Is Game of Thrones Sexist? Part 8: Daenerys Is Womankind’s Hero
By Alex Cranz
This is the final article in an 8 piece series on the women of A Song of Ice and Fire. Do not read this series if you are watching the show and trying to be spoiler free. This final essay examines refers to anything up to and including A Dance With Dragons.
Somewhere back in the late 90s or early aughts as a fresh faced high schooler or a cranky college co-ed I picked up Game of Thrones and started reading. I don’t know why I picked it up. Probably because it had a nice title and I had a tendency to just pick up cool looking fantasy books at Barnes and Noble back then. Maybe because that was back when the covers had scenes from the books on them and the cover was all Jon Snow on a horse with a raven and a wolf and the author’s bio said Martin wrote for Beauty and the Beast and I was all for that.
I didn’t expect to be sucked in like I was. This wasn’t easy reading you finish in a day and forget about. There was meat to the book. A texture that’s far too rare in novels. I fell in love with Ned Stark and wept bitterly when he was beheaded. I despised Sansa and Cersei, couldn’t wait to see Arya grow into a badass and had some weird desire to be Jon Snow. And I found myself drawn to Catelyn much as I’ve often found myself drawn to Penelope of The Odyssey. These were characters that gave me strong feelings and when the television adaptation was announced my mind went back to that teenage crying on the couch for poor Ned Stark.
For reasons that I’ll never understand I had absolutely no recollection of the fan favorite, Tyrion. I suspect because we first meet him in a brothel and teen Alex did not find guys who use prostitutes intriguing or attractive.
And then there was Daenerys. I hated her. I despised her. Her action was completely separate from everything going on in Westeros (because the story was actually written separately! Who knew!) and I couldn’t get her age out of my head. Back then whether I was 16 or 18 I felt a certain way about May/December romances. If your age involved the word “teen” you stuck to dating other “teens” or you were weird. And the idea of a thirteen year old marrying a man in his twenties or thirties struck me as absolutely revolting.
It still strikes me as revolting. Aging all the characters for the television series was one of the smartest things David Benioff and D.B. Weiss did with their adaptation. As mentioned in a previous part of this series rereading these books became much more palatable when I threw away the ages suggested by Martin and the images they created and instead placed the actresses and actors in the roles. Suddenly Daenerys went from a character that turned my stomach with her tales of child slavery and rape to one of an adult woman struggling with a forced marriage. It made it more palatable, even though it also kind of drastically altered Martin’s original vision.
It might be hypocritical of me in some way but I found myself being thoroughly engaged by her story rather than repulsed. And the further I delved into the series the more enchanted with Daenerys I became. By the fifth book the memories I have of a pale weeping child too naive and young to understand her role in the world was gone. Instead I finally got the Dragon Queen and in Dance With Dragons George R.R. Martin delivers a heroine of the ages.
To some extent all the young characters of A Song of Ice and Fire have endured having their stories told in the form of a bildungsroman. They’ve all gone on journeys and been dramatically changed by them, but by book five Daenerys’s may be the most complete. Arya doesn’t exhibit massive change as much as become drawn further into the darkness by her basic instincts. Sansa’s story is only half told and like Arya she remains very much a child. And unlike Jon, who magically becomes a man when elected to the head of the Watch, Daenerys really earns her growth over the course of the novel. She have become an adult and she struggles with balancing her desire with her conscience.
The third book ended with her as the accidental queen of a city full of recently freed slaves, starving refugees and a vicious upperclass that wants her dead. The fifth book finds her reluctant in her new role but eager to use it as a test run for her eventual rule in Westeros. Only the people of her new city aren’t like the feudal lords of Westeros who will prickle at her sex but acknowledge her birthright. These are avaricious, sexist extreme capitalists who’ve taken the concept of “survival of the fittest” to inhuman degrees. There’s something unmistakably political in Martin’s building of a society where there isn’t so much a wealth gap as a chasm. It feels present in a way none of the other books have been. Not quite the Prime Minister to Prime Minister on the nose politicizing of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince but close enough.
Daenerys barely conceals her contempt for the upper class of her new city and their love of traditions and horribly confining and impractical clothing. It’s made worse when her advisors make it clear that she’ll only have any success if she marries one of the men who may very well be plotting her downfall. The first time Daenerys married it was for political reasons and she was lucky to find love with her husband, this time she is nearly positive that will not be the case. She’s madly in love with a blue haired sellsword who can’t afford good dentistry and likes to rub the breasts of little metal women but her best option at bring peace and stability to her new seat of power is in marrying a rich man who may be leading a murderous terrorist organization that undermines her every turn.
The child of the first three books has now become a woman capable of making her own decisions. Yet, despite all of the power she has accrued, despite how significantly she has aged since her first forced marriage she is still a slave. Where once she was her brother’s slave now she is the slave of a political system.
Time and again Martin draws parallels between Daenerys and the freed slaves outside her city’s walls. Though they die in squalor and she lives in splendor they are all still people who lack free will. Their lives are not their own.
That changes in the closing pages of the book. For a thousand pages Daenerys has been oppressed by a culture she despises. Ridiculed and forced to acquiesce to the demands of a people she does not care for and, through it all, longing for something more.
She calls herself the mother of dragons. She alludes to being the mother of the slaves she has freed. Through them and through maternity she has sought the freedom that the cultures she interacts with will not allow her. Through them she has begun to build a matriarchy–the first in any of the books. And in those waning pages her favorite dragon, her most errant child, returns to her and whisks her away from the patriarchies that mean to demean and murder her.
In Daenerys Martin has crafted a heroine whose primary role is in deconstructing the institutionalized misogyny currently at play in the books. She is the heroine who will save the day. The woman who will beat back the oppressive winter and usher in the long summer. Her time in Meereen was intended to be a trial run at rule before she reclaimed Westeros, yet she faced the same issues a female leader would face back “home.” Indeed Cersei’s experience runs parallel to Daenerys’s own. The words they use to end Cersei’s rule would just have easily been used to delegitimize Daenerys’s. “Whore,” “slut,” and “incestuous bitch.” They would and could just as easily be applied to Daenerys who, like Cersei, sleeps with her female handmaidens and lusts after brash and handsome men.
They are two halves of the same coin. Two female leaders assailed by the men they seek to rule. But here is the key difference–here is what makes Daenerys a hero while Cersei will always be an antiheroine. Cersei is afforded every opportunity. She’s rich. Powerful. She’s also selfish to a nearly pathological degree, and she’s an outright misogynist.
Daenerys comes from humble beginnings. She is born a slave. Beaten. Raped. Manipulated. She nearly starves to death. Then she pulls herself out of the mire. She overcomes nearly every horrible thing that can happen to a woman (minus murder) to become a powerful and wise leader. She is mindful and respectful of her past even as she works to make certain that no one will have to endure similar.
A few weeks ago a friend wrote to me. She’s a Slut Walk coordinator and an active feminist and she loves a good fantasy story. Which means she opted to watch Game of Thrones. And she was not pleased.
I guess I can’t get past the idea that, at it’s heart, it’s a fantasy world. and if you’re indulging in fantasy, and you can create any possible world, why would you subject your female characters to that level of degradation?
This is valid and when I first embarked on rereading the series to understand the relationship between the women of its world and sexism I had the same question. Often times in this series it seems as though Martin is reveling in the misogyny of his characters. Delighting in the cruel things they say and do to women. Those who maintain traditional female roles–the Catelyns and the Sansas and the Cerseis of the world are punished for it. Yet those who chose to be transgressors, the Briennes and the Aryas and the Ashas, are also punished.
That’s because he’s not taking a side in how women should live their lives. Whether you wear pants and ride into battle with an axe on your back or you stay home and dream of a prince to rescue you in Westeros you will suffer. Not because of your choices, but because of your gender.
And that’s why Daenerys is so critical to the story. She’s bringing change to Westeros. She’s busting down the doors of the established patriarchy and forcing the world to realize that women are smart and competent and human beings. And she’s doing it all as a woman.
“Winter is coming,” they whisper in the North. Jon Snow battles zombies and Melisandre searches for a fiery hero to scorch the hordes of the undead and the frozen. Ostensibly the overarching conflict of the series is that primal battle between ancient evil and humanity.
Jon Snow and Ned Stark and Stannis are all fighting to preserve that status quo and save their world. But Daenerys is the real hero. She’s fighting not only to save the world, but change it. More importantly she’s doing it in an utterly feminine way. Look at how she builds and maintains power. Not in the purely masculine way her husband and forefathers accrued it but using cleverness and her maternal instinct. Her dragons and her most loyal armies are hers because she genuinely cares and nurtures them.
On the other side of the world Jon has been built up as one half of the a dream team that will beat back the Others and save the world. He is the masculine meant to complement Daenerys’s feminine. But then he’s murdered after seeming to do everything right. And Daenerys? By being as purely feminine as possible–by embracing the transgressor and the enabler shown in the extremes of Brienne and Sansa–she’s more powerful and capable as ever. She’s a dragon rider out to overthrow the evils of the world. And that includes the institutionalized misogyny of the patriarchy.