Women’s roles, in literature and cinema, as well as in life, are more often about mending wounds than inflicting them.
But sometimes, just sometimes, popular culture gets it just right.
Take what I have to say with a grain of salt. I’m not a GoT super fan. I haven’t read the books. I’ve watched many episodes over the top of my laptop, nervously checking to see if children were afoot. I wasn’t fully vested until somewhere around about The Red Wedding. To the annoyance of my husband, I continually ask him to fill in family trees, timeline blanks, and plot points I haven’t been paying attention to.
Early on I had approximately zero interest in what seemed to be soft-core porn wrapped in a bloody cloak of violence. There were lots of jiggling boobs, bare bums, and dead people. Rape in the GoT universe seemed rampant, accepted and just there, in the background. Like furniture. In fact, women in general were like furniture, pretty lamp shades all in a row.
There was the age-old trope of Lady Macbeth in Cersei. Caitlyn Stark as The Fierce yet Benevolent, all Forgiving Mother. Daenerys as the blonde sex object and Melisandre as Succubus. The women who stood out as physically strong were written like men who just happen to wear the cloak of womanhood. Brianne of Tarth looks like a man. Yara Greyjoy whores like one. The more traditionally feminine wielded their power behind the scenes and in the case of Margery and Cersei, literally sleeping their way to power. It’s an old, tired cliché–a woman using sex to advance her own interests.
But holy shit, Arya.
I’ve been trying to figure out what was so powerful about that scene–the one you can’t turn your computer on without seeing discussed, lauded, and by some whiny boy cry-babies sitting in a dank basement, criticized.
Sure, it was a nice twist and twist of the knife. Unexpected.
And that’s exactly why it was so damn powerful.
Who else could it have been? Who else was doing the work, putting in the effort, learning the mad skillz? Surely Arya put in her 10,000 hours of expert assassin training, so who better to take out the Night King? She had literally trained most of her life for that moment.
And for once, the deserving girl wasn’t sidelined, expected to cede ground to the broody male hero.
Because that’s what we’re conditioned to expect. It’s what always happens. Brooding hero faces adversity but finds enough strength at the right moment to save the world. Jon Snow morphed into Hamlet, introspective and moody. And he stood on a bloody cliff and rode a dragon into the fog accomplishing sweet FA.
The female canon of GoT got more interesting as the seasons went by. Sisters conspired to kill a threat. A young lady Mormont shamed the men around her. Gilly, discovering the secret of Jon’s parentage while Samwell took the credit, was every woman who has ever sat in a meeting and listened to a man take credit for her idea.
And Arya’s sex scene? A masterstroke.
As far as I can remember, she’s the only female character to take charge of her own sexuality, on her own terms. We’re conditioned to readily accept sexuality in our male heroes, almost expecting it as reward. The battle worn warrior returning home to the loving embrace of his woman. And we’re conditioned to see our female characters violently introduced to it.
We know Arya’s a badass. We know she’s a hero.
But sexuality on her own terms? It’s practically a revolutionary concept.
I like nothing more than over thinking. Unless it’s a metaphor.
Fantasy and sci-fi liberally use characters as symbols and the Night King is no exception. For 10,000 years he’s been untouchable. He’s managed to keep a terrorizing hold over the North. He’s got ample access to the dead, self-generating perpetuating resources. He holds all the power. Despite valiant efforts, no one’s been able to take him down.
You know where I’m going to go with this, right?
Through a feminist lens, the Night King is nothing more than the walking, non-talking embodiment of the white, male patriarchy. Brazen, smug (did you see that smirk after the dragon breathed fiery halitosis all over him?), sauntering in like he owns the place. Because he does.
(In a nice bit of gender bait and switch, a frustrated Jon stands and screams uselessly in the face of the Sno-Cone dragon, spent from battling his way toward the prize. I too feel like I’m often screaming in the face of a much larger, much more powerful system–getting nowhere. As a woman, I’ve never felt closer to Jon Snow than in that moment)
The decision to hinge a crucial pivot point of the entire series on the bravery, strength, and yes, expertise of a woman, rather than the expected broody hero, was brash. It was bold. It was fucking glorious.
Or course it was Arya. It was always going to be Arya. Yet most of us are so blinded by traditional expectations we weren’t expecting the expected.
Like any system which works on the principle of imbalance–racism, apartheid, misogyny–the army of the undead was not infallible.
Watching Arya Stark stick in a knife in its gut, ending its reign, was a glorious moment of reckoning.
It was sci-fi fantasy cinematic revenge porn for women.
This was not Arya Stark, fictional character, proving girls can do anything boys can do. This was every woman everywhere who has ever been shunned or shut up watching that scene unfold and screaming at the television don’t you ever underestimate me, you righteous prick.
Or perhaps, at the end of the day, that was just me, shouting in my head.
We are our own heroes. We always have been–on the page, on the screen, in real life. How refreshing to see a woman not just as a stepping stone in the journey of the male hero, but with a rich and deep story of her own. To see her fulfill the role we’ve always held vacant for a man.
And unlike Uncle Snow, she saved not just her brother, but everyone.
So the next time a pundit asks if a woman can get elected, point them in the direction of Arya Stark.
Point them to a woman who can fulfill the role we’ve always held vacant for a man.
And expect the unexpected.
Don’t write us off.