Awwwwww yeah, we’re pulling out the big guns and rating the Khaleesi.
SPOILER ALERT: George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire and the HBO show derived thereof, Game of Thrones
Daenerys Targaryen is the last living¹ member of the Targaryen family, former monarchs of The Seven Kingdoms, the fictional nation in which much of the series takes place. She’s also a Khaleesi, or female tribal leader, within the Dothraki culture and the adoptive mother of the first living dragons for centuries. Thus far, HBO’s portrayal of Daenerys has been fairly faithful to Martin’s original character.² Her character is so new and unique within fantasy culture that there aren’t many different incarnations of her: she’s only been played by one actress, Emilia Clarke, and there aren’t really Daenerys comic books or other merchandise in the mainstream yet.
Her family, while not exactly innocents themselves, were tortured, raped and murdered by insurgents, while only Dany and her brother Viserys escaped to the island nation of Pentos as children. In other words, girl’s got a huge chip on her shoulder. In addition to spending her childhood hiding in exile, Daenerys learns at young age that certain types of men will always attempt to take advantage of her. The series does, after all, take place in a fantasy realm that seems vaguely based on Medieval Europe, and let’s face it: most women probably did not have a great time in Medieval Europe.
Perhaps fittingly, then, young Daenerys is incessantly sexually harassed, particularly by her own brother, sold as a slave-wife to a stranger by her so called “benefactor”, then raped³ by her new husband/owner, Khal Drogo. All in all, Dany’s early days are par for the course for a lady in Martin’s (pretty fucked up) world. But man oh man, does she bounce back in a big way.
Dany’s saga is too complex to fully relate in this column, but suffice it to say that she gains confidence as she matures, becomes a Khaleesi, reanimates some petrified dragon eggs, and kicks ass on her way to reclaim her family’s former glory as ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. As a conventionally beautiful teenager and heiress, a lot of people try to take advantage of her in various ways; but when this happens, she doesn’t just rebuff them – she waits until they think they have the upper hand, and then she motherfucking destroys them.
Some examples: the warlocks of Quarth think that they can kidnap and use her to keep her dragons alive, reducing her value to that of procreation – so she commands her dragons to burn the fuckers down. When the merchant Xaro Xhoan Daxos betrays her, revealing that he was basically trying to get into her pants while making a little cash on the side, she locks the motherfucker in his own vault to die. Later, in Astapor, the slave trader who owns the slave army Dany wishes to purchase assumes she’s just some naive little girl who doesn’t speak Valyrian (she does), and says so with a healthy dose of bigotry, thinking she can’t understand. Again, her dragons burn him down, not to mention she frees all of his slaves.
It is no coincidence that so far, most of Daenerys’ enemies have been men, all of whom demonstrate attitudes towards women that are either paternalistic, predatory or both. Daenerys is such a compellingly feminist character because she wields people’s assumptions about her, many of which are gender-based, as a weapon with which to achieve her own goals (getting hers) and defend the oppressed (like the slaves of Astapor).
She doesn’t start doing this overnight exactly, but she does experience a turning point one night when she takes the experiences life has dealt her and makes them her own: namely, sex.
Daenerys first becomes the bad ass that GoT fans knows and love when, one night, she takes control of her situation and gets on top – of her husband Drogo, that is. All of Dany’s young life, she has been treated as though sex is one of her only assets. When she gets on top of Drogo, she is making a statement: “I’m going to stop doing this (having sex) because I’m told, and start doing it because I like it. And Dothraki customs be damned, I’m going to do it the way I like4“. Sexual empowerment leads directly to political empowerment when Drogo impregnates Dany with an heir, lending her the cultural capital she needs to become a leader in her own right alongside her husband.
While conventional family life doesn’t pan out for Dany the way she might have hoped, her pregnancy is the indirect catalyst that leads to Daenerys’ eventual greatest source of power: the three dragons, who are as much a part of her as a biological child would be. Basically, all of Daenerys’ power and badassery can be traced back in some way to one night when she decided to assert herself sexually.
It should be mentioned, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, that Dany is a surprisingly maternal character for someone so young.5 As “The Mother of Dragons,” she identifies motherhood, be it adoptive or biological, as a powerful state of being that can also be wielded as a weapon. In the era of Twilight, in which motherhood is a scary affliction that can literally kill you if your baby-daddy happens to be a vampire, this is pretty progressive.
As awesome as Dany is, she can’t be perfect. Appearance-wise, Dany very much looks the part of your standard fantasy heroine – long hair, flowy dresses, unnaturally colored eyes (they’re purple).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this of course, but it does reinforce the concept that heroines still need to look like delicate little “princesses,” even when they’re so much more than that. There is also an issue in that the love of Daenerys’ life, her husband Khal Drogo, did rape her initially. Personally, I find it very hard to wrap my head around this idea; however, in a world where arranged marriages and rampant misogyny are the norm, it probably makes sense contextually.
On to the Female Empowerment Meter! (Need an explanation? Check out my first article here!)
F.E.M. Ratings: Daenerys Targaryen
Breaks with gender stereotypes – 7
If Daenerys weren’t a contemporary heroine whose canon is still unfolding as I write, I might give her a higher score. But she isn’t quite as groundbreaking as some of the ladies who paved the way for her yet, so let’s keep things in perspective for now.
Resists/returns the male gaze – 9
I almost want to give her a perfect score here, mostly because Emilia Clarke as Daenerys has one of the best “Don’t Objectify Me” stares that I’ve ever seen.
Possesses agency independent of men – 8
Again, Daenerys does really fucking well in this area, and the completion of her character arc might require a revision of this score in the future. But a lot of her agency (mostly that which comes with her political power) is derived from the patriarchal structures of the realms she inhabits. I’d like to see Dany take some more deconstructive action against these systems, like she does when she frees the slaves.
OVERALL: 8 / 10
You go, Khaleesi.