Amy Lee argues there are many parallels between the treatment of Daenerys in Game of Thrones and society’s view of modern women politicians
“I will take what is mine, with fire and blood I will take it” — Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones, Season Two
The ‘heroine turned villain’ character twist in Daenerys Targaryen (Dany) in the final season of Game of Thrones (GoT) triggered 1.72 million signatures for a Season 8 remake. Most of the commentary around her character has focused on whether Dany’s character twist was predictable, or whether it is just poor storytelling by male screenwriters.
But I think what we really need to be talking about is power. Although Dany’s conquest for power is set in medieval fantasy, her downfall parallels the dismal treatment of many women politicians. The so-called ‘Mad Queen’s’ fight against medieval misogyny has many similarities to women vying for leadership in modern times. Women are both apparently willing participants in the present-day political game, but are also criticised for obtaining and using power in a way that men are not. The unfulfilled character arc of Dany in GoT as a ‘feminist saviour’ mirrors the public’s raised expectations and disproportionate disappointment in our women leaders.
I have identified some points which demonstrate the seemingly-accepted gender biases that have allowed misogyny to become the norm in undermining female leadership. I believe these are also observable in Dany’s characterisation in the final seasons of Game of Thrones.
In The Misogyny Factor, author Anne Summers defines misogyny as: “[a] deep-rooted network of attitudes and protocols that are designed to exclude women, or to demean them even if they do succeed in gaining entry.” She also points out that women have been depicted as either “good” or “evil” from at least the Bible onwards – such as the way that the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene are described. Gender biases like these are so entrenched that critics tend to attribute women leaders’ so-called failures to them as individuals rather than seeing the systemic issues they represent.
In GoT, the people of the Seven Kingdoms are sceptical of the seemingly foreign Dany as a ruler, as they fear she will inherit the cruelty of her father Aerys Targaryen, known now as the ‘Mad King’. Dany reassures her constituents: “I am not my father” to address their worries about her violent Targaryen ancestry. She vows not to be a “Queen of Ashes”, says “we’re going to build a better world” and promises to “break the wheel”, ending the cycle of violence. However, despite her best efforts the people of the kingdoms continue to mistrust her. For example, Lord Varys continues to plot against her and voices his doubts about her to Tyrion in the final season despite having promised Dany his support.
Similarly, Angela Merkel, the departing German Chancellor, was scrutinised heavily about her East German origin and Communist upbringing. When a 1972 photo of her dressed in a military-style uniform surfaced, she faced outlandish claims that she was a propaganda secretary for the youth movement, yet the photo simply related to a routine civil defence exercise. Along with this, WikiLeaks has claimed that the US National Security Agency has intercepted her phone since 2002, thereby confirming this misplaced distrust.
Women leaders have to work hard to convince the public of their good intentions: far harder than men ever have to.
The need to be ‘likeable’
Women leaders are often under pressure to earn ‘likability’ by making gratuitous moral gestures. Indeed, former Democratic US Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, remarked on the hypocritical ‘likeable’ focus on female candidates when reflecting upon her 2016 election campaign.
An arguable example of this would be when Julia Gillard, the former Prime Minister of Australia, called a snap election when she replaced the sitting PM Kevin Rudd in 2010. Gillard was arguably tainted by her coup on Kevin Rudd, leaving her less able to claim a ‘higher moral ground’. She said she would not move into the Prime Ministerial residence, The Lodge, until she had won the election in her own right. However, setting herself this high standard backfired, as she then ended up with a hung parliament. I don’t think a male politician would have felt he needed to do this (though perhaps he should!) The harder women have to work to become ‘likeable’, the harder they fall.
In parallel, in GoT Dany builds a reputation through liberating slaves and proves her political savvy by gaining the Unsullied Army and the Dothraki fleet. Despite her accomplishments, she is never cheered on by the Northerners nor their allies in the same way as, for example, Jon Snow is. Although he is stabbed by a small group of mutineers for his catastrophic error of allowing the White Walkers to enter the North, he remains popular. His resurrection following the attack is portrayed as a glorious moment with his attackers killed as traitors. Alongside this Dany is later killed off by the writers as if this is the best outcome for everyone.
Back in the real world, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was praised when she refused a 3% pay increase for herself, as well as imposing a pay freeze on all parliamentarians for a year. Meanwhile the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has found it politically inconsequential to allow himself a $10,000 pay increase, despite recession fears. Why should Morrison have been able to get away with such irresponsible actions when it would have been impossible for Arden?
I am not arguing that that either Gillard or Ardern should not have done these things, but pointing out that men would not have felt the need to and nor would society have expected them to. There’s hypocrisy here.
Overall, the evidence suggests that for women politicians, it seems ‘likability’ is more pressing than competence, but the idea of likability is so nebulous, it’s almost impossible for them to obtain.
Women leaders are constantly micromanaged and scrutinised. For example, Taiwanese President Tsai was criticised for telephoning Donald Trump after his 2016 presidential victory. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi condemned Tsai’s call as a “petty trick”. The South China Morning Post warned the call “risked upsetting Sino-US relations” and patronisingly suggested Tsai should be “cautious in the face of an infuriated Beijing”. Additionally, her visit to the Taiwanese bakery cafe, 85C, in Los Angeles, on her way to Belize and Paraguay in August 2018 resulted in a Chinese boycott against the chain. International diplomacy may be delicate, but visiting cafes and making congratulatory calls tend to be reframed as ‘routine’ when performed by male politicians even when they are also leaders of states with limited recognition.
Similarly, it was not uncommon for warring factions to force loyalty from the losing House during medieval battles. Yet in Season 8 of GoT, Sam Tarly’s discovery that Dany killed his family for joining her rival, the Lannisters, is oddly portrayed in a horrific, drawn-out emotional scene. Men ordering killings for similar bases are represented as being fair. For example we see Ned Stark teach his sons that it is just to behead a boy for running away. Other traumatic killings ordered by men, such as the Red Wedding, are shown in a way intended to leave the audience wanting retribution; Dany’s killing of the Tarlys is depicted as a clumsy over-reaction to sentiments against her.
Across real life, women politicians are overly scrutinised. Ex-UK Prime Minister Theresa May was criticised for being unable to deliver a Brexit deal. Following her resignation, Boris Johnson, frequently characterised as an affable “joker”, took over the position. Within a month, his leadership has been both theatrical and destabilising including an unlawful suspended parliament, a rebellion of 21 of his party’s MPs and his call for an early election rejected. Yet it seems critics are preoccupied with interpreting whether these moves might be calculated as part of some kind of deliberate scheme. It’s implied that there must be a logic to a man’s actions, however catastrophic they seem.
The frustrating scrutiny applied to women prompted the Liberal Democrats leader, Jo Swinson, to ask the departing May how a women should deal with men “who think they can do a better job, but are not prepared to do the actual work”.
Female politicians are also micromanaged by being told they need advice. The US writer, Rebecca Solnit has articulated this phenomenon of mansplaining, where a man takes it upon himself to advise a woman who is experienced in the subject matter. We can see an example of this in GoT when Dany is patronisingly reminded by Tyrion that she needs his guidance when he in fact repeatedly gives terrible advice. For example, he incorrectly assumes that the Lannister army waits at Casterly Rock and dispatches the Unsullied Army accordingly. Tyrion is subsequently blindsided by Jamie Lannister, who takes his army to ambush Highgarden, leading to Dany losing her last Westerosi ally, the Tyrells. It is here that Dany realises she should have followed her instincts, as suggested by Lady Tyrell, instead of listening to a man.
Similarly, Helmut Kohl, the former German Chancellor and mentor to Merkel, has often patronisingly referred to her as “mein Mädchen” (“my girl”). Ironically, Merkel replaced Kohl as the leader of the Christian Democrats Party after he was tainted by a party funding controversy. It seems she hardly needed his advice.
Women leaders are set up to be in conflict with each other
In a sexist society, so-called ‘Queen Bees’ competing for survival in a small pool disguises misogyny in its most brutal form. An example of this in GoT is when Cersei beheads Dany’s confidant, Missandei, to provoke Dany to start a war. It is also evident when the Stark sisters distance themselves from Dany before warning Jon Snow that, “we don’t trust your Queen”. Sansa’s iciness towards Dany is a pointless writer-contrived fight between women leaders. This rivalry is dissatisfying to the audience as Sansa’s jealously is nonsensical. The writers seem to be trying to elevate Sansa into looking smarter and more contemplative so that when another woman, Dany, later acts, it seems irrational and out of character.
In line with this, we still see women politicians demeaning their peers by using sexist slurs. In Australia, Conservative women stood behind offensive placards against Gillard saying things like “Ditch the witch” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch”. Andrea Leadsom, a contender for the UK Prime Minister in 2016, attempted to capitalise on Theresa May’s childlessness during an interview with The Times in order to make her seem like the less viable candidate. Leadsom suggested that since she herself was a parent, she had a “real stake” in the UK’s future (unlike May). Being a woman does not stop you being a misogynist, of course.
Women leaders are unfairly judged for ‘losing it’
Dany is condemned as ‘unfit’ to rule after she burns King’s Landing, a town. While this decision does sit uncomfortably with modern sensibilities, similar acts were not uncommon in the past. For example, Alexander the Great sacked the surrendered Persepolis in 330 BC because he feared another Persian invasion of Greece. In keeping with this, Dany’s ultimate ambitions are to unify the kingdom on Westeros and conquer Essos, by peaceful means if possible, but warfare when necessary. With that long-term mindset and upon seeing her ancestral castle, Dany makes an example of King’s Landing by annihilating it to prevent any risk of resurgence. As discomforting as this logic may be, it is a rational strategy that arguably serves Dany’s goal. When we recall that Dany’s previous attempts to win over supporters with love have not always worked, we can see that instilling fear may be her only effective option.
As Dany is a woman, it seems common for commentators to attribute her military actions to her becoming a ‘mad’ queen (whether that’s something caused by her environment or inherited from her father) and her emotions and mental state, rather than anything thought out and purposeful. A male Forbes contributor referred to this dark twist as an example of Dany being “selfish and unfeeling” – though I suspect a man’s selfishness would be labelled ‘natural’ ambition or competitiveness instead. However, it’s not fair to view Dany’s burning of King’s Landing only through our 21st century revisionist eyes – the series is set in an ancient mythical kingdom, not Kent.
Turning to modern times, Gillard’s famous ‘misogyny speech’, condemning the then opposition leader, Tony Abbott, for his sexist treatment towards her has been viewed over 3.2 million times on YouTube. However, this has led to the Australian mainstream media criticising Gillard and describing it as “an irrelevant hissy fit” in which she played the “gender card”. Described like this, Gillard’s arguments seem to become immaterial. All the matters here is her anger has been reframed as ‘non-prime ministerial’, even though a man behaving in the same way might be praised for being “authentic”.
This hypocrisy in turn conditions (and rewards) women leaders to simulate ‘masculine’ attributes. Going back to GoT, Sansa, the only woman to survive and retain her power as the Queen of the North, arguably does so by adopting ‘masculine’ traits. She loses her compassion and becomes cold and cynical.
In conclusion, women can’t win
Dany’s downfall in GoT is seen as a “tragedy”, but it only shows the way misogyny and all its associated behaviours continue to work against women. While GoT is obviously fantasy fiction, it’s troubling that this misogynistic treatment of a fictional character resembles the real-life treatment of women politicians so closely. Seeing this pattern happen again in such a popular programme will only reinforce these tired ideas. Television, political parties, workplaces and power brokers must do more to educate and to tackle unacceptable behaviour towards women. We must stop accepting misogyny as the norm, and this means we must keep calling out the unconscious biases against our women leaders if we are to stop it pervasively eroding our lives. Women leaders can be just as strong and as powerful as men in leadership roles and we need to let those women shine instead of expecting them to fit into a misogynistic primitive mould.
The feature image is taken from Game of Thrones’s IMDb page and is used under fair dealing. It shows a dragon swooping over a landscape. Hundreds of people on horses are riding beneath with weapons in their hands.
The first image in the text is from the US Department of State’s Flickr account and shows then US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivering remarks at the Pixel Building Clean Tech Event in Melbourne, Australia, on 7 November, 2010. The two women stand behind a podium and look ‘well groomed’ – they wear smart jackets, jewellery and makeup. Behind them is a brightly coloured glass and metal wall.
The second image in the text is by 總統府 and shows the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen making a phone call to Donald J. Trump, President-elect of the USA on 2 December 2012. She sits behind a shiny dark desk leaning over a conference phone into which she is speaking. Taiwanese flags are behind her.