Women Are Winning on Game of Thrones. But It Feels a Little Forced

Jun 20, 2016

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the sixth season of Game of Thrones.

For years, fans have levied criticism against Game of Thrones' treatment of women, from the unnecessary, frequent nudity to the graphic sexual assault of main characters. After Sansa's rape by Ramsay Bolton last year sent the Internet over the edge (and led some high profile fans to flee the show), the creators promised that this season would be the year of the women. Last night, they delivered on that promise with the long-awaited "Battle of the Bastards," though some of the victories came at the expense of logic.

Let's review: Daenerys demonstrated the firepower of her dragons and plotted with Yara to break Westeros' glass (iron?) ceiling twice over. And Sansa got to smile for the first time in years, when she arrived to save the day with Littlefinger's army and then again when Ramsay's dogs ripped his face off.

In a show that loves to play with moral ambiguity, these were objectively "good" events. The writers kept things simple by sidelining the more ethically complicated female figures—Cersei, Margaery and Melisandre. Instead, they delivered our heroines, Daenerys and Sansa. Yara, too, has proven herself honorable by trying to save Theon when he was imprisoned by Ramsay and looks even better when contrasted with her crazed uncle. The clear message: Women rule!

And let us pause for a second to say, "Good." The show's producers didn't have to respond to the cacophony of criticism. But they did. Remember, Sansa isn't raped in the books, and thus probably won't be the one to kill Ramsay. Her suffering and revenge is all the show's creation. While the events of the episode certainly did not justify last year's rape scene or the way in which it was shot, emphasizing Theon's suffering as a witness rather than Sansa's as a victim, "Battle of the Bastards" did give Dany and Sansa the sorts of heroic moments that have largely been reserved for men on television.

But it felt a little forced. Logic fell by the wayside in order for these moments to happen. Did Dany and the Dothraki apparate to Meereen? And wait, the dragons could just break out of the cave all along? Even if they broke out now because they sensed their mother and brother were home, why didn't they let themselves loose earlier to grab some grub?

The plot twist in Winterfell was even more problematic. Why wouldn't Sansa tell Jon about sending the raven to Littlefinger for help?

Some fans have floated theories. Maybe she didn't know Littlefinger was coming—but of course he was, he's in love with her. Maybe she was bitter at Jon for not listening to her advice—but it doesn't seem like throwing that fit is worth costing thousands of men their lives. Maybe she wanted to employ the element of surprise—but Sansa herself said in the episode she knows nothing of military strategy. Maybe it was Littlefinger's idea—but why would Sansa trust Littlefinger more than Jon after Littlefinger pawned her off to a sadistic husband?

Indeed, Sansa would not even have had to swoop in and save Jon in the first place had Jon, a supposedly deft commander, not fallen for Ramsay's obvious trap, the very same trap Sansa had warned him about the night before.

There's simply no rational reason, only a dramatic one: The writers wanted to give Sansa her moment.

Game of Thrones has been building to this peak for a long time. Dany's ascension and Arya's training montage felt endless, but the seeds were planted long ago. Think of the moment between Daenerys and Yara as they bonded over their bad dads. The women of this show have suffered in a way that the men will never know, and that's exactly what will make them better rulers.

More accurately, Game of Thrones has been the story of the downtrodden rising up. The kings are dead. The characters who have survived are those that were underestimated, abused, pushed down: A bastard, a war bride, a dwarf, a pirate—the list goes on. The world of Thrones has been much criticized for its characterization of women as lesser citizens, but here is the payoff as the meek inherit the earth.

My guess is George R.R. Martin's books will eventually end up with similar victories for women. But Martin's path has always been long and circuitous, whereas the show is now taking short cuts to race to the end. (There are just two truncated seasons left.)

And, with a massive, attentive, tweeting audience, the show must contend with week-to-week criticisms about the treatment of women in a way that Martin does not. So if the girl power moments felt contrived, they were. If the failings of the men blinded by their own pride—the slavers, Theon, Jon and Ramsay—felt obvious, they were. But perhaps this is a place where the show needs to be blunt: Women are capable of rule, more capable than their narrow-sighted male counterparts.

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