When the third season of hit Canadian co-produced series Vikings returns to television screens on Thursday night, it will continue its standing tradition of depicting its female characters the way not many shows nowadays do: as actual women.
At first glance it would be easy to agree that the period show depicts strong female characters. After all, these are the same women who join the men in their battle cries by picking up shields, swords and arrows to kill just as easily as their male counterparts. It’s also the same series that has allowed women to rule in their own right, to divorce men who treat them unjustly and has given them the power to protect their own lands by whatever means necessary.
Look closer, however, and lumping these gals into the increasingly cliched “strong female character” category is a disservice to the real strides the series is actually taking.
Leading lady Lagertha, as portrayed by Canadian Katheryn Winnick, is a Shield Maiden. But that is just one of her many definitions. Through carefully crafted storylines she is also a mother, wife, Earl, lover, protector, flirt, loyalist and sometimes stubborn pain in the butt. In short? She is a real, actual woman.
“She’s somewhat like a modern woman, like a CEO of a company that has to deal with the challenges of not only being a female, but being able to lead men under her,” Winnick explains. “She is dealing with unwanted advances and dealing with her position of authority. Getting the respect she deserves is something that is touched upon this season.”
When the third season returns, Lagertha has been courting many men hoping to marry her and share her position of authority as Earl. But as anyone who has followed the series (or paid close attention to history) knows, no one lasts long doing any one thing on Vikings–no matter how well suited they are for the gig. How Lagertha rebounds from her potential enemies remains to be seen, but it was important to Winnick that she portray the character with the same equal mix of strength and femininity that she’s been bringing to her since the show’s debut. And yes, that includes tapping into her sexual side.
“As a woman I think that it would not be reality if you deny your sexuality. If you’re comfortable with it there could be a lot of strength in it,” the actress, who holds black belt ranks in real life adds. “Someone told me early on in my martial arts years that if anybody is blessed with beauty it’s either a weapon or it can be a fault. And so my point is you can either use it for you or against you.”
As a character, Lagertha is conscious of her beauty and has perhaps used it to her advantage in the past. But as Winnick points out, it is one of her last fallbacks, as she opts to lead with her intelligence and morals instead.
“That could be any woman. At any stage of their lives at anything,” she explains. “What I didn’t want to do with Lagertha was to make her masculine. I think she’s very empowered in her femininity and I wanted to keep her feminine. She’s not just a warrior but she’s also a woman and she can let her hair down and laugh and I think that that is what makes her so appealing and relatable.”
Winnick’s co-star, Clive Standen, who plays Rollo, agrees that a large part of the conversation around Vikings has been its portrayal of the women on its cast but that it should go much further than that.
“Vikings caught a lot of buzz that there are strong women on our show, but I think the problem lies with other TV shows,” he says. “I have a mother. I have a daughter. I have a wife. And the women in my life are like the ones that Michael Hirst writes for. That’s what life is. A job as an actor, even a genre show, is putting a mirror up to nature. For so long other TV shows have been getting away with second-rate female characters.”
He calls out Fox’s The Following as an example of a show he isn’t a fan of, for the way it portrays its women.
“Every time they have a strong woman on that show she gets brutally murdered by a man and it’s just gratuitous violence,” he says. “It’s other writers that have not really given women credence on TV for some reason. Michael is a man that has a wife, he has seven daughters or something like that and he has a lot of women in his life. He understands women and he’s just portraying women as women.”
That modern day depiction worked back then as well as it could work across the board on modern television today. In Norse culture women were respected and as essential as men–at no point were they called out or lumped together as “strong women,” no matter what their roles.
“Everybody had to do their part to be able to survive,” Winnick wraps. “If it’s a matter of getting through harsh winters, or a matter of protecting their home fronts by picking up a sword to be able to defend their children and their property. Everybody had to play their role in order to be able to live. And that’s why women were the jack of all trades. They had to be hunters, farmers, warriors, mothers, leaders. It’s nice to have a role that touches upon that.”
In short, she loves playing a woman.
Vikings Season 3 returns Thursday, Feb. 19 at 10 p.m. ET on History.
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Amber Dowling is a bonafide TV Junkie, critic and freelance writer who watches countless shows and lives for dramatic (fictional!) twists. She currently serves as the vice-president of the Television Critics Association and has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows across North America. An advocate for Canadian Television and a lover of the medium in general, Amber founded TheTVJunkies.com as a spot for fellow enthusiasts to connect and collaborate. She previously spent almost eight years as the EIC for TV Guide Canada.