If you’ve even had a fleeting encounter with television giant Game of Thrones, then you’ll know the programme isn’t often celebrated for its treatment of women characters. Whether they’re topless background extras or powerful queens in lead roles, the show has often and fairly been called out for constant and at times deeply problematic portrayal of violence against women. We’ve seen sex workers murdered in the most gruesome of ways (Ros, Shae), queens violently abused by their husbands and brothers (from Cersei to Daenerys) and children leered upon and used like pawns by men in positions of power (be it Arya or Sansa).
We’ve watched as women are raped, humiliated, married off, burned alive, poisoned, raped, stabbed in their pregnant stomachs, eaten alive by dogs, thrown from great heights, raped, intimidated, beaten, strangled and raped again.
But something shifted in season six. In the final two episodes of the season, the show’s most notably abused women were given moments of violent, intoxicating, revenge. After jumping from frying pan to fire to frying pan again, Arya Stark started storming through her kill list at the end of season six, with one of the most delicious revenge kills the show has ever seen: despatching Walder Frey, the architect of the infamous Red Wedding bloodbath that killed her brother and mother. After being beaten, starved and publically humiliated by the Church, Cersei Lannister blew it up – killing all her enemies at once, though her last living child died as a result. And after being passed around different men like a pawn and brutally raped, Sansa Stark was given what was, for me, the most satisfying scene of the entire show so far – condemning her rapist husband to be eaten alive by his own dogs, after defeating his army in battle.
It saw a wave of articles declaring that women were now on top. Time ran a piece headlined, “Game of Thrones’ Women Are Finally Taking Over”, while Vanity Fair went for Game of Thrones: How Women Went from Victims to Conquerors and Vice chose Game of Thrones Is Suddenly All About Powerful Women Getting Their Way.
But while bloody revenge is gratifying from a viewer’s perspective, it doesn’t necessarily translate into security, power or happiness for these characters. Arya still isn’t out of the woods, Cersei’s throne is unstable, and Sansa’s victories are seen as her brother’s. It might be more immediately exciting, but a triumphant smile and a shower of blood only last a few seconds.
It’s the slower-burn plotlines that seem more promising. While these three women have seen their enemies murdered before their eyes, Ellaria Sand took over as the ruler of Dorne, Olenna became the most powerful Tyrell, Yara Greyjoy led a fleet of ships to Essos, and, as a result, Daenerys finally mobilized her troops.
The cogs are turning, but we’re yet to see quite what any of these characters would actually look like at the top of a wheel of fortune. Those who have gained power are yet to exercise it. Season seven offers our first opportunity to see how genuine female power functions in an excessively violent patriarchal society. Will the alliance between Daenerys, Olenna, Ellaria and Yara succeed? How will Cersei rule successfully when she is so unpopular, and so many of her allies are dead and buried?
Clearly, the female leads of Game of Thrones are more instrumental than ever. The first trailer for the seventh season focuses in on Daenerys, Cersei and Jon Snow as the pivotal characters of the upcoming season, each taking a seat on their prospective thrones. But there’s also much to suggest that Sansa is as important as Jon going forward: the most recent trailer begins focusing in on her as she walks through the snow, while Littlefinger tells her to “fight every battle, everywhere”, and ends with her narration that when winter comes, “the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives”. Fan theories abound that Sansa will be the last Stark standing.
But as women gain more and more power in the collapsing seven kingdoms, a war over the Iron Throne increasingly seems like self-indulgent squabbling in the face of the oncoming White Walkers, which could spell the end of the Game of Thrones world as we know it. Cersei, Daenerys and Ellaria, and, increasingly, Sansa seem more interested in personal power than the approaching winter. It remains to be seen whether a female-dominated Westeros will be more open to warnings from Jon Snow than self-important patriarchal governments and families past. However satisfying it is to see Westeros’ women have revenge on their enemies closer to home, now they have a bigger battle to fight.