Who Wins, Who Dies: Game of Thrones (2011 - 2019)

First of all: I cannot believe I let you people harangue me into watching this show.

I do not expect most readers to remember this, but, back in the summer of 2011, I read the first four books of A Song of Ice and Fire, and I hated it. The evil sexy bitch-queens. The constant sexual violence. Daenerys, a 13-year-old, “consented” to sex with a grown man; Sansa, also a small child, was sold off to a different man for a different variety of sexual trauma in every book; Tyrion, by all accounts a hero, had as his backstory the fact that his father “forced” him to participate in the gang-rape of his ex-girlfriend, who he thought was a sex worker, but who wasn’t, which supposedly made this worse somehow? Anyhoo, Tyrion was really sorry that he let his Dad gang-rape his ex, but also, he did strangle a different ex for being in cahoots with his Dad, but also, Tyrion was sorry about killing that ex, but also — fun side note — his new plan for revenge was to rape his sister. And this was a character we were supposed to like.

Well: I wrote about it. The Internet read what I wrote. And then my life exploded. Aside from the angry men haranguing me endlessly over e-mail, there were posts on i09 about the “controversy” (which was that one person had read a book series and had not liked it). This very important matter (that someone had read a book series and had not liked it) was bewailed by everyone from a future Washington Post editor to a future leader of GamerGate, both of whom were taken seriously at the time. For months afterward, whenever anyone linked to something I had done, a random commenter would teleport in out of nowhere to remind them of the horrible fact that I had once read a book series and I had not liked it, and that nothing that “the woman who hates Game of Thrones” did should be taken seriously until I repented and bought an I <3 DAENERYS t-shirt to wear at public functions. 

Nearly a decade has passed, since that blog post, and nothing I wrote is controversial any more. The idea that the show uses women’s bodies and/or sexual trauma for cheap titillation is not only widely accepted, some feminist culture websites have boycotted Game of Thrones in response. The accusations of cheap edginess, wherein violence and trauma are heaped on as substitutes for depth, have been reiterated by more or less every critic to cover the show. People rioted when I called Daenerys a white savior in 2011, but in 2019, her white-savior-ness is actually the justification people are using to defend the show’s misogyny. So that’s fun! 

The problem is that, back in 2011, so many people screamed at me about how feminist Game of Thrones was that I actually tried watching the goddamn thing. And it won me over. The cast, the outfits, the lavishly realized fantasy world; it was all much more immersive than GRRM’s clunky, gear-grinding prose. And, despite having hated everyone in the books, the show managed to present me with one character — Brienne of Tarth — that I genuinely loved. I wound up caring about Brienne, enough to watch the show for Brienne, and eventually I wound up caring about the show. I started to think that it could be more than some pretentious pay-cable rape-fest; that it could be one of our culture’s smartest ongoing discussions about women and power. 

Then Daenerys, the show’s most prominent avatar of benevolent female leadership, went nuts within seconds of obtaining the Iron Throne and destroyed an entire city because a boy dumped her. So much for that theory, I guess.

I may sound like I’m winding up for a long and mighty “I told you so,” right now, and to be frank, you would all deserve it. But it is not fun to be right on this one. 

Why would I watch a show knowing that I hated its source material? What could possibly pull me in? Well: Let me tell you who convinced me. Let me tell you about Brienne of Tarth. 

Brienne doesn’t want to be queen of anything. She comes from a noble family, but never entered politics. She’s not good at intrigue or subterfuge; Brienne solves 99% of her interpersonal conflicts by running directly at her enemies while wearing a large, conspicuous suit of armor and hitting them until they fall down. When she can’t resolve a problem that way, she is out of her depth, but when Brienne’s strategy works, it works like gangbusters. Brienne is a brawler, by nature and by trade, but she’s not some dumb brute. She has a deeply felt sense of honor, of justice, of right and wrong. She is unshakable in her loyalties, though her loyalty is sometimes undeserved. Brienne’s ethos is service, and her character-defining ambition is to serve with honor; Brienne just wants to fight for someone she believes in, and this means that usually, Brienne fights for other women. 

Brienne does not want power, in the Iron-Throne, fate-of-nations sense. She doesn’t aspire to be in charge. But she lives in a profoundly misogynist culture which bars women from serving as knights; she’s mocked, humiliated, ostracized, and/or subjected to attempts at sexual violence on a more or less daily basis by people who want to bully her out of her job. So, whether or not she wants power, Brienne must find it in herself to be powerful. The only alternative to being strong is to stop being herself, and she decides, in every moment, with every breath, not to let that happen. 

You’ve probably guessed, by now, that I am drawing you a self-portrait; not a picture of myself (short, petty, with little to no upper body strength) but a picture of my values, which forms and uses of power I admire, what kind of person I would like to be. This is a show about power, and all the different ways people use or abuse it, and when I watch it, I subconsciously align myself with the person whose approach to power most closely matches my own. It’s what people do with stories. And at one point, Game of Thrones’ female characters were rich and multi-dimensional enough that you could perform this kind of detailed power analysis with every single woman on the show. 

Cersei internalized the misogynist and abusive norms of power that had been inflicted on her by her father and her husband and her society; she became good at that kind of power, proving her worth by the only standard she knew, until Cersei ultimately became a more abusive misogynist than most of the men in her life. Daenerys experienced the same abuse; in the TV series, she’s the first major character to be raped, and in the books, we’re introduced to her in a scene where her older brother fondles her breasts and tells her she’s worthless. But Daenerys projected her pain outward, onto the world; instead of trying to become so strong no-one could hurt her, she decided to make the world a place where people don’t get hurt. Sansa was relegated to a position of powerlessness by her father’s death, and found a way to use the skills we call “feminine” — alliance-making, gossip, the emotional labor of convincing a man you don’t hate him while you long for his gory demise — to clamber her way out. Arya was a tomboy; those feminine forms of power were never interesting to her, and she was never good at them. So when she lost her father, she embraced what she was good at — knife crimes — and wandered the earth in search of mentors who could help her become the strongest and most effective version of herself. 

These questions — do you climb to the top of the social structure, or do you work to change that structure? Do you try to find power in the feminine, or reject traditional gender roles? Is Dany driven by empathy or a Messiah complex, is she helping other people or trying to heal herself by interfering in cultures and lives she doesn’t understand? — are part of many women’s lives. They have been bitterly fought out in the feminist movement for years. It was genuinely helpful to many women to see them dramatized, to play an elaborate game wherein the characters embodied different feminist (or anti-feminist) ways of coping with a misogynist world. 

I like Brienne because she’s a simple woman. She just wants to do work she’s proud of; she just wants to help people who deserve it. She runs right at the problem on a horse and bashes it with a large, heavy object until it stops moving, and though people make fun of her for that, they do tend to stop laughing when the horse is headed in their direction. But then, that’s me. I can’t blame women whose sense of power looks more like Arya, or Sansa, or, yes, Daenerys. What mattered was that we were having the conversation. We were watching a show about women who exercised power on a level most of us would never experience, in order to figure out which approaches to patriarchy were maladaptive and which were helpful. Who would win, and who would die.

What I missed — what I already knew, and forced myself to forget— was that this conversation originated within the fandom, not within the writers’ room, and certainly not within the mind of George R. R. Martin. No matter what women told themselves, Game of Thrones was never our story. 

*

Men often claim that feminists can’t handle a female villain; that we want to see women as pure, perfect heroes, and will call anything else misogynist. But I adore female villains. I wrote a book on them. I just want my female villains to be well-written. The scariest villains are not cartoon monsters who do evil because they love evil; they’re people who embody our own darkness, who give in to the awful urges we repress and only visit in our most shameful fantasies. We fear them because we fear who we could become. 

Cersei Lannister, one of the all-time great female villains, was horrifying precisely because we could understand her. Cersei’s husband beat her and raped her. Her father told her, over and over, that she was stupid, that she didn’t deserve a say in what happened to her, that she would never be enough. The people of King’s Landing stripped her naked and made her walk through town while they screamed “SHAME” and threw literal shit on her. At some point — admittedly, a point well before the beginning of the story — Cersei gets enough abuse and she snaps. She responds to the chant of “shame, shame, shame” by finding the judgmental bitch responsible, tying her down, and letting nature and/or a large rapist zombie decide what happens next. She learned from infancy that the world was cruel to women. She does not believe it will ever be less cruel. So she’s decided to be the cruelest person in it. Power is power, and powerlessness is you, trapped in a bed, with a man’s dick shoved in you against your will. Cersei has the power, so now, she does the shoving.  

That is a terrifyingly understandable thought process, even when its result is pure evil. More importantly, it is a thought process. It’s not she’s sad and her dad was crazy so she’s crazy too? I guess? Actual storytelling work was put into making us understand why this particular character saw this particular atrocity as a justified response to her circumstances. There was psychological realism in the portrait of an abused person continuing the cycle of abuse; there was political resonance in the way an oppressed character sought advancement by identifying with the oppressor. The people who defend Daenerys’ heel turn insist that it serves a valuable thematic function: Power corrupts, war is hell, female rulers aren’t necessarily benevolent by virtue of being female, etc., etc. But we already had a character who showed that women can be corrupted by the quest for power. Cersei served that precise function for eight seasons, and she did so while grounded in recognizable human behavior.  

What the mad-Daenerys apologists often seem to want is something different. They don’t just want to prove that some female leaders are bad and corrupt, they want to prove that power can only be corrupting for women. Plenty of men, on the right and left, have assured me that I only care about the misogyny because I don’t understand foreign policy, or that by even seeking a queenship, Daenerys proved herself to be a bad, selfish, power-mad person, and only awful people would root for her. That screeching — see? See? You stupid women wanted your feminist princess and she’s evil!!!!! — does not really seem to be about Game of Thrones. It’s about Hillary Clinton, or it’s about dunking on individual feminists that people find obnoxious, or it’s about dunking on the whole concept of feminism, but it’s not an organic reaction to what’s on screen. 

There’s no apolitical way to justify the storytelling: A character who has proven to be a more than competent military strategist, not to mention a very effective self-propagandist, abruptly decides to commit a war crime after she’s won the war in question, thus needlessly turning the populace against her, because… the plot says so. Because she’s upset and petulant and suddenly a bad person in a way that overrides all her previously established skill sets. There’s no arc, no track, no work done to show us why she thinks this is a good idea. Even stupid decisions have a thought process behind them — we understand Tyrion freeing Daenerys’ prisoner, right after Dany tells Tyrion she’ll kill him the next time he disobeys, because the prisoner is Jaime and Tyrion loves him — but this one doesn’t. It just happens. 

But the decision might work if Daenerys’ desire to lead had already made you dislike her. If you believed, not just that women in power can be abusive, but that all women in power are abusive, not just that some women internalize tyrannical ideas of power, but that the very desire to wield power makes women tyrannical — not just that the world contains Cerseis, but that any woman becomes a Cersei by virtue of leading — then it would completely make sense that, the very second a female character obtained her world’s highest position of authority, she would PMS and have a meltdown and get hysterical and lash out and otherwise prove herself not only unfit to lead, but dangerously so. In other words, this would make sense to you if you did not see Daenerys making a decision, but a woman making a decision, and if this were the kind of decision you expected women to make. 

From being a show about all the different ways women approach power — good, bad, or “ancient witch-priestess of a vengeful fire god” — Game of Thrones has become a show which suggests all women have the same relationship to power: It’s bad for them, and they shouldn’t want it. Running the world is a nasty business, sweeties, wouldn’t you be happier staying home? (This is more or less exactly what Sandor Clegane says to Arya in their last conversation, but I will save that gripe for another day.) The Victorians claimed that women had to be denied the vote because they were moral guardians of humanity; women were too inherently good to soil their souls with men’s dirty politicking, and wielding political power would ultimately just debase women by dragging them down to men’s level. In 2019, we are still telling stories in which the exercise of political power renders good women monstrous.

Predictably, some of us are still finding reasons to hail that message as a fresh, sophisticated insight. But dressing the argument in contemporary references does not make it smarter. For one thing — and this is a big, big thing — when women are getting raped all the fucking time, on screen and off, it takes some brass balls to tell them they should aspire to be helpless. Some of us have already been helpless, thank you very much. We’ve lived the dream. We’re trying to wake up.

Daenerys Targaryen is the first major character in Game of Thrones to be raped. I’ve said this, but it bears repeating. In a series that is defined by its elaborate and grueling rape scenes, the first big one — the scene where viewers learn that sexual violence is ubiquitous in this world, and that characters we care about will be assaulted in front of us — revolves around her.  It’s an event that is just as important, in terms of defining the show’s moral cosmos, as Ned Stark’s death, and it is also the first time we ever meet Daenerys Targaryen.

She’s not the first woman to get raped; at her wedding, in the same episode, several nameless women of color are raped in front of her. (Game of Thrones’ issues with race have rarely been subtle.) But the story of rape is told through Daenerys: Her mounting anxiety throughout the wedding, her mute horror as she watches the rapes begin, and then the long, long close-up on her agonized face as it actually happens to her. In that moment, we are invited to understand what rape is, purely through witnessing the pain and powerlessness of one teenage girl.

Character introductions define characters. An arc — a character begins as one person, meets an obstacle, overcomes it, and becomes a different person over the course of the quest — depends on the clear and illustrative contrast between who the characters originally are and who they become. Luke Skywalker is introduced as an insignificant farm boy, and ends as the Jedi prince who destroyed an empire; Walter White is introduced as a panicky suburban wimp telling us he loves his family, and ends as a strong, confident drug lord whose family despises him. The arc works if we can understand how Walter White’s decisions turned his personality inside-out, and the image of the scared suburban Dad saying “I love you” has to stay in our heads for the entire series, so that we’ll have a clear understanding of what has changed. 

Daenerys’ defining scene, her perpetually relevant starting point, is “rape victim.” We understand, from her first moments, that this is a story about a woman who is powerless, and that her powerlessness stems largely from being female. The obstacle, then, is misogyny, and her arc, her radical change, will presumably be a journey from powerlessness to power. Women who expected Daenerys to become a benevolent feminist ruler, to break the wheel and end the cycle of oppression, were not stupid; they were following basic story logic. Their expectations didn’t spring from delusion or narcissism, they sprang from Star Wars. 

And if some of those women got a little too invested, if they bought some cheesy merch, if they named their kids Khaleesi, well: Are we really unclear on why that happened? Still? “Rape victim who wants to end rape,” as an identity, is not “man who reclaims masculinity by dealing meth.” It’s certainly not “whiny teen who becomes psychic space ninja.” It’s an identity lots of women in the audience actually share. It’s just that, while the rest of us were still trying to find our power, Daenerys actually did.

Women turned this show, this deeply problematic and rape-filled show, into a place where they could bring their trauma. Daenerys is raped, Cersei is raped, Sansa is raped, Brienne survives numerous attempted rapes and can’t walk two feet in any direction without being harassed (though it does feel reliably great to watch her reasoned and proportionate responses) but instead of concluding that Game of Thrones hated women, women concluded that the show loved survivors. They believed it was telling them a story about what it takes to survive, to find your power, even when the whole world wants you powerless, voiceless, raped and dead.

I believe that Daenerys was always intended to become the Mad Queen. Her ultimate villainy is completely in line with the kind of story George R. R. Martin intended to tell, and is probably one of the plot elements he handed the showrunners, back when he outlined how he intended to end the series. But I don’t think George R. R. Martin, or the showrunners, fully understood the kind of story they were telling.

Because in that moment, when Daenerys goes nuts, and becomes a wicked genocidal dictator who must be deposed, I am remembering her rape scene. Basic story logic: That was the beginning of her arc, this is the end, and we are being asked to see what has changed. It was a journey from powerlessness to power, but now we know this makes it a journey from good to evil, too. What you are telling me, when you make Daenerys a power-mad despot, is that it was better for her to be powerless. It was better for her to be on her knees, with a stranger’s dick forced inside her, than it was for her to be a queen. Power turns Dany bad, and her badness hurts everyone, so it was better for the whole world for that little girl to get raped, over and over and over, than it was for her to find her power.

Yeah, I get it. And hey: Fuck you, too.

I already knew what kind of story this was. I am kicking myself because I knew, and I let myself get involved anyway. From the recap of the book series, in 2011: “Basically, what you need to know is that the woman who’s spent the past three books scheming her way into dominating an entire continent becomes an incompetent, screeching harpy the moment she actually exercises power. Women bosses. Am I right?”

That was about Cersei, not Dany, but that probably doesn’t matter, in a universe where all powerful women are the same psycho bitch. I’m not saying “I told you so.” I would never do that. I would gather my breath, lean far into my microphone, and then slowly, dragging out each vowel into its own aria, tell you that

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII TOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLD YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

As my voice rang out through the stadium-ready speakers I had arranged for the occasion. But now I’m an idiot, too, because I watched the show along with everyone else. So I can’t judge.

But here is what I know about women and power: Men fear powerful women, because they know that women have always had cause to fear powerful men. Men fear that women’s power will be violent, because they use their power to rape, assault, and beat us. Men fear that women’s power will be temperamental and despotic — that they will be forced to fear our every mood swing and obey our every irrational whim — because men have been raised to believe that their women should tend to them, cater to their whims, hang on the thread of their good graces. Men don’t fear “female power,” in the abstract. They fear being treated like women; they’re afraid that, when we win, they die. That when get the power, we’ll do the shoving, and it will hurt.

Like I say, I don’t like Cersei, but I do understand her. I understand the fears of the men who created her. I just don’t think their fears, or their feelings, are more important than women’s lives. Men’s stories will never really tell us how to survive patriarchy, or find our power, but we don’t need them to; we can figure it out ourselves. The complex, interesting, rich discussion about women and power that women attributed to Game of Thrones was all our own doing; the showrunners and writers were never interested in it. That’s a good thing. That means we can take it with us when we leave.

Game of Thrones ends on Sunday, and good riddance.

More witches next time, I swear. In the meantime, if you want to nominate something for me to cover, reply to this e-mail or Tweet at me.