It is true that “Game of Thrones” has a running theme of violence against women, one that has stirred up tons of criticism over the years. In 2015, after the rape of teen bride Sansa by Ramsay Bolton, that bastard sadist of Dreadfort, vocal criticism of the show’s “woman problem” peaked. Notably, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill vowed to stop watching.
“OK, I’m done Game of Thrones,” she tweeted at the time. “Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable.”
But I’m hoping that the many depictions of violence toward and oppression of women — including Jaime raping Cersei and Khal Drogo raping Daenerys — are a setup for the real theme of the HBO epic, which wraps up its seventh and penultimate season Sunday night. As we creep toward the series end, and the cast begins to shrink, the women on “Game of Thrones” are ascendant. After suffering tenfold, they’ve become the dominant players in the endgame of thrones, overpowering the patriarchy each in their own way. If there’s any link between “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men,” it is this: Both portray the tyranny of institutionalized sexism, as well as those women who manage to find a way to prevail in spite of it. Nevertheless, they persist.
And one of the women on “Game of Thrones” MUST win, or I will be sorely disappointed. The story appears to be moving in that direction, as Sansa, Dany, Cersei, and maybe Arya are in serious contention to rule once and for all, with Brienne and/or Missandei, perhaps, behind one of them in the winner’s corner. For me, a female victor will help explain the show’s relentless portrayal of the mistreatment of that gender. (And I do understand that, as a man, perhaps I distance myself more easily from those depictions of violence.) I see “Game of Thrones” as a dystopian drama of sorts, even if it’s categorized as a fantasy series. It’s a look at a medieval-styled world that enables sexist cruelties, among other awful things, like a past-tense cousin to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It is about us now, taken to grim extremes. Let it be about us now, in transition.
If a woman wins, the violence against women might ultimately seem less gratuitous, since it would suggest that those unbearable scenes — Cersei’s endless shame walk, for example, or the murder by fire of Shireen — weren’t simply included for shock value. The violence would be more closely connected to the broad long-term story arc and character development. And if the remaining men, notably Jon and Tyrion, but also Jorah and Jaime, are advisers in secondary positions to their queen, well that would be a particularly ding!-ding!-ding! denouement. At this point, it almost seems as though the writers are putting Jon in a more traditionally female role, able to reach the top only by linking up with someone of the opposite sex — with Dany, or Sansa.
Sansa, Dany, Arya, Brienne, Cersei — they’re not only the beginnings of a matriarchy in recent episodes; they’ve also become the best, most fleshed-out characters on the show, in my opinion. They are consistently more interesting than the men they have to deal with. The cast has always been predominantly male, and yet as the small number of finalists for the prize emerge, a larger proportion of women are in contention, and those woman provide the most satisfying drama on the show (RIP, Diana Rigg as Olenna). Their journeys to this moment have provided the show’s most elaborate storytelling. Even Cersei, who has murdered thousands and whose recent torture — forcing Ellaria Sand to watch her poisoned daughter slowly die — was among the show’s most excruciating moments, has provided an absorbing look at how power can corrupt men and women alike. If she wins, well, it will be a dark victory indeed.
The empowered women on “Game of Thrones” have suffered, and their wounds have strengthened and added dimension to each one of them. The miseries inflicted on the young princesses Sansa and Dany are part of what has made them into such magnificent survivors. If either had an early fairy tale vision of womanhood, it has been destroyed again and again. There is no place for innocence in this world. Now both have sophisticated views of politics and power, and the men around them, not least of all Jon, need to see that or run the risk of being caught off-guard. The “Game of Thrones” realm isn’t the place to find female role models who’ve risen to the top without sacrifice, compromise, or male-generated woe; it’s a place where women must fight their way up against great odds.
I am particularly fascinated by Sansa, who has changed most of all across the seven seasons. Jon has not quite accepted that she has become a shrewd strategist, which was obvious when she saved his army from Ramsay’s. I feel certain she will not succumb to Littlefinger’s manipulations, after all she has been through. Her education has hurt her eyes wide open. Her transformation has been stunning, a portrait of a lady sans dragons.