About 45 minutes into the second episode of Game of Thrones’ final season, I grabbed my phone and googled “Maisie Williams age.” If you’ve seen the episode, you’re well aware of the moment that spurred this search: On the eve of a much-anticipated battle with the Night King’s army of the undead, after battle plans were made and everyone has dispersed to enjoy their last night of relative safety, Williams’ character Arya Stark approaches her longtime friend Gendry with a proposition. Since it seems clear that they’re likely to die sooner rather than later, and she’d like to experience sex at least once in her life, they should take this opportunity to bang it out with each other. Given that this is Game of Thrones, sex naturally ensues.
For some viewers, the scene was gratifying: the culmination of a long-teased intimacy between two of the show’s beloved characters, and a chance to see a young woman take charge of her sexuality and experience her first act of intimacy on her own terms. On Twitter, popular, Eisner-winning writer Saladin Ahmed celebrated the scene as a masterful demonstration of character development, explaining that “Arya has spent the past several seasons thinking of Death as her master. Now on the night she might die she realizes it’s the enemy. So she consciously moves toward life rather than hanging with old men who only know war.”
I had a different reaction. Watching the scene, I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed. Arya’s bold seduction of Gendry — which begins with her interrogating him about his sexual history before indicating that she’d like to be his sexual present — didn’t feel like a young woman coming into her own and enthusiastically embracing sexual intimacy. The moment felt forced, and like a young girl play-acting the role of a dominant, sexually commanding adult woman. Rather than the culmination of genuine intimacy, it seemed like a slapdash way of getting two characters from point A to point B.
On some level, the discomfort I felt with Arya and Gendry’s hook-up was a product of Arya’s youth. Over the course of the show’s eight seasons, Arya has largely been shown as a child; for several of them, Williams (who, for the record, is 22 years old) was required to bind her breasts to maintain the appearance of a prepubescent girl. The sudden switch from child to sexually commanding adult woman felt jarring and unearned, as though creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were more interested in bringing Arya to her endpoint than examining how she might arrive there.
But it also felt like one more indication that Benioff and Weiss have no real understanding of female sexuality, and no real desire to understand the complexities of women’s sexual motivations. Over the course of the show, the two creators have been repeatedly lambasted for glorifying and romanticizing sexual assault, whether by a having a teenage Daenerys fall madly in love with her rapist in the show’s first season, or insisting that Jamie’s violent refusal to respect Cersei’s boundaries during a scene in the third episode of season 4 “became consensual” as it went on.
To be clear, Arya and Gendry’s encounter was portrayed as a wholly consensual one, and yet it still seemed utterly lacking in any real understanding of what it might mean for a young woman like Arya to choose to have sex. Over the course of the show, we’ve seen Arya respond to trauma by hardening herself and closing off emotionally, fashioning herself into a remorseless killer largely consumed with revenge.
While there are certainly young women who respond to trauma by becoming voracious sexual consumers — the kind of woman Arya appears to be in that scene — we’ve never been given any indication that that is Arya’s own experience. To the contrary, she’s never demonstrated even a glimmer of interest in sex and sexuality, her lack of desire even inspiring fan theories that she might be asexual. The one time she’s been shown in close proximity to a sexual encounter, at the brothel where she murders Meryn Trant, wasn’t exactly the kind of experience that leads a young woman to enthusiastically crave the D.
Gendry and Arya do have a bit of history, having bonded during their time together on the Kingsroad and as captives in Harrenhal. But that bit of backstory feels flimsy in comparison to everything that’s happened to Arya since they parted ways at the beginning of season 3. When Gendry and Arya first met, she was a naive girl; when they reunite at Winterfell, she’s a hardened killer. The idea that a running into her schoolgirl crush would immediately cause her to melt seems off-base and ill-considered.
The key thing that Game of Thrones fails to understand here is that for young women, sex — particularly the kind of caring, intimate sex that Arya and Gendry are supposed to be having — requires vulnerability, a vulnerability that a young woman like Arya seems unlikely to be interested in. To open up to another person, both physically and emotionally, requires a willingness to put yourself at risk, one far more scary than the bodily harm that Arya routinely subjects herself to throughout the show.
There’s a different path for Arya and Gendry, one in which, after reconnecting at Winterfell, Arya and Gendry go on to fight side by side, defending and learning to trust one another. After years of isolating herself and walling off her emotions, Arya could begin to understand that there is value to letting other people take care of you, and slowly allow herself to let down her defenses around Gendry. A scene where these two characters have sex would not merely check an item off a list; it would become evidence that they’ve actually bonded in a way that makes vulnerability not just possible, but appealing for a woman like Arya. There is a version of the scene that would have worked far better, and it’s a version of the scene that I am sad we will never get.
Lux Alptraum is a writer whose work has been featured in a variety of outlets including the New York Times, Cosmopolitan, and Hustler. She is the author of the book Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal. Follow her on Twitter at @luxalptraum.