Our reaction to Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen represents a huge issue in modern society – and it’s time we started talking about it.
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.
There. Now nobody can say you weren’t warned.
Even if you don’t watch the HBO show, it would be hard for anyone not to have at least heard of Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen (otherwise known as Khaleesi) by this point.
Portrayed by real-life badass Emilia Clarke, her character is easily the most important in George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, with her quest to reclaim the Iron Throne one of the story’s main narrative arcs. As such, we’ve seen her rise up from the vulnerable little girl she once was, sold by her brother as a Dothraki bride and raped on her wedding night, to a powerful ruler in her own right. She broke the wheel in Slaver’s Bay and liberated hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised people. She told Yara (Gemma Whelan) that the Iron Islands must end their tradition of “reaving, roving, raiding and raping”. She united the Dothraki with the Unsullied. She has inspired loyalty almost everywhere that she goes. She convinced Jon Snow (Kit Harington) to give up his crown as ‘King of the North’ and bend the knee – no small thing, considering he knew of her infertility beforehand.
For almost a decade, we have watched the Mother of Dragons fight for her right to return home to Westeros. And, in the first episode of the eighth and final season of GoT, we saw her do just that.
Dressed in resplendent fur robes, surrounded by her armies, accompanied by two dragons, and sat atop her own horse (Daenerys is no damsel in distress), viewers watched as she rode into Winterfell. Unlike previous seasons, she had a big smile on her face as she did so – something which delighted myself and fellow GoT superfan Hannah Rose Yee, yet seemed to rankle fans and critics alike watching back home.
That’s right: there are more than a few negative adjectives which have seemingly become synonymous with Daenerys Targaryen. ‘Cocky’, for example. ‘Smug’. ‘Unlikeable’.
One particularly scathing review even went as far as to describe her as “so presumptuous, so preening, so self-satisfied”, insisting that the Northerners (who famously don’t take well to outsiders) treated Dany with “the contempt she deserves”.
And one vile Reddit user slammed her for being “nothing but a smug c**t who turned Jon into her personal lackey/fuck buddy” (you know, despite the fact that EVERY SINGLE MAN IN GAME OF THRONES has used and abused a woman for sex at some point).
You get the picture.
It makes sense – to rational people, at least – that Daenerys would be smiling at this moment in time. Not only had she finally done what she always set out to achieve (make her way back to the home she never knew), but she had done so by using her own abilities. When she began her GOT story, she had nothing: no fortune, no army, no dragons, no nothing. At that moment, though, she was one of the most powerful women in Westeros, she commanded the largest army in the Seven Kingdoms, and she had two dragons of her very own.
Best of all? Daenerys, unlike many of the other Iron Throne’s hottest contenders, was undeniably beloved by her people: Jon Snow, Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), the Unsullied and the Dothraki all believed in Daenerys. They chose to follow her based on her actions, not because of her impressive lineage. They knew, deep in their hearts, that if they ever wanted to leave her side, she would give them her blessing to do so. “She would give me a ship and wish me good fortune,” smiled Missandei, when asked what the Breaker of Chains would do if she ever asked to return home across the Narrow Sea.
Essentially, the Dany of the season eight premiere was a very different woman to that of season one. She was confident when it came to her ability to rule a kingdom (enough to make a play for the Iron Throne, at least). She was in her element. Above all else, she was proud of herself, and, as such, all too ready to smile.
However, pride apparently isn’t something the world can get on board with – especially when it comes to a woman.
As we have previously reported, research has found that, for women, there’s nothing quite as terrible as being seen as cocky or too confident. And it seems as if our reasoning for this is rooted in some logic, despite being horribly depressing: women who are assertive or forceful (aka intent on pursuing their dreams and achieving their goals) are perceived as 35% less competent than non-assertive women, according to a 2015 VitalSmarts study. And one Stanford University paper, which compared employees with certain masculine traits – like being “aggressive, assertive, and confident” – with feminine traits such as “acting like a lady”, found that a woman can’t step outside of her traditional role without making waves, or experiencing a backlash.
“To be successful, you must be assertive and confident, but if you are aggressive as a woman you are sometimes punished for behaving in ways that are contrary to the feminine stereotype,” the researchers theorised.
With this in mind, it makes sense that so many people balked when Daenerys smiled such a confident and radiant smile in that GoT episode – and that so many people on social media experienced an irrational hatred of her from the moment she rode confidently into Winterfell. They would have preferred her to bashfully bat away compliments, talk down her skills and insist she’s far more mediocre than the world gives her credit for. To be cowed, simpering, and full of self-loathing. To flush red with embarrassment whenever Jon Snow warned her that the Northerners tend to stick to their own kin. To spout out lengthy monologues about how terrible she’s been, and is, and will continue to be. To begin every single sentence with an apology.
And, somewhat infuriatingly, it seems as if Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss shared that same opinion. So much so that they decided to punish Dany for her smugness in the GoT finale.
That’s right: it seems Dany’s innocent smile of pride was laid as a breadcrumb for yet another “woman’s pride comes before a fall” narrative. As season eight continued, we saw our beloved Khaleesi’s confidence chipped and battered away: she learned that, despite the fact she’d been preparing for the Iron Throne her entire life, a woefully unqualified male heir was the public’s preferred candidate for the job. Missandei and Jorah Mormont, two of her closest friends and supporters, were brutally killed before her very eyes in a war that wasn’t hers to fight. Another of her scaly dragon children was killed when Euron Greyjoy shot Rhaegal out of the sky with a crossbow. And Tyrion and Varys, once her most trusted allies and advisors, betrayed her when they saw just how much her grief had impacted her. In fact, somewhat ironically, they turned on her because she wasn’t smiling anymore.
Eventually, Daenerys was strong-armed into the role of a bloodthirsty and emotionally manipulative maniac, despite previously being presented to viewers as a just and kind ruler who is more than capable of compromise. She turned the innocent men, women and children of King’s Landing into a pile of charred bones and ash. And, as such, viewers were expected to cheer when Jon Snow shoved a dagger through his aunt/lover’s stomach.
No wonder Emilia Clarke is so frustrated.
“She genuinely starts with the best intentions and truly hopes there isn’t going to be something scuttling her greatest plans,” the GoT tells EW, in what they have described as a “breathless monologue”. “The problem is [the Starks] don’t like her and she sees it. She goes, ‘OK, one chance.’ She gives them that chance and it doesn’t work and she’s too far to turn around. She’s made her bed, she’s laying in it. It’s done. And that’s the thing. I don’t think she realizes until it happens — the real effect of their reactions on her is: ‘I don’t give a shitt.’ This is my whole existence. Since birth! She literally was brought into this world going, ‘Run!’ These fuckers have fucked everything up, and now it’s, ‘You’re our only hope.’ There’s so much she’s taken on in her duty in life to rectify, so much she’s seen and witnessed and been through and lost and suffered and hurt.
“Suddenly these people are turning around and saying, ‘We don’t accept you.’ But she’s too far down the line. She’s killed so many people already. I can’t turn this ship around. It’s too much. One by one, you see all these strings being cut. And there’s just this last thread she’s holding onto: There’s this boy. And she thinks, ‘He loves me, and I think that’s enough.’ But is it enough? Is it? And it’s just that hope and wishing that finally there is someone who accepts her for everything she is and…he fucking doesn’t.”
Speaking more on Jon Snow’s decision, Clarke continued: “Um, he just doesn’t like women does he?” she joked. “He keeps fucking killing them. No. If I were to put myself in his shoes I’m not sure what else he could have done aside from … oh, I dunno, other than maybe have a discussion with me about it? Ask my opinion? Warn me? It’s like being in the middle of a phone call with your boyfriend and they just hang up and never call you again. ‘Oh, this great thing happened to me at work today – hello?’ And that was nine years ago…”
Clarke added that her character’s story arc may be a disappointment to many women, including Beyonce, who she met earlier this year at an Oscars after-party.
The actor told The New Yorker magazine that Beyoncé approached her at the star-studded party and had revealed herself to be a fan of hers, at which point Clarke found herself on “the verge of tears”.
“All I wanted to scream was, ‘Please, please still like me even though my character turns into a mass-killing dictator!’” recalled Clarke. “‘Please still think that I’m representing women in a really fabulous way.’”
Clarke is correct, of course: up until her burning of King’s Landing, Dany hadn’t really done anything wrong. She joined the fight against the White Walkers, even though she didn’t have to. She did her best to forge a relationship with Sansa Stark, despite the younger woman’s immediate dislike of her. She attempted to play the “game of thrones” when she recognised Gendry as King Robert Baratheon’s legitimate son, and named him lord of Storm’s End. She attempted to meet with Cersei and find a compromise, before the then-Queen of Westeros sliced off her best friend’s head. And, despite Tyrion’s frantic retconning of her character (“She killed the slavers! She’s a manic!”), we all remember that Dany always did her best to break chains, help those in need, and make the world a better place.
Her biggest crime, if we can call it that, was to seem a little smug about her abilities as a leader. And that, apparently, was more than enough to make her the villain of Game of Thrones.
“In our culture, there is this unspoken rule that women are supposed to be modest,” Alyson Lanier, a psychotherapist and life coach in Wilmington, North Carolina, tells Women’s Health. “If we accept a compliment fully, the fear is that it’s going to come off as bragging.”
Of course, ‘smug’ is just one of many unfair labels we use to describe women: men can be confident, while women are dismissed as attention-seekers. Men are allowed to know and demand exactly what they want, while women who do the same are dubbed as divas. And men can be the boss, while women are contemptuously described as bossy.
The proof is in the pudding: you can plug words like “rude” or “brilliant” into an interactive chart created by Benjamin Schmidt and see how often those words are used to describe professors in more than 14 million teacher ratings. Disappointingly, women are more likely to be described as “disorganised” whereas men – praised for their eccentricities – are more likely to be called “knowledgeable.”
There’s no getting around it: the semantics we use on a day-to-day basis are deeply sexist – and they can be not-so-subtly used to undermine a woman’s strength, instead of holding it up as something to be celebrated. This can be most clearly seen in the adjectives used to describe outspoken and resilient women: think “yelp”, “screech”, “bleat”, “bitch”, “whinge” and “nag”, to name a few.
To echo the words of feminist comedian Bridget Christie: “I look forward to a time when a woman’s voice, publicly expressing an opinion, isn’t compared to that of a sheep or a goat.”
So what does all of this prove? Well, the vehement reaction to Daenerys Targaryen’s “smugness” is a staunch reminder that we, as women, need to readdress how we view ourselves and others – and that we need to think about the language we use to describe one another, too. That we need to make room to receive praise (try pausing, reflecting and saying ‘thank you’ the next time someone compliments your performance at work, instead of immediately backing away, for one).
Above all else, though, we need to be wary of telling womankind that they need to be “more confident” if the sentiment is nothing more than empty words – and a way of pushing society’s many problems onto women and away from the patriarchy that holds them back.
If we truly want women to be more confident – and for them to be able to express that confidence in a way that creates meaningful change – then we need to start by creating a culture that values self-assured women. That values their voices. That encourages them to speak out. And that doesn’t seek to demean them as “smug” and “bossy” when they do.
We need to stop listening to the voices that tell us to live quietly. Instead, we need to go out into the world and crank up the volume as loud as we possibly can – just like Daenerys. Who may or may not be a Mad Queen, depending on whether or not you accept the events of Game of Thrones’ final season (many GoT fans are petitioning for it to be remade with new writers), but at least she was a Mad Queen who believed in herself and her abilities, eh?
This article was originally published in April 2019, but has been updated throughout to reflect and comment upon Daenerys Targaryen’s controversial narrative arc in HBO’s Game of Thrones.