BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Like so many others, I am a "Game of Thrones" fan. Like so many others, I loved Daenerys when she first appeared on the show - showing the transformative arc that happens when you go from a survivor of abuse to a strong, powerful person. Previously abused, sexually and emotionally, by her brother, it was tremendous to witness, especially as a survivor of sexual assault myself. We saw the true birth of a feminist and advocate for women.
Throughout the show, the Mother of Dragons has been praised for not wanting to simply marry and live life happily ever after - but be a boss herself. And while that is a tempting opinion to have, because it is a story often not shown enough in mainstream media, it's also just a fraction of the entire picture.
Bustle, for instance, has praised the character, without a whole lot of reflection about the racist way that Daenerys is getting and using her power (basically, she's preying off of repressed people, as a way to appear motherly):
"Not only did she rise from being an unwilling wife to the leader of a nomadic warrior group, to being the leader of said group and a whole ton of men who gladly laid down their life to serve in her army, but she's the also the goddamn mother to three nearly full-grown DRAGONS. If you need more proof that this girl is badass, ya crazy."
And yet, she is no different than many of the other power hungry crazed characters in the show - she just happens to have a better PR approach. But even that only lasts for so long. For example, her marriage to Khal Drogo of the Dothraki people is awkward in itself, not because of the interracial relationship (which is awesome to have on mainstream TV), but only because the Dothraki are portrayed as savages, savages that she has to tame.
The men are often killing each other, and also overpowering the women in their society. Daenerys then becomes the exception who gets Drogo (and she's presumably white, while the Dothraki are non-white, painted as the "exotic other" in the show). How is that not racist?
Even worse is the literal "white savior" scene at the end of Season 3 where she is being held up by the slaves she just freed. And while abolishing slavery is clearly the good, humanitarian thing to do, her intentions are murky, because she's trying to form and conquer an empire - which is another form of oppression and cultural white-washing.
Daenerys claims she doesn't want to interfere or change the lives of the people she saves in a negative way, but she also, as the show explores, doesn't try to really understand their culture and help in a more inclusive approach. While this may (hopefully) be intentional on the show's part, to create a nuanced, complicated look into the rise of a leader who isn't entirely good or bad, the audience's reaction has been surprisingly too simple and biased. In this case, praising her without analyzing her flaws.
Aamer Rahman wrote a piece at Gizmodo echoing similar sentiments:
"The Season 3 finale took things to the next level; after liberating another city of slaves, Dany waits to see whether she will be greeted as a liberator or conqueror. (the writers try to get off the hook by acknowledging that she is aware of the difference). In fact, she gets a better deal - they claim her as their ‘Mother.’ She ends up crowdsurfing over the brown people like some kind of Tagaryan Bono with all of the smug satisfaction of a gap-year backpacker that has just built an orphanage in a village somewhere."
So why, despite these obvious racist tones and actions, are we still praising her for being the cool leader? Because she's so not. It is a diss to inclusive feminism to ignore the fact that our Mother of Dragons is a mother first to herself - and a faux mother to everyone else. Daenerys obviously understands what it feels like to be oppressed as a woman, and to be abused, but when it comes to race and class, she is ignorant. And there's no excuse for that, especially not when you are conquering other people.
In this way, Daenerys is suffering from a case of White Rich Woman Privilege with a side of White Guilt - and the real problem is, no one in her advisory board seems to be "checking" her (and why would they? They also just want power). Arthur Chu put it best in The Daily Mail when he wrote about this very issue with "Game of Thrones":
"It’s hard to avoid the feeling that this repeated fantasy—of a white person shedding their whiteness, abandoning their home culture, joining the oppressed, and finally taking up arms against all the other, still-racist white people and killing them all—stems from a desire to be absolved of guilt. White guilt, that dreaded emotion that’s been inflicted on countless white Americans through social studies classes, Black History month TV specials, and lectures from left-wing non-white bloggers like myself at this very moment."
When it comes to choosing our heroes and idols, we need to be careful that we aren't becoming blind to some problems while highlighting others, in this case, of highlighting her feminism, but ignoring her racism and privilege. Because at the end of the day, she wants to rule the realm, which isn't an intrinsically selfless act at all - and does she really just want to rule it to help others, or because she wants power, because she never wants to be abused again? We need to ask our real life leaders this as well.
The fact that she was abused does add a necessary layer of nuance and complication (because being abused doesn't mean you can't become an abuser or vice-versa), but it also doesn't excuse other failings and shortcomings. Sure, this is just a TV show, but mainstream media contributes to our ideas of sex, race, gender, and privilege, and in that way, we must do better when we explore these topics and check our own prejudices.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016) and the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). Joanna received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, a managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM, as well as an instructor at Brooklyn Poets. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, BUST, and elsewhere.