This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones
Despite the influx of silver braids, reality TV star Stassi Schroeder shrieking on Instagram at her “khaleesi” fan base, and the dozens of Etsy pullovers and crop tops, I maintain, and always will, that Daenerys Stormborn Targaryen is not a basic character. No matter how hard our social media and influencer culture wants her to be, the Mother of Dragons has a deep complexity within her character that cannot be devalued by Urban Outfitters-like trends.
I sometimes cringe at how much merch is circulated around the internet with “Mother of Dragons” slapped on it. And if I am being honest, I definitely have a sweatshirt, cropped no less, stashed away in my closet for days I like to binge watch the show. Ever since I first read book one about five years ago, I had an envious love for Daenerys. At the time, every fanboy I interacted with basically pulled the, “Oh yeah, if you were a real fan you wouldn’t pick such an obvious favorite.” Years later, once the season premiered, I tried to play off my love for Dany by choosing more obscure characters to publicly fan over. I’m not trying to argue that one character is better written than another, although I am still trying to figure out Bran’s purpose right now. But I am defending one of the greatest female character evolutions in the show.
So, let’s take a quick look back on all of the ways Dany is an emblem of femininity and power for female audiences.
Female sexuality is a learning process and can be on our terms.
There is a lot of sexual violence on Game of Thrones. A lot. And I completely understand how offputting the storylines are, especially for women who have experienced domestic or sexual abuse in the past. Sometimes it feels as though the show and books use women’s submission in the bedroom as a plot device for a man to then act as rescuer or innocent-man-turned-villain (insert Jaime and Joffrey). But, what I think a lot of people tend to forget is how Dany evolves as a sexually liberated woman.
We might get tied up with the trauma of Sansa’s rape and the death of the many sex workers on the show, and our horror is justified. But let’s not dismiss how the show’s adaption of Daenerys went from terrified child bride to a confident, commanding feminine figure with her lovers.
Early in the show, she actively seeks education on how to pleasure both a man and herself, which proves to be her first move as an active agent in sex and not a submissive body. Her sexual relationship with Khal Dorgo is an incredibly telling shift in her sexual empowerment. Take, for instance, the literal reversal in position — the two swap as tops and bottoms, signaling a change in dynamic and acceptance. We then see her evolve confidently to command rooms of men, unfazed by their crude and abusive sexual innuendos. This isn’t to say that their behavior and abuse toward her is excused, because it’s not. But I was sincerely impressed by her ability to take control when able to and accept her sexuality as a potentially powerful part of her. We see Dany enjoy a casual and safe affair with Daario Naharis and later an intimate relationship with Jon Snow.
As a young woman following her journey, I am genuinely proud to know that female sexuality isn’t taboo, and realistically, is a continual process of learning and experimentation. And as a survivor of sexual assault, I was drawn to her methods of healing. I wanted to believe I could trust my body again, and her character is an incredible example of reclaiming the aftermath of trauma, mentally and physically.
Women are displaced physically and socially, and unfortunately, we still have to prove our worth.
Let’s outline her movements real quick so we are all on the same page:
As a baby, she was violently displaced from her kingdom after the massacre of her family. As a child, she moved from city to city seeking refuge. As a teenager, she was bought and sold, and traveled through unfamiliar and hostile lands. She then wandered, near death, in search of refuge wherever possible. There are so many details I could explain, but we don’t really have time to unpack all of that. Read the books if you want more clarification or to just work on your literacy.
What I want to highlight from all of this movement is how women are often reduced to take up space they were forced into and then required to produce some sort of value in order to get minimal safety or acceptance.
In every land, community, war zone, or even small home, Daenerys was subjected to confrontations by men who expected some form of physical tribute or emotional endurance from her.
Dany’s multiple displacements are a tangible showcase of the emotional trials women endure in all aspects of their lives. Whether that is familially, socially, politically, or romantically, Dany had experienced drastic and devastating movements around this fictional world, all of which represented varying levels of endurance and perseverance.
Pain is an inherent part of life, and survival is not a personality trait, it’s a necessity.
Sometimes women who have experienced trauma and abuse are encouraged to identify with their suffering. The label of survivor is a powerful one, but sometimes a limited one.
We could identify Daenerys as a survivor of rape, childhood abuse, genocide, kidnapping, and serious loss. But limiting her character as just a survivor of pain does her a disservice. And for those fans who like to focus simply on her image as the “unburnt” naked woman rising from the ashes, you are doing her just as much of a disservice.
As we watch her, I think we should remember all of the tragedies she has come out of, and yes, acknowledge the strength it took to emerge out the other end, but not restrict her character as simply a victim. Or even worse, a basic white girl’s dream. Because, really, when she came out of the fire after burning down Vas Dothrak, we all know some of the people who use the name Khaleesi in their instagram bios were drooling over the idea of shirtless men bowing down to their exposed breasts and somehow perfectly intact hair and eyelashes.
Dany’s pain is abundant and diverse. The term survivor now holds an entirely new and dichotomous meaning to me. Because as I read Twitter users debate whether or not she is a basic white girl savior or poor orphaned fighter, it’s so clear how consumers of pop culture view women through tunnel vision. Many famous women in film and television are critiqued or even praised in some form of victimhood. It is as if survival for a woman is a rare and interesting trait, not the requirement it actually is. This isn’t to say women should suppress their suffering, but Dany does take pain as a motivator and a lesson for improvement. And for the male fans out there who seemingly can’t separate the word victim from women’s legitimate suffering, I need you to reevaluate
Female characters in pop culture seemingly always inspire debate and controversy, no matter how they are written. Just take a look at Reddit threads for any of the Game of Thrones women — viewers hold harsh and high standards for them. When women get too powerful, they are criticized, dissected, and repressed. And for Dany’s case, the media’s response is to pigeonhole the Dragon Queen to a glorified Coachella Pinterest inspiration.
But I want to remind all of the women who have read and watched her growth how significant her evolution has been for film and media. We have a powerful leading woman who deserves so much more, especially in her last few episodes.
Here’s hoping George R. R. Martin finishes the books and Dany gets the justice she deserves.