Note: Before I begin, let us all knock wood. I mean it. Knock the wood.
Game of Thrones re-entered our lives last night, much to the rejoicing of nerds around the world. Social media blew up with branded content, message boards overflowed with theories and speculations, and some of my college friends even sat in an Iron Throne pitched up at an outdoor mall in Denver. Bastards.
But many fans approached this season with a skepticism uncharacteristic of premieres past. The writers and creators of the show were buried under a mountain of online flak last summer for their treatment of their female characters, especially re: Sansa Stark and sexual violence. Rape narratives were pulled from thin air (George R.R. Martin, author of the book series, is a little more into consensual zoinking), and badass women left and right disrobed for no apparent reason other than the ratings. Add this constant series of abuses to that Jon Snow shit, and some people just thought it wasn’t worth coming back to see the story through.
But after several seasons in a row of escalating nudity and sexual brutality, the Season 6 premiere came to us as a breath of fresh, chaste air: it seems the show’s creators are finally ready to ease up on the misogyny. A little slow in all areas, the episode, entitled “The Red Woman” carefully plodded past the Season 5 finale, lagging at times for the sake of exposition and memory-refreshing. Aside from the glaring and unacceptable lack of a fire resurrection ceremony, the most obvious marker of this episode’s much slower pace was the lack of naked women.
Game of Thrones’ season premieres generally like to lay the boobs on thick, with the pilot featuring a literal flock of prostitutes rushing barely-clad to the side of Tyrion Lannister, their feigned excitement almost as bad as Peter Dinklage’s accent. Last season’s premiere featured another prostitute, whose boobs were strategically positioned on screen as she sang a member of the Unsullied a lullaby right before he got totally killed. In general, excessive nudity is HBO’s way of reminding us that it’s way edgier, way cooler than network TV. But this weekend’s premiere kept all its women quite presentable – except, of course, for a notable scene we will revisit later.
After we spend some fruitless time at Castle Black (wherein Jon Snow remains annoyingly deceased), we briefly visit His Horrendousness Ramsay Bolton, whose late love Miranda, known for her typical nakedness, is in death dressed modestly (although that lace-up front is so 90s). Sansa, meanwhile, is putting a couple state lines between herself and the Literal Worst, and meets a happier fate when she could have been tormented by Ramsay’s thugs but is instead rescued by Brienne. A moment of silence for all the shit those two will fuck up together.
Down in King’s Landing, Cersei and Margaery are both getting their just desserts. The last time one of Cersei’s children died, her brother raped her by the boy’s tomb: this time around, Jaime and Cersei merely hold each other and pledge to take the world down. I do not pretend to understand their love, though I am glad it is thus far less fraught with violence.
The storyline where there was perhaps the most opportunity for nudity, and certainly the most opportunity for sexual violence, was Daenerys’s. Taken captive by a massive khalasar of Dothraki riders, Daenerys begins Season 6 with hands bound, being led across Essos. Two Dothraki riders speak lewdly, a little violently of her, detailing what they’d like to do to her and wondering aloud if the carpet matches the drapes. Daenerys takes this verbal abuse with grace, but with a glare that lets us know those guys will probably find themselves in some discomfort before the season is over. She receives much the same treatment from Khal Moro, as he asks his bloodriders whether there is anything in life as enjoyable as seeing a beautiful woman naked for the first time. (To this they respond with truly comical banter, listing other equally pleasurable activities, after which Moro rolls his eyes and amends that seeing a beautiful woman naked for the first time is among the five most pleasurable activities in life. If this was merely an excuse to showcase the language that David Peterson created specifically for the show, I’m 100% okay with it. The rest of the season should probably be in subtitles, actually.)
The Dothraki dialogue rankles the viewers, prepares us for the degradation and humiliation of women that we’ve come to expect. But the action takes a turn when Daenerys speaks, surprising all present by spitting out some perfect Dothraki smack talk. She declares herself as the widow of Khal Drogo, which turns out to be convenient, as it is apparently forbidden for any Dothraki man to lie with a Khal’s widow. Nice one, Dany, your dress can stay put. Her status is just as much a problem, though, because it means she has to go to literal Widowsville, where we can only hope she finds a trove of even more badass women to join her army.
This scene, and all the other instances of distinctly un-sexy female power, reads as a conspicuous and intentional deviation from Game of Thrones’ norm of unnecessary nudity and aggression. It is almost as though the creators are apologizing to the viewers: “We heard you,” they’re saying. “You don’t want any gratuitous rape narratives. We’re laying off.”
Even the nudity that was present in this episode, coming to us in the form of the Red Woman (who else?) served a purpose that extended beyond shock value. Melisandre stripping down mirrored and magnified the stripping down of her character, the revealing of her true self and the extent of her power, when in one cut she is a beautiful young woman, and in the next a withered and ancient old witch. Her nakedness is an extension of her vulnerability, and helps to peel away the layer of mystique and intrigue that usually shrouds her and precludes relatability.
“The Red Woman” was, dare I say, an enlightened compromise of sexual politics. It managed to convey the inherent degradation and danger that comes with being a woman in Westeros, without exploiting female bodies or touting sexual violence as a blunt narrative instrument. While I by no means expect the women of Westeros to remain fully clothed throughout the season, I am hopeful that the following episodes will continue in the vein of carefulness, that the show’s creators have recognized how tired we are of women fighting the same old fight. Arya can change faces; Daenerys flew on a fucking dragon; we can do better than subjecting a diverse cast of female characters to what is literally, in Western literature, the oldest trick in the book.