Game of Thrones and the false feminist promise

It seems like such a long time ago that Game of Thrones advertised its sixth season with the tagline “women on top.” We were promised a slate of powerful, brilliant women poised to take over Westeros: Sansa Stark as Lady of Winterfell, Cersei Lannister (however one feels about her) taking the Iron Throne, and the Mother of Dragons herself coming to claim her birthright.


Lo, how the mighty have fallen. Or maybe they were never really there to begin with. Maybe, like the blink-and-miss-it moment of “girl power” during the final battle of Avengers: Endgame, the creators of Game of Thrones want all the credit for doing right by women while actually doing the exact opposite.


In the most recent episode, “The Last of the Starks” multiple characters voiced the opinion that Jon Snow was better suited to rule than Daenerys Targaryen was. He’s better tempered. He’s a war hero. He rides a dragon! (Never mind that the latter two also apply to Daenerys, and that part of her ill temper stems from poor writing inconsistent with her prior actions.)


Given the tenor of other remarks by the writers of Game of Thrones, they did not, in fact, intend to make pointed commentary on the difficulties women face when seeking political power. Rather, they confirmed what many had suspected from about the middle of last season onward: that they’re clearly aiming to put Jon Snow on the Iron Throne at Daenerys’ expense.


In an incisive essay for Slate, Lili Loofbourow pinpoints a major difference between the narratives constructed around Jon and those constructed around Daenerys: “In Jon’s case, others tell his story for him. Dany has to tell her own. The uncharitable result is that her achievements are construed as passive and magical, while his are coded as merit-based.”


People like to laugh at Daenerys’ long list of titles, and sure, it is a bit much. But each of those titles represents a battle she had to win. Jon Snow is merely that, as Ser Davos Seaworth remarked when he introduced the two early in season seven.


Daenerys thinks she should rule because it’s her destiny, because she brought three dragons to life—something that ought to have been impossible; that was, in essence, a miracle. Jon doesn’t want to rule, and therefore he should.


There is one scene in “The Last of the Starks” that Loofbourow points to as an illustration of just how unfair this narrative tack is. Tormund Giantsbane is toasting to Jon in the great hall of Winterfell, but all the qualities he lists also belong to Daenerys. The camera cuts back and forth between the cheerfully drunk Tormund and the solemn Daenerys, who would clearly love to take credit for her accomplishments, but can’t because it will make her seem too proud in front of an audience who is already poised to be suspicious of her.


If this doesn’t sound familiar, it should.


I’m not saying that Daenerys is the right choice. She’s made plenty of mistakes in the past, and her path to the throne thus far has been paved in the bodies of people of colour—the Dothraki, the Unsullied, and the citizens of Slaver’s Bay. But that doesn’t mean she deserves to have the mechanics of the narrative turned against her at the last minute so Jon Snow can take credit for what she has achieved.


Nor is Dany the only woman thrust aside in favour of Jon. In the seventh season, Jon was proclaimed King in the North even though the so-called Battle of the Bastards was won not by him but by the last-minute arrival of Sansa Stark leading the armies of the Vale. It was Sansa who cut a deal with everyone’s least-favorite snake oil salesman, Littlefinger, and saved the day. All Jon did was throw everyone’s plans into disarray by impulsively charging into battle. That’s hardly a good advertisement for his leadership skills.


(Not to mention the awful exchange I referenced in my recap of the episode where, instead of taking full—deserved—credit for her own survival, Sansa implied that her power derived from her physical and psychological abuse by Littlefinger and Ramsay Bolton. Sansa deserves better. So do we.)


And while I buy the interpretation that Jon successfully distracted Viserion the ice dragon by screaming at him precisely so that Arya could duck into the godswood to deliver the final coup-de-grace to the Night King and win the battle against the White Walkers…well, Arya was the one who won the war, wasn’t she? Why doesn’t she get an accolade from Tormund Giantsbane? Why is her only “reward” that Gendry asks her to marry him?


Both Sansa and Arya have come out in favour of Jon taking the Iron Throne. They have ample reason for it within the narrative; Jon is their half-brother/cousin, and from a political standpoint, if their aim is for an independent Kingdom of the North, he’s their likeliest route to that end.


Varys and Tyrion, on the other hand, make no sense within the narrative. They’ve only turned against Daenerys because the writers want Jon to win. The writers are even resorting to nonsensical excuses—that Daenerys “forgot about the Iron Fleet.” Even if Daenerys herself did—which is unlikely at best—Tyrion and Varys wouldn’t. And unless they’re deliberately trying to sabotage the queen they claim to serve, it reflects none too well on either of them that Daenerys has lost the second of her three dragons and one of her closest supporters, Missandei, to a cheap parlour trick.


(And don’t start me on how shamefully Missandei has been treated. As others, including Ava DuVernay, have pointed out, other women got to go out fighting, while Missandei–the only named woman of colour on the show–was executed in chains. That speaks volumes about the writers and the showrunners, and none of it is flattering.)


Game of Thrones has always had a poor record on its race and gender representation. We’ve always known that. But, having come this far on the promise of powerful, charismatic women, it’s especially disappointing to see them all being thrown aside for a white guy who knows nothing.


But, then again, that’s just like real life, isn’t it?

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