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Game of Thrones: More Feminist Than You Think

4 minute read

This post is filled with Game of Thrones spoilers

There’s been a lot of justifiable hand-wringing over the way women have been treated on Game of Thrones this season. And if a scene where Jaime rapes his love and sister, Cersei, next to their dead son’s body wasn’t upsetting enough, the director of the episode stirred up further controversy by saying the act “becomes consensual by the end.” Writers and critics spilled a lot of ink explaining why rape can’t become consensual, including me.

What was especially disturbing was that particular sex scene was consensual in the books. The show writers decided to add the part where she protests against him as he’s having sex with her (even if they didn’t think of it as rape). And women didn’t fare any better in the next episode in which a group of nameless, topless women are raped in the background of a scene.

But there’s still a compelling argument for why we shouldn’t write off Game of Thrones’ treatment of women yet. As the season has progressed, the women of the show have grown more powerful, sometimes even more so than their male counterparts.

For some female characters, this growing strength has been literal: Arya killed her first grown man with her sword; Ygritte refused to be scared by some cannibals threatening her and threatened them right back; Olenna Redwyne murdered Joffrey. Others have grown psychologically stronger: Daenerys learned to objectify men in the same way men on the show have objectified other women; Shae delivered the deciding blow in Tyrion’s trial; Sansa recently learned to use her sexual wiles to manipulate Littlefinger. Yes, women on the show are treated as sex objects, but now they’re learning to wield their sexuality as a weapon.

Add these evolutions to the already-strong portrayals of other women on the show: Brienne is as strong as Jaime; Melisandre has total control over Stannis Baratheon; Yara Greyjoy can captain troops; Daenerys is queen of her own people; Cersei is the strongest of her siblings; and Margaery and Cersei are vying for control over the king. The strength of these women is all the more impressive considering they live in a male-dominated world in which women don’t inherit property (except in Dorne), can’t be warriors (except among the wildlings and the ironborn) and are mainly expected to just produce heirs.

Whether fans like it or not, rape is a part of the Game of Thrones world—both in the books and onscreen. “Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day,” George R.R. Martin, author of the book series and occasional writer on the show, told the New York Times. “To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest.”

And while it’s disturbing that the creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff saw fit to add the Cersei rape scene, they have also diverged from the book in positive ways for women. They added a scene set in Sansa’s chamber where Sansa tells Littlefinger suggestively that she “knows what he wants,” leaving the viewer to infer that she’s learning to be as cunning as he is. In the books, Daenerys frets over whether she should sleep with Daario; in the show, she confidently commands him to strip and gazes at him in the way many kings on the show have gazed at nude women before. The show writers even give the badass Ygritte a much more robust role than she gets in the books. Sometimes the show makes women less powerful, and sometimes it makes them more powerful.

Sunday’s season finale will determine where the women of Westeros stand. But taking the season as a whole, girls seem to be closer to running the Game of Thrones world than they ever have before.

Still not satisfied? Then take comfort in the fact that next season of Thrones looks to be the most woman-centric yet: they’re adding three of Oberyn’s daughters and Arianne Martell to the cast. With each passing season, it seems more likely that a woman will capture the iron throne.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com