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SYFY WIRE Game of Thrones

Arya's Game Of Thrones sex scene was great... so why the backlash?

By Jessica Toomer
Game of Thrones Season 8 - Maisie Williams and Joe Dempsie

Game of Thrones has never been shy about sex.

The show’s first episode concluded with an incestual tryst between Cersei Lannister and her brother Jaime that ended when the latter pushed a young Bran Stark from a tower window.

Over the course of eight seasons, we’ve seen tits and ass and orgies. We’ve watched men shave each other’s nipples, a red witch give birth to a demon spirit, a Dothraki warlord rape his young bride, a man rape his sister next to the body of their dead son, a sadistic bastard rape a lady of Winterfell as his mutilated manservant looked on.

There’s been a lot of rape.

But oddly enough, the most uncomfortable sex scene the show has given fans — according to the internet — is the consensual romp between Arya Stark and Gendry the blacksmith in the second episode of the show’s final season, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms."

The intimate exchange happened late in the episode, as Winterfell prepared to fight off the marching Army of the Dead. It began with Arya quizzing a flustered Gendry on his sexual history and it ended with her pushing him down on a heap of sacks and ordering him to “take his own bloody pants off.” It was hot, to say the least, and not because it took place in a literal forge. Between any other couple on this show, that sex scene would’ve prompted memes about Gendry’s virility and Arya’s dominatrix kink. (Just think of the Warhammer jokes, the Needle puns, the “making steel … and other things, sing” innuendos.)

But the most-talked-about bit of the duo’s passionate embrace ended up revealing something darker than our sexual fantasies about Gendry’s poker and how well he uses it. It proved that we’re still not comfortable with women enjoying sex.

It’s not a revelation, this idea that women aren’t allowed to have sexual agency. We see it on full display anytime a young girl is scolded for wearing short shorts, or a woman is accused of “baring it all” on social media, or a female character is labeled a “whore” because she’s had multiple partners. We’ve long denied women their sexual freedom in all kinds of overt and insidious ways, but even with a growing movement of equality and empowerment helped along by movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, the ripple effects of being suppressed by unfair societal standards are, at least subconsciously, still being felt.

And Arya’s sex scene proves it.

The biggest problem fans had with watching Maisie Williams show a bit of side boob on screen seemed to be the question of her age. In fact, “Arya Stark age” and “How old is Maisie Williams” were trending searches in the hours following the show’s air. And we get it. This is a young woman we’ve seen grow up over the course of the last eight years.

Young Arya and Gendry Game of Thrones
When Williams began her run on Game of Thrones, Arya was 11 years old. The actress herself was closer to 13. We’ve seen her mature on the series, overcoming impossible odds, witnessing horrendous violence, and yes, showing an interest in boys, the first being Gendry himself. Now Gendry’s older on the show (as is the actor who plays him, Joe Dempsie), but when the pair first met, friendship and a familial connection were all creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss wanted to explore. Gendry was the person who comforted and protected Arya during a particularly difficult time in her life, taking the place of her brother Jon in many ways. The two shared a connection, they challenged each other, supported each other, and their separation deeply affected Arya, who would go on to train with the Faceless Men and seek revenge for the deaths of her family. Gendry meanwhile was subjected to torture, near rape, and sent to live in exile for years, trying to hide from the Lannisters and survive long enough to be of service in the war against the Night King.

When the two come together in Season 8, Arya is 18 years old on the show and Williams is 22 years old in real life. Both are old enough to give consent, to feel curious, to engage in sex — and, considering the history of this show, what Gendry and Arya do in that forge is a lot less problematic than most sex scenes we’ve seen before.

So why is everyone so damn uncomfortable?

We can watch Arya craft a meat pie out of Frey body parts and cheer her on. We can see her slit Littlefinger’s throat and find a sense of empowerment without batting an eye. We can accept the fact that she carries around a case of fleshy-faces with ease.

And it’s not just the violent double standard that makes this whole sex scene backlash strange.

Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa Stark, is nearly the same age as Williams. In Season 5, Sansa was brutally raped by Ramsay Bolton after being forced into a marriage with him — and violated in front of Theon Greyjoy, a man she had known since she was young. People were up in arms about the scene (and rightfully so), but not because of Turner’s age. In fact, how old Sansa might be, or the age difference between her and her husband, wasn’t the main talking point in the discussions that took place following that traumatic scene.

Compared to many female characters on this show, Arya’s first sexual experience felt liberating and uniquely modern.

Game of Thrones Season 8
Game of Thrones has often dealt in gratuitous violence against women, and sex is the preferred method of subjugation and submission in this fantasy universe built by George R.R. Martin. Women are treated as objects, vehicles for sexual pleasure, political currency. It’s rare we see a woman exert her power over a man in the bedroom, which is why Arya’s encounter with Gendry, one she initiated and, by all accounts, enjoyed, is that much more unique. And we’re cringing at it, we’re questioning issues of consent with it — not because of Williams’ age or the circumstance surrounding her decision to lose her virginity, but because we’re uncomfortable with seeing a young woman mature sexually.

It’s not that we don’t want to see Arya Stark grow up. We’ve watched her do just that for eight seasons. We’ve watched her do worse things than unlace her trousers and top a smithy in a forge the eve before a battle, and we’ve never wondered if she was old enough or mature enough to be in those situations. But we do question, we do wonder when she has sex for the first time, because the idea that a young woman could be confident enough in herself, could know her desires, know how to achieve them, and be bold enough to ask for what she wants is harder to swallow than the idea of that same woman committing murder or torturing her enemies or baking cannibal pies. It’s harder to swallow than seeing a woman of the same age, on the same show, being raped and sexually submissive to a man.

The problem with Arya’s sexual awakening on Game of Thrones is with us, the viewers, who have unknowingly internalized this odd double standard when it comes to how men and women experience sex.

Sex for men is about power and fulfillment, a rite of passage, an accepted norm. Sex for women is about pleasing a man, remaining chaste, finding a husband, making love. We attach all these strings to sex for women, and when those strings are cut, when men can’t puppet a woman’s sexual identity, we’re left scrambling to excuse our discomfort.

It’s her age, we say. Or, it’s the age difference.

We’ve watched her grow up, we say. She’s still that little girl.

We box sexually curious young women in by using their inexperience to undermine them, telling them and ourselves that they’re not ready, they’re too young. “We don’t want to know,” we might say, or “we don’t want to see that.” As if a woman’s sexual fulfillment is about anything other than her own pleasure, her own wants, and needs.

Arya Stark is not the problem. Arya Stark having sex is not the problem. We’re the problem, and it’s time we start letting women grow the f*ck up.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.