Written by Katherine Murray, this post appears as part of our theme week on Game of Thrones.
As usual, Game of Thrones is a Choose Your Own Interpretation that always ends in tears.
One of the major cliff-hangers leading into the sixth season of Game of Thrones is the fate of Daenerys Targaryen, queen of Meereen, widow of Kahl Drogo, heir to the Iron Throne, and holder of a thousand other titles. After amassing a large army and conquering several cities in Essos (a separate continent from where the main action takes place), it looked like she was about to hit a reversal of fortune. A rebel/terrorist group called Sons of the Harpy staged an attack against her in Meereen, and she fled on the back of a dragon to parts unknown. She was immediately surrounded by a Dothraki army, and previews for season six featured images of Targaryen banners burning while a Dothraki narrator intoned, “You are nobody, the millionth of your name, queen of nothing.”
The Dothraki are known for raping the women they capture and, disturbingly, the full trailer for season six features a split-second scene in which it looks like someone tears Daenerys’ dress off her body.
The dress-tearing scene is still in our future, but the season premiere confirmed that the Dothraki immediately took things to a rapey place, after finding Daenerys alone. There’s a (somewhat) pleasant surprise in that she’s able to talk her way out of danger by telling them she was married to a different Dothraki rapist at one point, which makes her off-limits to them, but the entire situation leaves me feeling confused about who and what I’m supposed to be cheering for.
Like most rulers on Game of Thrones, Daenerys can be horrible, and she has the extra disadvantage of starring in a story line that seems kind of racist. From a pure narrative point of view, it also makes sense that a character who’s had a lot of good fortune lately is due for new challenges ahead. On the flip side, watching a woman lose power on Game of Thrones always seems to involve watching her be sexually victimized somehow, which I can’t really get on board with, no matter how awful she is. It’s different from a situation where you don’t know which of two people to cheer for, and feel torn between them because they both have good points – this is situation where I feel bad about any possible outcome for just one person. Unless she rows away in a boat forever like Gendry, I don’t see how this can end well.
Why it Feels Bad to Cheer for Her
Daenerys is kind of an asshole. She inherited her brother’s sense that ruling others is her birthright and she’s proven herself to be arrogant on more than one occasion. On top of that, she makes rash decisions that affect millions of people’s lives – she crucified the entire ruling class of Meereen without asking any questions about the internal politics of the city or whether some of them were actually opposed to slavery (which, as we find out later, some of them were). She’s also horrible to Hizdahr zo Loraq, an advisor she kidnaps into a sham marriage just so she can ignore his advice in more settings.
None of that makes her worse than any of the other power players on Game of Thrones, but it feels bad to cheer for her because Dany’s story, unlike most of the stories in Westeros, also has some gross colonial set pieces in it. It’s hard to ignore that this is a white woman from a foreign nation who feels it’s her birthright to teach a bunch of brown people how they should behave. The fact that Game of Thrones also hasn’t invested in developing many of its non-white characters means that we see almost everything in Essos through the eyes of foreigners who find it strange and disgusting. I’m not saying I disagree – slavery and forcing people to fight to the death in a pit is disgusting, but so is a lot of other stuff on this show, and we’re asked to see those things as being a normal part of this world. We’re asked to see Essos as savage and exotic, instead, and it’s hard to feel good about the racial component of that division.
People who defend the Essos story line generally argue that we’re not necessarily supposed to agree with what Daenerys is doing, but the way the scenes are dramatized makes that hard to believe. Daenerys’ sacking of the slave cities in Essos is staged as a series of Hell Yeah moments, starting when she tricks a slave trader into giving her an army for nothing and then uses the army to kill him. It’s great that she sets the slaves free, but she waits to do that until after they’ve sacked the city for her, and the show doesn’t really engage with the concept that someone who’s been born into slavery might not know what to do with an offer of freedom. The whole point of the scene where she offers to free her slave army seems to be to reassure us that they’re technically there of their own free will because she gave them a thirty-second window to leave.
The only person in the slave army who’s ever individually identified for us is Grey Worm, and there’s a weird, condescending scene where Daenerys tells him that he can choose his own name, and he says he’d rather keep his slave name because it’s the name he had on the glorious day she freed him. I’ve unpacked this elsewhere in the past, but suffice to say that that is a terrible line of reasoning, this scene only exists to tell us how amazing Dany is, and a lot of the slave plotlines and themes are like that.
The shallow characterization in the Essos story line, the icky colonial vibes, and the boring pattern where Daenerys just succeeds at everything she does all make me want her to fail. Unfortunately, it feels just as bad to cheer against her.
Why it Feels Bad to Cheer Against Her
There’s definitely a pattern on Game of Thrones where we’re supposed to cheer for the underdog. Part of what makes Daenerys such an awesome character is that she spent the first season making lemonade out of some of the worst fucking lemons that anyone’s ever seen. She was abused by her older brother, sold into marriage, raped multiple times, made to feel she was worthless, and somehow managed to dig in and transform a losing hand into a winning one by doing ridiculous stuff like eating the heart of a horse. The army of slaves and dragons she has is the only thing keeping her safe from more victimization, and cheering for her to fail is basically cheering for some new, horrible man to torture her some more.
There’s always a sense in which we cheer against the people with power in Game of Thrones, but with characters like Daenerys and the series’ second most powerful female character, Cersei, there’s an extra element where you have to remember that they live in a world where women are treated like garbage. That’s why I couldn’t be happy, last season, when Cersei finally started to lose her grip on power in King’s Landing. Yes, she’s a horrible person, but – as the show reminded us – the avenues she has to get and hold legitimate power are limited and the danger she’s in without that power is huge. I thought it was a terrible idea for her to be Hand of the King (because she’s a mean, selfish person who doesn’t have the interests of the common folk in mind), but I also thought it was terrible that everyone told her she couldn’t be just because she’s a woman. I thought she sort of deserved to get hoist by her own petard after arming religious fanatics to take down one of her enemies, but I also felt uncomfortable that it led to a scene where she had to walk through the streets naked while everyone called her a whore.
I had the same uncomfortable feeling when the khalasar horses started circling Daenerys in last season’s finale. A feeling that she was in an unfair, bullshit, gendered, misogynist danger and that, as much as I think she deserves to have her schemes blow up in her face, I didn’t want to go through another cycle of her getting raped by a horse lord. And I didn’t want to feel like the show thought that was titillating, or that I should enjoy it because it’s delicious when powerful women are turned into sexual objects.
I’ve been asking myself how it’s different from being happy that Stannis and Joffrey got killed – or even being happy that Jon Snow got killed, ‘cause I was kind of happy for that – and the only way I can explain it is to say that, on Game of Thrones, getting killed is not a penalty that’s based on hating someone for their gender. Getting killed is not a thing that’s steeped in a layered, complex, gross, disgusting refusal to see women as human beings. Being raped is. So is being publically shamed for your sexuality. So are a lot of other things that I don’t wish on female characters, even if they’re kind of horrible sometimes.
At this point, I don’t even know what to hope for from this story line. Do I want Daenerys to take back control of Meereen and keep being a colonizer? Do I want her to sail to Westeros and abandon the people she claims to have liberated without a backward glance? Do I want her to go back to the Dothraki and get treated like an animal or piece of property? Do I want her to die and be reunited with her awful rapist husband whom the show is convinced I should somehow like?
My brain keeps flashing back to details like that brothel a few days’ ride from Meereen, where the sex workers dress up like Daenerys, except their butts are showing. And I keep thinking about how, just like in real life, in Game of Thrones, it’s impossible to talk about how you think a woman’s using power irresponsibly without a bunch of other people climbing out of the woodwork to tell you that women shouldn’t have power at all. There’s a sense in which I would like to see Daenerys fail as a ruler because she’s terrible at ruling, but also a sense in which I’m aware that there are other people who want to see her fail because it reinforces a worldview where women are only good for sex.
It leaves us in a lose-lose situation no matter what happens, because the terms are so skewed by sexism.
What I really want is for Game of Thrones to be the product of a different culture – one where threats of rape aren’t hard-baked into gender relations. One where super-colonial themes would be present because the show had something to say about them, and not due to an apparent oversight. The way things are right now, I don’t have much to cheer for.