Pop Culture

Arya Stark Makes Us Uncomfortable Because We’re Not Used to Seeing Girls Become People

Pictured: Next level flirting
Pictured: Next level flirting Screengrab from Game of Thrones
Spoilers Ahead for S8E2 of Game of Thrones

It’s not a major spoiler I’m talking about here, but I am trying to be mindful of people who want to see Game of Thrones as unencumbered with foreknowledge as possible. So, this is basically a filler paragraph to give people a good chance to look away. Um, how about some obscure facts about the show? In the episode “Breaker of Chains,” several insults from Monty Python and the Holy Grail are shouted at Daenerys in Low Valerian, including the famous “your mother was a hamster.” Speaking of Emilia Clarke, she once got so covered in fake blood from filming a scene that she ended up stuck to a toilet.

Right, then. On with the article.

I’m sure I’m not alone in piloting the ship between Gendry and Arya Stark, but I honestly never expected to see their relationship consummated in quite such an HBO way in this week’s episode. Faced with the hordes of the Night King arriving before dawn, the various forces stationed at Winterfell spend the night preparing for possible death and exploring relationships. For Arya, that included sleeping with Gendry in the forge where he has been crafting weapons to kill the wights.

It’s an odd scene in many ways. Arya is forceful, yet vulnerable. Gendry is a young man still adrift in the world and without a true sense of place. They care for each other, but that’s a pretty big liability in Westeros. I’d say it’s the most positive sexual relationship portrayed in the show thus far, and it was definitely a needed beat in both of their character developments.

It did make a lot of people uncomfortable, though. I’ve been charting reactions, and I’ve seen a fair number of people who felt that seeing Maisie Williams’ side boob and butt was like peeking in on your little sister in the shower. That’s understandable as fans have literally watched her grow up over the years.

I didn’t find it all that shocking. Aside from Game of Thrones my primary exposure to Williams in pop culture is her turn as Lady Me in Doctor Who, where she undergoes a similar journey to Arya Stark. She begins as a child in Viking times, and then we fast forward many years where the immortality The Doctor forced on her has left her a child-sized but mature and somewhat bitter woman. We see her after she has begun erasing her own memory of the centuries, dozens and hundreds of losses including her own children. By her final scene, the little girl is gone and all that’s left is a woman.

What there isn’t, though, is any of the process. Lady Me is two separate things with all the evolution happening somewhere off screen. Game of Thrones has made us look at her as she becomes a person.

Notice I didn’t say woman. “Becomes a woman” as a phrase in media has a lot of baggage, especially as they relate to someone’s first time (whatever the hell that even means). What it tends to indicate in most contexts is the successful transition of pure child to sex partner. That sort of story gets told all the time in film and television. The coming of age narrative is represented by a woman being willing to be something with a man.

That’s not what happens with Arya. The dialogue before Gendry and she hook up is pointed and barbed. In many ways it’s a comparison of damages overcome throughout the course of the show. Just a few scenes prior she was making a point to him by throwing knives into a wall with deadly accuracy. When they finally come together, there is nothing wifely about Arya. Her final line of the scene is “I’m not the Red Woman. Take off your own pants.” It’s a good line, but it’s also a recognition that neither of them are pawns the way they have been before.

There’s agency rather than surrender to Arya’s journey. That can be uncomfortable to a culture that still insists that virginity is a thing that matters. We’re taught to mentally move girls from a box (sister, child) straight to another (girlfriend, wife), but we look away from how it happens.

Arya Stark grew up a long time ago, probably from the moment Syrio Forel told her to run. By the time of Season 8, sex is just something she wants to try in a life that has mostly contained death and pain. It’s very near the end of her development over the course of the show, not a symbolic act of her burgeoning transformation into a woman. I think one of the reasons the scene makes people squirm is that we’re so used to first sex scenes acting like the Birth of Venus. According to pop media, love and sex are supposed to be the catalyst for the fundamental alteration of a woman’s character. Arya has moved beyond that, and it makes what should be a beautiful scene seem disturbing.

It shouldn’t be, though. The delusion that sex is a massively impactful event that changes women on a deep level is a primary drive among incels and other angry men who feel that women pollute themselves with intercourse. Intentional or not, the traditional narrative reinforces that toxic delusion. For Arya, her first encounter has no stakes. It’s just something she as a person wants to do with another person she likes and who likes her back. That should be the only reason anyone ever does it, and something we should definitely be telling our children along with practical knowledge about birth control and the like. The fact that Arya’s scene is so unusual that it makes fans of a show where rape and gore are regular factors a little uncomfortable says more about us than it does Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones airs on HBO Sunday nights.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner