In the world of Game of Thrones, women currently reign supreme. Cersei sits on the Iron Throne in King's Landing. Daenerys has reclaimed her ancestral throne in Dragonstone. Sansa is in charge of Winterfell. Arya has enacted her revenge. With all of these awe-inspiring women in charge, it's easy to forget that Game of Thrones hasn't always treated women well. But can the political rise of women in recent seasons really absolve the series of its past sins?
Content Warning: This article and pages it links to contain references to sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.
And sins there are aplenty. The early seasons of Game of Thrones are riddled with imagery that poses women solely as objects of sexual desire. The seemingly unlimited supply of naked-women-in-brothel shots, coupled with gratuitous sex scenes, left many female fans feeling alienated. In one particularly exasperating sequence, Littlefinger pontificates in his brothel, while two of his female sex workers engage in multiple forms of sexual activity in the background. What was most frustrating about these scenes was not necessarily the sex, but the fact that in the majority of cases, the presence of so many naked women did nothing to serve the plot. It seemed that the primary aim of these scenes was to serve the male gaze, and titillate audiences. That's not exactly a sign of a feminist mission.
But perhaps more troubling than the series' treatment of female sexuality has been its multiple depictions of sexual assault. The most infamous of these instances occurred in Season 5, when after their forced wedding, sadistic villain Ramsay Bolton rapes Sansa Stark. This scene was a departure from the books for Sansa's character, meaning that the inclusion of the assault was a conscious decision made by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
The depiction of Sansa's rape was widely criticized by the media and fans alike, and most expressed a version of the same critique. Audiences had already been convinced time and again that Ramsay was a monster with boundless cruelty; we knew that, by marrying Ramsay, Sansa had been placed in grave danger; Theon had already been tortured beyond recognition. Choosing to depict Ramsay's rape of Sansa, and forcing Theon to bear witness, did nothing to advance plot or provide character development. It simply offered yet another empty, graphic, triggering depiction of rape to add to film and television's long history of these scenes.
But at least the show never forgives Ramsay for this depraved act. The case is not so for other characters who sexually assault women on Game of Thrones. Khal Drogo became so beloved by fans that it's easy to forget he spent much of the first season raping his Khaleesi. Similarly, Jaime Lannister's plot has been focused on redemption, yet we cannot forget that he forced himself on his sister, Cersei, beside the body of their deceased son. This scene was particularly troubling for how it encouraged the entirely false notion that sex that begins as non-consensual can eventually become so — the director of the episode, Alex Graves, told HitFix that, "It [the rape] becomes consensual by the end." Um, no.
Unlike Ramsay, Khal Drogo and Jaime are never punished by the show. Khaleesi ultimately takes matters in her own hands and encourages the Khal to have gentler sex, and by the end is so in love with him that she attempts to bring him back from the dead. Cersei and Jaime are still very much an item, and Game of Thrones has lent a sympathetic eye towards the often morally conflicted Kingslayer. By absolving these men, the show has run the risk of normalizing sexual assault as a bad thing that good guys sometimes do in fits of rage or passion.
Yet in more recent seasons, there has been a noticeable tonal shift away from the objectification and degradation of Game of Thrones' female characters. There has been considerably less nudity, and a conspicuous lack of brothel scenes. The Season 7 sex scene between Missandei and Grey Worm was tender, served to solidify a romantic relationship that had been seasons in the making, and focused on female pleasure — all three have been rarities in the GoT world thus far, with the exception of that cave scene. This refreshing change in the show's treatment of female sexuality is certainly a welcome one.
The women of Game of Thrones have also escaped their previous roles as the pawns and playthings of men. Khaleesi's rise to power is thanks in part to her rejection of male authority and refusal to be influenced by the affection of the men around her. In the finale of Season 6, we see her leave her lover, Daario Naharis, behind in Meereen because his presence would be a political vulnerability in Westeros. In Episode 3 of Season 7, "The Queen's Justice," Dany even expresses to Jon Snow that Drogo had raped her, a stark departure from the show's normally sympathetic view of the Khal. Cersei's love for Jaime is far less important than her thirst for power. Theon rejected a claim to the Salt Throne in favor of his more capable sister, Yara. Sansa repeatedly rejects Littlefinger's advances, and it's often unclear whether he is manipulating her or she is manipulating him.
Then came the war council in Season 7's "Stormborn." We see Khaleesi assemble a council made up almost entirely of women to discuss the best way to capture the Iron Throne. While Tyrion and Varys each spoke their piece, it was Yara Greyjoy, Ellaria Sand, and Olenna Tyrell who commanded the room, and Dany's attention. This scene symbolized and solidified the shift that has recently placed women at the helm of power, superseding the men who have used and abused them for season upon season.
Yet it remains to be seen whether this newfound love of "girl power" is enough to absolve the series for its mistreatment of women in the past. It's true that in many ways, GoT is one of the few shows on television that feature women as capable leaders, even in a world as patriarchal as Westeros. And it's easy to look past the show's old sins when Khaleesi is busy being a boss on screen. But considering that the showrunners spent a significant portion of the series willingly displaying women as sex objects, and letting men abuse their female characters with little repercussion, it's difficult to entrust them with this new mantle of feminism.
Perhaps the writers wish to raise the stakes for this eventual shift to female supremacy — maybe we are rooting so hard for the women to come out on top in part because they've been so hyper-sexualized and viciously treated in the early seasons. But this does little to explain away the gratuitous sex and unnecessary assault; we knew these women were trapped in a man's world, and demonstrating the full realities of that entrapment constantly, and on-camera, provided nothing we didn't already know.
Here's to hoping that the show continues to do right by the women of Westeros in Season 7 and 8 — because just like the North, GoT's female fans remember.
Editor's note: If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org.