#Dragonprivilege, or Daenerys as female role model

‘I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.’

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Daenerys “Stormborn” Targaryen, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoyner, and the First Men, Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mother of Dragons, ‘Mhysa’ and Queen of Meereen, has more accumulated more titles in her quick and brutal rise to power than most long-reigning lords of Westeros. She has built, lost and regained armies, won over barbarian hordes, freed thousands of slaves and killed quite a few of their masters. She has done all this without the aid of a husband, despite being propositioned every few months by a new aspirant for her hand.

Daenerys-Targaryen-Profile-HDDaenerys (I’m going to call her the much simpler-to-type ‘Dany’ henceforth) is considered remarkable.in a universe where patriarchy is near-unquestioned, where a woman’s role is basically to provide children and/or sexual pleasure. Women in Martin’s world need to be experts at manipulating others and their circumstances in order to achieve even the slightest measure of power or independence, and here I’m speaking only of those from powerful families. If you’re one of the smallfolk, life is much rougher, no matter if you’re a man or woman.

So it’s no wonder that Dany is considered to be the series, and the show’s, blazing icon of feminism. She routinely blasts apart the power structures put before her, breaking the bars of cages built to contain her and her ‘children’—structures and cages usually put down and maintained by men. In a recent episode, she literally destroys the patriarchy of the Dothraki, burning down the temple that houses the gathered khals as they insult her and threaten her with rape. Recently, again, she got astride a dragon and destroyed an army sent against her by the (you guessed it) male masters of Yunkai and Astapor. Her power is bound up in her identity as a saviour, ‘mother’ figure: her superpower is her children, the dragons, and her soft power comes from the freed slaves devotion to her, or so we are supposed to assume.

But I wonder, after so many seasons of watching her destroy things, march towards victories that no other character in the series can boast of, is Dany still an inspiring role model for women? Isn’t she a bit too, I don’t know…super powered?

“How dare you, madam!” I hear the knives being sharpened. “Are you implying that she is too powerful? Are you saying that a woman is only inspiring if she is fighting from a position of weakness, and not obvious strength?”

That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Let me put it this way: I will not deny that watching Dany storm the patriarchy and burn down things makes me, both as a fantasy fan and one who happens to be a woman, happy. I like knowing that she has made this incredible journey, from scared little girl in thrall to maxresdefaulther brother, to a powerful badass Queen who makes those epic-level statements. But maybe because I’ve seen her do it time and again (it’s been six years of burning down establishments), I’m not as ‘Woohoo Dany!’ as I was before. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that she does these things not only because she is smart and determined, but also because she has powers that few in her world do.

Dany has dragons. No matter how she might have tried to shut them away, they are as much a part of her as her fire-proof skin. Dany didn’t triumph over the khals because she outsmarted them; she triumphed because she, unlike them, could survive blazing infernos. Dany won over the Dothraki by playing their game, proving herself unconquerable and thus earning their mingled respect and fear. Dany won over Slaver’s Bay in the same way: she paid for the Unsullied, and then unleashed her wrath via dragons. She then intimidated Yunkai into letting go their slaves, and finally, conquered Meereen thanks to her soldiers sneaking into the city, and riling up factions to assist her in her takeover. Now that her dragons are grown, it seems unlikely that anyone with a ‘normal’ army is going to be able to bring her down.

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Dany has dragons. And that places her at a power level that few people in Westeros can reach. I would say that at this point, her only worthy rival is, maybe, the Night’s King.

Since she’s at this exalted, almost superhuman status, I can’t quite see Dany as a ‘woman’ first. She’s obviously a hero. She has faced great trials, yes, but where she is now is a position of seemingly untouchable, unassailable dominance. She’s not a flesh and blood woman so much as a mythic figure, an Athena, or Mother Mary, if you will—one of those figures who is venerated and raised so far above the hoipolloi that you can’t point to them and say ‘Be like her’ unless you want to give your girl impossible standards. So while she’s an icon for feminism, in the sense that she fights for a society of equals, rich or poor, man or woman, she may not necessarily be a relatable good model for women.

But the other women of Westeros, they’re all equally, maybe even more, amazing than Dany. Arya, Melisandre, Catelyn, Margaery, Cersei, Sansa (my beloved), Gilly negotiate the brutal patriarchy of their world in varying ways, and manage to achieve their ends. Whether its using their sexuality (Melisandre, Cersei, Margaery to a certain extent), their position as mothers (Catelyn and Cersei), employing their perceived weakness to their benefit (Sansa) or just busting balls old school style by joining the boys’ games and playing them better (Brienne, Arya, Asha/Yara), these women navigate within and best the system in whatever ways they can, seeking to live the life they are given on their terms. They don’t have fire proof skin. They don’t have infallible magic, and they don’t have dragons, but that doesn’t stop them from getting what they want.

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Plus, they’re so fun when they scheme together.

Dany can afford to blast and burn obstacles out of her way, but these women cannot. They must negotiate them, use their wits, their skill sets to do so. Of course, due to their (by and large aristocratic) backgrounds, they have advantages that small folk women do not, and we see in both the books and the show how the latter are brutalised, their lack of power stark (Ros is a powerful example in the show). Westeros is much like our world, you see. While problems are universal, a person’s level of exposure to them varies.

Dany is so elevated above this mass of womenkind that she can no longer be said to belong to them. Once upon a time, she did. But not anymore. That’s beautiful, and hopeful, and she is definitely an icon, but she is not a relatable one. Not all of us have #dragonprivilege, but we can be plucky, and resolute and determined and smart the way so many of the other female characters are. And so I’d choose Asha, or Sansa, or Margaery as my role models. Dany, I love you, but you might just be too hot for me.

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Sansa, the Starks and Westerosi parenting

A long time ago, nearly three years now, I wrote about Sansa Stark.

sansaFor some reason, I was attempting to ‘defend’ her, this child of the north who seemed (at that time) so out of her element, so unprepared for the evils that regularly plague the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. Sansa, more than her other siblings, seemed spectacularly defenceless at the start of the series, even more than Bran, who was early on showing signs of superpowers. Sansa had arguably what would become the greatest political clout—marriage to Robert’s heir—but she had few skills that would enable her to survive in such a court, or so it seemed.

Someone, in a comment on my post, pointed out that this was unforgivable. Sure, Sansa is only 12 years old when the books start, but that’s no excuse for her utter childishness. When I think of it, her willingness to run and rat to Cersei Lannister when this very same woman had proven, earlier on, that she was more than capable of cruelty (it was Cersei who suggested that her direwolf, Lady, be killed) is quite strange. How come Arya’s instincts about people are so much more on-point than hers, given they’ve grown up in the same environment? From the get-go, Arya dislikes the Lannisters, and hates most of the people she meets in court. She is much more small folk friendly than her sister, or her brothers, for that matter, and unlike them, doesn’t seem afraid of slumming it, fitting right into the environment fate has forced upon her.

But Arya’s always been a rebel, unlike her older sister. And she found tacit support for her rebellion in both her father and her older brothers, notably Jon. Ned even hires a ‘dancing master’ for her, encouraging her quite openly in her ‘needlepoint’ lessons. 

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I’m not sure Sansa enjoys that same sort of solicitous attention. She’s shown to be ‘approved of’ and counselled by her mother, in one short scene where Catelyn is doing her hair, and speaking to her of her betrothal to Joffrey. She basks in the praise of Septa Mordane, who commends her needlework and disparages Arya’s much less neat attempts. Cersei’s bits of praise for her beauty and her ability to make her son happy are what drive Sansa into her arms, a huge contrast to her alienation from her father (brutally illustrated when Eddard gives her a doll in HBO’s A Game of Thrones and Sansa retorts that she hasn’t played with dolls since she was eight). Honestly, Sansa seems a cipher to her parents; Catelyn can’t quite comprehend how easily she can be swayed to go to the south, and Eddard appears to have lost any connection with her at all.

True, Westerosi nobles do not seem paragons of parenting in general. Balon Greyjoy, Roose
Bolton, Walder Frey, Randyll Tarly, Robert Baratheon, Stannis…the list goes on and on and on. Mothers too, when not over-indulgent, like Lysa, seem distant and forbidding, like Selyse Baratheon, if they’re not dead or simply silenced by the excessively patriarchal
household. But this being said, Eddard and Catelyn are (usually) regarded as good parents, because they seem affectionate, do not abuse their children verbally or physically and take care to provide them good homes and advice, where possible. Winterfell, at the start of the series, is almost paradisiacal in comparison to what we see of other keeps later—everyone seems happy, content, and the lord and lady are quite obviously compatible with one another, if not crazily in love. The siblings support each other, usually, and are not conspiring to kill and outdo one another. Even the ward, Theon, and the bastard, Jon, lead decent lives—though angst does them in later on.

It’s only later that we see how out of place Winterfell is in the scheme of things, how very different from every other keep and family we come across. Highgarden sounds lovely when Margaery sells it to Sansa, and true, the Tyrells do seem to stick together and be a decent enough clan, but she has most likely been trained in arts that Sansa does not possess. This is even more obvious in the TV series, but it’s hinted in the books too that Margaery is smarter and more cunning than she seems, unlike the relatively less sophisticated Sansa.

Did Catelyn and Ned just not do their job, instead suffusing their children with an idealism that leaves them open to attack? And, to tie back to what I was saying earlier, besides not giving her the weapons to survive in court, did her parents just not really connect with ned and caatSansa, instead leaving her to the devices of books and embroidery and other preteen girls? Cat and Ned seem curiously ‘modern’ parents in some ways, letting their children do more or less what they want (Arya being a case in point), and it’s true that they probably never thought they would be sent so far from Winterfell, let alone out of the north altogether. But still, given their political importance, and the fact that they command the north, it seems a bit..,odd they weren’t taught more savvy. I mean, there are politics at work in the Night’s Watch, for the old gods’ sake! No place, not even the paradisiacal Stark-ruled north, could be so awfully clean—and we see that when the Boltons come into power.

Of course, this could just be Martin’s way of building a huge contrast between the Starks and everyone else, making sure our moral allegiance, such as it is, lies with them. I don’t know about other readers, but I can’t make myself warm to the Lannisters or the Targaryens as a clan, no matter how much I might like individual characters from those houses (Jaime for the win). The Starks seem ‘normal’ in our scheme of things, but that only sets them apart, leaves them open to manipulation and power plays in Westeros.

So for that reason, Littlefinger is both a good and bad mentor for Sansa (and here I’m going purely on the books, where no selling off to Ramsay happens). He develops her latent potential for power games, thus honing her from ‘survivor’ to agent. At the same time, he accelerates her move from naive idealist to world wary young woman. I suppose this is only to the good, in Westeros. Idealism, when it’s not backed by power, doesn’t take you far. Just ask Dany, the only character who can really afford to be idealistic. But then again, she’s got them dragons and that fire-proof skin. Not all mortals, certainly not Westerosi ones, are so blessed.

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Rowling, the Navajo, and cultural appropriation

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A few days ago, J K Rowling began releasing a series of short writings called The History of Magic in North America. These pieces (of which there will be five; four are out, as of the writing of this post) provide snapshots of the development of the wizarding world in what is now the United States, setting the tone for the Fantastic Beasts movies, the first of which will be in theatres by the end of the year. The movies, which chronicle the adventures of Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), are largely set in 1920s New York, seventy years before the events of the Harry Potter series. The writings are posted on the new Pottermore website, and are available for anyone, member or not, to read.

Rowling’s first post, ‘Fourteenth Century—Seventeenth Century’, mentions the Navajo legend of the ‘skinwalkers’. According to myth, a skinwalker was ‘a medicine man or witch who has attained the highest level of priesthood in the tribe, but chose to use his or her power for evil by taking the form of an animal to inflict pain and suffering on others.’ In her post, Rowling states that the skin walker legends had their ‘basis in fact’, the skinwalkers being Animagi who were unfairly prosecuted, often by fraudulent ‘No-Maj’ (the North American term for Muggle) medicine men who were afraid of the exposure of their own lack of magical skill.

It seems, on the surface, an innocent enough tie-in to Rowling’s extended Potterverse. The backlash however, has been angry, with a number of Native American activists accusing Rowling of stereotyping of First Nations peoples, generalising specific tribes’ legends and beliefs to encompass all their differing, specific cultures, and affronting their cultural sensibilities (for a well written piece on this, go here). Criticism was only stepped up with the publication of the second in the series (‘Seventeenth Century and Beyond’), where aside from a description of ‘Scourers’, unscrupulous magic users who ‘even went so far as trafficking their fellow wizards’, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is washed out of the narrative altogether.

Now, as a general reader, I don’t think Rowling is under any obligation to write a detailed history of the United States, taking into consideration all its major historical landmarks and moments and tying them into her magical narrative. However, I do see the complicated nature of this particular sally. I’m not sure whose ‘side’ I’m on, in this affair, mostly because I find the accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’, most of the time, to be a not entirely unmixed affair. But let me lay out my view on this, and you can decide where I come down, if I come down anywhere at all.

  1. It’s true that the Native American genocide and the Slave Trade are both cornerstones of the modern United States, and their repercussions continue to ring through the country today. While Rowling does not dedicate much space to these tragedies, she does not, to be fair, talk of the Revolutionary War either, or the Civil War. The only ‘historical event’ she pays more than passing heed to are the Salem Witch Trials, which leads me to the second point.
  2. Rowling seems to be consciously offering no more than quick, picture postcard-like sketches of a vast history, and to do this, she latches onto the markers that already have some currency in popular imagination. The Salem Witch Trials are, arguably, the most famous mainstream evocation of ‘magic’ in US history. They have been immortalised on screen, in plays (you can’t argue with The Crucible) and are now cemented in the mainstream as a time when ‘witchcraft’ was believed to be real and punishable by death. Though far from the only instance of such widespread witch hunting (which continues to happen in countries across the world), they are arguably the most well-remembered, documented happening. Rowling’s decision, then, to focus on these Trials makes sense, given the context of the world she is building.
  3. To turn to that thorny term, ‘cultural appropriation’. As a reader and writer, I find the term…unnerving. I understand the history and hurt that is loaded onto it, when certain groups that have always been relatively more privileged make use, sometimes an insensitive manner, of the cultural products of those they have actively or unconsciously oppressed. But I think it is far too easy, now, to level this charge at people even when there is no malice intended in their use of such markers. It smacks, to my rather naive thinking, of policing, of wanting to draw lines about who is allowed to ‘use’ what to tell a story or make a song or video. Intention, such a difficult thing to assess and prove, seems to me the basic criterion that should help people decide whether something was ‘borrowed’ or ‘appropriated’. Again, this may just be my own privilege talking.
  4. To be fair, fantasy authors have always ‘culturally appropriated’ things. Martin’s World of Ice and Fire, for instance, talks about Eastern countries—in Essos or Sothyros—that sound remarkably similar to Mongolia, China, certain parts of the Middle East. Jordan’s Wheel of Time has an empire whose rulers behave a lot like the rulers of ancient China, lacquering their fingernails and wearing silken robes. When you’re building an entirely new world, you want lots of different cultures and peoples to feature in it, in order to make it realistic, well-rounded. Authors aren’t gods. They have to build something that, while new, also presents a familiar enough aspect that a reader wont be entirely put off (this is why I find fantasy a much more appealing genre than science fiction, but more on that some other time). To this, authors borrow from cultures and histories around the world, knowing that just sticking to their singular perspective does not a universe make. Hell, even Tolkien, who’s been raked across the coals for his racism, fused elements of different cultures together to build Middle Earth.
  5. The reason Rowling has gotten into ‘trouble’ on this front, despite being a fantasy author is because: 
    • The Potterverse, unlike Middle Earth or Westeros, is quite recognisably part of ‘our’ world. It is a secret part of the ‘real’ world we inhabit, and as such, any historical events and beliefs that play a part in our world, there is an understanding that the same should have repercussions on the Potterverse.
    • For this reason, skinwalkers in the Potterverse are held to be the same, in readers’ minds, as skinwalkers in real-world Navajo belief. Rowling is not even pretending to create them anew in an entirely different universe (as Basu reinvented rakshasas in the Gameworld Trilogy, or Stroud djinn and afrits in the Bartimaeus Trilogy), and is borrowing them while making alterations that change their moral position in the original mythology, turning negative beings into misunderstood characters. She is changing not her ‘own’ version of the skinchangers, but those that belong to the Navajo belief system.
    • She is J.K. Rowling, arguably one of the most famous and successful writers working today, and anything she does is bound to attract notice of a lot more people than the writing of most authors. If she writes ‘wrongly’ about a particular group of beings, a lot more people are going to read it and gain what might be, to some people, a ‘warped’ understanding of a folklore that is, sadly, far from the mainstream experience of most readers.

I’ve blathered on. In sum, I’ll say this: i dislike the term cultural appropriation. I don’t like putting down lines about who should be allowed to use what from other cultures. In an age where a lot of us have so much information at our disposal, so many different pantheons and treasure chests of stories to work with, I see no reason to stick to only those marked out as ‘yours’ because of an accident of birth. The longer we police other people, the longer we are policed in turn, I think. As stated, it’s all about the intent. I don’t think Rowling meant to harm anyone, simply to have fun building on a world that’s delighted so many people for years. That being said, I see why activists have gotten upset, and can only be sorry about the history that’s led to this state.

When Gossip Girl meets A Game of Thrones

I recently quipped that, based on a rewatch of the Gossip Girl series, the Upper East Side looks a whole lot like the seamier world of Westeros. It’s got the same elements: people from privileged backgrounds/powerful families fighting for control of a limited geographic space. What happens outside of that Upper East Side (henceforth referred to as UES) area is of little concern, but for some reason it’s a power base that even outsiders want to enter or are forced to contend with, and it ends up corrupting them.

And the true voice of power here? A Varys-like figure who collects and disburses information at his/her own discretion and can lay low the most elevated with one fell swoop.

I decided to have a little fun and lay out some of the parallels between my favourite UES families and their Westerosi counterparts.

The Humphreys – House Stark

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This was a no-brainer. The only family that pretends to have any sort of noble idealism, who live outside the polluting atmosphere of the Manhattan area, but who, for some odd reason (love or friendship or simple desire to climb socially) have gotten sucked into a world that leaves them scrambling for purchase. Whether it’s Jenny’s Sansa-like fascination for all things fancy or Dan’s Jon-like ‘outsider’ status, the Humphreys are the Starks, sans the direwolves.

The Waldorfs – House Tyrell

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The Waldorfs are the one family that has finished playing out its family drama before the show opens. Headed by a formidable matriarch (Eleanor Waldorf is a little scatter-brained at times, but it was she who, by her own admission, taught Blair her scheming ways), its pride and hope rests on Blair, the supposedly virginal beauty who seeks to rule the UES with an iron fist. Blair is perhaps the one character who is most open about her desire to rule (what, exactly, is debatable at times), echoing Margaery’s famous line in the show: ‘I want to be the Queen’. And Blair will do whatever it takes, marrying disastrously into the royal family of a tiny European nation if that’s what’s called for.

The Archibalds – House Baratheon

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Baratheon, to me, has always been a bit of a random house. What is their USP? It’s not dragons, it’s not wealth, and it’s certainly not misinformed idealism. The three Baratheon brothers we meet in the course of the books are all radically different from each other, and their motto, ‘Ours is the Fury’ is rather lacklustre compared to heavyweights like ‘Fire and Blood’ or the ever-doleful ‘Winter is Coming’. But they are rich, and they are royal—indeed, they were second in line after the Targaryens were bumped off. And people do seem to like (some of) them. The Archibalds struck  me as that sort of family—very random, very rich and sitting on a huge family history that they could use to their benefit if they chose to (which they do, a couple of seasons into the show).

And Nate, if he were anyone on Game of Thrones, would be Renly. Pretty, popular, but no way would he be able to handle the pressures of being king. That’s best left to…

The Basses – House Lannister

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You knew this was coming. The wealthiest house on the UES? The one with the most spotted reputation, with the scheming, cold-hearted father and the disappointing, profligate son who (SPOILER) ends up acting out in the worst ways possible? The Basses can afford to pay off Blair’s dowry and still remain top-dog on the UES, just as the Lannisters extend credit to the throne and manage to field large armies at the same time. The Basses know how to play the games of the UES perhaps better than anyone else, disappearing and reappearing as per their own convenience. They run with unsavoury types, but manage to come out of each scandal with their fortune and their name intact.

And finally..

The Van der Woodsens – House Targaryen

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I have never understood why the VDW’s are so popular on the UES. Aside from Serena’s obvious good looks, the family seems to have nothing but bad decision making skills on its resume. Their family affairs are more messed up than any others on the show, with cheating and lying about deathly illnesses running rampant. They even have a con-artist snuggling into their ranks (literally) and passing off as one of them.

But for some reason, they are up there, powerful and making terrible judgment calls to protect themselves. Like Dany, Serena wants to  dissociate herself from the madness of her forebears and tries time and again to shuck the UES-VDW mantle, to become one of the ‘people’, whether by dating ‘outsiders’ or changing her name. Time and again, she is hauled back to awareness that she can’t escape her past. Serena is perhaps the one idealistic and naïve figure in this bunch of messed-up blondes, and she seems well aware of that.

But when Serena wants, she can take the world down in more fire and blood than even Blair is capable of. In fact, in terms of sheer collateral damage on the show, its Serena who wins top-spot in her generation.

Really, when you step back and look at it, the parallels are rather uncanny. Are we sure the Gossip Girl makers were not reading A Song of Ice and Fire when they scripted their show?