by The Collected Mutineer
When we heard there was going to be a Game of Thrones panel focusing on its female characters, the Collectress and I were more than a little excited. The setting: our first excursion to Geek Girl Con. The cosplays: Daenerys and Sansa. It seemed like the perfect coincidence. Of course, we had to attend this panel while wearing our costumes.
And attend we did. But to make a long story short, we were disappointed and frustrated with much of the panel’s content, as well as the discussion by the panelists. The scenario got me thinking about what I would have liked to have seen and heard during a panel that highlights the women of Westeros, which inevitably led to this post. Here are four main points I would address if I were hosting my own panel on the subject.
Was Daenerys really “mad”?
The evening after the series finale aired, Twitter was a veritable cesspool of spoilers, arguments, and, well, lots of despair. Tweets ranged from disappointed fans not understanding Dany’s actions (and her subsequent murder at the hands of her lover/nephew Jon) to other fans who kept saying that obviously she’d gone mad. “Didn’t you see it coming? There were clues all along!” the latter kept saying.
Well, I’m here to say that no—I didn’t see it coming because those aren’t the clues we actually got.
We know that mental illness runs in the Targaryen family. This is pretty well established in the books as well as in the show. We know that Dany’s father was “the mad king” and the saying goes that the gods flip a coin whenever a Targaryen child is born. And apparently, these facts coupled with Dany’s taste for having her dragons kill people make her a prime suspect for having inherited this mad gene.
The problem is, Dany’s actions in the final season don’t shout “insane” to me. Is Dany upset at not receiving the welcome she had envisioned? Yes. Is Dany distraught over the loss of her closest companions (aka the deaths of two dragons, the death of Jorah Mormont, the murder of Missandei, and Jon distancing himself from her as a lover)? Yes. But were these setbacks and personal grievances enough to make her succumb to her family’s inherited insanity?
Why is it that her decision to take the city by force (a regular occurrence in this world) is deemed the action of a mad woman? I doubt that the same actions undertaken by men would have been called insane. What if Jon were at the head of the army, or even a character like Tywin Lannister or Renly Baratheon? I’ve heard it argued that the turning point isn’t that she’s a conqueror, but that she’s killed lots of people. In Game of Thrones, though, we have many characters who fit this description. Jon Snow. Jaime Lannister. The Hound. And let us not forget that fan-favorite Arya Stark murdered an entire house in cold blood to get revenge for the deaths of her brother and mother. She’s not crazy though, right?
To me, Dany’s conquering move was exactly what it sounds like—a strategic decision to win the game. To not only topple the Queen, but to overturn the chess board. To the invader, the loss of innocent citizens is a side effect of war no matter what they have said in the past about not wanting to kill civilians. It didn’t matter what Tyrion or Jon told Dany about taking the city peacefully. She took what what she wanted with fire and blood, as did her ancestors before her. Brutal? Absolutely. Mad? I think not.
There’s more to mental health
I know I just said that Daenerys’s actions weren’t those of a person with mental illness, but instead those of a conqueror. But allow me to be devil’s advocate for a moment. For argument’s sake…what if Dany had indeed been struggling with her mental health? What if the writers had used that as an opportunity to show the descent of a beloved character into the very thing she feared most during her life—ending up “mad” like her father?
If Benioff and Weiss (or even George R.R. Martin) wanted to write Dany as a mentally ill character, then they didn’t just miss the boat—they forgot to buy tickets in the first place. This was a missed opportunity to show mental illness properly onscreen.
If Dany was “mad” and not just power-hungry, why didn’t we see recognizable signs of a diagnosable mental illness? If she suffered from schizophrenia (as I suspect her father did), why didn’t the audience experience moments with her of paranoia, compulsive behavior, hallucinations, incoherent speech, or any of the other various symptoms of this devastating disorder? The writers had a chance to write a gut-wrenching story. Instead, mental health was boiled down to one word: not mad, but “angry.”
I would argue that the same goes for other characters who appear to be struggling with mental health as well, but who were never given the proper avenues to deal with it. Jaime Lannister, as pointed out in this article from Stylist, “is suffering from PTSD” (Dray 2019). Ramsay Bolton wasn’t just a rapist, but a sadist with a personality disorder. The Hound has PTSD. Cersei Lannister copes with her various traumas by drinking heavily. You can see where I’m going with this. Particularly when it comes to the terrible real-life history of women being termed “hysterical” for just being, well, women, this was a huge missed opportunity to explore mental health, especially among Game of Thrones‘ female characters.
We didn’t just miss seeing a properly portrayed mental illness, but we weren’t given the opportunity to see how other characters should have reacted. Jon’s reaction to Dany being “mad” is to stab her, instead of trying to understand her or get her the help she needs. While it’s obvious that in Westeros there aren’t exactly psychologists and psychiatrists she could visit, we do have a vastly misunderstood and complex magic system that was once an important factor in the show. Surely there was an avenue here that could have led to something not just interesting, but meaningful. Considering that “1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year” and that “suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34,” (www.nami.org) mental illness is not something to be treated so poorly on national television—regardless of its fantasy setting.
brutality can coexist with femininity, motherhood, and sexuality
Okay, I promise this whole article/panel pitch/rant won’t just be about Daenerys, but she fits into this category as well. Something that was brought to my attention during the panel at GGC was that some people are of the opinion that the reason Dany and Cersei were unsuccessful in their respective rules was because they tried to be “masculine” in the way they exerted their power over others. According to one of the panelists, Sansa was successful in comparison because her power was feminine and “motherly.” If you’ve managed to stick with me this far, then I’m sure you’ve already guessed that I disagree with this wholeheartedly.
There’s a lot wrong with this idea, and not just because feminisim. It’s been established in Game of Thrones that while women do face challenges when they step outside their prescribed gender roles, they are often successful in being whoever they want to be. Obvious examples are Brienne of Tarth, Arya Stark, Ygritte, and Yara Greyjoy—all four embody traditionally masculine roles, overcoming whatever obstacles they face from the patriarchy. We also know that they aren’t defined by these roles. Being “masculine” does not automatically remove their “femininity.” All four are brutal killers when they need to be, but also enjoy their sexuality.
The same goes for Daenerys. She is a powerful, assertive ruler. Though she makes mistakes and sometimes needs help from others, she fills these typically male shoes well. But this grasp of so-called “male power”, doesn’t mean she can’t be feminine, too. She enjoys her body, loves her children, and other so-called “female traits.” She cares about her adopted people and is even called “mother” by the slaves she has freed. (The white savior problem is something for another post entirely, so we won’t touch on that today.)
Likewise, Cersei is a deeply feminine character who also longs to be taken as seriously as the men in her life. She is cunning, strategic, and ruthless—just like her father. She also loves her children. And these characteristics had nothing to do with her downfall.
By the same token, there is little about Sansa’s rule that makes her more feminine than the other women in Westeros. If anything, she learned from three key people throughout her childhood and adolescence: her father Ned Stark, Cersei, and Littlefinger. Her ruling style and understanding of politics was directly influenced by them and are just as…masculine. (Is it just me, or do the words masculine and feminine start to mean less and less the more I type them??) At any rate, Sansa cares about the North and its independence fiercely but is no more or less motherly than Dany or Cersei. She is successful in her rule because she’s a good ruler, not because she’s more feminine in her power.
Sansa doesn’t owe her abusers a damn thing
As you’ve likely surmised by now, I had more than a few issues with the final season of Game of Thrones. For me, a glaring error and lapse in judgment on behalf of Benioff and Weiss was a line uttered by Sansa in the fourth episode. During a scene with the Hound, whom Sansa hasn’t seen in years, the following exchange occurs.
Sandor Clegane: You’ve changed, Little Bird. None of it would have happened if you’d left King’s Landing with me. No Littlefinger, no Ramsay… none of it.
Sansa Stark: Without Littlefinger, and Ramsay and the rest, I would have stayed a little bird all my life.
At this point in the story, Sansa—a victim of mental, physical, and emotional abuse—has triumphed over those who used and manipulated her. She has outlived Joffrey, escaped Cersei, taken her agency and home back from Ramsay Bolton, and passed judgment on Littlefinger. She became a strong character in spite of her abuse, not because of it. But in the aforementioned scene, she wipes it all away, attributing her sense of worth to the men who raped her and puppeteered her. “[This scene] equates sexual assault to character development,” writes
It does matter. A lot. Just like the aforementioned issues of mental health, domestic abuse and sexual violence are prevalent problems in the United States and across the world. These aren’t just plot devices made up for a fictional world—real men and women deal with abuse every day, and survivors work hard to overcome the resulting emotional scars. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States.” Meanwhile, “1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime” (www.rainn.org).
Survivors of abuse never owe their abusers anything. Being victimized should never be used as a tool to make women stronger or more interesting. Sansa became Queen in the North because of her own actions, not because of what was done to her by sadistic, controlling men—and that is the hill I will die on.
There’s a lot more I’d love to say, but this post is getting quite long as it is. If you’d like more content about how the women of Westeros deserved better, let me know and I’ll write a part two discussing other fascinating characters like Missandei, the Red Woman, Margaery, Catelyn, and more. Leave a comment below or on Twitter with your thoughts. And if this is a panel you’d like to hear for real someday, we welcome your input!