Kate McQuade is the author of the forthcoming story collection “Tell Me Who We Were,” which will be released by William Morrow in July.
Courtney Sender has written about love and culture for The New York Times and The Atlantic, and is working on a novel.
Here, McQuade and Sender discuss depictions of feminism in “Game of Thrones,” and whether the series will end on an authentically feminist note.
This story contains “Game of Thrones” spoilers from Season 8, Episode 3.
Courtney Sender: “Game of Thrones” has long prompted critics and audiences to ask: is it feminist or not? Is it the misogynistic show it seemed to be in early seasons, frequently depicting women as objects, rape victims and prostitutes? Or has it been secretly feminist all along, displaying disempowering sexual politics early on so it could subvert them later, ultimately presenting us with female assassins, politicians, knights and, of course, a mother of dragons?
If we think of feminism as multivalent — not just one portrayal of what women’s power can look like, but multiple possibilities — then I think the first two episodes of Season 8 were quite good at offering multiple iterations of feminism.
Kate McQuade: Yes, and specifically iterations that are true to character. We have seen women assert physical, often violent power commonly associated with men: Arya, Brienne, Daenerys. But we’ve also seen women attain power through more traditionally feminine means. Sansa’s reign in the North, for example, isn’t earned through violence. Instead, she carefully cultivates relationships and makes strategic moves. Even her most violent act — feeding Ramsay’s dogs their supper — is a sick twist on a domestic chore. Sansa has rarely pushed against the oppressive gender roles of Westeros, and her ascent has been satisfying because we’ve watched her learn to use those roles to her advantage.
Cersei’s empowerment is likewise inextricable from her femininity. Her primary drive has been that of a mother who loves her children; her hunger for the throne is fed less by ego than by visions of a family dynasty. Hers is a twisted maternal love, certainly, but it has also kept her within arm’s reach of the throne since day one — a synergistic alignment between motherhood and power that I find refreshingly progressive when contrasted with contemporary American politics.
CS: And that’s why the episodes that feel paradigm-shifting are those that show women claiming power that doesn’t look like men’s.
So my question is: Does “Thrones” ultimately favor male forms of power, such that women are powerful only when they adopt those forms — when they swing a sword as well as a man? Or does the show value more diverse kinds of power?
Which brings us to this Sunday’s episode. You could view “The Long Night” as quite feminist, since it was Arya who ended up killing the Night King. And it was Melisandre, Arya’s first-ever (and short-lived) female mentor, who gave her the idea to do it.
Even so, when it came to presenting more feminine kinds of power, I think we were both disappointed in “The Long Night.”
KM: Absolutely. Don’t get me wrong; I loved that an old woman’s guidance was what turned the battle for humanity around, and I thought Arya’s arc in this episode was brilliant. A combat-driven route to the Night King’s assassination feels true to her character — so true that we saw eight seasons’ worth of Arya’s journey mirrored in this single episode. (Echoing past seasons, Arya saves and is saved by the Hound; ensures her own survival in the library by killing the zombie-girl doppelganger of the Waif from Braavos; and gives Sansa the same fighting advice Jon once gave her — “stick ‘em with the pointy end.”) Killing the Night King feels like an authentically feminist act because the path Arya takes to empowerment is truly hers.
So I wasn’t disappointed that Arya triumphed — but I was disappointed that physical violence was the only type of female power we saw succeed. Last week, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” asked over and over whether women and girls were up for the coming battle: Sansa and Daenerys discussed the “damn good job” they were doing as female leaders, Arya requested a weapon, a young girl told Ser Davos she wanted to fight. This episode seemed to answer that question: yes, but only with a blade. Lyanna Mormont’s best weapon, her fierce tongue, was replaced with a dragonglass dagger. Brienne fought valiantly but anonymously among the male knights that let her join their ranks last week. Even Daenerys picked up a sword. Individually, I was on board with all of these decisions. But taken together, the armor begins to look homogenous, and doesn’t always fit the unique personalities of its occupants. And that left tremendous narrative possibilities on the table.
CS: Right. In this pivotal episode, we dropped last week’s multiple iterations of feminism in favor of a singular “battle feminism.” The show celebrated the few women who could fight. But it put the vast majority of Winterfell’s women down in the crypts, said they were useless in the battle for humanity up above and never bothered to challenge that premise.
And that’s actually why, to me, in terms of feminism, there’s no way to redeem “Game of Thrones” after this episode. Despite gestures toward a long arc of women’s empowerment (we have come a long way from the brothels of Season 1), the writers reveal a fundamental limitation of imagination: they can’t envision power roles for women as a group, only for exceptional women as individual heroes.
By contrast, a truly feminist show would have given some voice to the idea that hiding Winterfell’s women was actually squandering half the population in the battle for all of humanity. The show could have given voice to the women themselves. Instead of sitting silently, the women could have been speaking, planning, appealing to the gods, even addressing the fact that they were wasted as possible fire-lighters, supply-bringers, strategists.
Yes, these are only anonymous women and not main characters. But in a battle for the survival of all humankind, the show presents anonymous men fighting for humanity. Its anonymous women only cower, silently, waiting.
KM: But I still think it’s possible for the show to redeem its feminism — and Sansa is at the center of it. Of all the female characters dismissed in this episode, Sansa’s disempowerment stung the most. This was a battle that needed strategy, and Sansa has been one of the most militaristically intelligent characters of the past two seasons. She alone called Cersei’s bluff about sending reinforcements. She won the Battle of the Bastards after Jon brushed her off in the war room. Yet she was brushed off again on Sunday, banished to the deepest parts of the “house” while the men went off to “work.” And the worst part is, she seemed to buy into her own silencing: “That’s why we’re down here,” she says. “None of us can do anything.” Peak Westeros gaslighting — and out of character for Sansa not to know it.
Which is why I don’t believe it. I think this disempowered Sansa is temporary and she’s simply doing what all the Starks do before they rise to power: killing herself off to take on a new form. Haven’t we seen every other (living) Stark child metamorphose in the same way? Arya becomes “no one” as part of her assassin training; Bran leaves his identity behind to become the Three-Eyed Raven; Jon Snow (a Stark on the maternal side, it turns out) must literally die to become king of the North. When Sansa participates in her own self-abnegation, I have to believe that the showrunners are setting her up for reinvention.
CS: I want that to be true. But if the showrunners are really interested in Sansa’s development, then she had a real and rare opportunity to demonstrate leadership down in the crypt. Exiled to the crypt, she is still the Lady of Winterfell. She is on her own with her people for the first time, finally free of Jon or Dany jostling for dominance. If the show were truly invested in Sansa’s development as a leader, this was the perfect opportunity for her to step up. She could have spoken to the women of Winterfell, given heart to her people.
Instead, she talked to Tyrion and hid with him, before joining Arya and Daenerys and Brienne in raising a weapon.
At the start of the episode, I truly thought that the show had come too far in its depiction of feminism to put dozens of women together and not have them realize that, collectively, they can do something to help the effort for the living. At one point, Tyrion muses that he might see something the fighters can’t, if he could only get upstairs. I hoped the show would recognize that, down in the crypts, the women are already in a unique position to see something the fighters can’t. Perhaps Sansa could realize in advance that the dead would rise, and devise a plan; this was an outcome I could predict, so why shouldn’t she?
But the show never uses this opportunity. To my great disappointment, “Thrones” has not come as far in its feminism as I had hoped. The show collected nearly all its women, separate from the men — and didn’t imagine they could do anything but quake.
KM: It’s a striking image of collective disempowerment, which puts pressure on next week’s episode to offer a confrontation between multiple iterations of female power: Daenerys, Sansa, Cersei, Brienne and Arya. Apparently, it took physical might to save humanity from the existential threat of the White Walkers. (A too-facile approach, really, if we believe the White Walkers are a climate change allegory.) Now, it’s time for negotiations over the Iron Throne, and I’d love to see the showrunners move past episode-long battles — and offer our female characters the physical, political and intellectual complexity they’ve spent eight seasons earning.
CS: Yes, we’re about to see where “Game of Thrones” ultimately lands in its representation of the kinds of power women can claim, wield and hold in the Seven Kingdoms. But when it came to life and death, “Thrones” put the women in the basement while the men — and the four women in the world who took it upon themselves to fight like men — saved their lives. The female heroes are treated as exceptions; “Game of Thrones” offers no broader model for recognizing the collective power of women in a society fighting desperately for survival.