Editor’s Note: Lindsey Mantoan is an assistant professor of theatre at Linfield College. She is the co-editor with Sara Brady of “Vying for the Iron Throne: Essays on Power, Gender, Death, and Performance in HBO’s Game of Thrones” and the author of “War as Performance: Conflict in Iraq and Political Theatricality.” The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
For six seasons, “Game of Thrones” cultivated fans’ admiration for Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons and Breaker of Chains – and for six seasons, kept her far away from the Iron Throne she sought to claim. Once Daenerys landed in Westeros and launched her military campaign, however, the show began to frame her ambition as evidence of her unfitness to rule.
The wildly popular show has started covering its frontrunner female candidate in much the same way that Hillary Clinton was treated during the 2016 election, relitigating her worst mistakes, overlooking her accomplishments, and suggesting that perhaps we’ve always been wrong to like her.
Lauded for its creativity and outside-the-box takes on political conflict, “Game of Thrones” now risks perpetuating an inability to imagine a morally just, militarily astute, consensus-building female ruler. Happily, some savvy fans of the show recognize this trap and are calling the show out for its coverage of Daenerys’ campaign. In a piece for Slate, Lili Loofbourow asks “Why did ‘Game of Thrones’ turn on Daenerys Targaryen?” and argues that “Daenerys’ ambition, which was once celebrated, functions now as brittle hubris.” She compares some of Daenerys’ questionable policies to those of other beloved characters and concludes that if the show finds Daenerys particularly immoral, it has an inconsistent moral compass. This fan practice of calling out implicit bias and unequal criticism provides a useful roadmap for US voters to rethink the way they consider female candidates vying for the White House.
Certainly, part of Daenerys’ character arc involves subverting fan expectations to create narrative conflict – a straightforward journey to the Iron Throne makes for dull television, especially for a show whose appeal lies in the twists of morally good characters making unethical choices and seemingly depraved characters redeeming themselves. But as the characters who stand in for the audience – including Sansa, Arya, Sam, and Tyrion – question Daenerys’ fitness to rule, longtime fans have begun to view her as increasingly villainous, or overlooking her entirely.
This week, as Winterfell celebrated its victory over the Night King, men praised Jon for riding a dragon into battle – and ignored entirely that Daenerys has been doing that for years. Although the camera angles suggest that perhaps the show acknowledged the sexism of its characters, the lack of dialogue makes this move so subtle that it’s possible only viewers already predisposed to call out misogyny will notice. After the Dothraki were slaughtered, she’s the one who took off on a dragon to fight the dead while Jon encouraged her to wait; as is so often the case in the real world, a woman leads and a man gets the credit.
This week’s episode also saw Varys and Tyrion discuss abandoning Daenerys and throwing their support behind the more likeable Jon Snow. It’s particularly galling to hear Varys list among Jon’s qualifications that he doesn’t actually want the throne – implicitly condemning Daenerys for her ambition. When Varys shuts down Tyrion’s suggestion that maybe Jon and Daenerys might rule together by saying: “She’s too strong for him. She’d bend him to her will, as she already has,” he effectively labeled Daenerys a castrating political woman that men fear.
Standing in for the viewer, Tyrion has been trying to call out the sexism of other characters, including asking Sansa why she seems determined to dislike Daenerys and directly telling Varys that “cocks” shouldn’t matter; his performance of male allyship only extends so far, however, as it’s clear he too has his doubts about Daenerys, and Sansa and Varys have the final words in their respective scenes. Daenerys has now watched as Cersei destroyed her fleet, slaughtered one of her dragons, and assassinated her closest friend and oldest advisor. Yet the show seemed to frame the fury on her face as she walked away from a parley with Cersei as evidence that she’s too mad (in both senses of the word) to rule; that anger, were it Jon’s, would have been reason to support his claim.
The show’s evolution regarding sexism – that it now calls out the misogyny of some of its characters and arcs – is progress but demonstrates just how far we still have to go, in both fiction and the real world. While the way “Game of Thrones” depicts sexism in its fictive universe is worlds apart from the politics unfolding in our world of reality, the threads of connection between the two are too compelling to ignore. In the last week, Elizabeth Warren’s poll numbers have ticked up and she’s now the female frontrunner for 2020, out-polling Kamala Harris and the other female candidates for the Democratic nomination for president. At the same time, The Nation ran an article declaring “The Media Can’t Figure Out How to Cover Elizabeth Warren” that shows how uncomfortable journalists can be with a woman putting forward revolutionary ideas.
Increased scrutiny often accompanies frontrunner status, but statistical analysis from Northeastern University’s School of Journalism of 130 articles on the five most popular news sites concludes, based on the percentage of positive words used in articles, that “[f]emale candidates running for president are consistently being described in the media more negatively than their male counterparts.” The analysis also demonstrates that coverage of male candidates more often describes their policy proposals while articles on female candidates focus on their personality or personal issues.
Given Rebecca Solnit’s assertion that “Unconscious Bias is Running for President,” it’s worth examining how Elizabeth Warren views Daenerys Targaryen. In a savvy move, Warren penned a recent op-ed entitled “The World Needs Fewer Cersei Lannisters” in which she praises Daenerys’ people-focused decisions while criticizing Cersei’s focus on wealth and banks – a critique that’s on-brand for the anti-Wall Street crusader and dovetails nicely with her proposals to dismantle big tech companies.
Indeed, Cersei acts as a compelling foil to Daenerys in a political analysis of female leadership in Westeros: rather than seeking to improve the lives of the entire population of Westeros as Daenerys does, Cersei works to consolidate economic power in the hands of the few. Warren assesses the female candidates for the Iron Throne based on their policies, not their personalities, and by comparing the political philosophies of two women vying for power, Warren takes as given that female ambition itself is not grounds for critique.
In light of increasing fan skepticism toward Daenerys, Warren writing an article praising the Mother of Dragons could seem poorly timed. But instead, she demonstrates exactly the kind of analysis of a female candidate that would be useful in the 2020 primary. Warren reminds fans why they’ve always admired Daenerys and points out the continued ways in which Daenerys behaves like a revolutionary leader. Her op-ed serves as a powerful antidote to the practice of vilifying ambitious women as they get closer to power.
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Warren’s not the only fan calling out the misogyny in condemning Daenerys as power-hungry; other fans of the show have taken to the internet in defense of the Mother of Dragons, her ability to gather allies, and the way she risked her army and dragons to defend the North. Certainly, with two episodes of “Game of Thrones” left, Daenerys has time to affirm her status as a leader intent on “breaking the wheel” of Westerosi politics, or to pivot and become the villain the show has started suggesting she already is. Should the latter happen, keep an eye out for how the show and its fanbase view her character arc. Some fans clearly possess the ability to see through the soft bigotry of focusing on her ambition. Hopefully coverage of the 2020 primaries will follow suit and the media will concentrate less on female candidates’ so-called “likeability” and more on their political effectiveness.