Last night on Game of Thrones, Arya Stark lost her virginity and everyone on Twitter went absolutely insane.
Little Arya? Putting the moves on Gendry? Even on a show that has spent seven-plus seasons displaying examples of incest, rape, and whore-on-whore-on-Tyrion action, this somehow felt extreme for anyone who still thinks of Arya, played by the now 22-year-old Maisie Williams, as a child. But as abrupt as that sex scene might have been — it marked the first time, aside from schoolgirl crushing, that we’ve seen Arya express any interest in getting it on, in the Marvin Gaye–est possible sense — it also fit in with a running theme in this episode: the ways in which girls and women are limited by gender stereotypes.
“Think back to where we started,” says Samwell Tarly in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” an episode that invites us to do just that by reflecting on the journeys that many of the principal figures on Game of Thrones have undertaken, presumably before half of them get butchered in next week’s big battle with the White Walkers. Every scene is designed to highlight the shared history and struggles everyone has endured, particularly how far many of the female characters have come since we first met them, back when Ned Stark still had a head.
That includes Brienne of Tarth, who makes a comment early in the episode about how often Jaime used to insult her, a reminder that this woman in armor did not always command the respect she deserves. When, in the episode’s most touching scene, Jaime officially knights her and deems her both a “ser” and a lady, Brienne’s peers finally show her that respect.
The younger women of Game of Thrones, who were basically girls when the series began, have undergone even more extreme transformations. It’s difficult for grown women to be treated fairly and given power in Game of Thrones. (For that matter, it’s difficult in real life, too.) But young girls are often not even taken seriously in Westeros. They are seen as fragile, even when they demonstrate that they have guts made of Valyrian steel.
Consider Lyanna Mormont, a Lady with a capital L, who has proved she ain’t nothin’ to mess with. When she insists that she wants to stay above ground and fight the Night King and his zombie army with everyone else, her cousin Jorah tells her it would be wiser for her to stay out of harm’s way, down in the crypt. That’s not out of a lack of respect, exactly, so much as a matter of practicality. He says she’s the future of their people and he wants to make sure she survives. But the implication is that Lyanna doesn’t have the capability to fight because she’s a young girl. To her credit, she ignores him and insists on going to battle alongside everyone else. The message she sends: Nobody puts Lyanna in an underground crypt corner.
The underestimation of female leaders has been a running issue throughout Game of Thrones, and the conversation in Sunday’s episode between Dany and Sansa also underlines that. Dany attempts to get on better footing with Sansa by noting all the things they have in common, including the fact that they both understand how hard it is for a woman to assert her authority in a man’s world. Dany also notes that Jon is only the second man in her life whom she has trusted so completely. She doesn’t mention the first man by name, but we know she means Khal Drogo, her first love and a Dothraki to whom she was essentially sold like a piece of property. When Daenerys first met Drogo, she had no sense of agency and no power. She was, essentially, still a girl; she wasn’t as young in the series as she was in George R.R. Martin’s books, but it’s reasonable to assume that she was in her teen years. She gained authority from her marriage to him, and with that, she figured out how to demonstrate authority on her own, even when others doubted her.
Sansa’s transformation from girl to woman has been even more startling. When we first met Sansa in season one, she was essentially Winterfell’s own Regina George. She was mean to her sister, self-involved, and fixated on winning the heart of a privileged dickhead, Joffrey Lannister. More than any of the female characters on the show, the Sansa of old embodied the stereotypes that we still associate with the teenage girl: vapid, boy crazy, uninterested in serious matters. Even those of us who know better than to condescend to young women still had a hard time imagining Sansa as any kind of force to be reckoned with; the aggressive, more formidable Stark daughter was Arya. Meanwhile, Arya’s talents weren’t recognized by most of the characters around her because she was an even younger girl than Sansa and therefore couldn’t possibly kick a single ass, let alone multiple asses.
Both of them proved everyone who ever doubted them wrong. Arya is now as lethal as anyone else in the Seven Kingdoms, which is why it felt right, to me, that we also got to see her assert herself as a woman in a more traditional sense. Arya has always been portrayed as a warrior, increasingly so in the most recent seasons, to the point where it’s easy to forget that she’s grown into a young woman (or that she’s even a human being). Her encounter with Gendry confirms that she contains multitudes. She can be a stone-cold killer exacting vengeance on others, but she’s still a person with the same desires that a woman her age — she’s in her late teens, by my math — would be curious to explore. She also pursues sex in a way that feels consistent with Arya’s approach to most things: bluntly, as if she’s crossing off an item on her to-do list. As we know, Arya loves her lists.
Sansa has proved that she contains multitudes, too. She doesn’t have her sister’s command of weaponry or physical combat, but her experiences have molded her into the most well-equipped ruler on Game of Thrones. She values decency in people, as she demonstrates in Sunday’s episode by speaking highly of Tyrion and Brienne. She’s willing to listen, which is why Brienne manages to change her mind about allowing Jaime to stay at Winterfell and help them fight. She also seems open to hearing what Dany has to say, but is still shrewd enough to ask what will happen to her position, and to the people of the North, if Dany takes the Iron Throne. Compared to the two people who seem, at the moment, most favored to assume that throne, Sansa is more decisive than Jon and less impulsive than Daenerys. Impulsive: There’s a word that’s used often to describe young, immature girls. Sansa, more than any other woman in the series, has risen above and beyond such descriptors. I’m more convinced than ever that she will sit on the Iron Throne and that she deserves to do so. There’s something hopeful in that potential outcome: Not only would the Starks, the original “good guys” of Game of Thrones, prevail but they’d do so with the Stark deemed least likely to be equipped or even interested in the job.
The rise of Sansa would certainly pair well with a final underlying message in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” which also hints that young women may be regarded more equitably in a future Westeros. At one point, a young girl asks Davos where she should report to help with the forthcoming battle. “I want to fight, too,” she says, noting that her brothers were soldiers.
Davos, no doubt reminded of the late Shireen Baratheon because of the scars on the girl’s face, doesn’t know what to say. Then Gilly steps in and tells the child that she’d feel safer if the girl were protecting her and her son in the crypt. Neither Davos nor Gilly implies that this Cindy Lou Who tyke shouldn’t fight, although they wouldn’t be wrong; she is 7 years old at most, and no one that age, of either gender, should be sent into a war with a bunch of scary-ass White Walkers. They give her another job, but make it clear that she’s strong and capable. She is pleased with this. She feels valued.
Imagine if Arya or Daenerys or Sansa had been treated this way, consistently, throughout their childhoods. They’d probably be living in a different Westeros, perhaps even one where a bunch of determined men and women wouldn’t have to die at the hands of the Night King.