TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller: “Game of Thrones” is sometimes a really hard show to watch, especially as a woman. But every once in a while, we get a reminder why we keep up on the drama — rape scenes and all. This week’s episode, “Book of the Stranger,” was a perfect encapsulation of this, not only thanks to the build of storylines that promise newfound energy for the series, but because of a final sequence where Daenerys TargaryeN took back her power from the Khals of Vaes Dothrak while also setting all the tribe’s leaders on fire. She literally burned the Dothraki patriarchy alive, striding naked and proud out of the smoldering temple, where the stunned Dothrakis knelt before her in worship. Kate, is this the most feminist moment on television so far this year?
Film Editor Kate Erbland: In a word: Yes. In two words: Hell yes. You’re right, “Game of Thrones” can be a very hard show to watch, especially as a woman, because in a series that is marked by Violence with a capital V, so much of it is typically heaped on women (still looking out for you, though, Reek). Just thinking about what the Stark lasses have gone through is enough to send anyone to a nuthouse (or a creepy off-map location filled with dead faces), but Dany has always been the great hope of anyone — not just women — who wants to see the show tear down outdated and fearful modes of thinking and ruling. Sure, it’s easy to hem and haw (if you’re a crazy, weird person) that Dany (and, by extension, the show itself) attacked just a pack of “straight white men” in her next big bid to rule the whole damn world (and yeah, I see those comments, and yeah, get off my website), but that’s not the case at all. Dany attacked and dismantled a pack of people who trade on rape, fear, slavery and imprisonment that affect all of their subjects, women most acutely. She did what someone — anyone — needed to do to move the world and the story of “GOT” forward in a satisfying manner. She just happened to do it in a hugely feminist way. Good for her, good for “GOT,” good for all of us.
Liz: And it’s just one in a series of moments this year that have established a loud and proud beachhead for women in genre storytelling. Felicity Jones declares that if this is a rebellion, she will rebel. The new Ghostbusters suit up. Wonder Woman rules “Batman vs. Superman.” In general, there’s such an upsurge of women getting to strut their power/superpowers on screen that it feels like it’s gone beyond trend to revolution — even while we instinctively brace ourselves for the angry male perspective.
But I use the word “trend” deliberately because the most dangerous thing about progress is that it can be fleeting. Like, this week’s “Game of Thrones” throwdown was fantastic, but we’ve had scenes of its sort before… and they haven’t kept heartbreaking moments like the Red Wedding and Sansa’s rape from happening. One bold moment featuring a female character does not turn the tide. One female-led sci-fi comedy does not forever prove that women are bankable stars.
Kate: I’ve always kind of balked at the “two’s a trend!” theory because, so often, a “trend” is really just a strange confluence of events (a trend I’ve noticed this year so far: comedies using Bruce Springsteen singalongs as a big, funny turning point in the film, though what does that really say about our society, other than, “Bruce is awesome”?). Yet, what I’ve noticed — and moreover, what I consistently hear from female directors, writers and actors — is that this upswing in female empowerment and, moreover, a news cycle that seems to actually be recognizing it, is more sustained than any kind we’ve seen before. The momentum here is key, and if that’s trickling down into shows like “GOT” and franchises like the DC superhero-verse and “Ghostbusters,” I think it means that we’re actually on the right track.
Liz: But what of the potential for pushback? “Game of Thrones” remains a critical favorite, but we still have to see how the rest of the season shakes out. For every great Daenerys scene, there’s a moment of sexual violence (intentional or otherwise) that sets the show back. And “Ghostbusters” could be great, but if it isn’t, Hollywood would have yet another excuse to say that women-led comedies aren’t bankable. There are lots of reasons to be excited… which for some reason has me in a crash position. Am I being overly paranoid that so much great exposure will lead nowhere good?
Kate: I don’t think you’re being overly paranoid, but… I would like to think that progress is something that rolls on and the momentum that’s been created specifically over the last couple of years is strong enough to continue to push things forward, even if there are some stumbling blocks along the way. I don’t think a single great Dany scene is going to change everything that “GOT” (sometimes problematically) stands for, but I think it sets a precedent that can inspire other shows and movies. And, I think this sort of thing, talking about it, talking about how great it is, is also key. We need to make it clear what we want to see and how we want to see it.
Liz: Good point. Hopefully, celebrating these moments ensures that there are more to come. Emilia Clarke, who stopped doing nude scenes on the show for a few seasons, not only agreed to appear naked in “The Book of the Stranger” but said that doing so made her feel “strong” and “happy.” And watching the scene, it’s a complete reversal from Daenerys’ very first scene on the show back in Season 1, when her dickhead brother Viserys brutally strips her down. That was six years ago, and the changes in pop culture that have occurred since then seem rich with inspiration. Despite all the setbacks that have also occurred, it does seem like we take two steps forward with each step back.
Kate: I hope I don’t sound too pie in the sky when I say, I think we’re taking two pretty purposeful steps forward that are often then a little backtracked by a weak-limbed step back or two. I want to believe that things are changing and that we can get real evolution in our programming and entertainment, no matter what the naysayers scream. I still don’t expect to wake up one morning and see that everything is equal and that there are not people out there who are pissed off that Dany literally burnt down a pile of rapists and murderers because oh, it’s just women getting out of hand again, but I think real change is in effect.
“Game of Thrones” Season 6 airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO.