This piece contains spoilers for episode 9 of this season of Game of Thrones.
One of the most persistent criticisms of HBO’s smash hit Game of Thrones has been the way it tends to use its female characters. While George R.R. Martin’s books actually contain many more, and more nuanced, representations of femininity than most medieval fantasy series, the show in particular has often relied on women’s bodies as a landscape on which to illustrate its gritty darkness. Women have seemed like props to pile on the brutality.
This season, though, represents a marked shift. While the show has remained as brutal as ever, there’s been a difference in the way women push the narrative forward.
Though the women of Game of Thrones have long been ambitious, they’ve largely been relegated to the sidelines. Cersei was outmaneuvered by her brother, father, and uncle. Catelyn Stark, a force of nature, was ignored by her husband as he rode off to his noble death. The Tyrells and the bond between Lady Olenna and Margaery provided a welcome respite, as did Daenerys — but other than deeply gratifying scenes of fire and blood, her rule over Slaver’s bay has been fraught at best, both from a political and racial standpoint.
Now, however, women are at the forefront of nearly every plot line, leading the way through force of brains and brawn. What began as the war of Five Kings is now a fight between queens, and the women of Game of Thrones are coming back — sometimes from instances of horrific abuse — to show their strength, intelligence, and ability to seize and deploy their own power.
The multitude of female characters allows the series to show multiple paths for femininity — a surprisingly rare trait in entertainment. Brienne has emerged as the model of knightly chivalry. Lady Lyanna Mormont is a pint-sized paragon of feminist power and masterful shade. The women of Dorne staged a bloody, matriarchal coup. The fight over King’s Landing has become a tug-of-war between Maergery and Cersei, both of whom had the strength to survive the High Sparrow’s inhumane imprisonment where Maergery’s brother, Loras, is cowed and broken. Sweet, hapless King Tommen is but a fiddle in their symphony.
Daenerys, as an oft-lonely female example, has been driving her plotline forward for years. This season, in typical style, she literally burned the Dothraki patriarchy to the ground, then took over leadership of the Khalasar in a moment that featured female nudity in a show of dominance, not as an offering to the male gaze. From chattel bride and refugee to having a litany of titles, she’s fought her way up through sheer force of will — and of course, dragons.
The season’s feminist transformation came to a head with the show’s most recent episode, “Battle of the Bastards,” which had strong showings from Daenerys, Yara, and particularly Sansa.
In Sunday’s episode, Daenerys proves yet again she doesn’t need to play by anyone’s rules but her own, single-handedly destroying the Master’s assault with one bored “Dracaerys.” But more compellingly, she finally got her ships through the alliance with another strong-willed female leader — Yara. Daenerys and Yara’s scene was one of the show’s most enjoyable to date, and chock-full of female-unity imagery. Both women have been belittled by men who think they aren’t fit to rule: Yara by the men of the Iron Islands, and Daenerys by practically everyone she has later gone on to conquer. These two women clearly understand each other.
“Has the Iron Islands ever had a queen before?” Daenerys asks. “No more than Westeros,” replies Yara (who, by the way, has mastered Khaleesi’s power-posture — she dominates the room in a way Theon never managed to do). In exchange for the Iron Islands, a pledge to stop pillaging Westeros, and help murdering “an uncle or two who don’t think a woman is fit to rule,” Game of Thrones got its first alliance of queens, and a handshake that rocked the patriarchy.
And, up in the north, the strongest turnaround of the show — Sansa Stark — came to its satisfying conclusion. For seasons, Sansa has been evolving from a romantic young girl to a hardened woman. Last season’s rape scene — in which a character who had already endured so much was brutally raped by a well established monster, while the camera panned to the effect on the other man in the room — was mismanaged and poorly done, but it’s since given us one of the strongest survivor stories on television by staying with Sansa through her trauma.
In a powerful scene in a previous episode, Sansa read her own victim statement to Petyr Baelish, who orchestrated her monstrous marriage, rendering him speechless. And in this episode, from her one liners eviscerating Ramsay before the battle to calling out Jon Snow for not asking her advice in the planning tent when, after all, she knows Ramsay best, Sansa shows she’s no longer the victim, nor is she someone to be ignored.
She also proves she’s absolutely right: Jon and his foolish honor fall victim to Ramsay’s games just as Sansa warned him not to, and he abandons his carefully laid plans. He charges, alone, at a superior force and allows his army to be surrounded and nearly overwhelmed. He himself loses his horse and nearly suffocates. Sansa, meanwhile, enlists the help of Littlefinger and rides in with the Knights of the Vale to save the day. The Starks retake Winterfell — largely because of Sansa. At the end, when Jon overtakes Ramsay, he looks to her — acknowledging that especially with this enemy, she deserves to call the shots.
In the ending scene, she gets the ultimate revenge on her rapist and torturer. “Your words will disappear. Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear,” she tells him. Having lived with him, she knows his greatest fear. And then she sets him up for the most karmic piece of brutality yet: Being eaten alive by his own dogs.
The scene, however, isn’t about Ramsay. Instead, the camera focuses on Sansa. This isn’t his show anymore. It’s all about her storyline, what she has overcome, and what she will do next.
Sansa, Danaerys, Maergery, Yara, Brienne, Cersei: these are all women who have been brokered in marriage like pawns, sidelined, ignored, underestimated, and abused. But now, they’ve come forward to prove that they have emerged from a position of disadvantage strong, and ready to wield their power.
This season’s shift in female characters’ roles is especially welcome given Game of Thrones’ historically lazy and problematic approach to sexual violence — which has been to the detriment of both the show’s women and the show’s viewers.
In a season 2 effort to prove Joffrey’s already well-established monstrosity, for example, the despot-in-training forces two prostitutes to beat each other as a message to his uncle Tyrion. While one of the prostitutes, Ros, is a character in her own right — until, that is, her brutal and conveniently breast-baring murder — the other woman disappears, never to be seen again. In the fourth season, scenes of the mutinous Night’s Watch at Craster’s Keep features unnamed men raping unnamed women as a literal backdrop. Then there’s the controversial rape scene between Jaime and Cersei, where Jaime holds Cersei down and pushes into her despite her repeated protests — a scene which both the male actor, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and the director of the episode, Alex Graves, insist “becomes consensual by the end,” a conception at odds with the audience reaction and the definition of consent.
After Sansa’s rape last year, George R.R. Martin gave voice to a popular defense to this dynamic: it’s merely a representation of the reality of the patriarchal times.
“The Middle Ages were not a time of sexual egalitarianism,” he said, speaking specifically about his books. “It was very classist, dividing people into three classes. And they had strong ideas about the roles of women.” He argued that it’s dishonest to write epic fantasies that include bloody battles in wartime but leave out graphic portrayals of sexual assault.
Similarly, at a briefing in Australia last year, Forbes reported that director Jeremy Podeswa said the show’s creators Weiss and Benioff “were responsive to the discussion” about whether Game of Thrones has mishandled rape scenes, though he also noted that “the show depicts a brutal world where horrible things happen.”
This season, however, pushes past the false dichotomy of realistic medieval fantasy versus responsibly depicting female characters. The show remains deeply brutal, violent, and gritty. But in telling the compelling stories of women clawing their way up from a patriarchal society, and foregrounding female characters of power, Game of Thrones is proving it’s also possible to feature female characters in a different way. By allowing the show’s women to be fully developed, flawed, and numerous, the show is demonstrating how to work within the constraints of history and still make compelling entertainment for men and women alike.
And, by continuing a rape storyline beyond the use of a woman’s abuse as a throwaway plot device, this season has given us the most compelling arc yet: Sansa’s survival, both mental and physical.
Sansa started the show as one of the least-loved characters: Compared to Arya’s tomboyish pluck, viewers denigrated Sansa, who liked sewing and dreamed of fairytale romance, as annoying, weak, and whiny. But over the seasons, Sansa has proved her strength and intelligence, and this season, coming back from her abuse and confronting those who put her through hell, she’s become one of Game of Thrones’ most interesting characters, precisely through coming overcoming both her rape and the broader patriarchal society that traded her like a pawn. Through fire and ice, she’s proving she’s a queen — and proving to all of us that there’s no excuse to leave out women’s stories.