There was a moment, early on in season seven, when I thought that Game of Thrones had done something truly radical. In a scene that took the Bechdel test and raised it four warrior queens, Dany, Olenna, Ellaria and Yara stood in the war room at Dragonstone, plotting how to conquer Westeros and berating their menfolk for not having the stomach for war.
Much has been made of the feminist credentials of the showrunners David Benioff and D B Weiss, and their decision to put women at the forefront this season. But something has become increasingly apparent over the course of this season: women aren’t allowed to be friends with each other.
To be sure, this is an improvement on previous seasons’ treatment of women – we’ve come a long way from the sexposition of early series, when men in armour would give lengthy monologues about the political machinations of the Seven Kingdoms against a background of topless, giggling prostitutes. But the gains in power women have made seem to have come at a price. We most often see powerful women alone, isolated in their own castles, as if victims of their own success: Cersei in the Red Keep, Sansa in Winterfell, and Olenna dying alone in a high tower.
The only woman-in-charge who is allowed either an adventure or a female friend is Dany, who has Missandei – though we’ve seen very little of her in recent episodes. It’s been years since we saw women support each other on Game of Thrones, and I can’t be the only one who’s feeling nostalgic about the days in which Sansa and Margaery Tyrell sat in a garden in King’s Landing and therapeutically bitched about Joffrey.
Perhaps the most frustrating plot line, this season, is that of Sansa and Arya’s fractious reunion – the tension no one asked for. Their scenes are both badly written, and genuinely implausible. The upshot of Arya’s lengthy character arc in Braavos was that she is, deep down, motivated more by empathy and kindness than by cold-blooded killing. Sansa has become the kind of woman who stalks around Winterfell as her attendant lords trail behind her, dispatching advice about siege tactics and grain stores. Are we really supposed to expect that both sisters are still locked in the tomboy versus girly girl squabbling of their childhoods?
Fans have been asked to lay aside their suspension of disbelief this season, and accept self-evidently pointless capture-a-zombie subplots; not one but two dei ex machina to get Jon out of the middle of a freezing pond; and the sudden ability of characters seemingly to teleport around Westeros at will. But apparently the notion that two sisters could just be friends with one another is a step too far.
Arya and Sansa have each endured countless horrors and hardships since they were separated in season one, and have emerged with two very different skill sets. It might have been fascinating to watch these two sisters complement one another: with Sansa’s pragmatism tempering Arya’s hot-headedness, and Arya’s tenaciousness and fighting skills combining with Sansa’s mind for strategy and alliance-making. They’d be an unstoppable force – which, presumably, following the logic of divide and conquer, is exactly why Littlefinger is so keen to pit them against one another in the first place. But it’s unrewarding to watch the sisters fall so easily into his trap, and revert to adolescent bickering, as if neither had matured enough to overcome the jealousy and suspicion that sisters apparently have for one another.
Meanwhile, almost every single male character is off on an adventure with their bantering brothers-in-arms. Jon has Ser Davos; Jaime has Bronn; drawn-out scenes are given to bromantic hikes North of the Wall, in which men swap war stories, brag about their conquests, and engage in a kind of weaponised innuendo one-upmanship. Whole season-spanning character arcs have been dedicated to the coming together of odd-couple friendships like Tyrion and Jorah. Men get to ride up and down Westeros singing songs, making dick jokes, and generally getting into capers.
When was the last time you remember a female character making jokes with their friends? By my count, it was in season two, when Arya pretended to be a boy.
The treatment of female friendship in Game of Thrones mirrors a wider problem in television and popular culture. So often, we see male characters forming solid, uncomplicated friendships based on mutual trust and good humour. Despite their differences, bros are always there for one another – and they clap each other on the back when one of them succeeds. Yet female friendship is often portrayed with a strange one-sidedness: so many films and television shows are still trapped in the same lazy, out-dated clichés about female jealousness and rivalry. Historically, more screen time has been given to women’s romantic relationships than their friendship with other women.
One suspects that Benioff and Weiss think they have achieved something close to gender equality this season, by putting women in charge of their houses, and in having them, in the main, do a better job than the men. (And it’s always very satisfying to watch Dany or Olenna make withering disparagements about the appalling men in their lives.) But this sits uneasily with their reliance upon easy stereotypes of women’s innate cattiness and rivalry. If they want to do something really radical, I’d like to see a female friendship.