The Evolving Feminism of Game of Thrones: Evidence that Viewers Can Change Problematic Television

There are spoilers below, so very many spoilers. Read at your own risk.

I’ve often felt conflicted about Game of Thrones. 

From the beginning, I’ve been irritated with the gratuitous sex and nudity. I understand that this can sometimes be used to move the plot in an effective way (i.e. Cersei’s walk of shame). But, generally speaking, GOT has used naked ladies as window dressing to keep straight male viewers watching. HBO has been notorious for finding any and every opportunity to throw a couple of boobs into any given scene in all of its shows. However, as CollegeHumor points out in their NSFW video below, HBO’s gratuitous nudity only goes one way.

Unfortunately, Game of Thrones’ sex scenes have not only been irritating, some have also been majorly problematic. In the first season Daenerys Targaryen is sold into marriage with warlord Khal Drogo, who rapes her on their wedding night. While their relationship eventually progresses into “love,” this first scene made it impossible for me to ever really view their relationship as a loving one. It made me even more angry when I learned that, in the books, this scene between Daenerys and Drogo was actually consensual.

In Season 4, HBO once again turned a consensual sex scene from the books (this time between Cersei and Jaime) into a rape scene for the television version. When fans were inevitably outraged by the scene, director Alex Graves claimed that the scene “becomes consensual by the end”.

These two scenes (and Graves’ terrible excuse) made me more than furious. But I didn’t stop watching. I felt conflicted, yes, but GOT is really a unique type of show. The content is so well-written and the plot so unique that I kept felt compelled to see what happened next, hoping my favourite female characters would eventually get some of the respect they deserve.

Then, Season 5 came along.

Season 5 was the first time I seriously considered giving up the show, and I wasn’t the only one. After the devastating and poorly handled rape of Sansa, viewers quickly began to speak out against the show. The Mary Sue released a statement explaining why they would “no longer be promoting HBO’s Game of Thrones,” and several “high profile” writers stepped up to do the same. For me, it was the torturous death of Shireen, in addition to the rape of Sansa, that almost drove me to stop watching. Contrasted against Stannis’ quick and silent off-screen death, we were presented with Shireen’s screams for no discernible reason.

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I will never forgive the writers/editors for this moment.

In the end, I didn’t stop watching Game of Thrones. Maybe I lack the willpower. Maybe the long break between this season and last allowed my anger to cool. Maybe I’m just too invested in my favourite remaining female characters to give up now.

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Frankly, I’m glad I kept watching, because this season has been the most satisfying yet. In particular, this week’s episode, “Battle of the Bastards,” which finally allowed Sansa to take back her agency. Not only does she take revenge on the man who had raped and abused her in Season 5, but she reminds the other men in her life that this was not an act she will brush aside, or shamefully pretend didn’t happen.

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She’s grown from her experiences, and refuses to sit by as “a monster” sits in her home. She challenges Jon to fight Bolton. Then, when Jon prepares to attack Bolton’s army, Sansa assesses the situation realistically, without allowing anger or blind optimism to cloud her judgement. She’s fearless, but she isn’t stupid. She’s aware that this battle could end in her capture, and she refuses to be taken back to Bolton alive.

She also prepares Jon Snow for Bolton’s trap, warning him that Bolton will not allow their brother Rickon to survive. Inevitably, Jon falls for the bait anyways, leading his army into the open arms of defeat, only to be bailed out by Sansa’s behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.

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Although I still can’t figure out why Sansa didn’t just tell Jon that Littlefinger was bringing an army to back them up.

While this episode heavily featured Sansa’s story arc, she wasn’t the only badass female strategist highlighted this week. We also got to see Yara Greyjoy and Daenerys Targaryen agree to back each other in their claims to the Iron Islands and Westeros, respectively.

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Even back in Westeros, where a patriarchal religion had publicly humbled Cersei and (to a lesser degree) Margaery, both women are plotting ways to take back their power. Meanwhile, Arya is finally poised to reunite with other key characters, after holding her own plot line for several seasons.

In spite of the devastating trauma inflicted on many of its female characters, Game of Thrones is ultimately home to some of the most intelligent, multifaceted, and interesting female characters on TV. Lucky for us, the show’s directors may finally be moving away from the problematic violence towards those female characters in an effort to respond to fans’ demands. After the extreme backlash to Season 5, director Jeremy Podeswa came forward “to explain that the upcoming season will address the concerns about sexual violence that plagued [the season]”. Presumably, this is why we’ve been allowed to see Sansa moving beyond her past trauma to be more than just a rape trope meant to motivate male characters.

Game of Thrones gained its massive following partially because of its unpredictability. Bad things can happen, even to your favourite characters. While I’m willing to accept these traumas as part of the world where the story takes place, I am not willing to have sexual violence reduced to a trope (like Sansa’s rape could have been), or construed as irrelevant (as we saw with Daenerys’ and Cersei’s experiences in earlier seasons). I’m happy to see GOT change it’s representation of women. I’m particularly happy to see directors intentionally make these changes in response to fan outrage and boycotts. It reminders viewers that we do have the power to challenge these representations.

We’ve called out gratuitous sexual violence and seen some legitimate changes. Now if only we could get some more decent roles for actors of colour.

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