How Game Of Thrones Became A Tale Of Women's Survival

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Last week's Game of Thrones episode, "Beyond the Wall" gave us a cold, but crucial exchange between the Stark sisters. After being confronted about the letter Arya found in Littlefinger's chamber, Sansa chastises her sister for not supporting her.
"You should be on your knees, thanking me. We're standing in Winterfell again because of me," Sansa says. "You didn't win it back, Jon didn't win it back — he lost the Battle of the Bastards. The knights of the Vale won the battle and they rode north for me while you were off, where? Traveling the world?"
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When Arya says that she was, in fact, training with the Faceless Men, Sansa continues: "While you were training I suffered things you could never imagine. You never would have survived what I survived."
She's referring to, among other things, her multiple violent sexual assaults at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. And it's true, Arya has not had to face that particular trauma (thankfully). But Sansa is also wrong — at this late stage in the game, all the women in this show are survivors, not necessarily of physical assault, but of the cruelty of men.
Sansa's plight may be the most striking example, but Daenerys' wedding night with Khal Drogo wasn't exactly consensual (Emilia Clarke even referred to it as a "rape scene" during an appearance on The Graham Norton Show), and I always got the sense that her relationship with her brother was far from kosher. Cersei, for her part, was manhandled by Robert Baratheon (although I doubt marital rape is a thing in the Game of Thrones universe), to say nothing of the infamous walk of shame she's subjected to by the Faith Militant.
It's no coincidence that all three women currently holding power in Westeros right now have survived sexual crimes. On the one hand, it gives weight to critics' claims of gratuitous sexual violence on the show. But on the other, it's a testament to the strength of these characters that they have been through such ordeals and come through stronger and ready to fight on — especially since an interesting character arc wasn't guaranteed for any of them.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
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In the early days of the series, Cersei was little more than a bitter queen who passed the time getting her hair done in extravagant braids, drinking gallons of wine, and sneaking off to have sex with her twin. Daenerys was a pawn, married off to a Dothraki warlord to increase her brother's chances of reclaiming the Iron Throne. And Sansa, bless her, was barely more than a whiny tween with tear-filled eyes, gaping in horror at every betrayal.
But in recent seasons, Game of Thrones has undergone a major shift. Women, who until then had been mainly used for "sexposition" and boob shots, started to take charge. With all men destined to die — valar morghulis — women have come to the fore of the conflict, not as wives or daughters, but as rulers. They don't derive power from the men in their lives anymore. Those guys are gone now, forgotten, while the women survived.
Some of this new wokeness comes off as a little strained, like when we're informed that High Valyrian has gender neutral pronouns, or when tiny badass Lyanna Mormont declares to all the Northern lords that she won't be content to stay home like a good little girl while the men go off to fight. Those moments feel like the showy feminism of men who have been criticised for their depiction of women as objects of desire, and little else.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
It's the more subtle moments that feel most powerful. A really interesting take posted on culture blog Tom + Lorenzo earlier this week points out that Daenerys, Sansa, and Cersei's wardrobes reflect their shared experience with sexual assault.
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"Like all the three main queens of this post, Cersei is a survivor of sexual assault. Not just in her marriage to Robert, but most recently, in her humiliating walk of shame, from which she most likely will never recover. Like all three queens, she has responded to this by covering herself up completely. Wearing armour isn’t just a show of power; it’s a way of preventing injury as well."
Daenerys' much lauded — for good reason, just look at it — white fur coat from last week's episode is similar in its all-covering cut, as are Sansa's increasingly sober high-collared robes. (For a deeper dive into their outfits throughout the seasons, check out the piece, it's well-worth it.)
These are not women concerned with how others view them. These are women who know what they want — and have been through hell to get it.
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