I would rather be her. She is formidable.
In Season 3, I’m hoping to discover that there’s more to Aslaug than just princessing about and having sons. It is strongly hinted that she is a vǫlva – a female seer or shaman in Norse folklore. In the Vikings universe, knowledge of the future and/or contact with the gods is an important axis of power and Aslaug is potentially being set up to become a significant player in this sphere.
Can I just say how intensely satisfying to see a woman portrayed as more sexually voracious than men on mainstream television? We haven’t seen much of Princess Kwenthrith yet, but so far we know:
- She most likely killed her brother in order to lay claim to the Kingdom of Mercia in England.
- She needs one king and at least three guardsmen to satisfy her sexually in a single night.
- Unlike most people in England – who react to the Northmen and their pagan ways with fear and suspicion – Kwenthrith is openly curious and eager to learn more about their customs.
- After hiring a band of Vikings mercenaries, Kwenthrith strolls through the ranks feeling them up and remarking on how she’d quite like to make giant babies with them.
In conclusion, Kwenthrith is a freak and I love her. She seems kind of bananas but she also definitely has plenty of clever political machinations going on re: starting a civil war and claiming her own kingdom. And she’s funny. More women like this on television please.
Again, Thorunn is a relatively new character so we don’t know that much about her. She’s originally introduced as a slave in Kattegatt and a love interest for Bjorn, but it quickly becomes apparent that she’s not going to be an easy conquest for Ragnar’s remarkably hairless son. She resists his advances as far as she safely can while she’s a slave, because this girl understands that real consent cannot exist in context of such a vast power differential (!!!). Later, she expresses her desire to become a shield-maiden and Aslaug makes her a free woman (a supportive gesture towards both Thorunn and Lagertha’s son.) Once this happens, she makes Bjorn work for her love and prove he respects her by fighting her. I don’t quite get this scene, but whatever, I like that Thorunn isn’t just like “Yay, we can be together now!” It looks like we’re going see her fight as a full shield-maiden in Season 3 and based on all of the above, I’m quite excited to see where the show takes this character.
Bjorn: Thorunn. Forgive me for what I said. I don’t want other women; I want you. What do you want from me?
Bjorn: You know I respect you. I worship you.
Thorunn: I don’t want to be worshipped. I spent my life as a slave. Your words are ridiculous.
In Vikings, we see exactly the kind of female characters that Sophia McDougall is advocating for; women who cannot be contained by the word “strong” and who make the idea of a Strong Female Character redundant through their sheer complexity. Lagertha, Siggy and Aslaug are all strong women in the sense that they cannot be defined by a single relationship, role or characteristic. Instead, they are driven by varied and often conflicting motives and desires. Their goals are not always clear to the audience, and perhaps not even always clear to themselves.
If that sounds like Characterization 101, that’s because it is. Sadly and despite the fact that women are 50% of the world’s population, writing well-rounded female characters is still seen “as a kind of impressive but unnecessary optional extra.” See: mainstream movies garnering accolades for the incredible feat of including a single decent female lead in a world otherwise dominated by men. (*cough*MakoMori*cough*) A lot of writers seem to have difficulty grasping the fact that a female character is not just defined by her own traits and abilities, but also by her context: the world she inhabits and the impact she has on it. In a world with only one or two visible women, the lone female character shoulders the impossible task of representing her entire gender, which means all her screen-time is devoted to displaying her as a woman rather than developing her as a person. The importance of showing women in context of other women cannot be overstated when it comes to female character development. Similarly, a female character can be brave or smart or kind or funny or dangerous, but these qualities are meaningless if they never have any impact on the plot. Vikings avoids both these pitfalls by having a world fully populated with a variety of female characters, both major and minor, who are not just present in the world, but forces that act upon it.**
Finally, one of my favourite things about Vikings is that it depicts a world where women support other women by default. In general, it seems that women in Viking society will stick together and look out for each other unless there’s a particularly egregious reason to do otherwise. Lagertha, Siggy and Aslaug all have plenty of reasons not to like each other, but so far have never treated each other with anything other than respect, consideration and kindness. They keep their relationships aloof from the rows and blunders of their menfolk and find commonalities in their struggles and victories as women in a patriarchal society. Popular media loves to paint women as catty and two-faced, and female friendships as fickle things fraught with jealousy and back-stabbing. In a landscape like this, it is so invigorating to watch a show full of female characters whose relationships are founded on respect and good faith, if not on outright friendship. More than any single character or moment, this is what makes Vikings a feminist show. Women swinging swords is empowering on a superficial level, but a fictional society permeated by female solidarity? That’s something new, something profoundly feminist and something I sincerely hope to see more of in Season 3.
Siggy: Women should stick together more.
Aslaug: That’s true.
Siggy: And we should rule.
Aslaug: All things would be better.
*Granted, the running theme of Vikings is that Ragnar does not consider anyone his equal, a quality which ends up driving a wedge between him and even his most loyal friends.
**Again, you might take it as a given that all female characters impact the fictional universes they inhabit just by virtue of, you know, being characters. If only it were so. You’ve probably heard of the Bechdel Test, but have you heard of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Sexy Lamp test? The premise is simple: if your female character could be replaced by a sexy lamp with some useful information written on it and your plot still works, you’re a hack.