Female politicians have the short end of the stick. Go ahead and try to just think about Hillary Clinton without also considering the years of ridiculous, irrelevant criticism she endured about her appearance and manner — everything from how she styled her hair to the way she spoke were somehow in contention at all times. Fortunately, in the fictional world of Westeros, that's not as much of an issue: on Game of Thrones women are dominating the political world. Daenerys is, of course, the biggest icon of them all, currently perched on her ancestral throne in Dragonstone and coming off her first great victory against the Lannisters. Oh, and she has three dragons. But, as much as I love rooting for a strong female ruler, sometimes Khaleesi's decisions give me pause. And as a feminist, is it bad to criticize Dany's rule?
Women who lead are forever caught in a grim catch-22, making them the targets of superficial criticism at every turn. Clinton is a great example. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump announced that she didn't have enough strength or "stamina" to be president, and projected that if she was a man, she wouldn't have gotten the same percentage of votes. Meanwhile, others critiqued her for being cold, unsmiling, and too policy-oriented — qualities that in turn serve to combat those who didn't think that, as a woman, she was strong enough for the job. Either way, Clinton was at a disadvantage.
Like Clinton, Khaleesi has had those who doubted her strength, power, and cunning. Most of those people have been men. And most of those men have since died — by Dany's hand. By Season 7, it seems that the fictional Mother of Dragons has been able to accomplish what Clinton forever struggled to achieve — on the whole, no longer does anyone doubt her power as a serious ruler, a true competitor for the Iron Throne.
And yet, while watching a fearsome woman destroy her enemies is often incredibly satisfying, Khaleesi's capacity for violence is an issue. In many cases, it seems that her first instinct is to raze and annihilate, and it's up to her advisors (usually Tyrion) to talk her out of it. Sometimes she recruits followers out of pure devotion, but she also acquired the Dothraki hoard by literally burning their khals to death. Certainly she's no Cersei. But she's also no Jon Snow.
Criticizing the Mother of Dragons has always felt fraught. Do I dislike her violence more because it is a woman committing this violence, instead of a man? Do I disagree with her insistence that Jon Snow bend the knee because we expect women to compromise, or give in to men? Does she make me uneasy because she's a boss who I'm perceiving as "bossy"?
I'm fairly certain that I'm not guilty of any of those things, but it's important to criticize Khaleesi, and Clinton or any other female politician who asks for our vote, as long as those criticisms are based in substance. Fans aren't second guessing the Mother of Dragons because they're worried her braids might get in the way in battle or her outfit doesn't seem queenlike, unlike the public's response to Clinton's hair and outfits. We aren't suggesting that Khaleesi shouldn't have the power to overrule her male advisors. We're offering the hesitation and criticism she deserves as a person in power. It's important that any ruler be receptive to input and criticism, or risk becoming a tyrant.
Take what happened during "Eastwatch", for example. When deciding what to do with the survivors of the loot train battle, Dany offers the Lannister forces a choice: bend the knee, or face death. When Randyll and Dickon Tarly refuse to pledge their loyalty, Tyrion tries to intervene, nearly begging the Mother of Dragons to be merciful and take them prisoner instead. She ignores his counsel and has Drogon burn the two alive. It all felt quite obviously wrong.
For all her talk of being different than Cersei and her desire to inspire loyalty, not fear, her decision to brutally punish those who fought against her demonstrates that she has a capacity for cruelty that might not rally supporters to her cause. She's not the Mad King — her actions have reason behind them. But this week, she demonstrated that she might not be the great peacemaker we've all been hoping for.
While this development might leave fans disappointed, it also lends the show a dash of realism. Of course a woman who has spent much of the past six seasons ruthlessly destroying her enemies would not be the most inclined to look upon them kindly now that she's in Westeros. Though we might not have been hoping that this would be the case, at some level we should have expected it. But as fans, this leaves us in a tricky spot. Our badass female icon, the best hope to end the violence in Westeros, is flawed.
But, of course she is. People aren't perfect, and women, even Khaleesis, are no different. So while we should continue to fight for equality, while we should celebrate and strive for an emergence of powerful women like the Mother of Dragons on our screens and in our highest offices, we shouldn't turn a blind eye to problematic behavior and policies for the sake of celebrating a female victory. Duh. Isn't feminism calling to be judged and valued equally with men, to rise and fall based on our merits alone?
So, though criticizing Khaleesi while still admiring her as a powerful female leader may feel odd, these activities aren't mutually exclusive. We can root for the women of Westeros to come out on top while still wishing that Dany would act more mercifully. We can support a female candidate for office but not agree with all of her policies. Our feelings about the women we choose as icons and leaders should be as nuanced and complex as those we have for men currently in these roles. Even the Mother of Dragons should not be immune to critique and scrutiny.
As long as we aren't talking about hair, for Pete's sake.