Danaerys Targaryen: Feminism for the Iron Throne

By Rochelle Keyhan on May 29, 2013 to Featured Post, Game of Thrones

After my decade long experience with Harry Potter ended with the 2011 release of Deathly Hallows Part 2, I’ve been left wanting for a new Hermione, a similarly amazing and feminist mainstream character. Daenerys Targaryen’s drop the mic moment when she threw down Kraznys Mo Nakloz’s whip in Season 3, Episode 4 finally quenched that thirst! A young woman in a world created and run by men, Daenerys is denied her humanity, physically and verbally abused, and traded as a piece of property.

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Then she starts to take over the world. She’s a more adult, more complicated (and arguably more flawed) character than Hermione, and I can’t get enough! The Game of Thrones is about power in its varying forms, some of which breed destruction, and others of which fight that destruction with love and compassion. People aren’t just BORN perfect leaders. They live life, experience, and grow both from hardships and victories, and choose the type of leaders they want to be in the process of that growth. Daenerys is playing the war game, and to do so she needs to fight to kill, but otherwise her leadership is marked by a love for humankind and a moral fight to right wrongs and fight oppression.

The show does have strong elements of misogyny. This show also has serious race issues. But what HBO does so well is present these issues in ways that demand examination. The descriptions and casting choices paint white as savior and dark as brute needing to be saved. That is problematic, and illustrated well by the sorceress (her name is Mirri Maz Duur. Thanks GOT_Pedant! the show doesn’t even bother to humanize her with a name) who helps Dany “save” Khal Drogo, only to deliberately turn him into an empty vessel. Dany is confused, questioningly telling the sorceress, “But I saved you”. The sorceress enlightens Dany that her definition of “saved” was quite different from the sorceress’, since the Sorceress had already been raped multiple times and watched her village burned down and fellow villagers murdered by the time Dany stepped in to “save” her. The Sorceress’ speech was a great teaching moment, and one that criticized the entire framing of race relations in the Seven Kingdoms. Hopefully there will be more moments in the show that unpack the complex issues, but in ways like this scene, that demand critical watching from viewers, while laying the groundwork for them to think through the issues and have these conversations.

The Sorceress’ speech is a reality check for Daenerys and her savior complex. When she frees the Unsullied, instead of taking for granted that they will be eternally grateful, she offers them freedom and choice. When it comes down to it, she is on the side of justice, morality, and fighting for the underdogs. Maybe because she’s white, but also maybe because she herself is the underdog, and always has been. Her brother raised her as his bargaining chip, selling her to be raped by as many men as it took for him to gain power; in his words he’d even let the horses rape her if it would help him rise to the top.

DAENERYS’ UPBRINGING:

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Daenerys is raised by her brother, without a voice, taught to disregard her own will, and raised to believe her job is to produce offspring and be sexually available. She is infantilized, degraded, and treated as male property; then literally sold to another man to bring her brother more power and help him in his quest for the ultimate power of the Iron Throne. In one scene we see her brother strip her down as he pleases, examining her body like she is his livestock. Afterward, she feels disgusting and silently walks into boiling water to wash it all away. Later that day, he sells her in exchange for soldiers. Her brother later tells her he’d let Khal Drogo’s “whole tribe fuck you, all 40,000 men, and their horses too, if that’s what it took.”

Dany is literally sold by one man as a way of gaining power, to be used by her new King to fill his sexual whims and help him procreate. Only the men, because they value her as nothing more than a means to their own ends,  get more than they bargained for. Her brother’s sale of Daenerys to the Dothraki King was a turning point in her relative powerlessness, repositioning her as Queen/Khaleesi, empowering her to strive for more.

DAENERYS’ TRANSITION: PERSONAL

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That she ends up falling in love with the husband she unwilling married has been read as Stockholm syndrome. I disagree with that reading. If she had loved her brother and doted on him and eagerly awaited is love and affection, that would be Stockholm syndrome. But when she finds her voice, and tells Khal what she wants, she humanizes herself to him, and he happily accepts that version of Daenerys. He at first is forceful in his response to her resistance, thinking his property is defying him, but when he realizes she wants intimacy, he obliges. I know looking at this in 2013 it seems unremarkable and even horrifying; but, looking at that moment in the context in which it happened, it’s actually transformative. She stops him, looks him in the face and says, I’m a human and I want you to make eye contact with me when you have sex with me. Then she pushes him onto his back and takes control of the situation. And he lets her. Then he takes it a step further when he sits up and meets her halfway, as his equal. He could have easily just thrown her back onto her knees and demanded what he wanted, as was his right in that culture and in their relative positions. But that’s not what he did. He heard her voice, he listened to her words, and he honored her request. And that moment changed them both.

Khal  is ultimately affectionate and patient with her, encourages her assertive moments and generally empowers her to embrace her role as his queen. There was a lot to love about him, especially as a transitional relationship from the control her brother had over her.

As their relationship transitions, the Dothraki are pillaging a town and its people, and that is where she finds her voice as queen, when she sees the men raping women. She assertively demands they stop raping the women and Drogo supports her, not because he necessarily agrees, but because he appreciates that she’s embracing her voice and standing behind her convictions. By putting his weight as the Khal behind her, Drogo is empowering her leadership, validating her opinions and passions, and helping unleash a fierce Khaleesi. And, even when he doesn’t understand where she is coming from, he trusts her conviction and demands his men abide by her command. Her assertiveness impresses him, and his support and encouragement are a revelation for Daenerys. Though the Dothraki only listen because their Khal reiterated the command, that vocal and public acknowledgment of her power boosted her confidence and pushed her closer toward embracing the leader born within her.

DAENERYS’ TRANSITION: PUBLIC

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When Khal dies from the Sorceress’ poison, Khaleesi places her dragon eggs on her dead husband’s funeral pyre, and walks into the fire to join them. Her adviser, Jorah, still looks at her like a helpless woman, assuming she’s so grief-ridden and helpless that she’s killing herself. But she doesn’t internalize that patronizing doubt, disregarding his misjudgment of her and following her own plan.

THEN SHE SURVIVES THE FIRE. WITH BABY DRAGONS.

Though it is her decision to trust the Soreress that leads to the death of their leader, this moment is a strong enough manifestation of her power for at least some naysayers to decide to pledge their allegiance. This belief in her only reinforces her belief in herself.

After the difficulty of making their way through the Red Desert and surviving the kidnapping of her dragons in Qarth, Illyrio’s ships find her in Qarth to bring her back to Pentos. But, he didn’t yet know how much confidence Dany had in her own power, because she redirects the ships to Astapor to acquire the 8,000 Unsullied. I will never tire of re-watching the end of this episode, when she takes the Unsullied, and burns Astapor to the ground before departing with her new army.

She is a leader who trusts her gut and goes with it, despite her male advisers constant and often questioning presence in her ear. They challenge her in front of others, she reprimands them, but she also doesn’t take it to heart or hold it against them.  And what that has gotten her is a huge army, ships, dragons, and the moral conviction to bring people up alongside her, instead of keeping them down to serve beneath her.

Like the dragons, Daenerys is growing and discovering all of these amazing characteristics she had no idea she possessed. She is young, and her transformation from powerless object to fierce leader (with dragons!) has led to some arrogance, but I chalk that up to the growing pains of such a young person with such immense power. She is still learning, and that arrogance has been an excellent teacher. For example, when she first earned allegiance from the Dothraki after her Khalisar died she assumed her own invincibility. Then came the lesson in being humble when most of her men perished.

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I am loving watching her grow into a formidable leader. She is my top contender for the Iron Throne. Why do I love her so much? Dany breaks the mold, both in terms of the roles assigned to gender, and the definition of leadership.   She leads with compassion and love, and earns respect, instead of instilling fear in her followers to force their allegiance. She also has great instincts, the courage to follow her gut, and the moral obligation to fight oppression. As long as she can marry her intellect with her compassion, she has the capacity to be the most fearsome contender for the throne, one that would bring balance and harmony to the seven kingdoms, as she is the type of leader people would gladly and proudly join ranks to fight alongside her.

Do you think she has what it takes to win and keep the Iron Throne? If not, who do you think would be best suited to lead the Seven Kingdoms?

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