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A Braid of One’s Own

Entertainment Weekly has released a series of photographs anticipating the next season of Game of Thrones. While previously anticipation for Season 5 had circled around questions such as “Is that one bad thing really going to happen to Cersei?” and “What will Tyrion do once he gets out of that box?”, I think it’s quite clear now that our narrative interest should be focused on Arya Stark’s new wardrobe.




Here are a couple of wardrobe features we might discuss:

  • 1: Gloves.  So interesting.
  • 2: Black bra/neutral shirt. Girl: I love this look. The Fuggirls might fault you on this one, but I’ve got your back.
  • 3: Pleats. So many questions. Who sewed them? Who irons them? It was confusing last season when Daenerys wore pleats, but Daenerys is rich and can choose to indulge in misguided pleat luxury if she wants to.  But how is solitary Arya acquiring pleats? Is Essos just more advanced in sewing than Westeros? Let’s note: no one in Westerns has ever worn pleats.

However, clearly the most important narrative questions circle around Arya’s braids.  This is not the first time Arya has worn braids but, as far as I recall, it’s the first time her hair has been braided since she left King’s Landing, with its mothers and ladies’ maids. Since then, she has been with men, or alone.

Braids, like embroidery, are one of Game of Thrones’ formal pleasures. It probably doesn’t do to press too hard on braids as a form of world building — there may or may not be narrative intent behind them — but let’s consider these, and what they might say about Arya’s world.  Let’s ship them. FRIENDS LET US SHIP ARYA’S BRAIDS, IT’S FOR FEMINISM.

So: if Arya has braids, someone braided them.

Was it Arya??? Really? That is fascinating and wonderful. She dodged embroidery to learn to fence; when did she learn to braid? And these are complex braids! To have buns up at the top like that you really have to hang upside down and braid from the bottom; you have to practice.  When did she practice?

Or maybe Arya did not braid them. So does she: have a friend? A friend, who is a woman? Who braids? Did Arya, strong and solitary, have a moment under loving and appraising hands; did someone who cares take some time to divide her hair, to cross it over and under, to make sure the buns were parallel? Who decided to knot the hair at the top, like barely-tamed horns?

If Arya has braids, one thing we know for sure is that Arya also has relationships, relationships with women’s hands, and with women’s knowledge.

Sometime, she had a friend. What I’m saying here is that braiding is a kind of visual Bechdel test. And that if Arya’s story passes it, it is possible that it will get a lot more interesting, at least in my ship.

Here are some braid situations I like to imagine:

  •  Her first night in Braavos, Arya lucks into a rendezvous with the Faceless Man Jaqen H’ghar, who is now a Faceless Woman. The upward-bun-on-top braid is in fact a secret sign of the Faceless Women, and Arya joins their order! As Faceless Women, they are skilled at braids and also at weaving poisoned thread into their macrame belts.
  • Her first night in Braavos, Arya sleeps, cold and alone, in some rags by the harbor. She is suddenly awoken by a fight erupting nearby: a man is trying to assault a prostitute, but Arya and Needle leap to the rescue! Fortunately, the prostitute had a hidden dagger, so by the time Needle is pulled, the prostitute’s assailant is castrated and floating in the water. Arya and this strange woman stand staring at each other, blades in hand.  “You would have helped,” says her new friend. “I thank you. Come with me.” The prostitute, Ros’Ashka, manages against all prior examples to be simultaneously a prostitute, a character on Game of Thrones, and also a savvy business woman with a practical relationship to love and sex. “Braiding your hair is better for fights,” she tells Arya, “try it like this.” She’s a little bossy about the buns until Arya gets it right.
  • While sailing to Braavos, Arya befriended all the sailors. She spent several hours in particular with an older sailor who identified as trans. “The best way to learn sailing knots is to practice braiding,” the sailor said.  And thus Arya learned that women’s decorative practices, such as braiding and embroidery, are not necessarily a tool of patriarchal oppression; indeed they can be a genderqueer mode of material practice, both beautiful and useful.
  • Arya always knew how to braid. While sailing to Braavos, rested and well-fed for the first time in months, she began to menstruate. This prompted her to think deliberately about how she might relate to her gender, as both a biological and social reality. Her first night in Braavos, she purchased new clothes and braided her hair which had grown long during the journey. Leaning upside down, hair a little dirty and thus actually better to work with, Arya recreated her favorite braids from childhood. Hair in her own hands, Arya thought of her sister Sansa, and hoped she was well.


 And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt at it in Diana of the Crossways. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that; and how little can a man know even of that when he observes it through the black or rosy spectacles which sex puts upon his nose. Hence, perhaps, the peculiar nature of woman in fiction; the astonishing extremes of her beauty and horror; her alternations between heavenly goodness and hellish depravity — for so a lover would see her as his love rose or sank, was prosperous or unhappy…

Now if Chloe likes Olivia and they share a laboratory, which of itself will make their friendship more varied and lasting because it will be less personal; if Mary Carmichael knows how to write, and I was beginning to enjoy some quality in her style; if she has a room to herself, of which I am not quite sure; if she has five hundred a year of her own — but that remains to be proved — then I think that something of great importance has happened.

For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been. It is all half lights and profound shadows like those serpentine caves where one goes with a candle peering up and down, not knowing where one is stepping. And I began to read the book again, and read how Chloe watched Olivia put a jar on a shelf and say how it was time to go home to her children. That is a sight that has never been seen since the world began, I exclaimed. And I watched too, very curiously. For I wanted to see how Mary Carmichael set to work to catch those unrecorded gestures, those unsaid or half-said words, which form themselves, no more palpably than the shadows of moths on the ceiling, when women are alone, unlit by the capricious and coloured light of the other sex. She will need to hold her breath, I said, reading on, if she is to do it; for women are so suspicious of any interest that has not some obvious motive behind it, so terribly accustomed to concealment and suppression, that they are off at the flicker of an eye turned observingly in their direction. The only way for you to do it, I thought, addressing Mary Carmichael as if she were there, would be to talk of something else, looking steadily out of the window, and thus note, not with a pencil in a notebook, but in the shortest of shorthand, in words that are hardly syllabled yet, what happens when Olivia this organism that has been under the shadow of the rock these million years — feels the light fall on it, and sees coming her way a piece of strange food — knowledge, adventure, art. And she reaches out for it.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own




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