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Has Game of Thrones Solved Its Woman Problem?

Photo: HBO

Until last night, Game of Thrones had taken a pretty long hiatus from visiting bordellos and displaying excessive amounts of female flesh. But when Yara and Theon made a pit stop at that watering hole/house of ill repute in Sunday’s episode, that break ended. Suddenly, that oh-so-familiar Game of Thrones scene — the bacchanal where alcohol is consumed, naked women offer their bodies to inebriated, lecherous men, and feminist GOT viewers roll their eyes so hard they no longer need rearview mirrors — felt like it was returning in full force. But it turned out, this scene was different.

While there were a couple of fleeting images of men taking advantage of all the toplessness, with the consent of the topless, the aggressor at the center of it all was Yara Greyjoy, who eagerly traded kisses and gropes with another woman. “Doesn’t interest you anymore?” she snarkily asked Theon, her castrated brother, referring to the bountiful sexual opportunities that surrounded them and of which he could take no advantage. Then, after apologizing for her insensitive remark and cementing her bond with Theon, she announced: “Now, since it’s my last night ashore for a long while, I’m gonna go fuck the tits off this one.”

This scene feels significant, partly because it declares that a major character on Game of Thrones is a lesbian, something that, despite its occasional forays into homosexual intimacy, the show has not done so loudly before. But what feels like an even bigger deal is its change in approach to the standard Game of Thrones titillation sequence. Yara behaves here the way that we’ve seen Tyrion, Oberyn, and other male characters behave in the past. She’s drinking, making crude penis jokes, and unapologetically satisfying her lust for women. Having her do this while she sits next to her eunuch of a brother further emphasizes what the scene is already telling us: Yara is a woman, but she’s the one who’s got real balls.

One could argue that all the bare breasts and female backsides in that scene still cater to the heterosexual male gaze, and one would certainly have a point there. Even so, Yara’s sense of empowerment is emblematic of an overall improvement in the way Game of Thrones has dealt with its female characters this season. While the series has been praised, especially in its first two seasons, for putting so many strong-willed, heroic women on television, that pattern got more and more scrambled as the series progressed. Following the fourth season controversy about a Jaime-Cersei sex scene that was supposed to be consensual but played as rape, and a fifth season that featured, among other things, Ramsay’s unnecessarily explicit rape of Sansa, several media outlets declared that the show’s woman problem had reached a tipping point. Suddenly, it seemed there were no limits to the amount and degree of victimization and exploitation that female characters would be forced to endure, so much so that The Atlantic warned last year, “viewers should brace themselves for the worst in season six.” But during this season, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, along with the drama’s writers and directors, have made an effort to correct course.

For starters, there has been far less gratuitous female nudity this year than in seasons past. Aside from Melisandre’s undressing and old woman-morphing in episode one, Daenerys’s naked emergence from the Dothraki temple fire in episode four, and that Yara scene this week — all moments where nudity wasn’t necessary but also didn’t seem entirely beside the point, either — the ladies of Game of Thrones have remained fully clothed. Even a potential Walk of Shame Part Deux, featuring Margaery in the Cersei role, was pointedly avoided, thanks to what appears to be Margaery’s canny manipulation of the High Sparrow.

Throughout this season, women haven’t merely steered clear of being treated like objects, they’ve taken action to avoid it and/or actively spoken out against it. There was that moment when Sansa pointedly blamed Littlefinger for forcing her to marry Ramsay and told him, in the most powerful line of dialogue about the devastating damage of rape that’s ever been uttered on Game of Thrones: “I can still feel what he did in my body, standing here right now.” When Khal Moro and his Dothraki pussy posse showed no respect for Daenerys Targaryen, she swiftly shifted the balance of power in that relationship back to where it belonged, by telling a temple full of men that none of them “are fit to lead the Dothraki. But I am. So I will.” And as we saw in last night’s episode when Lady Lyanna Mormont made her appearance, even women young enough to need help poking straws into juice boxes are capable of asserting themselves and overcoming assumptions based on their appearance. (In Lyanna’s case, she manages to subvert the expectation that she’ll be a pushover simply because she’s only 10 years old. While Lyanna might actually be a child, surely some petite adult women — hand raised! — can relate to the notion of being underestimated simply due to their smaller stature.)

To be clear, Game of Thrones is still Game of Thrones, which means there’s still going to be violence, and that violence will still sometimes be committed against women. Arya — who, along with Brienne, has always been the most admirably unbreakable female hero of this show — has been beaten up repeatedly this season and, as of last night, brutally stabbed. But she’s been beaten and stabbed by a fellow young woman, the Waif. After watching the younger Stark sister take on boys and grown men so many times before, there’s something at least semi-feminist in the idea that the one person who challenges her most is a girl roughly the same age.

And then there are the victims of Ramsay Bolton who, so far this season, has commanded that the body of a former lover be fed to the hounds; left a mother (Lady Walda) and her newborn to also be consumed by rabid dogs; and stabbed a wildling woman, Osha, in the neck. Ramsay’s behavior has been so consistently, maddeningly grotesque that it’s practically become a joke. We get that he’s an asshole; he doesn’t really need to be this much of an asshole for us to comprehend that he’s evil. But there may be a reason that the most violent, awful things that have happened to women this season primarily have been his fault.

If season six is leading us to what some people are calling the Bastard Bowl, a.k.a. a showdown between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton, then continuing to emphasize how little regard Ramsay has for women — or, to be fair, humans in general — will, in theory, only make it more satisfying if and when he ultimately gets punished. But what would be even more satisfying is if Jon Snow isn’t the one to deliver that final, crushing blow. With any luck, after Ramsay goes a few solid rounds with Jon, Sansa Stark will jump in and ultimately put an end to Ramsay’s endless cycle of abuse. That’s a narrative twist that would be absolutely in line with what seems to be the show’s renewed commitment to treating its female characters with more respect and restraint. (Actually, if the show really wanted to show restraint, it would enable Sansa to punish Ramsay without engaging in vengeful violence. But this is Game of Thrones and that kind of enlightened, anti-eye-for-an-eye thinking may be too much to expect.)

Given Game of Thrones’ history, even as I write this, I’m worried there will be some heinous rape in an upcoming episode that will completely negate everything I’ve said in this piece. For now, even if the so-called Game of Thrones woman problem may not be 100-percent solved (given the way the show continues to clumsily handle the one-dimensional, allegedly “empowered” Sand Snakes, it’s definitely not), it seems like the creators are at least thinking more critically about how to stay true to the sexually charged and violent milieu of this show while honoring its women. It’s like Ian McShane’s Ray said in last night’s episode: “It’s never too late to come back.”