Natasha Cooper has recently completed her PhD in English Literature from the University of Durham. Her thesis undertakes an intertextual examination of sometimes ‘dangerous’ female characters, drawn from the literary canon and re-formed in modern and contemporary literature, read through a lens of feminist literary criticism and theories of tragedy. Before arriving at Durham, she studied at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay (India). She tweets as @natasha_cooper.
Daenerys: Tell them all to stop.
Jorah: You want the entire horde to stop? For how long?
Daenerys: Until I command them otherwise.
Jorah: You’re learning to talk like a queen.
Daenerys: Not a queen. A Khaleesi. (1.3)
In a society where men pre-dominate, where woman are raped under the justification of supposed, much-cited ‘historical accuracy’, and where femininity is only approved of when conforming with the most traditional of stereotypes – virgin, wife, mother – the character Daenerys Targaryen is an anomaly. A fictional figure, popularised in the Game of Thrones television series and originally drawn from the creator George R. R. Martin’s novels, she makes her first appearance as a silent doll-like character, deliberately depicted as a figure of innocence and virginity, clothed in a variety of sheer outfits which do less to cover and more to enhance her female form, long blonde loose hair, and a generally bewildered or sometimes stoic expression depending on her circumstances. Born into royalty from which she is ousted at birth, she lives a life of exile with her domineering brother. Here she is a Barbie-figure, drawn from a variety of feminine stereotypes and a canon of Disney-fied princess figures: beautiful and subservient, portraying innocence.
Within the first few episodes however, she is robbed of this virginity. She is married in an arrangement not of her choosing, where the terms are negotiated by men – her brother and husband – to the comparatively and stereotypically savage ‘Khal’ Drogo, ruler of the Dothraki tribe, bestowing upon her the title ‘Khaleesi’ in marriage. As Khaleesi she begins her experimentation in self-assertion, voicing her views. However, in the rare moments that she does assert herself, her declarations are dismissed as stemming from forces beyond her control. When she attempts to stop the Dothraki from raping a group of women by claiming them as her own, her husband the Khal explains her assertiveness by crediting it to her unborn child, a much-anticipated son:
‘Tihi kifinosi me ivezhofoe? Hazak rizh anni mra me: Vezh fini Asaja Rhaesheseres, fini nirra mae vorsasoon mae.’
‘See how fierce she grows? That’s my son inside her, the stallion that will mount the world, filling her with his fire’ (1.8).
At the Khal’s funeral, in keeping with the role of faithful wife in which she is cast, she proceeds to walk into his funeral pyre, recalling the ancient Indian practice of sati, ultimate female sacrifice. However, the impossible happens when she survives and is left holding three infant dragons, hatched from the previously dormant eggs she takes with her into the pyre. This is the point of departure from her previous Barbie-doll like figure, from where she suddenly becomes into her own, becoming a woman who will be heralded as the ‘Mother of Dragons’, overall a dangerous woman. In transforming into ‘The Mother of Dragons’, a moniker she adopts to add to her previous title of “Khaleesi”, she explains:
‘For my wedding he gave me three petrified dragon eggs. He believed – the world believed – that the ages had turned them to stone. How many centuries has it been since dragons roamed the skies? But I dreamt that if I carried those eggs into a great fire, they would hatch. When I stepped into the fire, my own people thought I was mad. But when the fire burned out, I was unhurt, the Mother of Dragons! Do you understand? I’m no ordinary woman. My dreams come true’ (2.6).
In various theoretical critiques of femininity, maternity, that much cited sole granter of female identity, is the biological destiny which femininity anticipates. The birthing of children is a biological fact that both describes and circumscribes the female condition, reducing the woman to her maternal aspect. Daenerys however miscarries the son she conceives with Khal Drogo, and bereft of a husband cannot produce another. However, the loss of her husband effects the birth of her dragon-children, and so she declares: ‘They [the dragons] are my children. And they are the only children I will ever have’ (2.8).
Daenerys’s dragon-children augment her dangerous aspect. In them she finds strength to carry out acts generally credited to men – war, conquest, punishment – often devoid of pity for her enemies: ‘I will answer injustice with justice’. When a female attendant says the show’s much-quoted phrase to her ‘Valhar Morghulis’ (‘all men must die’), she responds: ‘Yes. All men must die, but we are not men’ (3.3). In this phrase she shatters the glass-ceiling that restricts feminine action, proclaiming herself a woman by negating any notions of her as a man, even as she engages in male actions of war and conquest. While the show’s male figures might be dangerous for a variety of reasons, it is Daenerys’s femininity that makes her a figure of danger. While the acts she carries out are considered normal in men, in a woman it is alarming, and it is precisely because of this transgressive behaviour that she might be deemed “dangerous”. She builds a formidable military: her army of ‘unsullied’ warriors, a slave-army whom she frees, who in thankful reciprocation follow her orders; while her rapidly growing dragons form her air-force. Yet, while she rules with what might be a traditionally masculine iron fist, she wears an armour of feminine ornamentation: often donning one of her supply of somewhat translucent dresses, and dragon-related jewellery. In this clothing, which serves to enhance rather than shield her body, she re-iterates herself as distinctively female and feminine, offering herself up for the male gaze. Yet she refuses to submit to men – her second husband is of her own choosing, and she berates male advisors who might question her rulings. Reminding the viewer of her position as ‘Mother of Dragons’, her accessorising indicates the necessity of her dress to appear on a grander scale, and in consistently reminding the viewer of her femininity, reminds that the acts she carries out are carried out by a woman. The subjects she rules – former slaves – refer to her as ‘Mhysa’ (‘Mother’).
While riding with her army she wears a more practical outfit, made of what appears to be a coarser Dothraki fabric. But it is in her lighter dresses and bejewelled moments that she is at her most powerful: freeing the unsullied, conquering cities and riding her dragons. Her clothes become her shield, encouraging her objectification as a woman, but a woman who seeks and gains power in her femininity. Her stylisation of herself is her feminine veil, behind which she shields her masculine elements. She clings to her dressed-up doll-masquerade, refusing to shed the clothes that reveal her being as excessively female in favour of others, and this clothing serves its purpose. Her greatest strength remains her ability to command her dragon-children, where her femininity through motherhood makes her dangerous.
In one episode, upon being gifted a dress from one of her many male admirers, an admiring handmaiden tells her that the dress’s sheer fabric will make her look like a princess; at this, her other handmaiden recoils in anger, protesting: ‘She’s not a princess. She’s a Khaleesi!’ (2.5) This is Daenerys: born as a princess without a kingdom, she strives to re-gain it, bartering herself when necessary, transforming from fairy-tale proportions into Khaleesi and Mother, all the while performing a masculine role of conqueror and ruler whilst reminding the viewer of her femininity. When an advisor praises her nascent assertiveness, she remonstrates his praise, declaring her own brand of royalty: ‘Not a queen. A Khaleesi’ (1.3). This is Daenerys, a ‘dangerous woman’, unabashedly and unapologetically female, embracing her femininity through which she commits the acts that make her so ‘dangerous’.