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Why Arya’s Game of Thrones sex scene was a perfect character evolution

Arya’s sex scene caused controversy. It shouldn’t have.

Arya taking off her gloves like she means business. (And she does.)
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” the second episode of Game of Thrones’ eighth season, was a mostly fun and enjoyable piece of table-setting and fan service, a moment of harmonious stillness before the impending battle against the White Walkers begins.

But it also provoked a bit of unexpected debate, thanks to Arya Stark’s decision to lose her virginity to her longtime best friend Gendry, in a scene where she declares her intention to have sex before she dies and enlists him as her partner, much to his delight.

Many fans supported Arya taking control over her sex life, lauding Game of Thrones’ approach to consensual young adult sex and expressing happiness that Arya/Gendry, a popular fandom ship, had finally come to pass. But others weren’t so comfortable with sexualizing a character who’d started out on the show as a child.

The ensuing conversation canvassed a lot of ground, covering everything from Game of Thrones’ characterization and pacing issues to cultural expectations about the way we sexualize young women. Ultimately, however, the reactions seemed to reveal more about the complicated, contradictory ways that viewers have reacted to Game of Thrones’ frequent depiction of sex — as well as a failure to understand how this particular sex scene fits within Arya’s overall character arc.

Arya’s sex scene is fully consensual and reflects her character’s proactive, confrontational approach to life

Though we met Arya when she was still just a small girl — she was canonically 11 in season one — Arya is now 18 years old in the show’s universe. (Maisie Williams, the actor who plays Arya, is currently 22.) For perspective, Daenerys Targaryen was somewhere between 15 and 17 at the start of Game of Thrones’ first season, when she was married off by her brother to Khal Drogo without her consent and raped on her wedding night.

By contrast, Arya’s scene is fully consensual; she initiates the encounter and makes it clear to Gendry that she wants to experience sex before she dies, in the classic vein of countless teens facing impending death by apocalypse.

Arya’s sex scene reflected her character in a number of ways. Because she’s one of the characters we’ve watched literally grow up on Game of Thrones, she’s also one of the characters who’s evolved the most over time. We’ve watched her go from being a rambunctious, spoiled tomboy to an outcast, disguised as a boy and struggling to survive, after a series of political events tore her family apart. After that, she channeled her love of swordfighting into a quest for vengeance, famously illustrated by her ritual of falling asleep every night by reciting all the names on her kill list.

Arya has largely been an active player who’s able to fight, defend herself, and outwit much bigger and tougher opponents. (In the books on which Game of Throne is based, one of her nicknames is Arya Underfoot, a moniker that indicates her tendency to literally slide between the legs of opponents and beneath obstacles that are larger than she is.) Now, as an adult who’s crossed off several names on her list — frequently in horrifically violent and sadistic ways — she seems to have learned to relax a bit and focus on supporting and protecting her family instead of automatically exacting bloody revenge on every enemy she runs across. But she’s still completely in charge of her own actions.

The scene in which she proposes to have sex with Gendry is true to Arya’s character in this regard: After a few scenes in which she openly flirted with him — by teasing him about his weapon-making ability and sharing banter-laced callbacks with him to their very first interactions in season two — she goes to him, proceeds to disrobe, and informs him that she wants to know what sex is like before they both die (probably soon, sob). She’s straightforward and direct, and she stays in control the whole time. (She even tops.) In this sense, it’s one of Game of Thrones better sex scenes, entirely about her character rather than objectifying her for the viewer.

Viewers, however, were still weirded out.

The scene provoked complicated responses from viewers who watched her grow up onscreen

Fans of Game of Thrones had lots of mixed feelings about this development, and many were quick to express those feelings on social media.

Some were supportive of Arya getting to have sex like any other young adult — especially with the guy many of them had shipped her with for several seasons:

Others were uncomfortable, because they had watched Arya grow up onscreen, after all, and it was disturbing to suddenly see her in this light:

Some pointed out that her sexual awakening seemed out of the blue:

And some also pointed out that Arya’s life experiences up to this point have undoubtedly left her traumatized, noting that it’s not necessarily great for her to be having sex in that state:

Meanwhile, plenty of people observed that a lot of the hysteria over Arya having sex smacked of hypocrisy and sexism. After all, no one really seemed to care back in season five when Cersei’s son Tommen, whom we also watched grow up on the show, had sex with his wife, Margaery, when she was 21 and he was just 13 or 14.

Granted, Tommen was a minor character; fans were far less invested in him than they are in Arya, who has always been a main character and one of Game of Thrones’ most popular. But the show has also utilized a similar trajectory for Arya’s sister, Sansa, and it suggests that maybe the way we receive different sex scenes on this show has a lot to do with the gender dynamics surrounding different female characters.

Arya’s arc is in direct contrast to Sansa’s. But the outcries over their sexualization on the show are oddly similar.

Sansa was about 17 in season five, when she was brutally raped in another forced marriage. Though Sansa’s rape may be Game of Thronesmost notorious and controversial scene, few complained about it due to the age of the character, instead focusing on the overwhelming prevalence of sexual violence on the show overall.

It’s arguable that Sansa, who has seemingly internalized the experience of her sexual assault and physical trauma while adapting a strategy of wielding soft power to stay alive, represents a more conventional depiction of women onscreen than Arya does — so when we see her adapt to physical trauma by becoming guarded, chaste, and introspective, it fits a social profile of victimhood.

Arya may be equally a victim of emotional trauma, but she has always wielded violence and strength, not softness. She’s always been ruthless and direct about taking what she wants, as opposed to Sansa, who has relied on more traditionally feminine ways of operating. Sansa’s character arc, on one level, is, arguably problematic, in that she learns to endure deeply misogynistic punishment in order to survive. But Arya’s character arc — in which she spends literal years disguised as a boy — is about her repudiating and subverting gender roles and expectations.

The handwringing around Arya having sex on Game of Thrones suggests that, while it may have been deeply jarring to see Sansa — as the show’s more traditionally feminine character— undergo a horrific rape, it is equally jarring to see Arya be as confrontational and empowered about sex as she is everything else. That, in turn, suggests that no matter how respectful Game of Thrones has tried to be about sex scenes and other types of violence since the Sansa rape scene, social expectations about gender still color how we read these characters and their sexualization.

Then there’s the suggestion that anyone complaining too much about Arya’s sex life instead of her tendency to expressionlessly slit people’s throats may have their priorities in the wrong order:

Not to mention that, uh, weirder things have certainly happened on the show!

There’s another argument to be made for Arya’s right to have sex now that she’s an adult, however, and it has everything to do with her overall characterization in this episode.

In “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” Arya was the most mature we’ve ever seen her — and it had nothing to do with having sex

Arya and the Mountain chat.
It’s hard to tell with these two, but trust us, they’re having fun.

Overall, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was a great episode for both Arya and for fans of the character. We got to see the continuation of her season premiere reunions with Gendry and the Hound. We also got to witness her schooling Gendry on just how talented she is with a blade, in a scene that clearly straddled the line between flirting with your crush and lowkey terrifying them with a threat about how you could easily murder them at any moment. That’s our girl.

But we also got an important glimpse of a softer side of Arya — in a scene that seemed to show her letting go of her long-held quest for vengeance, at least to some degree.

In the season eight premiere, we saw Arya’s conflicted reaction to seeing the Hound again. He was on her kill list for years, but then they were thrown together for several seasons as unlikely companions, relying on each other to survive. And yet she still left him for dead at the end of season four, in one of her coldest moments.

But in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” true to Maisie Williams’s prediction after season seven that Arya has grown up and is now ready to let go of her kill list, the character chooses to join the Hound for a brief moment of camaraderie on the Winterfell castle battlement. It’s a clear signal that Arya, as both she and the Hound prepare for what may be their last battle, has completely put her enmity with him to rest.

Moreover, while she’s hanging out with the Hound, they’re joined by another guy who was once on her kill list — Beric Dondarrion. The two met way back in season three, when Beric was leading the Brotherhood Without Banners. Beric, who worships the same deity as Melisandre, the Red Witch, had sold Arya’s best friend Gendry to Melisandre so the Red Witch could torture him for some spellwork. Arya was devastated and, unsure that Gendry would survive, put Beric on her kill list, in an extremely dramatic moment in which she informed him that the only god she worships is — we’ll give you one guess, here:

Complicating matters was the fact that a friend of Beric’s back then, Thoros, was a priest who happened to possess the very handy gift of being able to perpetually bring Beric back to life if he died. Thoros also landed on Arya’s kill list for helping Beric sell Gendry, but was later dispatched by a zombie bear. Hey, it happens.

So perhaps Arya is now satisfied because Beric has been helping her family, specifically her half-brother Jon Snow, in the fight against the White Walkers. Or perhaps she’s aware that since Thoros died, Beric is finally out of lives, and this one will be his last. In any case, when Beric joins Arya and the Hound on the wall, he apologizes for selling Gendry to Melisandre, and when the Hound bemusedly asks if Beric was on her list, too, she replies, after thinking about it for a second, “For a little while.”

(“That’s all right,” Beric replies genially, clearly failing to understand what a lucky escape he’s just had.)

Look at our little sociopath, all grown up and ready to forgive and forget. This is a side of Arya we rarely see, but one that Game of Thrones has revealed more of over throughout season seven and the start of season eight. We’ve watched her put her childhood rivalry with Sansa aside and form a more loyal, adult relationship with her sister based on mutual respect. (Although her willingness to ruthlessly kill people in Sansa’s name probably doesn’t hurt either.) Now, we’ve watched her do something similar with the Hound and Beric.

Not only is this a reassuring sign that Arya is probably not an irredeemable serial killer, it’s also a reminder that, now that she’s back in Winterfell, finally reunited with her remaining family members after years apart, she is trying to heal and seek out warmer relationships.

With that in mind, nothing makes more sense than for her to turn to Gendry — who she’s had a crush on since they first met in season two — to orchestrate a positive sexual experience. She’s been through so much in her short life that she, perhaps more than any other Game of Thrones character, deserves to have a real, affectionate connection with someone she trusts.

Gendry, after all, is one of the few people on the series who Arya has never thought about killing — and judging by his reaction to her dagger-throwing abilities, he definitely seems to realize how lucky is to be her friend rather than her enemy. That’s one of the things that makes him a great choice for Arya’s first sexual experience: Unlike just about everyone else, he’s never underestimated her.

“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” is an overall testament to Arya’s maturation, as is her decision within the episode to seek out Gendry once she’s decided to lose her virginity. If Arya were recklessly falling into bed with some random person she’d just met, perhaps the alarm on social media would feel a little more warranted.

But she’s known Gendry for many years, he’s reliable and dependable, and he’s one of Game of Thrones’ few remaining characters who’s truly morally unblemished. And hey, have you seen those blacksmith’s muscles? He’s a catch even before you learn he’s the son of a king. Arya’s choice to have sex with him is perfectly in keeping with her character development and a lovely grace note on her fantastic arc.