Sunday, June 23, 2024

Yes, it’s Fine that You Were Uncomfortable with the Arya Scene

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I get that my opinions are not going to align with critics on Game of Thrones. I get that clunkers of episodes where people actually say negative words get quickly overshadowed the following week when “omg shocking thing battle CGI emotional speech” manages to land. Season 8, of course, is not going to be different.

“Winterfell” was a bad episode in the fun kind of bad way. Critics seemed to agree, and some even pointed out how hollow everything has begun to feel. (Begun?) I felt this week’s “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was bad in the very unfun kind of way. I mostly spent my time fighting falling asleep on the spot, despite the fact that I’m watching on a Central timezone schedule now. Critics seemed to disagree, with some going as far as to say it’s the best since “Blackwater,” because…battle episodes are automatically appreciated?

However, since essentially two things actually happened in this episode, there have been two main conversations: one was about how good the Brienne and Jaime scenes were, and though they didn’t land for me, I at least can understand that working. The other has been about Arya’s sex scene with Gendry.

I was not shy about finding that to be one of the worst parts of the episode, and I found it so awkward to watch, I hid behind a pillow. Others reacting with us echoed the same, and even outside of our Game of Thrones-critical bubble, no one seemed particularly delighted other than hardcore Arya and Gendry shippers (aka “Gendrya”).

What about those praise-filled critics? From what I came across, they were mixed on the subject. However, for every slightly creeped-out take, there was another praising the show for “letting Arya be a teenager.” And there were even takes a bit further, like how this is actually the most consensual and empowering sex on the show to date, and it’s ridiculous to be upset by this but not her slitting throats, or not speaking up when Sansa was raped.

As someone who was quite upset both by Sansa’s rape, as well as Arya’s mental health and violent tendencies, I’m not exactly sure where that leaves me. I will say this: I do not find female sexual agency upsetting in most circumstances, and yet here I was, quite uncomfortable with this apparent 18-year-old’s assertion of it. And I’m here to tell you: if that scene landed for you, great; but if it didn’t, there’s many reasons why that might be the case that have diddly squat to do with sex-shaming.

Arya the 18-Year-Old

First things first: ye olde age problem. This show has portrayed underaged characters as having sex before. Heck, this show has made a joke of underaged characters having sex before. We know this is a universe where—shotty world-building aside—age-of-consent laws do not exactly exist, and people are put in sexual situations far younger than we would expect in our own world. Is the setting and patriarchy an incoherent mess in terms of the rules and ways in which characters are affected? Yes. But that much, at least, has been established.

Still, this is a department where the effectiveness of this uh…commentary…is going to vary. And apparently HBO is aware of that, because they decided to just brush past the issue all together:

Boom. Arya’s 18 now, didn’t you know?

We joke a lot about timeline wonkiness on this show around here, and for good reason; we’re told Myrcella was in Dorne for “years,” and yet Gilly’s baby has only recently become a toddler, while Jaime is able to run from King’s Landing to Casterly Rock, march an army from there to Highgarden, then back to King’s Landing in the span of two weeks. Maybe Arya’s 18, Sam is 29, and Tyrion just turned 50. Truly, what the hell do we know in this department?

But that easy jab aside, if Arya is 18, that means 7 years passed since Season 1. Since we can do simple math, it works out to being about one year passing each season for the 7 seasons that we’ve already watched. Maybe 6½ if we want to be more generous about when birthdays fall.


I fully understand that Maisie Williams is 22 now (20 when this particular scene was filmed), and that these actors have aged 9 years since beginning filming. But if we’re pretending in-verse ages match, that means Season 6, where Cersei said early on she was supposed to be on trial in “a few days” actually spanned closer to 10 months (and poor Sam and Gilly had the longest awkward family dinner). Jon must have pretended to be a Wildling for something like a year—no wonder Thorne didn’t trust him! And not to belabor the point, but what is up with Gilly’s son?

Ready for college.

This is probably easy to fact-check, since we’re given some date markers here and there. In fact, Andy tried to do this work already through the end of Season 6, and found that Daenerys set sail for Westeros a mere 2-3 years after the show’s start. I think it’s safe to say Season 7 did not span 4 more afterwards.

But even just thinking through it at a high-level, there’s no way this is actually the case. The only chance it has of working is that the scene where Dany set sail from Meereen for King’s Landing took place a year (at least) after the other events of Season 6, but given that at the start of Season 7 Jaime is still trying to get Cersei to talk about Tommen, that’s very unlikely.

If you can think of a way to make it work, let me know in the comments. To me, this was just HBO trying to preemptively avoid any criticism.

I’m going to say right here: even if Arya was only 16 in-verse…that’s still an age where “hey we’re going to die let’s have sex” doesn’t exactly feel out of place. Again, Westeros does not have any concept of statutory rape, and given how most sex scenes play out, hearing a character verbalize that they want said act before anything begins is absolutely refreshing.

Consent? Well, we have laws in our own world where someone under 18 (in America) is unable to give consent to someone at least 3 years older than them. This is for the minor’s protection since we know situations like that are often coerced, and 16-year-olds are not exactly in the best place to make these judgement calls. This is specifically why HBO tweeted that Arya was totes 18. It’s pretty transparent, but I actually don’t want to harp on the age-of-consent so much as hang a lantern on it.

Does Maisie Williams look on the younger side of things? Yes. Did we have any knowledge this character was 18 based on the show itself? Of course not. If optically her getting it on with Joe Dempsie (9 years her elder) was enough to make you uncomfortable, I do think that’s understandable. As Griffin said while watching next to me, “This is reminding me of some trash anime, and in the worst possible way.”

Just some empowering, positive consent, right?

Being me, I asked him to elaborate why he didn’t like that sex scene later on. And to quote again, “It was super weird: she looks 14 and she doesn’t emote.”

Honestly, she’s a young looking actor and there’s not a ton we can do about that. But it’s the non-emoting part that I think is particularly relevant here. 16…18…whatever. A teenage character wanting end-of-the-world sex does not feel far-fetched. But when it comes to Arya as a teenager, what we’ve seen on our screens has not exactly been something that points to this moment.

Arya is not well. At all. She is a mass-murderer who has been canonically more at ease delivering a speech about “death coming for House Frey” in front of everyone she just poisoned than she was reuniting with a friend. Hot Pie hadn’t seen her for…years apparently, and her inability to behave in a non-feral manner made him ask what had happened to her.

This is to say nothing of her threatening to cut off Sansa’s face and wear it because of her sister’s refusal to behead the Northern Lords that were miffed with Jon having left Winterfell.

We have seen Arya develop in a way where that disturbing detachment and violence makes sense. She’s not quite a child-soldier, but she was a child who had to kill as a means of survival at a distressingly young age, and has begun to take greater and greater pleasure in it. We’ve seen her toying with the people she’s killed more and more, and her time spent training to become a faceless assassin (two full calendar years according to HBO) demonstrated that she was not able to abandon her own desire for revenge, while also keeping her hyper-focus on death. Heck, even last week’s episode had a subtle bit of writing, where Arya admitted to Jon that she used Needle “once or twice,” and there was a weight behind those words because of how many times she truly killed with it.

What we have not seen is Arya develop in any way that relates to her own sexuality. Frankly, it’s a bit of sexist bullshit that permeates a lot of media where only hyper-feminine characters go through periods of that, while “badass” or action-oriented characters are allowed to vault past puberty entirely. Game of Thrones seems to have done just that.

We’ve never seen Arya flirt with a single person this entire show. We have no clue how she relates to her own sense of desire or her body. Suddenly this year she’s effortlessly whipping out banter?

So what exactly are we arguing for in this scene? Mass-murderers?deserve?empowering?sex?? I don’t want to pretend that anything Arya’s gone through means her libido shouldn’t be active, and I definitely don’t want to imply that a lack of sexual desire is an issue at all. But what I do want to say is, “Hey, isn’t this one big, steaming turd of an implication that Sansa apparently needed to experience sexual violence to learn how to be a hardened woman, but Arya never needed two seconds of grappling with her own relationship to her body?”

“Arya’s a rebel, and I think people are drawn to people who rebel against whatever the societal structures are. For me though, Sansa goes on one of the most interesting journeys; She doesn’t start out as someone who is really sharp, shrewd and tough, but she becomes that person. Arya is kind of always there, which is what’s great about her, but Sansa had to get there by painful experience.” —David Benioff

In a different show, I honestly might not even be bothered by it. I didn’t think the moment was framed particularly romantically, or like the healthiest decision in the world. But I know we’re not going to get any explanation of it, and certainly not any exploration of Arya’s trauma, and how that might relate to or impact her sexual expression. In fact, here’s the reason we got what we got:

“It was really interesting because it’s a very human relationship for Arya,” Williams says. “This is something she’s stayed away from, an emotion we’ve never really seen her engage with. David and Dan were like, ‘It’s the end of the world, what else would you have her do?’

What else would you have her do? I don’t know, Benioff and Weiss, her brother just volunteered to be bait to the king of the dead, her other brother is now a goddamn dragon-rider who intends to go into battle, and she’s only very recently on good terms with her sister. Maybe she’d spend the night bonding with her family for whom she’s been committing all these murders in the first place?

At least someone had the right idea…

Nah, she wants to know what sex feels like because she hasn’t done it before. (F-ck, with that attitude, you think she maybe would give family bonding a chance.)

Also everything else

Arya’s age and psyche aside, maybe we need to talk about the execution. By Maisie Williams’s own account:

“Then [the scene] was rushed. We were [directed by] David Nutter, who has a habit of speaking fast anyway. By the end we’re rushing to finish the scene and David is going, ‘Okay, you’re going to come in and do this and do that and, great, take your top off’ — and then walked off. And I’m like … ’Okay. Let’s do it.’”

From my view, the rushed nature of it was felt. The blocking was awkward and the preamble was about Gendry’s sexual assault (maybe he is still dealing with that?). Arya barely even reacted to him being Robert’s bastard. It came across as though no one was entirely comfortable with what was happening, which the scene’s co-star confirmed in the same interview:

‘Dempsie suggested the experience was strange for him too for given how long he’s known Williams, who’s about a decade younger than he is. “It’s obviously slightly strange for me because I’ve known Maisie since she was 11, 12 years old,” says the 31-year-old actor. “At the same time, I don’t want to be patronizing toward Maisie — she’s a 20-year-old woman. So we just had a lot of fun with it.”’

And yeah, that squeamishness is totally understandable given that so many people involved first knew Maisie Williams as an 11-year-old. In fact, a lot of viewers had the same reaction, since we’ve legitimately watched her grow up.

*Excuse* you!

The counter-argument I’ve seen to that discomfort is that it’s hypocritical at best (and sexist at worst) that we’ve been okay watching her slit throats and bake men into pies, but now that she asserts her sexual agency, we’re balking. However, maybe it’s just that a lot of us find this department you know…a good deal more relatable and familiar to this world? It’s going to hit closer since we don’t exactly know a lot of teleporters that are down for reenacting the events of Sweeney Todd?

Plus again, what if we weren’t thrilled with her violence?

At the end of the day, no two people will relate to media in the same way. I’m truly happy people enjoyed watching that scene and got something out of it, since I wouldn’t wish my own viewing experience on anyone.

But it’s also incredibly silly to try and shame people for whom this didn’t land. There’s plenty of reasons why it jumped out at me as being less-than-great that I just listed, and if comfort levels truly hinged on an HBO UK tweet, then that speaks louder than I ever could.

Images courtesy of HBO

Editor’s note 4/25/19 2:55 PM: An addition was made to link back to the article “How much time has passed on Game of Thrones?

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