Warning: This article contains some spoilers for House of the Dragon and the ending of Game of Thrones.
The new show, which is a prequel to the enormously popular Game of Thrones, will include plot lines involving rape and abuse of women.
This has reopened old wounds about its predecessor’s inclusion of graphic rape scenes, including some not even in the source material, and has raised the issue of how the brutal treatment of women will be portrayed in the new HBO series.
People often defend the misogyny in Game of Thrones in one of two ways. They either argue it is realistic in a Medieval-style society for women to be treated this way – gruesomely raped in conflicts or by their husbands, and only able to wield some power through their sexuality and cunning.
Or some point towards the complex, fully-formed and often flawed female characters in the books and TV show. Cersei, Arya, Sansa, Daenerys, Margaery Tyrell, Lady Olenna, Missandei, Ygritte. These are all “strong” characters whose desires and actions are both complicated and understandable. Out of that list, two women survive – Arya and Sansa Stark.
By the end of Game of Thrones, Arya, the traumatised assassin, becomes an “explorer” of distant lands, while Sansa becomes ‘Girl Boss of the North’. These are wins for women, right?
It didn’t remove the bitter taste in my mouth when Daenerys Targaryen, a rape survivor, was stabbed to death by Jon Snow as he kissed her. Of course, she had to be put down because of her genocidal – and a little out of character – actions in the previous episode. Her character complexity evaporates in the season eight finale, when she shows absolutely no remorse for killing innocent civilians she had spent eight seasons claiming to defend.
But, this is all OK because female characters are just as flawed as male characters in the Game of Thrones universe, and if you wanted a happy ending you haven’t been paying attention – right?
Which brings us to Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy), a sort of mirror of her descendant Daenerys.
Episode one of House of the Dragon encourages this association, opening with the words “172 years before...Daenerys Targaryen.” Rhaenyra even utters Daenerys’ catchphrase, “Dracarys", during the episode, commanding her dragon to breathe flame.
And, like Daenerys, she has a birth-right. The young princess is very publicly named heir to the Iron Throne by her father, King Viserys (Paddy Considine).
But, there’s a problem: she’s a *gasp* woman. A woman has never sat on the Iron Throne up until now, and a major council meeting involving Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best) previously set the precedent for skipping over women in the line of succession.
But, is there a reason a woman wouldn’t be allowed to rule in this universe? Returning to the idea that Westeros is like Medieval Europe, there are a few major differences. First of all, the dragons. These fire-breathing weapons of mass destruction are the sole reason the Targaryen house has so much power which simply cannot be challenged.
And, in this world, women can ride dragons. Just as well as men, it seems. When Aegon the Conqueror – the first Targaryen king – brought Westeros to its knees with his dragon Balerion the Black Dread, it was besides his two dragon-riding sisters Visenya and Rhaenys.
In Game of Thrones, Daenerys becomes the leader of the highly patriarchal Dothraki tribe because she is a dragon rider. Women in the Targaryen family wield just as much power as men. Why, then, would it be so outlandish for a woman to sit on the Iron Throne?
The true villain of this universe is the baffling system of hereditary patriarchal monarchy. But the only person who ever seeks to challenge this, to “break the wheel”, is transformed into a mass-murdering extremist in the Game of Thrones finale.
Art does reflect reality, and female suffering is as old as time. But what do shows like Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon actually say about it?
It’s not enough to show horrific birth scenes, rapes and sexist power systems if you don’t have anything significant to say about.
And, in an unlimited fantasy world, with dragons and zombies – why did it have to be one which is so relentlessly violent and unjust for women? We get enough of that in the real world.