'Game of Thrones' Mishandles 'Little Bird' Sansa and Missandei, Sparking Backlash

Dissatisfaction with the latest episode of Game of Thrones Season 8, "The Last of the Starks," is widespread, and it's not just because Rhaegal was killed by Euron Greyjoy's stealth navy, exposing the tactical worthlessness of Daenerys' dragons. The episode has also rekindled discussion of how Game of Thrones has handled women and minority characters, with celebrities like Jessica Chastain and director Ava DuVernay weighing in with their takes on the backlash.

As the survivors of the battle against the Night King celebrate in Winterfell's Great Hall, Sansa (Sophie Turner) reunites briefly with Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), who tried to take Sansa away from Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and King's Landing all the way back in Game of Thrones Season 2, during the Battle of the Blackwater.

"Heard you were broken in rough," Clegane says to Sansa, referencing her treatment at the hands of her late husband, the torture-loving rapist Ramsay Bolton. "You've changed, Little Bird. None of it would have happened if you left King's Landing with me. No Littlefinger. No Ramsay. None of it."

"Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would have stayed a Little Bird all my life," Sansa replies and walks off. Meant as a rejoinder to the Hound, the moment instead depicts Sansa crediting her tormentors with her maturation, a formulation many found odious, including Chastain, who tweeted, "Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger."

It's not the first time fans have objected to the show's handling of Sansa's trauma. The Season 5 episode "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" prompted widespread outcry after viewers and critics accused showrunners of using Sansa's brutual marital rape by Ramsay as a means of deepening Theon's character. The episode has since been frequently cited as a series low-point, and even prompted one website, The Mary Sue, to stop covering Game of Thrones entirely.

An even more controversial scene came in the final moments of "The Last of the Starks," when Game of Thrones killed Missandei, the series' only woman of color character. In tweeting her disapproval, DuVernay, director of the upcoming Central Park Five dramatization When They See Us, referenced an older sword and sorcery epic, 1982's Conan the Barbarian, which didn't let its Eurocentric fantasy depiction get in the way of casting a black man, James Earl Jones, in a major role.

The same can't be said for Game of Thrones, which has mostly reserved minority roles for "exotic" extras and faceless hordes, like the Dothraki and Unsullied armies fed to the Night King earlier in the season.

In killing Missandei, fans argued the only black woman character's death didn't serve the character, but instead was used to push Daenerys toward decisive action, similar to the comic book trope known as "fridging" (named for a woman's body stuffed into a literal refrigerator in a 1994 issue of Green Lantern), in which a woman character is killed to motivate a white male character.

While the extent to which Game of Thrones has failed viewers in its depictions of minorities and its treatment of women is open to interpretation of moments and episodes, several critics also evoked a more empirical criticism, which provides a cause behind the show's seeming inability to handle sensitive issues like rape. As Melissa Silverstein, an advocate for increased gender diversity in Hollywood, points out, Game of Thrones might better understand its women characters if it bothered to employ women directors and screenwriters.

Game of Thrones Season 8 featured zero women writers or directors. Only three episodes in the entire span of the series have been credited to women writers. An annual survey released by USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism confirms that diversity problems are endemic to Hollywood productions, with women and minorities disproportionately underrepresented, both in front of the camera and behind. Game of Thrones, a phenomenon with the power to shift the entire discourse, could have lead the way in changing that. More than any specific scene, it's that totality of disregard that might most frustrate the show's women and minority critics.

'Game of Thrones' Mishandles 'Little Bird' Sansa and Missandei, Sparking Backlash | Culture