Tits and Dragons

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

The Feminist Failings of the Greatest Television Series in History.

Well that was an adventure. Seems like you can't be online for more than an hour without coming across at least three articles or videos that highlight ways to fix the Series Finale of Game of Thrones, or point out, in great detail, what was sloppy, inconsistent, or altogether wrong with Episodes 5 and 6 of Season 8. Now, we live in a 280-character digital world, where it's difficult to really express nuanced or complex opinions.


And altogether, I'm very pleased that many people who develop ways that 'fix' the finale are very respectful to the chatacters, and what they signify to us as the audience. Speaks good things for the fandom in an era where we have female-censored edits of popular films which remove all female roles from the plot. I think that the respect given to fan-fixes is an indication that fans are aware of... some of the problems with the plot. And I don't mean the pacing, the set-ups with no pay-offs, Jon Snow's only line being 'I don't want this', or the lack of awareness of the world that had been established in the prior 7 seasons.


Specifically, I'm looking at the treatment of Daenerys Targaryen, and what she means to a culture, what it means to literature as a whole, and what she means to women in general.


Okay. Up-front opinion time. I’m totally okay with the Queen of Ashes. I’ve never been okay with the ‘Mad Queen/King’ theme, especially as it portrays to Daenerys. There is a difference, and it’s all about context. Yet, unfortunately, it’s nothing that can be adequately spelled out in a Tweet.


I hope work is slow, because there's a bunch to talk about.



 

Context is All


It doesn’t count as paying off a set-up if the whole series has hinted at two dozen different directions to take Daenerys Targaryen. Yes, Blood and Fire was there, but those moments seem outweighed by an abundance of incredibly heroic depictions of her generosity and empathy. Daenerys could be brutal, savvy, and incredibly vulnerable; it was brilliantly layered to develop an incredibly complex, yet very human character. Suffice. We did not get a 'layered' ending.


Fans latch onto the ‘Blood and Fire’ lines because that’s what’s happened. Fans would be posting ‘Mhysa’ if she had come to King’s Landing as a benevolent liberator. Fans wouldn't bat an eye at the public execution of Cersei. Fans would laud her true calling is as a conqueror if she took King’s Landing and then left to break more chains.


And then at the end, it feels as if there was about three seasons of character development that was just taken for granted, implicit, or snuck into one or two lines of dialogue.


I’ve no problem with ambiguity — if you want your viewers to develop context from microtic acting details, that’s perfectly valid. My problem is that this isn’t the format of storytelling the series has adopted over the first five or six seasons. The series owes its popularity to explaining political maneuvers in glorious gratuitous detail. So I’m left in a weird spot where I’m not sure whether to read into tiny details (“Who’s betrayed me today?” = Varys is trying to poison me?) or whether I should watch this scene as the rest of the series has been developed — where people just really like to talk.


If we’re judging ‘The Bells’ exclusively based on what was put on screen — Daenerys doesn’t trust her allies, Cersei has made it personal, and she’s wanted to burn the Red Keep from the beginning — then razing the Red Keep is all that I feel she has license to do. A lot of innocent people will still die, and it still could have displayed the absurd destructive power of a single dragon.


I mean, white saviourism aside...

But if you want to take the same Daenerys who was so disgusted at charred human bones in Meereen that she had to leave the room and lock up her babies — and then make her burn an entire city, there is a whole lot you have to take for granted in a series that encourages you to take nothing for granted.



 

Two Sides of a Coin


Fans called it ‘The Flip’ based on the reoccurring line that says “When A Targaryen is born, the Gods flip a coin”. This references a kind of insanity that runs in the legendary royal family of dragon blood, which is personified most clearly in the moniker of Aerys II Targaryen, Daenerys’ father/uncle, as ‘The Mad King’. Because he wanted to set fire to the entire city to deny it to Robert Baratheon’s rebellion force.


(HA! GET IT? PARALLELS. SO MUCH CREATIVITY.)


And because of Daenerys' switch from “Mercy is our strength” to “Burn them all” took about twenty minutes, fans are using ‘madness’ to describe the ‘flip’.


(HOLY CRAP! THEY’RE — OH MY GOSH. DO YOU GET IT? THEY’RE LIKE… REFERENCING SOMETHING SPECIFIC THAT WAS ESTABLISHED IN THE FIRST SEASON AS BEING THE KEYSTONE AND TURNING POINT OF THE ENTIRE SERIES. GENIUS.)


There’s… a lot to unpack here so take a seat.



 

She's a Maniac


Alright — don’t ever let anyone tell you that a feminist reading is invalid. Don’t ever let anyone roll their eyes when you bring up the representation of women, especially in literature. Now, when we’re going to go through a feminist take, I don’t mean ‘As a woman, I don’t identify with how the series handled Daenerys’ character arc’. Because a lot of men don’t know this, but before Feminism was a modern political movement, it was a school of sociology and literary criticism, even if under a different name.


Yes. These are real posters. This is what happened when women stood up to participate in democracy — just to vote. And there's anyone wondering why Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons is so significant to a lot of women? I mean... things are better... ish...

A feminist reading is one which takes an event or art piece and judges it specifically within the context of having existed in a society which has been rigidly skewed towards the masculine perspective. In literature, specifically, as the overwhelming majority of writers (and Artists in general) were men, feminist critics gauge the role of women according to the function of female characters, as well as the roles of femininity and masculinity throughout the body of work. This involves looking at the piece both intrinsically and linking it to the context of gender relations of the time.


(Don’t give me anything about death of authorial intent.)


If we’re not taking any subtext for granted, there are two things that explain Daenerys’ coin flip. The first is that Benioff and Weiss didn’t want to do the series anymore, and that they wanted to rush the ending as much as possible. They had their big-budget action scenes and really went out of their way to usher you between them because maybe they thought it was the action that drove the series' popularity? That’s more to do with network and ratings, and not really what I want to talk about.


See that grumpyface? It's not acting. Emilia Clarke knows what's up.

Whatever their reasons, I’m focusing on the end result. Which, maybe they did just want Daenerys to be inexplicably insane? Maybe they were just married to the Mad Queen idea? Even if their intentions were rooted in deliberate narrative intent, I’m still of the opinion that it’s still an incredibly problematic play that does have it’s roots in latent mysogynistic tropes in literature — especially fantasy literature.


I mean, there’s a bit of poignant messaging when your narrative punch is telling you to second-guess social justice warriors and feminists, because you’re only cheering for their insanity while it benefits you. Watch out! One day they’ll flip and level a city. Uuuh… Yeah. Real progressive messaging.


And sure, you can argue ‘can’t a story just be a story’ in which my response is absolutely not. Everything in a story is either crafted or framed by a narrator, at which point the way you feel about the story is at the mercy of how the story is told. My article about the Crimes of Grindlewald goes a bit into detail about that kind of heroic posturing.


So if someone is writing a story just to tell a story, that’s a little mental; their unconscious biases and predjudices are going to end up working their way into the plot and themes. In order to write properly, and I’ll fight you on this, you need to be aware of what your story signifies to the audience as a whole, and what it could signify to the audience.


Stephanie Mayer set out to write a vampire love story, but ended up writing a bunch of mormon propaganda about a virgin who has sex once, gets pregnant, almost dies, and gets married while she’s a teenager. When you write without awareness, your story ends up coming with a lot of unintended baggage. The more aware you are, as a writer, the more you can intend what baggage needs to be there and what is harmful to the story and to the reader.


*He's* the real victim because she made him hurt her and now he has to feel sad. Look at how sad she made him.

Which, given the rise of #MeToo it shouldn’t be surprising that a male-dominant creative team uses ‘she goes crazy’ as the excuse for the pivotal turning point in the series. This is also the same Season 8 where only about 20% of the dialogue is spoken by women, and where violence against women is framed from Jon Snow’s POV. I mean, I don't think Season 8 could even pass a Bechdel Test — which I consider the most rudimentary standard to follow because Showgirls passes.


So. Daenerys is insane. There's a bunch to talk about just that, so that's all we're really going to talk about. Think about insanity as a literary device, views of insanity in society, insanity in politics, female leaders, strong female characters in fiction, and the use of women in literature. Those are all strings that these last few episodes are tugging on, and they’re all connected.


Marry Woolstonecraft was murdered by her obstetrician for this.

My hot take on literary canon is that women, penned by men, are indistinguishable in practice from men who are deliberately written as insane. Alright, sure Shakespeare likes to mark his insane characters as speaking out of meter; most of his women do use meter, but regardless of his intention, many of his characters come across as doing things that don’t make any sense.


(Okay, seriously, stop with that death of the author stuff.)



 

The Best of Intentions


Funny you should mention Death of the Author, though… Death of authorial intent, though often misunderstood as ‘death of the author’ (which, in turn, is often misinterpreted as ‘removing the creator from the development of their own content’ — quite fitting for Game of Thrones, n’est pas?) is a theory of literary critique penned by Paul-Michel Foucault. And while I largely disagree with Death of the Author in any context, his other contributions to the theory of literary criticism are more useful, I believe, because in his Madness and Civilization, he takes the concept of a language-game around the word ‘Madness’ and observes the use it has over the course of history. That is, how people use the word, and what they mean when they use it.


He argues that the word that society uses as ‘madness’, is quite distinct from clinical mental illness. In that, when someone uses the word ‘mad’ or ‘madness’, they may not necessarily be referring to the subject’s actual mental health, but instead, an apparently state of mind where a subject's actions do not fit any apparent context.


Okay. That’s a lot of words, I’ll own that. Basically, when you see ‘madness’, it usually describes people who do things without a good reason, or any reason. They may or may not have a clinical diagnosis from a licensed psychologist.


King George III, possibly the most famous 'Mad King' in history. While he did struggle with mental health, his troubles were what we might describe as depression. He was only called 'The Mad King' in American Separatist propaganda. The Founding Fathers initially had great respect for him; their revolution was directed at the British *parliament*. They became desperate enough to attack King George III directly. This King George was actually responsible for preventing Britain and the whole empire from Spanish conquest, or plunging into financial ruin.

The problem with this language-game is that while madness is separate from mental illness in practice, you and I, as an audience and members of society, draw the comparison. So when characters in Game of Thrones reference Daenerys or Aerys II as ‘mad’, it is actually a character saying that they do not understand the rationale that either Targaryen has for their chosen course of action. But because of the connection between madness and mental illness, the audience interprets Tyrion’s ‘I do not understand why Daenerys wants to burn the Tarleys alive’ as ‘she a crazy bitch’.


Crazy Bitch. Bitches be crazy, right?


That said — if you have a collection of men in control of widespread social discourse who, in their misbelief that men are inherently rational, see women behaving in ways that they cannot reason because they do not have vagina-feelings, then yes. Bitches fit into a narrative where their actions can be described, from an uninformed point of view, as ‘crazy’.



 

Mhysa Dearest


For eons, men have described women as ‘mysteries’. By some hyperbolic perspective, men and women are from different goddamn planets. If men had women figured out, the Romantic Comedy would be a dead genre. These days, it’s seen as comical, how men are torn between the revolution of women in society and the code of chivalry that defined the patriarchal interaction between men and women for most of history. And how it’s so darn funny that they just can’t figure it out!


Side-note: can you imagine a comedic genre built off racial humour and stereotyping the way the common sitcom uses gender-norms as a punchline?


Don't... answer that question.

Regardless, these are the people who were trusted to chronicle our fiction literature: men who believed that women were inherently emotional. This is a philosophical idea that was birthed out of Ancient Greece (Hellas), where professional philosophers put food on the table through using reason and logic to justify what might be one of the most misogynistic societies in human history.


Women, as emotional creatures (#proven by Aristotle), they are slaves to their emotions — specifically their menstrual cycles. Which to this day exists as the prevailing reason for why a woman should not be the national leader of a nuclear power.


Or a dragon. I hope you see where I’m going?


Hindsight's a bitch.

Without any context explaining why she is committed to the actions she has, the only context we have is what we can ascribe. Daenerys has no discernible reason to burn King’s Landing — she is mad. As I explained, given evidence in the prior seasons, the audience has ample reason for why she’d want to burn the Red Keep. Tyrion’s plans have always hurt her cause, she has wanted to burn the keep from the beginning, Cersei has made the battle very personal, and it would have been very cathartic to see Daenerys burn her ancestral keep and end what her family started.


But burning all of King’s Landing is a reach. Even insofar as she has been established to have dark impulses, these impulses are always directed at militant combatants and members of an oppressive social class. But she goes very far out of her way, not only to assure that her forces do not harm non-combatants, women, nor children — but also that orphaned children of her conflicts are taken care of. And yet, Daenerys’ execution of the Tarleys, crucification of masters, and burning of Khals is, to some people, madness.


Why demonize the literal only politician to actually accomplish their election promises? Maybe ever.

It isn’t madness to everyone though. Because to the audience, in our post-colonial mindset, a slaver deserves the kind of punishment that Daenerys afforded. Daenerys had also already vowed that anyone who harmed their followers would 'die screaming'; the Khals took the heads of those loyal to her. And the Tarleys had betrayed the Tyrells to the Lanisters.


I feel as if a lot of the Feminist power around Daenerys is that she was a woman who rose to power in spite of men almost never taking her seriously. What, when folks were throwing around 'King of the North' to any Stark whose testicles had dropped, Daenerys fought for every scrap of respect she had by the end.


I almost felt as if Tyrion was trying to break the fourth wall to attack the audience for ever cheering for Daenerys in the first place. How dare you approve of slave rebellions! I don't mind plot twists, but this took on all the peevish glee of an eight year old asking you to pick a number between 1-and-10, and it DEFINITELY isn't 7—


Ooop! It was 7 after all! Ha-HA!


They'd been promising you a Mad Queen and, damnit, D&D were going to twist the series' arm to give it to you!


Due to the sordid history of women’s treatment in literature, if you do not give the audience explicit reasoning behind a strong female character’s negative actions, it will be described as madness — even if a male character can do the same without explanation and still be rational.


Fans have been reading every flake of emotion on Emilia Clarke’s face as insanity since Season 2. Other characters could burn their daughters alive and the audience wouldn’t flinch: ‘Well. That’s just who Stanis is.’


Or, and I’m fine by this, the audience is unwilling to call a character ‘mad’ if they are given ample insight into their motivations… which was not afforded to Daenerys.


Oh. So crazy women are FINE when they're throwing each other in pools. But as soon as one blows up a city, everyone FREAKS OUT.

Now, a lot of this is more about how the audience perceives the written events, and not necessarily because of anything specifically directed about the series. But a writer does have a responsibility to address the optics of the scenarios they create. Which, sure, is an argument in itself. But because we’re 1-for-7+ Mad Kings. And 2 for 2 Mad Queens (not counting queens through marriage). Westeros’ first two Queens both get called The Mad Queen by fans, and it’s heavily implied that the world is better off without them.


Bitches be crazy?



 

Dragonglass Ceiling


Cersei. Holy smokes! She committed an act of domestic terrorism against her own city and people were saying ‘Ooooh, she’s gonna go mad Queen.’ She was already the Mad Queen. It would have been a good idea to even have a one-liner to remind the audience that, in the shadow of the Targaryen army, she peppered the whole city with Wildfire. You could have easily softened the blow of Danny’s fall if they reminded the audience that Cersei was abundantly prepared to sacrifice her city than let the "Targaryen Whore" take it.


Push the narrative away from Daenerys' mental health, because, after 7 seasons of anticipation, that’s going to take the spotlight away from any theme you’re trying to peddle. Especially if that theme is: 'Hey there's kind of democracy now kind of. This is progress. Progress in baby steps. That's what we need. As a society. Just let rich people vote. We're forward-minded showrunners.'


Personally, instead of hereditary madness, a better theme would be about how the burdens of dictatorial leadership drives anyone to madness. But. Instead of dedicating a number of episodes to displaying a descent into paranoia, mistrust, and scorn for the people of King’s Landing, we have nothing. (The public consensus is two extra episodes, but given the pacing of the show's early seasons, you might need an extra three... Seasons.)


Without any of that and ‘leaving it up to the audience’, fans are filling the void with the lowest common denominator. Why’d Daenerys burn king’s landing? She was crazy.


Mad Queen. Mad Queen! MAD QUEEN!


And as the series culminated, it was up to a bunch of men to clean up the mess made by crazy women who got too much power. Never give a mouse a cookie, right? And yet, none of the men really accepted any accountability for their hand in pushing Daenerys towards that direction, either through conspiracy, incompetence, or manipulation. Because the most realistic thing about Westeros is that men fall upwards.


This is all coming out of a literary canon where women have much stricter boundaries than men. Men have the run of the field, but the second a woman does something outside the proper etiquette of feminine behavior for whatever era, she’s a madwoman. Maybe it’s not out of no deliberate attempt to be misogynistic, but it’s an antiquated literary device to use ‘women being emotional’ as an excuse to push the plot forward.


Lady Macbeth urged her husband to assassinate the king. He didn’t want to. She did. Why’d she want to? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Why did Miss Havisham want to torment Pip? Her husband left her at the altar, so she wanted to make all men suffer. Dick move on him. But why did she stop all the clocks, go recluse, and wear her wedding dress for her whole life? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Why did Clytemnestra want to murder Agamemnon? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Okay that last one was a bad example because… literally, everyone in Greek tragedy has an awful reason for why they do anything at all. That’s not a criticism — they’re tragedies because people behave irrationally. Following magical prophecies isn’t rational (think horoscopes) so don’t come at me for Macbeth.


Also worth mentioning that this was part of that very large era of theatre where female characters were played by men. Women didn't even get a voice in how their own representation depicted them.

After the amount of praise Game of Thrones received for bolstering very strong female characters who were given very human and relatable motivations for doing what they did, ‘The Bells’ kind of… undoes a lot of that doesn’t it? And then, the series gets moved back to this kind of archaic form of storytelling where women are only around to throw the plot forward with mood-swings.


Because our society mistakenly equates literary madness to mental illness, Daenerys was a mentally ill woman, who had no reason or excuse to do what she did. And because the series depicts other instances of sole-ruling women as ‘mad’, there seems to be a bit of a pattern. But it is only the female leaders without husbands that are depicted as ‘mad’.


And here we’re reminded of a Taming of the Shrew literary tradition where proper women seek out a pairing, and where women who do not are shrill, chaotic, abusive of their power, and whose strength is an obstacle for men to overcome. To a pool of men who have developed our literature canon, nothing is more mad than a women who remains independent.



 

Art, Propaganda, Fiction


Don’t give me that. I know what you’re thinking.


“It’s just a TV show.”


“An artist has the right to create whatever they want.”


“This is just the story they want to tell. It doesn’t mean they’re trying to say all that.”


First, at the point that you change the landscape of an artistic medium, it’s not just anything at that point. The second is absolutely right. An artist can create whatever art they want to, but they are completely responsible for what their art signifies to people and what their art inspires. (There’s a reason a lot of great writers wind up alcoholic, or in mental wards. Once you recognize how much pressure there is behind words, you can’t really unthink that.)


And as for the third — believe it or not, things mean things to people. The boundary between art and propaganda is so thin that people take fictional instances as justifications for world views all the literal time.


In the series, there is literally one character who goes out of their way to help the underclasses of a monarchic system of governance. Varys doesn’t count, because he talks the talk but still recruits children for espionage. When there is an existing line of propaganda which insists that leaders with social causes are out to completely destroy society as we know it, you need to tread very carefully in how you represent these characters. Especially if you want to make them turn Heel.


She lost her dragons, she lost her best friend, she lost her other best friend. You took away her character arc, and now you want to take away her latte?

What if, due to Daenerys’ actions both as a social liberator and a terrorist, people begin to see that association in politicians who want to raise minimum wage and tax the rich? Because Game of Thrones, by now, could just as easily be a cautionary tale against women in leadership who want to make a serious change. Don't vote for a woman president, she'll just want to burn the world down to make her paradise. No king in the series had ever caused as much suffering and death as the queens. (Which isn't really accurate, when you really look into the earlier seasons.)


Sansa just became Queen of the North, but look at who she's learned from. I've been told that a comedy is just a drama that ends on the first act.


The theme of the series then becomes ‘don’t give a socialist the keys to the nation, because then they’ll burn down what they can’t take hostage’. And no amount of dead authors and intentions will change that as the feeling that people are left with.


I'd also fault the show for how anti-dragon it is.

I have concerns about what that means for showrunners Benioff and Weiss. Because for a pair who were set to lead a series about what America would have been like if the South won the Civil War — they conveniently portray Cersei as a tragic victim the second an abolitionist shows up at her gates. Killing Cersei isn't the same as humanizing a deplorable tyrant as they dehumanize the only person who has a history of freeing slaves, feeding orphans, and fighting back oppression against women.


Before you go about and poo-poo this as rabble-rousing, keep in mind that Wagner’s Ring Cycle was used as Nazi propaganda. Hitler specifically used Wagner to promote his Aryan Master Race. A superior, more worthy race within Humankind, so they did not need to worry about the suffering of those beneath them.


Art like this has been used by Stalin, by Napoleon, and by countless kings and emperors who cherry-pick the Art that justifies them and their policies. So really, catastrophizing over the ways people can apply a fictitious story into real life isn’t as absurd as it sounds.


Or — maybe it’s just absurd as it sounds, and we’re just an absurd species.


#art

~nth


Maybe if you liked reading this, you'll like reading my book: The Avalon Knight: Gentleman's Club. Now featured in [1] public libraries. It's got real pages. I'm nt.herrgott on Instagram, and @NTHerrgott on Twitter.


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