A Funny Feminist Thing's Happened To Game of Thrones

[Content Note: discussion of rape, sexual abuse, and sexualized violence.]

Spoilers: Heavy spoilers through episode 6, season 6, of Game of Thrones. Although I have read the books, this discussion relates strictly to the televisions series. Please be careful in discussion so as not to spoil the books for those who may not have read them.

What’s happened to Game of Thrones? And I mean that in a good way.

As readers of this space well know, this show has, for years, given us some of the most interesting and complicated female characters in fantasy film or television. But it's come at the price of seeing the majority of those characters frequently subjected to rape, sexual abuse, sexualized violence or (minimally) threats thereof. Such scenes were presented in ways that developed male characters rather than the victimized women (as when Sansa’s abusive wedding night ended with a close-up of Theon’s reaction) or worse, served as mere background (as in a scene at Craster’s Keep, where the on-screen rape of multiple unnamed women itself was the backdrop to a male character’s monologue).

Excuses about this being true to canon rang hollow, particularly when consensual scenes of sex from the books became non-consensual onscreen. As for claims that this was more “historically accurate” (but with zombies), well, give that last excuse to someone who doesn’t teach women’s history, thanks. As I wrote two years ago:

Why, I wonder, do the "realism!!!" rape apologists never expect to see any of the real-life historical dynamics which occasionally helped protect women from violence, or at least minimize it somewhat by punishing men's violence? Why is "realism" only invoked in one direction?

Did somebody read that essay? Because something has changed this season. And it’s been damn compelling.

To be honest, at first it was the absence of awfulness I noticed. In Epsiode 3, when Varys confronted the sex worker Vala about her support for the Sons of the Harpy, I snarked to my partner that they’d missed their chance to set yet another scene in a brothel for no apparent reason (other than to use nameless, naked women’s bodies as backdrops, of course). While I was unhappy that Osha met her death at the hands of Ramsay Bolton in episode four, I couldn’t help but notice that she was allowed to die with some dignity. Although it happened as she attempt to seduce Ramsay, the death was remarkably... unsexualized, particularly when compared to, say, Joffrey’s murder of Roz. Progress?

But then, without snark, I realized: there really has been progress. Maybe most dramatically when a character was finally is allowed to process, to react, and to discuss her victimization. In episode 5, Sansa confronts Littlefinger about setting her up with Ramsay, asking “did you know?” and forcing him to contemplate just her experiences were like. As Littlefinger sputters helplessly that he “can’t imagine” her tortures, she cuts him off. She straight up tells him that she can still feel what Ramsay did: “…and I don’t mean I can feel it in my tender little heart. I feel it in my body, now, standing here. “ Holy shit. You can watch the amazing scene for yourself (auto-play at link, content note for this and other scenes as for the post.) It’s quite an amazing bit of writing, and acting.

The show has also finally discovered something I suggested two years ago: the idea that even in very patriarchal periods of history, there still existed cultural norms that might sometimes protect women:

Take, for example, the absence of anything like the medieval Christian Church in the television story. Historically, that was a highly misogynist institution, yes. But it also offered rules and punishments about sexuality and violence which sometimes might restrain men's worst behavior. The men at Craster's, for example, might "realistically" include some men who would hesitate at committing mass rape, particularly in the face of death and with oathbreaking and rebellion already on their consciences.

Welp, in the first episode of Season 6, Game of Thrones finally discovered a compelling cultural/religious reason not to rape! Admittedly it only applies to widows of Khals, but what do you know, the cultural compunction was strong enough that Khal Moro actually chose not to assault Dany when she was his helpless captive. Powerful stuff, those cultural norms! And our glimpse of the widows of Khals who apparently advise the Dothraki on governance gave us another hint that maybe it’s possible for women who are literally hidden away to wield power or influence.

And speaking of influence, the newly introduced religious plotlines have finally yielded something other than women’s degradation or evil. My very words:

And speaking of politics, what if women could gain power through their piety? What if, for example, Margaery's acts of charity were part of her larger reputation for personal piety, one she could use to her advantage in King's Landing? What if Sansa could gain the status of living saint through her devotion and purity? So far both women have played a conventional role by pleasing men, but what if they could play an alternative role, pleasing the gods? Why has one of the most important ways that women historically gained influence out of these women's reach?

Well, helloo, Margaery’s conveniently timed conversion to Sparrow cause in episode 6! I could be wrong about this, but I have a strong suspicion that she’s going to use her new status to, well, wield power and influence. (You can watch the scene where she explains her conversion to the very-malleable King Tommen. And then watch her get out of a walk of Atonement while preventing a bloodbath. Nice save, Margaery!)

Even my complaint that the few women who wield religious power have been evil is softened a bit in Season 6. Neither the Red Priestess Kinvara in Mereen nor Melisandre at the Wall are exactly good guys in my book, but helping quell civil violence and reviving Jon Snow count for something. So far, septas have only been shown as glorified governesses or Nurse Ratched-type prison guards. But maybe we’ll get the equivalent of a powerful medieval Abbess in the Faith of the Seven yet!

And while it isn’t piety that Sansa has embraced, she too is discovering a way to wield power through the invocation of traditional cultural norms, much as her mother was able to, briefly. When Brienne finally got a break and succeeded in fulfilling her promise to protect Lady Starks’ daughter, and when Sansa finally accepted her service using the traditional words you can watch Sansa use the traditional ceremonial formula to accept Brienne’s service here, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one cheering. Indications that Sansa plans to build an anti-Bolton movement in the North feel grounded in both the show’s history—her mother was instrumental in building Robb’s alliance—and in real historyI Has someone been reading up on the role of women in the Wars of the Roses?

There have been a lot of moments that feel more spectacularly feminist this season. It would be hard to miss Dany literally burning down the Dothraki patriarchal establishment—with the patriarchs in it--and emerging unscathed from the flames. But it’s the subtler moments that keep sticking with me. Brienne finally getting to fulfill her promise to Catelyn Stark, finally getting to succeed in her mission.

And I can’t help but think of Arya’s most recent rejection of the House of Black and White in feminist terms. Her time training as an apprentice to the Faceless Men reminds me, in a weird way, of story arc in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 3, when Buffy begins to realize that the alleged “good guys,” the Watchers who have trained her, are themselves just another controlling, patriarchal organization. They want to use her as a tool, and don’t give a damn about her as a person. Likewise, the Faceless Men talk a good game, but forcing a woman to completely sublimate her own identity, power, and selfhood sounds less than empowering. If Arya didn’t want to disappear within a dynastically convenient marriage, why would she choose to similarly disappear into a society of assassins?

This season has also spent a good deal of time on brother-sister relationships (that aren’t incestuous Lannister ones, I mean.) Again with the history books: I note that such relationships were some of the most egalitarian that might be experienced between men and women in early modern England. (Particularly when compared to marriages, in which the husband was granted clear legal and social authority over the wife.) In both the Stark and the Greyjoy families, a brother is supporting his sister’s political goals and ambitions, letting her (for the moment at least) seemingly take the lead. (You can watch Theon’s impassioned speech in favor of his sister’s leadership here.) And Margaery seems fiercely committed to helping her brother out of prison (see their scene here). So much so, that I’m quite sure her episode 6 conversion has as much to do with sparing Loras humiliation as anything else. (Or maybe she really did have a completely sincere religious experience, but if you believe that, then I have some lush green wight-free farmland north of the Wall to sell you.)

So where is all of this coming from? This is a change, and a mighty one at that. Jon Pedewsda, who’s directed several episodes, claimed last year that the show would be responding to concerns about its portrayal of rape. Show runners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, on the other hand, say that fan criticism didn’t change anything about Season 6. In fact, they seem to be saying that the inclusion of particularly empowering storylines for female characters is just part of a longer character arc, to which I say: sure. That sounds suspiciously like the ”Rape Turns Ladies Into Superheroes" trope, which is in itself misogynistic (and which I’ve written about here.)

The problem with this show was never just that Bad Stuff happened to female characters. It was never just that there were characters who experienced rape. It was the overwhelming barrage of sexualized violence. It was the casual way that violence “just happened,” like a natural disaster. It was that the sexualized violence was so often totally irrelevant to the development of the characters or plot (What was the storytelling reason for Jaime’s assault on Cersei? How did it change anything?) It was that when it did serve a purpose, it never seemed to be about women who suffered it. (By contrast, Theon’s seasons-long suffering at the hands of Ramsay Bolton was always as much about the fallout for him as establishing how dreadful Ramsay was.) And that’s before we get to the dehumanizing women-as-background-bodies.

My point is that it was never just one thing, it was an entire collection of things that, so far, Season 6 has mostly turned a corner on. And maybe the criticisms didn’t “change” any words written for Season 6, but it would be nice to think that somebody, somewhere, in the creative team considered those years-long criticism when Season 6 was written in the first place.

For whatever reason, the show has changed. For the better. In doing so, it’s proving you can make compelling tv without constant reliance on tired misogynist tropes (because dragons or history or whatever.) I can't call it a feminist show. I can't even say for sure it's taken a feminist turn. But it certainly feels as if a feminist thing has happened, altering the show in both large and small ways. And for that I say: thank you, Game of Thrones. Sunday night has been a whole lot better this spring, in more ways than one.

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