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How the Game of Thrones finale failed women with its infertility storyline

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Kayleigh Dray
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Please note that this article is dark and full of spoilers for ‘The Iron Throne’, otherwise known as the Game of Thrones finale. So please don’t read on unless you have seen season eight, episode six of the HBO fantasy series, or almost a decade of patiently waiting for each GoT episode to drop will be completely ruined for you.  You have been warned.

Nobody – and I mean nobody – expected King Bran the Broken.

On paper, sure, he has some relevant experience. Bran undertook a brief training course – presumably titled ‘How to be a steward of Winterfell’ – back when he was a little nipper, before becoming the emotionless psychic embodiment of all human history. But, as a disgusted Sansa points out to everyone who will listen, Bran has n want to be king. And he can’t have children, which is – well, it’s kind of important when you’re establishing a monarchy.

Tyrion, though, disagrees wholeheartedly. Which makes sense, when his life is on the line and his survival is entirely dependent on a merciful new ruler being crowned.

“Sons of kings can be cruel and stupid,” he informs Sansa, with a knowing nod to the Joffrey Baratheons and Ramsay Snows gone by. “His will never torment us. That is the wheel our queen wanted us to break. From now on rulers will not be born, they will chosen on this spot by the lords and ladies of Westeros.”

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It was a beautiful moment, and one which saw the wheel finally smashed to smithereens as a new era of meritocracy was ushered in. And yet…

Well, Bran is not the first character to admit that they can’t have children. However, his is the first that wasn’t treated as a problem that needed solving.

I’m talking, of course, about Tyrion’s reaction to the late Daenerys Targaryen’s infertility.

The subject was broached in season seven’s ‘Beyond the Wall’ by Tyrion during a surprisingly gossipy conversation with the Mother of Dragons, in which he points out that she has found an admirer in Jon Snow – a patently obvious truth which she denies.

Tyrion, sensing he’s getting nowhere with his matchmaking, then asked Daenerys who she plans to name as her heir if she wins her war.

“You want to know who will sit on the Iron Throne after I am dead, is that it?” she snapped back.

“You say you can’t have children but there are many ways of choosing a successor,” he replied gently, suggesting that she could change the face of the monarchy forever. “You once told me you’d break the wheel. So how do we ensure your vision endures? After you break the wheel, how do we make sure it stays broken?”

The implication was, essentially, that the country could likely descend into civil war if the ‘problem’ of Dany’s infertility was not solved, and quickly. The implication was that Dany’s infertility made her a less viable contender for the Iron Throne. And the implication was that, as a woman, the only thing she could bring to the Iron Throne was a long line of blonde-haired, green-eyed children.

Fans had hoped that Daenerys and Jon Snow's children would rule over Westeros

Fans had hoped that Daenerys and Jon Snow's children would rule over Westeros

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Ever since she was cursed by Mirri Maz Duur back in the first season of the show, Daenerys believed that she would never be able to have children. At the time, the Khaleesi was pregnant with Khal Drogo’s child and desperate to save the life of her wounded Dothraki husband – so much so that she agreed to offer up a blood sacrifice to Duur.

When Daenerys awakened from the ceremony, she learned that her son had been stillborn, and found Drogo alive but in a vegetative state. She asked Duur when her husband would return to full health, only to have the following curse spat back at her: “When the sun rises in the west, sets in the east when the seas go dry and mountains blow in the wind like leaves. When your womb quickens again, and you bear a living child. Then he will return, and not before.”

Since then, Daenerys took it as gospel that she could not bear children – and, indeed, it did seem to be the case. Her unprotected sex with Daario Naharis has had zero results and, in the book, at least, she suffered what appeared to be a miscarriage.

That’s why she always saw her dragons as her children, and why Viserion and Rhaegal’s deaths affected her so very deeply. She knew that she would never give birth to a living child, and that her only family were the three dragons who came out of the fire with her. That is why she loved them as tenderly as any mother.

So it made sense that, when she reunited with Jon after the bloody battle beyond The Wall, she felt compelled to lay down some ground rules for her potential future partner.

“The dragons are my children,” she told him softly. “They’re the only children I’ll ever have. Do you understand?”

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Jon, for his part, only began to think about the possibility of having children himself in the seventh series. He was a young boy when he swore an oath of celibacy and joined the Night’s Watch – and, since being brought back from the dead, he’s been a little… well, a little less positive about his future.

However, in the very same episode that Daenerys reminded us of her infertility, Ser Jorah Mormont pointedly told Jon that he should pass Longclaw on to his children someday. An idea which seemed to please Jon very greatly, judging by the expression on his usually morose face.

And yet, at the time, her and Jon’s closeness wasn’t hampered by her confession at all. Indeed, he held her hand shortly afterwards, called her softly by the nickname ‘Dany’, and promised to bend the knee to her as his one true queen.

Tyrion, though, remained unmoved. Indeed, he was very much of the opinion that Daenerys needed to think up a solution for her ‘problem’, because, as Robert Baratheon’s death had made clear at the beginning of the series, a king or queen always needs a clear replacement waiting in the wings.

Essentially, Tyrion wanted Dany to find a way of ‘breaking the wheel’ of hereditary lines.

“The Night’s Watch has one method, the Iron Islands for all their faults have another,” he told her.

It is for this reason that so many of the show’s fans suspected that Daenerys would never sit on the Iron Throne herself. Instead, they believed that she would use her dragons to melt it down, putting an end to the tired old feudal systems past and forging a better, stronger and fairer future for all in Westeros. That she would be the one to usher in a new era of democracy, put an end to the landed aristocracy, and offer the commonfolk the chance to choose their own leaders. That she would give her followers the choice to bend the knee or return to their homes overseas.

Ah, how wrong we all were.

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Daenerys had attracted such a huge following because she offers them something they have never been offered before: the freedom to choose.

Missandei, the Unsullied and the Dothraki all believe in Daenerys. They chose to follow her based on her actions, not because of her impressive lineage.

And Jon Snow, who refused to bend the knee when Daenerys demanded that he do so, later recognised her as his queen. And he, like those he came before him, chose to do so because he saw her for the woman she was – and truly believed she was the right ruler for Westeros.

More importantly, though, Jon decided to bend the knee to Daenerys after learning she couldn’t have children of her own – and, in doing so, became one of the first GoT rulers to recognise that women are so much more than the sum of their body parts. That a queen’s role does not have to be reduced to anything as base as “lie back and bring forth children for your king”. That they can rise to be so much more than the head of home and hearth. That they can be brave, and smart, and calculating. And, most importantly of all, that they can be rulers in their own rights, making valid and vital decisions about the future of their own people.

It is a message that was seemingly hammered home by Sansa’s coronation in the Game of Thrones finale: our ‘Queen in the North’ boasted a hairstyle seemingly inspired by the real-life looks of Queen Elizabeth I, who wore her hair down at her coronation to project the image of youth and purity — supposedly as a direct challenge to those who believed the sexual abuse and harassment she experienced as a teenager “ruined” her. Sansa, like the real-world queen, is a victim of sexual abuse who overcame patriarchal conventions and took on a position of power and influence.

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But Sansa wasn’t infertile: Dany was. Too bad, then, that the dragon queen’s infertility was used as a tool to drive her mad. That the destruction of her chosen family – Missandei, Jorah, Viserion, Rhaegal – was almost entirely the trigger for her downfall. That Varys and Tyrion couldn’t come up with a solution to an infertile ruler until after Dany’s death and after Bran ‘The Broken’ became a hot contender for the throne.

When it came to Bran, his infertility was presented as something that would make him an EVEN BETTER RULER. As something that would make the kingdom safer and more stable. 

Essentially, his infertility made him special. It made him a hero. The woman who came before him, though, was frequently informed that her infertility made her a problem – and somehow ‘less than’ those other contenders for the throne.

No wonder she lost her mind. No wonder she died a “monster”. That was, after all, the role she was forced into by the men around her.

This article was originally published in 2017.

Images: HBO

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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