Bad Women and the Breaking of the Wheel
This post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for S08 E05 & E06 of Game of Thrones!
Game of Thrones is over. I feel a bit dazed, like when you take an afternoon nap but don’t wake up until the sun is already setting. As we collectively emerge blinking into the twilight of peak TV, there is much still to think about, namely that men are trash, but they are not the sole source of evil in this world. Women have always exercised whatever power they have had at a given moment in history toward oppressive, even violent ends. Whatever your opinion of the last season — whatever you think of the whole thing — the show was a remarkable cultural moment, not least because it was for most of its run a slow developing investigation of the relationship between gender and power.
Sansa took back her power from the gendered hierarchy of inheritance and marriage, shaping the trappings of traditional femininity to her will. Arya abandoned the hierarchy altogether, and the culture that cultivated it, altogether and traded in her title of Lady for the profession of killer. And Daenerys, who aspired to the highest seat of power in the land and whose journey to get there spanned eight seasons and two continents, was revealed at the last moment to be the tyrant she promised literally everyone she was not. Dany’s turn to atrocity in the penultimate episode of this season has triggered an avalanche of takes on gender, power, and genetic destiny.
We wanted Dany’s promise to break the wheel to be true and pure, and not the screen for exploitation and despotism it has always been coming from the mouths of colonizers. We live in a world where our politicians think women can be “voluntarily” raped, and so the fantasy of Dany’s absolute control, her unchallengeable power, tempered by the hope that she would be a true liberator, was intoxicating. And it seems like the show set out in the 5th episode to punish us doubly for falling for it. Not only did we have to come to grips with Dany’s agency being stripped away from her by her genetics, we were forced to watch in excruciating detail the consequences of those characters who began to doubt her failing to act in time.
The violence and destruction in the penultimate episode felt punitive and cautionary, lest we be tempted by the empty revolutionary promises of a superpower with a superior air force. But the finale takes a big step back from reckoning with Dany’s power and its consequences. Her death at Jon’s hands at the midpoint of the episode marks the last time we have to see any of the destruction and horror she visited upon Westeros. By the end of the episode, the sun is shining again and King’s Landing looks almost completely unscathed. The other powerful people, having laughingly shot down the idea of representative democracy, unenthusiastically appoint Bran the new king, everyone gets their faces washed and some new clothes, and the wheel is declared broken.
The showrunners took the easy way out in ending the series this way, and they did so in part because Dany’s character had become too much for them to handle, especially in a writer’s room with no women. Part of the reason Dany finally snapping engendered such heated reactions is that our media, largely created and controlled by men, don’t give enough credit or agency to the women characters. We have come to expect women to appear in stories in service of “representation,” and we are unaccustomed to thinking of women as dangerous or taking them seriously as such. The latter is, like so many things, a problem of how we tell and understand our own history as much as how we write fiction. In Game of Thrones, where all the major women protagonists are white, the issue is compounded by the way villainy is often racialized in Western media. We are unprepared to think of white women as tyrants, despots, colonizers and war criminals in part because white women are often represented as the softer, more moral foils of such characters when they are men, and because we still don’t think of women as complete people.
When we do recover the stories of women from our own history, we often neglect their full resumes. This is something we deal with often in writing about women scientists. For example, Maria Sibylla Merian was a 17th century German naturalist and illustrator who traveled to Suriname without a man accompanying her and using her own funds she earned herself. Her natural historical books and illustrations have earned her a spot in the pantheon of women in science. But Merian used slave labor to collect specimens, and she appropriated the knowledge of enslaved women in her study of the plants and insects of South America. Along with the specimens and drawings, she brought back with her to Europe an enslaved indigenous woman. We are comfortable lauding her audacity and her drive, her courage and her intellect. But when we celebrate the revolutionary potential of her actions –– her ability to break the wheel that kept women from participating in science, traveling alone, making money and directing their own destiny –– we cannot forget about her participation in slavery and her exploitation of indigenous people to further her own aims.
Dany’s project to build a better world should have always been suspect. We know now that such promises tend only to apply to certain people in certain circumstances, and are only enacted according to certain values. Margaret Sanger, long regarded as a 20th century hero for women’s liberation for her committed pursuit of new and better contraceptives, was a eugenicist who believed that birth control was necessary for preserving the health of the race. What’s more, Sanger was part of a mainstream Progressive movement, driven by wealthy and middle-class women, that advocated for numerous oppressive and paternalistic reform policies in the name of social progress. Part of the same movement, Ellen Swallow Richards, a chemist and public safety advocate who helped run a public kitchen that helped feed people in poverty, believed that immigrants needed to shed their “native religion” and food cultures in order to benefit from food reform. In the past too, breaking the wheel has never been the pure promise of revolution, and women have been as culpable as men in the abuse of their power.
In season 3, Dany and her army rampage around Slaver’s Bay liberating cities, freeing the enslaved, and slaughtering the masters. At the end of the season, the people of Yunkai thank her for their freedom by lifting her onto a swelling crowd of brown people, where her fair skin and platinum blonde hair frame her in an overhead shot as the single identifiable person in a sea of indistinguishable former slaves. It doesn’t actually matter if this portrayal was meant to highlight the true nature of Dany’s messianic quest, or if it was a tone deaf attempt to demonstrate the gratitude of the people she liberated. Both of these forces, the exercise of an imperial will that believes itself to be liberatory and the myth itself of the “good intentions” of empire, are part of the history of tyranny and colonization.
In a way, we are fools for buying into Dany’s rhetoric in the face of our own knowledge of history the foreshadowing peppered throughout Dany’s arc. Perhaps it wasn’t a matter of the filmmakers not earning Dany’s turn, but rather that we resisted it to the last because our hunger for representation, to see women wielding power and refusing to be controlled by men especially, outweighed our responsibility to understand women as fully rounded people who can break bad just as easily as men can.