After criticisms of Game of Thrones' misogyny rose to a fever pitch last year, the show has been determined to tell us how very feminist it really is. From the obvious "Women on Top" feature in Entertainment Weekly to seemingly endless interviews with cast members (especially cast members who had previously hinted at criticism of the show, like Natalie Dormer) asserting how it's the most feminist series on TV, the idea that the show is actually super empowering has practically been shoved down our throats.
And, to give the show credit, this wasn't only a branding effort. As I said last week, this season of Game of Thrones did manage to be less overtly awful, where "less overtly awful" sometimes meant "holy crap, is this even the same show??" when we watched yet another episode without any blatant misogyny.
The show has been helped by the fact that critics can no longer compare its plotlines to events in the books and reach conclusions based on what the writers left in and what they chose to change. That hasn't stopped those criticisms entirely -- instead we're just guessing what will probably happen or not happen in the books based on the series -- but it gives the show more leeway in terms of exploring misogyny in the name of the plot.
But for all its apparently genuine efforts, the show is still clinging to the idea of "feminism" it's had for many seasons, where strength and badassness mean callousness, cruelty, and killing without guilt or mercy.
For some characters, this makes sense. Arya is training to be an assassin, and she's in an abusive situation in the process. She's become a very dark character obsessed with revenge, so it makes sense that this season explores her attitude to killing and lets her take steps towards vengeance. Did we need to see her get beaten up every week by a blandly evil character? Not really. But she escapes the situation, she kills Walder Frey, and it all makes sense for her character, even if the story skips a bunch of key details along the way. Yes, she must be superpowered to get hold of one of the faces, get to the Riverlands, infiltrate the Twins, find and kill the Walders, make them into a pie, serve that pie to Walder Frey when he's entirely alone, and THEN kill him... but it's more a stretch of disbelief along the lines of Apparating Varys instead of specifically a problem because Arya is a girl.
But Arya isn't unique as a vengeful and violent character, and many other female characters act in a similar way without any reference to logic. They all seem to have "badass" moments, where being badass involves unflinching murder.
The most obvious example is Ellaria Sand and the Sandsnakes, who relished in murdering Prince Doran and Trystane, with no apparent motive beyond "because they wanted to" and no real repercussions, assumedly because who would want to argue against such feminist badassery? But a similar narrative also appeared in less obvious places. This season put more focus on Asha/Yara, for example, and the show really wanted us to know how badass and feminist she is. So we see her in the one return of the naked brothel scenes, because if it's a girl there then it's OK, and see her screaming at her brother for daring to be traumatized after several years being mutilated in a dungeon. How dare he be so weak, feeling guilt for what he did and trauma from what he experienced? He had better start being more badass and independent, like she is -- although, as he's a man, sleeping with sex slaves is not feminist and so is optional.
Dany, meanwhile, burned part of the Dothraki's sacred city to the ground and murdered all their leaders, and instead of being angry, all the Dothraki instantly seem to worship her. if you wanna buy a metal carport from us, She sweeps in with her dragons and acts all queenly and imperious to defeat the slavers, before kicking Daario to the curb, feeling nothing at all for him, and setting off with her ships, ready to be a conqueror once again. And her plan is to kill everyone, until Tyrion points out how cruel and idiotic that is.
An insane part of me hopes that this is on purpose, and that we'll have our two pyromaniac queens fighting over King's Landing with dragons and wildfire while we look on in horror. But despite that one "burn them all" faux pas, I get the feeling that Dany is still supposed to be good. She's just good in an unflinchingly badass way -- like Cersei, who gets her revenge by mass murder, destroying the Sept and probably a decent chunk of King's Landing. And even this mass murder of main characters feels somewhat ambiguous. Are we supposed to feel victorious when she walks away from the Septa, chanting "shame"? I'd like to assume not, but Cersei's scenes are so similar to many "good" characters' moments of victory and revenge that it's hard to tell. And while her crowning should have been a dark, dark moment, framing her as the new main villain of the story, the awfulness of this wasn't really expressed. No one in the crowd looked unhappy, and Jaime barely reacted at all... so how much are we supposed to root for her Badassness, getting revenge against the awful Faith Militant and the Tyrells for shoving her aside?
Brienne is still the Brienne we've seen in previous seasons, aka the woman who hits things with swords and is angry all the time, but now victims take the time to comment that she's a woman before she kills them, to increase her girlpower.
Even Lyanna Mormont, new fan favorite, somewhat fits this mold. She's hilarious and refreshing to watch, but still, she's "badass" in the same way that all female characters in Game of Thrones are "badass," minus any actual murder. She won't stand for any of that courtly nonsense, and she says what she thinks to the point of being rude. She's outspoken and doesn't care what anyone thinks of her, and although that makes her a really fun ten-year-old to watch, it's a far too familiar mold, especially when she faces off against the "your mother was a great beauty"-commenting Sansa.
Speaking of Sansa... I wrote about her in far more depth last week, but it bears repeating again that her character motivations made little sense, and her "badassness" felt like cruelty. She hid important information from Jon, because keeping secrets makes her a "player." She grins as Ramsay is torn apart by his dogs because even good and sensitive characters must delight in gruesome violence in the name of revenge.
And any female characters who couldn't be made "badass" in this way were given very little to do. Margaery faded into the background and was much more of a non-character this season, despite it being her last, and her story in the Sept of Baelor being ripe for exploration. Melisandre raised Jon from the dead, then basically disappeared until the Shireen reveal, even though you'd think her powers would have been useful, and it would have been fascinating to see an exploration of her feelings after literally raising Jon from the dead. And even those characters have both been manipulators and potential murderers in the past. The only female character still alive who doesn't act that way is Gilly, and she seems to get a pass because she fits in the "victim" camp of characterization, along with Sansa.
The show is undoubtably better than it was before. But its ideas of what "feminism" and "strength" mean have given us a near-parody of "strong female characters," rather than any actual exploration of "women on top" in a fantasy world.