On its episode (interestingly) entitled “The Broken Man,” Game of Thrones (GOT) introduced Yara Greyjoy as its first lesbian main character. In the show’s most recent episode, “Battle of the Bastards,” GOT continued to develop Yara’s story as she arrived in Meereen and acknowledge her character’s sexuality as she meets the Dragon Queen, Daenerys Targaryen, and engages in an interaction that has been described as “delightfully flirty.”
The exposure of Yara’s sexuality has been almost universally lauded by lesbian GOT fans, as the show has never before featured a central lesbian character or queer romance. While this is undoubtedly a step forward for a series that has long been criticized for its sexist and heteronormative tendencies, the reveal and development of Yara Greyjoy’s sexuality deserves not only applause, but also some serious thought and questioning.
Yara’s identity as a lesbian was first revealed during a short scene that has come to be considered a watershed moment by many of the show’s fans. After boldly presenting herself as the rightful Queen of the Iron Islands and unjustly losing the title to her Uncle Euron, Yara escapes the Islands with her brother in hopes of teaming up with Daenerys Targaryen to take them back. The pair makes a pit stop at a brothel, where Yara is shown unabashedly kissing and fondling a young, beautiful sex worker while her castrated brother sits uncomfortably nearby.
Fans of the show have hailed this scene as a pivotal moment for lesbians in Hollywood and for the LGBT community as a whole. Yara’s “hearty, visceral sexuality” seems revolutionary for a show on which, overwhelmingly, men are the only characters who talk openly and candidly about their sexual conquests and desires. Yara is the show’s first openly, unapologetically lesbian character. (In the past, the series has featured a small number of prominent gay or bisexual male characters. Two of them, Renly Baratheon and Oberyn Martell, were killed off in Season 2 and Season 5, respectively; the other, Loras Tyrell, has been imprisoned all of season 6 for his sexuality.)
But while Game of Thrones including a lesbian major character is important in terms of representation, I can’t help but feel that there was more to this scene than pure, unbridled lesbian pride. The interaction takes place in the context of a brothel—where naked women strut about freely, giggling and flaunting themselves for male patrons. Additionally, it would be a stretch to say that the interaction Yara has with the nameless prostitute is one founded on respect and the desire for mutual pleasure. While kissing the unnamed woman, fondling her breasts and playfully smacking her rear end, Yara exclaims that “no one on the Iron Islands has an ass like that” and closes the scene by leaving Theon alone so that she can “go f**k the tits off [that] one.” The half-naked woman opposite Yara in the scene is portrayed as nothing more than a sex object, and Yara relishes in the idea that she’s disposable. If her character were male, feminists surely would have rolled their eyes at yet another display of objectification on the show or even spoken out against it.
Since its inception, Game of Thrones has been known for its gratuitous sexual objectification and maltreatment of women. Female characters shed their clothes for the purpose of male speculation and pleasure, appear as sex workers and are referenced as “whores” by male characters. Sexual assault is so prevalent on GOT that some prominent women’s organizations—including the National Organization for Women’s New York Chapter and Safe Horizon, the largest domestic violence victim group in the country—have actively condemned the show. Considering all of this, the lack of critical commentary around the way that Yara Greyjoy objectifies and hypersexualizes the woman in the scene at the brothel is surprising.
In the show’s most recent episode, Yara finally reaches Meereen and promises Daenerys Targaryen 100 ships in exchange for her help to take back the Iron Islands. Daenerys agrees to the deal, on the condition that the Greyjoys will support her claim to the Seven Kingdoms. Yet the most captivating aspect of the interaction is certainly not the deal that Dany and Yara make, but rather the onscreen chemistry that exists between them. The two engage in a seemingly flirtatious rapport peppered with coy smiles and knowing glances; this moment prompted major excitement from GOT fans who hope for a romance between Daenerys and Yara on the show. The subtle sexual tension in the scene cannot go ignored, and it surely gives rise to questions about whether Dany might be attracted to women.
Daenerys and Yara’s flirtation complicated my reaction to how the show had Yara behave in the brothel scene. Were they intentionally trying to establish Yara’s sexuality so that viewers would more easily pick up on and acknowledge the chemistry that exists between her and Daenerys? Or were they overcompensating for the fact that, unless Yara’s status as a lesbian or bisexual woman was very explicitly addressed, viewers might be uncomfortable with the vague and subtle flirtation that occurs between the two women?
Either way, I am excited to see how Yara’s sexuality is portrayed in future episodes—and whether or not she and Daenerys will actually become romantically involved with one another, adding more layers to the part she’s now playing in representing queer women’s experiences on Game of Thrones and in the broader television landscape.