Our reaction to Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen represents a huge issue in modern society – and it’s time we started talking about it.
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. And, 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 has she finally done what she always set out to achieve (make her way back to the home she never knew), but she has done so by using her own abilities. When she began her GOT story, she had nothing: no fortune, no army, no dragons, no nothing. Now, she is one of the most powerful women in Westeros, she commands the largest army in the Seven Kingdoms, and she has two dragons of her very own.
Best of all? Daenerys, unlike many of the other Iron Throne’s hottest contenders (we’re looking at you, Cersei Lannister), is undeniably beloved by her people: Jon Snow, Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), the Unsullied and the Dothraki all believe in Daenerys. They have chosen to follow her based on her actions, not because of her impressive lineage. They know, 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 season eight is a very different woman to that of season one. Nowadays, she is confident when it comes to her ability to rule a kingdom (enough to make a play for the Iron Throne, at least). She is in her element. Above all else, she is 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.
“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.”
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, but at least she’s a Mad Queen who believes in herself and her abilities, eh?