Thursday, August 4, 2011

And now for something completely different.

I mentioned I wrote an essay about Daenerys from A Game of Thrones to a friend of mine.  I think the title (which is probably the best thing in the essay) is what made her ask me to post it up.

Anyway, here it is, in its entirety.  For the record, this is completely unedited from when I submitted it to my prof, by which I mean completely unedited in the first place.

I see your penis and raise you three dragons: Development of an independent woman in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones
            At a quick gloss, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones might not seem like the most viable feminist text, as it focuses on a medieval nobility where power is firmly in the hands of men: men who rule, men who war, and men who quite often view wives as little more than a chance to forge alliances with one noble house and produce heirs (male heirs, almost exclusively).  However, things are not quite as simple as all that: Martin features characters such as Cersei Lannister, a plotting, intelligent woman who is frustrated with and rebellious against her subservience to men, or Arya Stark, a young girl who purposefully rebukes the expectations of a Lord’s daughter.  Even more interestingly, however, Martin focuses on the young Daenerys Targaryen, whose story occurs almost entirely separately from the greater majority of the novel’s narrative.  Daenerys begins the story as a girl who is utterly at the mercy of her half-mad and viciously cruel brother, Viserys, who threatens her with both physical and psychological torment, whilst wedding her to a tribal warlord in order to garner power for himself.  It follows that initially Daenerys, a girl who is utterly powerless, utterly disenfranchised, is defined almost exclusively by way of her sex, and her biology.  However, Martin plots an interesting course for the young, deposed heir to Westoros, which sees her moving away from such a subservient existence and towards a position of power, respect, and one where she blurs lines of gender and authority.  Her development as a character, then, can be viewed as mirroring the development of feminist ideals, particularly those of critics such as Judith Butler or Adrienne Rich.  Daenerys’ initial oppression almost exactly characterizes some of the issues which are at the heart of second- and third-wave feminism; she is a member of an inferior “second sex” which can be controlled and subjugated by way of men’s “…ability to deny women sexuality or to force it upon them; to command or exploit their labor or to control their produce … to confine them physically and prevent their movement; to use them as objects in male transactions; [and] to cramp their creativeness…”, as explicated in Kathleen Gough’s “The Origin of Family” (58).  Daenerys is situated firmly as a young girl who is being defined by her “…biological role as [a] childbearer,” and in the early chapters this definition frightens and subjugates her (Stanley, Wise 93).  It is, however, plainly presented as something wrong, and her path continuing into the novel generally leads her towards growing independence, appropriation of typical male power, and an embracement of the feminist ideal of a woman who is not dependent upon men, nor harmful to her fellow women.  The ultimate arrival of the narrative is not, of course, perfect, and some issues persist, but on the whole Daenerys’ growth models both the difficulties which feminism highlights, and the solutions it hopes to approach.
            To understand the growth of Daenerys, of course, it is key to take note of just how her character begins, and to further address the specific concerns that her situation highlights.  When she is introduced to the reader, quite literally the first thing she does is to obey an order given to her by her brother, Viserys.  He holds up a dress, and commands her to touch it, which she obediently does.  In other words, Viserys presents a symbol of femininity, and then orders Daenerys to identify with it.  It is absolutely imperative, however, to note that she does not identify with the dress: while she describes the fabric as being softer than anything she could remember, a trait one might normally associate with beauty and attraction, the dress in fact “frighten[s] her” (Martin 28).  Her acceptance of her brother’s tyranny establishes what will be a prominent trend in the earlier chapters of the book: her femininity is forced on to her by a male in a superior position, which terrifies her but is unchallenged, since she has no possible recourse.  Shortly thereafter, he commands her to straighten her posture so that Daenery’s prospective husband will “…see that [she has] a woman’s shape now,” before pinching her nipples and threatening that disobedience will “wake the dragon”, i.e. cause him to rage against her (Martin 29). 
Viserys’ abuse of his sister speaks directly to some of Adrienne Rich’s observations (which were prompted by Gough’s “The Origin of Family”) that men can domineer women by assembling “…a pervasive cluster of forces, ranging from physical brutality to control of consciousness, which suggests that an enormous potential counterforce is having to be restrained” (Rich 1596).  Indeed, much of the early chapters of Daenerys’ arc are focused on that “cluster of forces” which domineer her, not the least of which is the institution of marriage.  In her essay “Who Has the Power? The Martial Struggle”, Dair L. Gillespie examines marriage as a relationship which, while presented as natural and wholesome, enabled men to be the wife’s “…superior, her companion, her master” (65).  However, Daenerys does not look forward to her wedding day with jovial optimism, and does not view it as the natural, happy course for her life to take: she is terrified of her marriage to the towering Khal Drogo, and of the restraint and control she imagines will be inflicted upon her.  What Daenerys fears is the control that men can exert, as described by Rich, Gough, and Gillespie, and a societal structure that will enable her husband to dictate her entire being.  Here Martin is basically informing the reader, by way of Daenerys’ terror and subjugation that such a marriage structure is wrong, and is slipping past societal constructions of marriage as natural by attaching the anxieties Daenerys feels to the grandiose spectacle of his imagined Dothraki culture.  It is only when Daenerys begins to realize that her husband does not intend to subjugate and control her that her fear fades, and it is only then that the reader may view her marriage to Drogo as healthy and productive.
The first moment when Daenerys’ fear subsides occurs when she is given a horse, and is allowed to ride it to Drogo’s pavilion: her fear fades as she rides it, as she becomes increasingly aware that she has control over the horse, that the horse responds to “the slightest pressure with her legs, the lightest touch on the reins”, and that when she moves, the “Dothraki scramble to clear a path [for her]” (106).  In one of the most brilliant lines in the book, Martin writes: “The silver horse leapt the flames as if she had wings” (106).  Precisely who the “she” signifies is left intentionally unclear: Martin is implying that the horse, as a symbol of movement and freedom, has transferred its properties to her, and that she is approaching a sort of freedom even as she advances toward a perceived imprisonment in marriage.  Had Martin then drawn a Drogo who reverted back to the dominance of his wife, this fleeting image of freedom would vanish: however, when Drogo approaches Daenerys for the first time and she weeps, he rubs away her tears, and tells her “no,” which is revealed to be the only word of Daenerys’ language that he speaks (Martin 107).  As they proceed through the consummation of their marriage, Drogo does not absolutely heed Daenerys’ hesitation, but he does proceed “gently but firmly”, revealing a “strangely tender” nature that is comforting to Daenerys (108).  Initially, he only touches and stimulates Daenerys, but when the moment comes for Drogo to actually penetrate her, he says “No?” and “[Daenerys knows] it [is] a question” (108).  This is hugely important, because Drogo is essentially giving Daenerys a sense of agency that she has not had until this moment; however, it is still sustained within the marriage contract, which if we follow the track of writers such as Gillespie is inherently designed to make the husband the superior figure even in a marriage wherein “…the husband recognizes more willingly the independence of his wife’s demands” (Gillespie 65).  Gillespie warns that even a marriage which seems egalitarian can often favour the husband in terms of division of power, due to factors such as legal precedent (which, in A Game of Thrones, materializes as Drogo’s leadership of the Dothraki people granting him generally uncontested authority) (Gillespie 71).  While this does complicate the progression of Daenerys’ character, the later sections of Daenerys’ story feature an event which drastically alters her situation, and opens up interesting possibilities: her husband dies, quite unexpectedly.
By removing Daenerys’ husband—albeit by way of the somewhat questionable method of his death—Martin opens up a new avenue through which Daenerys’ story may proceed.  Immediately following the death of Drogo, his tribe—called a khalasar—splinters into disparate factions, most of which ride off, following former high-ranking members of Drogo’s khalasar, leaving the sick, the young, and the elderly who have no leader, save for Daenerys (758).  Furthermore, Daenerys desperately tries to restore her husband to life—only to have him return as a lifeless husk that is really no more than a sort of zombie (759).  A great deal can be said about this, but I only want to take away that her attempt to return to the family structure fails, and such an attempt is rewarded amply with hardship and suffering, gesturing to a movement away from the traditional construction of the family.  In his removal of the husband figure, Martin allows Daenerys to begin deconstructing the norms which have for so long defined the Dothraki culture she has been immersed in: to further interpret this, we can turn to Judith Butler’s conception of gender as a performative concept.  In Gender Trouble, Butler discusses gender as being not “expressive but performative”, as “created through sustained social performances”, from which it follows that “…the very notions of an essential sex and a true of abiding masculinity or femininity” are essentially constructs designed to reinforce traditional values associated with the sexes (2553).  She further elaborates that stepping outside such norms would open up “…performative possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality” (2553).
Framing Daenerys’ story—after her husband’s death—with Butler’s theory of performative gender, we can begin to view how Martin is playing with gender expectations, and positions of power for women.  After decisively concluding that her husband cannot be truly brought back to life, Daenerys decides to sacrifice his body, alongside the woman who betrayed her.  As she prepares to burn her husband and the sage woman, she dons “…a vest like Drogo’s”, and assumes a position of power similar to Drogo’s, by offering gifts to her husband’s “bloodriders” (loyal followers and bodyguards), which are initially refused by two of the three men, who say “Only a man can lead a khalasar or name a ko”, and “It would shame me, to be bloodrider to a woman” (802, 800).  However, Daenerys is not deterred by the refusal of the men, displaying a lack of concern for their disapproval of her appropriation of male gender roles.  Even as she does take on these male aspects, she does not utterly eschew her identity as a wife, daughter, mother, or woman in general: references are made to her “milk-heavy breasts”, and she thinks of herself as the “daughter of dragons, bride of dragons, mother of dragons” (806).  As she maintains all of these identities—still while incorporating the aspects of her husband’s power through clothing and custom—she commands absolute power, even where she is greeted by hesitancy and reluctance to obey.  When she is questioned by a knight, Jorah Mormont, she plainly orders him to “Do as I say,” and does not accept any further questioning.  Finally, she places three dragon eggs—originally given to her as little more than decoration—onto her funeral pyre, hatching them by walking into the flames as her husband and the woman who betrayed her die.  By turning an object typically associated with femininity—jewellery—into both children and weapons she embraces her identity as a woman, but asserts herself as one who will have power and agency.  Furthermore, her hybridization of male and female identity is shown to be more potent than typical manifestations of gender might be: Daenerys’ Dothraki followers, after seeing her hatch her dragon’s eggs, become “hers now, today and tomorrow and forever, hers as they had never been Drogo’s” (806).
At the outset of A Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen is presented as an utterly subservient victim of patriarchal male dominance, subjected to near-constant torture by her vicious elder brother.  The next scenes in the novel seem to be leading to an almost nightmarish manifestation of female oppression, as Daenerys is betrothed to be wed to a domineering warlord of a foreign, tribal society.  Daenerys’ oppression almost perfectly embodies the trends identified by Gough and Rich, of women being subjugated by men through the “…ability to deny women sexuality or to force it upon them; to command or exploit their labor or to control their produce … to confine them physically and prevent their movement; to use them as objects in male transactions; [and] to cramp their creativeness…” (Gough 58).  Interestingly, however, the arranged marriage which Daenerys is forced into is not undesirable, and her husband proves to be deceptively tender and understanding.  However, one must not forget that it was an arranged marriage, and that the structure inherent to it puts Daenerys in the subordinate position, as Dair Gillespie notes in “Who Has the Power?  The Marital Struggle.”  Martin takes the somewhat radical approach of having Drogo die, leaving Daenerys to take on his responsibilities as leader of the remaining Dothraki, simultaneously combining aspects of the male gender with those normally associated with the female, evoking Judith Butler’s theory of performative gender.  Notably, the conclusion of Daenerys’ arc in A Game of Thrones does not subscribe absolutely to any one of the feminist theories discussed, and offers no easy answers regarding the problem of women’s power and issues of gender.  Daenerys serves as an embodiment of the struggle for women’s rights, and the difficulties involved in trying to successfully navigate away from the dominance of patriarchal society.

Works Cited
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Leitch 2540-2553.
Freeman, Jo, ed. Women: A Feminist Perspective. Palo Alto: Mayfield, 1975.
Gillespie, Dair L. “Who Has the Power? The Marital Struggle.” Freeman 64-87.
Gough, Kathleen. “The Origin of the Family.” Freeman 43-63.
Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Edition. New
     York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
Martin, George. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam Dell, 1996.
Rich, Adrienne. Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Leitch 1591-1609.
Stanley, Liz, and Sue Wise, eds. Breaking Out Again: Feminist Ontology and
     Epistemology. New Edition. New York: Routledge, 1993.