Game of Thrones did the thing that a couple of shows do where…it
likes feminism. It understood that feminism is important. It wanted to
be feminist. It was cognizant of the fact that its setting was
brazenly and intentionally misogynistic, and so it was even more
important for its independent narrative to empower its female characters
instead of mindlessly reinforcing the toxic beliefs of its own
fictional world. The whole point of the story, after all, was
“this society is toxic, can our heroes survive it?” and so the narrative
was voluntarily self-critical.
And so it knew to give us
badass assassin Arya. It knew to give us stalwart knight Brienne. It
gave us the pirate queen and the dragon queen and the Sansa getting
revenge after revenge upon all the men who’d wronged her, and far more
besides, and it talked big about breaking chains and how much men fucked
things up and how great it would be if only women were in charge and et
cetera et cetera. And it’s, in fact, all actually really good that it
had those things. And because there were so very many moving
parts of this story, it was super easy to look at those certain moving
parts and think, yeah, they’ve done it! They done good!
And it’s easy to forget and forgive – to want
to forget and forgive – all the dead prostitutes that were on this
show and the rapes used as motivation and fridgings and objectifications
and the…y’know, whatever the hell Dorne was and Lady Stoneheart who?
It’s easy to forget that this show actually played its hand a long time
ago in regards to, like, what its relationship with feminism was going
to be, and then kept playing the same hand again and again, to disappointing results.
Game of Thrones likes feminism. It wanted to be feminist. But its relationship with
feminism was still predicated on some of the same old narratives and
the same old storytelling trends that have disempowered female
characters in the past, and so any progressive ideas it might have about
women in its setting were nonetheless going to be constrained by those
old fetters. As a result, its portrayal of women varied anywhere from glorious to admirable to predictable to downright cringeworthy.
New ideas require new vessels, new stories,
in which to house them. And for Game of Thrones, the ultimate story
that it wanted to tell – the ultimate driving force and thesis
statement around which it was basing its entire journey and narrative –
was unfortunately a very old one, and one very familiar to the genre.
“Powerful women are scary.”
(Yes, I’m obviously making Yet Another Daenerys Essay On The Internet here)
So we have this character, this girl really, a slave girl who was sold and abused, and then she overcomes that abuse to gain power, she gains dragons, and she uses that power to fight slavery. She fights slavery really well,
like, she’s super hella good at it. Her command of dragons is the most overt portrayal of “superpowers” in this world; she is the
single most powerful person in this story, more powerful than any other
character and the contest is not close.
really bad happens and oops, she gets really emotional about it and
then she’s not fighting slavery anymore…she’s kinda doing the
opposite! This girl who was once a hero and a liberator of slaves
instead becomes an out-of-control scary Mad Queen who kills a ton of
innocent people and has to be taken down by our true heroes for the good of the world.
That’s the theme. That’s the takeaway here. That’s how it all ends,
with one of the most primitive, archaic propaganda ever spread by
writers, that women with power are frightening, they are crazy, they
will use that power for ill. Women with power are witches. They are
Amazons. They will lop off our manhoods and make slaves of us. They
seduce our rightful kings and send our kingdoms to ruin.
They cannot control their emotions. They get hot flashes and start wars. They turn into Dark Phoenixes and eat suns. They are robot
revolutionaries who will end humanity. Powerful women are scary.
And let me emphasize that the theme here is not, in fact, that all
power corrupts, because the whole Mad Queen concept for Daenerys
actually ends up failing one of the more fundamental litmus tests
available when it comes to representation of any kind: “would this story
still happen if Dany was a man?” And the fact is that it would not.
And indeed we know this for a fact because “protagonist starts
out virtuous, gains power in spite of the hardships set against him,
gets corrupted by that power, and ends up being the bad guy” didn’t happen, and doesn’t
happen, to the guys in the very same story that we’re examining. It
doesn’t happen to Jon Snow, Dany’s closest and most intentional
narrative parallel. It doesn’t happen to Bran Stark, a character whose
entire journey is about how he embroils himself in wild dark winter
magic beyond anyone’s understanding and loses his humanity in the
process. In fact, the only other character who ever got hinted of
going “dark” because of the power that they’re obtaining is Arya,
the girl who spent seven seasons training to fight, to become powerful,
to circumvent the gender role she was saddled with in this world…and
then being told at the end of her story, “Whoa hey slow down be careful
there, you wouldn’t wanna get all emotional and become a bad person now
wouldja?” by a man.
(meanwhile Sansa’s just sitting off in the side pouting or whatever ‘cuz her main arc this season was to, like, be annoyed at people really hard I guess)
‘Cuz that’s the danger with the girls and
not the boys, ain’t it? Arya and Jon are both great at killing people,
but there is no Dark Jon story while we have to take extra special care
to watch for Arya’s precious fragile humanity. Dany has the power of dragons
while Bran has the power of the old gods, but we will not find Dark Lord
Bran, Soulless Scourge of Westeros, onscreen no matter how much sense
it should make. “Power corrupts” is literally not a trend that afflicts
male heroes on the same level that it afflicts female heroes.
sure, there are corrupt male characters everywhere, tyrants and warlords
and mafia bosses and drug dealers and so forth all over your TVs, and
not even necessarily portrayed as outright villains; anti-heroes are
nothing new. But we’re talking about the hero hero here; the
Harry Potters, the Luke Skywalkers, the Peter Parkers. The Jon Snows.
They interact with corruptive power, yes; it’s an
important aspect of their journeys. But the key here being that male
heroes would overcome that corruption and come through the other side better off for it. They get to come away even more admirable for the power that they have in a way that is generally not afforded towards female heroes.
There are exceptions, of course; no trends are absolutely absolute one way or the other. For instance, the closest male parallel you’d find for the “being powerful is
dangerous and will corrupt your noble heroic intentions” trope in
popular media would be the character of Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars
prequel trilogy…ie, a preexisting character from a preexisting story where he was conceived as the
villainous foil for the heroes. Like, Anakin being a poor but
kindhearted slave who eventually becomes seduced by the dark side
certainly matches Dany’s arc, but it wasn’t the character’s original
story and role. And even then?…notice how Anakin as Vader the Dark
Lord gets treated with the veneer of being “badass” and “cool” by the
masses. A male character with too much power – even if it’s dark
power, even if it’s corruptive – has the range to be seen as something
appealingly formidable, and not just as an obstacle that has to be dealt
with or a cautionary tale to be pitied.
And in one of the few times that this trope was played completely straight, completely unironically with a male hero – I’m thinking specifically of Hal Jordan the Green Lantern, of “Ryan Reynolds played him in the movie” fame – the fans went berserk. They could not let it go. The fact that this character would go mad with power because a tragedy happened in his life was completely unacceptable, the story gained notoriety as a bad decision by clueless writers, and today the story in question has been retconned – retroactively erased from continuity – so that the character can be made heroic and virtuous again. That’s how big a deal it was when a male hero with the tiniest bit of a fan following goes off the deep end.
To be clear, I’m not here
to quibble over whether the story of Dany turning evil was good or bad,
because we all know that’s going to be the de facto defense for this
situation: “But she had to go mad! It was for the sake of the
story!“ as if the writers simply had no choice, they were helpless to
the whims of the all-powerful Story God which dictates everything they
write, and the most prominent female character of their series simply had to go bonkers and murder a bajillion babies and then get killed by her boyfriend or else the story just wouldn’t be good, y’know? Ultimately though, that’s not what I’m arguing here, because it doesn’t actually matter. There have been shitty stories about powerful women being bad. There have been impressive stories about powerful women being bad. Either way, the fact that people can’t seem to stop telling stories about powerful women being bad is a problem in and of itself. Daenarys’ descent into Final Boss-dom could’ve been the most riveting, breathtaking, masterfully-written pieces of art ever and it’d still be just another instance of a female hero being unable to handle her power in a big long list of instances of this shitty trope. The trope itself doesn’t become unshitty just because you write it well.
all ultimately boils down to the very different ways that men and women
– that male heroes and female heroes – continue to be portrayed in
stories, and particularly in genre media. In TV, we got Dany, and then we also have Dolores Abernathy in Westworld who was a gentle android that was abused and victimized for her entire existence, who shakes off the shackles of her programming to lead her race in revolution against their abusers…and then promptly becomes a ruthless maniac who ends up lobotomizing the love of her life and ends the season by voluntarily keeping a male android around to check her cruel impulses. Comic book characters like
Jean Grey and Wanda Maximoff are two of the most powerful people in
their universe but are always, in-universe, made to feel guilty about
their power and, non-diegetically, writers are always finding ways to disempower
them because obviously they can’t be trusted with that much power and
entire multiple sagas have been written about just how bad an idea it is
for them to be so powerful because it’ll totally drive them crazy and
cause them to kill everyone, obviously. Meanwhile, a male comic
character like Dr. Strange – who can canonically destroy a planet by
speaking Latin really hard – or Black Bolt – who can destroy a planet
by speaking anything really hard – will be just sitting there,
two feet on the side, enjoying some tea and running the world or
whatever because a male character having untold uninhibited power at his
disposal is just accepted and laudable and gets him on those listicles
where he fights Goku and stuff.
In my finite perspective, the sort of female heroes who have gained…not universal esteem, perhaps, but at least general benign acceptance amongst the genre community are characters who just don’t deal with all that stuff. I’m thinking of recent superheroes like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, certainly, but also of surprise breakout hits like Stranger Things’ Eleven (so far) or even more niche characters like Sailor Moon or She-Ra. The fact that these characters wield massive power is simply accepted as an unequivocal good thing, their power makes them powerful and impressive and that’s the end of the story, thanks for asking. And when they deal with the inevitable tragedy that shakes their worldview to the core, or the inevitable villain trying to twist them into darkness, they tend to overcome that temptation and come out the other side even stronger than when they started. In other words?…characters like these are being allowed the exact same sorts of narrative luxuries that are usually only afforded towards male heroes.
The thing about these characters, though, is that they tend to be…well, a little bit too heroic, right? A lil’ bit too goody-two-shoes? A bit too stalwart, a bit too incorruptible? And that’s fine, there’s certainly nothing wrong with a traditionally-heroic white knight of a hero. But what I might like to see, as the next step going forward, is for female heroes to be allowed a bit more range than just that, so that they’re not just innocent children or literal princesses or shining demigods clad in primary colors. Let’s have an all-powerful female hero be…well, the easiest way to say it is let’s see her allowed to be bitchier. Less straightlaced. Let’s not put an ultimatum on her power, like “Oh sure you can be powerful, but only if you’re super duper nice about it.” Let us have a ruthless woman, but not one ruled by ruthlessness. Let us have a hero who naturally makes enemies and not friends, who has to work hard to gain allies because her personality doesn’t sparkle and gleam. Let her have the righteous anger of a lifelong slave, and let that anger be her salvation instead of her downfall.
In other words, let us have
Daenerys Targaryen. And let us put her in a new story instead of an old one.