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The Women of “The Princess and the Queen”

 

This week my new book Women in Game of Thrones hits stores. In celebration, I wanted to do a post on Martin’s women who didn’t make the book: the women of his novella “The Princess and the Queen,” which takes place centuries before our heroes in A Song of Ice and Fire.

            The plot is simple: King Viserys I dies, having made all his lords swear fealty to his daughter Rhaenyra. As the book puts it, “The late king had chosen her as his successor … hundreds of lords and knights had done obeisance to the princess in 105 AC, and sworn solemn oaths to defend her rights” (706). However, his widow, Queen Alicent, favors her own son Aegon, wedded to her own daughter Helena, over her stepdaughter, and convinces many on the Small Council that a son should supersede a daughter. Thus a civil war begins…with dragons. All this is told through a stuffy chronicler, history-book style rather than as a novel.

This is indeed a war of princess and queen as the title suggests, and the depiction of each is notable. Queen Alicent is as scheming as Circe. When her son refuses to take the throne, she points out that his half-sister will slaughter his siblings and children to eliminate those with a stronger claim. Thus the dowager’s manipulations bring about the slaughter. Through the story she appears conniving and power-hungry, even as she operates behind the scenes.

Her rival, Rhaenyra, with the prior claim to the throne, is framed as monstrous. She’s repeatedly called a bitch and most often a “whore.” The first arguments against her claiming the throne is that with her “wanton ways” she will turn King’s Landing into an immoral place (706). Her bastard children will try to inherit, and her husband will be the true power. In this, numerous double standards apply – her rival, Aegon II is “with a paramour” when his father’s death is announced. Yet he is framed as a benevolent figure, who refuses to steal his sister’s birthright until his own brothers and children are threatened. No one in the entire story (except, subtly, his wife) complains about his wanton behavior. He has presumably abandoned or concealed any bastards, in contrast to his sister who unabashedly raises them openly as her heirs. For this responsible act, she is condemned. (Similarly, in A Game of Thrones, Ned raises his bastard, while negligent Robert abandons all of his.)

Another double standard emerges when she’s frankly judged on her appearance: Once Rhaenyra was beloved, “though how many would still fight for her, now that she was a woman wed, her body aged and thickened by six childbirths, was a question none could answer” (712-713). It could be argued that the chronicler or the minds of the time are sexist, more than the novella’s author. However, the word choice used is strongly slanted and emphasizes the gender war occurring: “Every symbol of legitimacy belonged to Aegon…and he was male, which in the eyes of many made him the rightful king, his half sister the usurper” (712, italics added).

Other characters in the novella suffer the same: House Arryn “could not be relied upon [a phrase used for flighty people] for the Eyrie was presently ruled by a woman, Lady Jeyne, the Maiden of the Vale [her martial status is central to her identity], whose own rights might be called into question should Princess Rhaenyra be put aside” [her gender is her defining characteristic and motivator]. Only at the sentence’s end is it made clear she’s unreliable because of her politics, not the nature of her gender. By contrast, the male-led House Baratheon is described in the next paragraph as “staunch in support of the claims” of the family, a far more masculine label. A prophet later insists, “Your wives will dance in gowns of fire, shrieking as they burn, lewd and naked underneath the flames” (761). The husbands of course are described in a nonsexual manner.

Feminist TV makes a fair point in its defense of Cersei, a point that applies to Princess Rhaenyra as well:

 I would never proclaim that Cersei Lannister is a “good person”; she is cruel, conniving, and callous. She often acts impulsively based on her passions, and is occasionally blinded by the love she bears for her children and her twin brother Jaime… . However, I would very much say that Cersei is operating in the same value system as the vast majority of characters in this world… . But here’s the thing; most of these “corrupt value system” characters are men, and are therefore seen as “bad-asses,” “heroes,” or “rebels.” Meanwhile, Cersei gets labeled “bitch,” “terrible and whiny,” and “stupid whore” (all quotes taken from various Tumblr conversations). Want to know why? Hint: misogyny! Female characters are traditionally singled out and held to vastly different standards than male characters are, mostly because society at large teaches us that double standards are a- ok (spoiler alert—not true). So while Tywin, Tyrion, and Jaime Lannister get to be cool rebel dudes, Cersei is viewed with an amount of contempt and hatred that’s actually rather shocking (“In Defense of Cersei Lannister”).

Internet fans name Cersei “mean,” “whiny,” and a “bitch.” However, she is no harsher than Tywin, who is often admired for his viciousness. As she voices complaints about powerlessness that echo the misery of Tyrion, Robb, and Jon, she should not be condemned gender- specifically. The author concludes, “Using gendered slurs, even when talking about fictional women, matters. It matters because it propagates a way of thinking and describing women that is deeply and historically sexist. So love Cersei or hate her. Just don’t call her a bitch [“In Defense of Cersei Lannister”]. As all her stepbrothers, the commonfolk, and the story’s description depict Rhaenyra in the same terms, with constant jabs at her aggression, lewdness, and physical body, the same situation emerged, showing much about her people. Basically, every single character appears misogynist, including chronicler and author.

While Rhaenyra insists on her rights, she is unable to claim the throne because she’s on Dragonstone giving birth. The actual birth scene is grotesque: Her “black fury” at the usurpation “seemed to bring on the birth, as if the babe inside her were angry too, and fighting to get out” She curses all her family and the child, which she calls a “monster.”

 

“The princess shrieked curses all through her labor, calling down the wroth of the gods upon her half brothers and their mother the queen, and detailing the torments she would inflict upon them before she would let them die. She cursed the child inside her too. “Get out,” she screamed, clawing at her swollen belly as her maester and her midwife tried to restrain her. ”Monster, monster, get out, get out, GET OUT!”  “When the babe at last came forth, she proved indeed a monster: a stillborn girl, twisted and malformed with a hole in her chest where her heart should have been and a stubby, scaled tail” (711). 

 

The monstrous baby seems a reflection of Rhaenyra’s inner rage and monstrousness, while this evil birth is nearly as foul as Melisandre’s shadow babe. “The patriarchy feared the feminine in connection with her role in birthing and dying even more than in her association with sex” (George 222). Birth, a mystery beyond man’s sphere, thus became demonized, a hideous unholy rite like Melisandre’s, used to kill the good and innocent.

 Giving birth to a shadow creature appears to be a female-only power, requiring a womb. However, the feminine birth power is subverted: she creates a force of evil that enables Stannis to kill his closest relative and frames the good women Brienne and Catelyn for the death (in the books, she then births a second shadow creature to kill a loyal retainer of House Baratheon who’s protecting Robert’s innocent bastard son). As such, the most primal female power is depicted as twisted, vile, and obscene. Aside from Daenerys’s monstrous miscarriage, this is the only birth scene shown until Gilly’s child arrives in season three. (Frankel 134)

 Daenerys actually has a similar birth scene, with her ambition to save Drogo nearly killing her, as her child too is monstrous:

“He turned his face away. His eyes were haunted. “They say the child was …” She waited, but Ser Jorah could not say it. His face grew dark with shame. He looked half a corpse himself. 

“Monstrous,” Mirri Maz Duur finished for him. The knight was a powerful man, yet Dany understood in that moment that the maegi was stronger, and crueler, and infinitely more dangerous. ”Twisted. I drew him forth myself. He was scaled like a lizard, blind, with the stub of a tail and small leather wings like the wings of a bat. When I touched him, the flesh sloughed off the bone, and inside he was full of graveworms and the stink of corruption. He had been dead for years.” (I.756)

 

Martin appears to dislike birth, one of the world’s few gender-specific actions. Melisandre’s shadow-birth is a vile perversion. Cersei treasonously kills her child with Robert before it’s born. Lyanna (most likely) and Dalla die in childbirth, like Tyrion’s mother. Lysa Arryn loses so many babies that she grows irrational and breastfeeds her seven-year-old child. Gilly and her babe survive, but they are the children of incest and the baby is destined for the White Walkers.

            The birth scene and depiction of Rhaenyra are not the only problems. Throughout the novella, many wimpy women appear – victims of the story’s men or even of the romanticism than objectifies them. Queen Helaena, sister-wife of King Aegon, is a pitiful figure. She’s not seen making decisions about the succession or the realm – in fact, the only time she makes a decision, her choice destroys her forever. On a mission of assassination and revenge, a pair of cruel thugs from Flea Bottom bid her choose one of her sons to die (ignoring the less valuable daughter except to threaten rape). She chooses the younger, and the men spitefully strike off the elder’s head. After this, Helaena withdraws from life and sinks “deeper and deeper into madness” (722). When her husband and children flee the palace, they leave her behind for the enemy. While her children’s deaths spur Rhaenyra to fight harder, Helaena and her powerful dragon become worthless noncombatants. She commits suicide at age twenty-one, despairing.

            As with the wolves and the Starks, her dragon seems to have inherited the rage she has sublimated. Dreamfyre kills more men in the dragonpits than the other three dragons combined, “ripping men apart and tearing off their limbs even as she loosed her terrible fires” (765). Nonetheless, the dragon dies, her rage leaving the world just as her mistress does.

            The women’s roles are romanticized, as Helaena is set up as the tragic Ophelia, abused until she goes mad. Her pain is shown at a distance, with none of the dialogue that Rhaenyra offers. Likewise, “In Flea Bottom, men still speak of a candlemaker’s daughter named Robin who cradled the broken prince [Joffrey] in her arms and gave him comfort as he died, but there is more of legend than history in that tale” (763). She does not even rate a word of her own.

            Nettles, a street child near Dragonstone, actually tames the wild dragon Sheepstealer by bringing it a freshly slaughtered sheep each morning. Though she’s skinny, foul-mouthed, filthy and fearless, her abilities win her a place among the lords and ladies…she seems much like Arya, clever and bold. At the same time, however, her mysterious origin (she may or may not have Targaryen blood) and the terribly distant depiction of her make her more puzzle than character – a mystery woman archetype rather than a person.

            She fights valiantly, but when she has an affair with Rhaenyra’s husband, the irrational, raging queen orders her death. The queen condemns her for high treason as she’s “said to have become Prince Daemon’s lover.” Once more the doublestandard appears, as she adds, “No harm is to be done to my lord husband” (752). Nettles flies far away and is never seen again. Nettles ends their romance on a tragedy, but exists the mystery woman from first to last. She does not challenge the queen or her royal spouse, but silently accepts exile, covered in blood with cheeks “stained with tears” (753). Her lover sacrifices himself in battle rather than return to his wife and they are thus sentimentalized. In fact, ballads sing that Nettles and her prince were reunited in an unrealistic happy ending. Brash, brilliant Nettles’ greatest achievement and most significant story arc is in the bedroom, not the battlefield.

            Alys Rivers, paramour of Prince Aemond (himself the brother of Aegon II), is another clichéd female, this time the perfect lover and seer. She persuades the prince to offer mercy upon receiving bad news from a messenger, then sees in a mountain pool, a storm cloud and a fire, that his enemy awaits him. She rides with her lover on his dragon, “her long hair streaming black behind her, her belly swollen with child” in another glamorized image (754). She is the perfect helpmeet and caregiver even while warning her lover of the future and carrying his child. She is all things to him: support system, lover, mother, and seer.  

            Finally, Baela Targaryen, daughter of Prince Daemon and Lady Laena, defends her island of Dragonstone from King Aegon II. Her mount is the young Moondancer, “pale green, with horns and crest and wingbones of pearl” (781). Swift and agile as her rider, she and Baela have no chance against the larger, older Sunfyre, but battle him to a draw—Moondancer dead, Sunfyre dying. The men of the castle immediately take her to the healer, awed by her courage. She is brave, beautiful, silent, and idealized once more.

            Other characters are strong and powerful, set apart from the unrealistic, muzzled ideals of womanhood. Princess Rhaenys is “five-and-fifty, her face lean and lined, her silver hair streaked with white, yet fierce and fearless as she had been at two-and-twenty” (712). She herself contended for the throne with her brother Viserys, but the (male) lords of the Small Council favored the male claimant, by twenty to one, the exact situation that befalls her niece Rhaenyra. She is “The Queen Who Never Was” and one of the first to die heroically in battle. Her dragon is the ferocious “Red Queen.” Queen Alicant is likewise a force of strength in the series, raising her daughter’s little boy when she goes mad, and defending the city after her son is injured. Both women offer dialogue in council and elsewhere, sharing their thoughts with the readers and growing beyond glamorized images.

            When her stepdaughter conquers King’s Landing, Alicent is bound in golden fetters, like female archetypes and goddesses as far back as Hera (who like Alicent committed treason because she didn’t know “her place”). Rhaenyra spares her life “for the sake of our father, who loved you once,” while beheading the Small Council. While a kind gesture, it also emphasizes a woman’s proper place as the king’s beloved.

            Rhaenyra, despite her strength, ends the story by going as power-hungry and paranoid as Cersei. Her enemy, Prince Aemond, says, “Rhaenyra may call herself a queen, but she has a woman’s parts, a woman’s faint heart, and a mother’s fears” (740).  Her Cersei-like irrationality leads her to condemn her allies to death on suspicion of treachery, until she loses control of the city and her hero-son Joffrey. “The girl that they once cheered as the Realm’s Delight had grown into a grasping and vindictive woman, men said, as cruel as any queen before her” (741). They name her “King Maegor with Teats.” When the mob storms the Dragonpits, she insists, “They are vermin. Drunks and fools and gutter rats. One taste of dragonflame and they will run” (762). She is terribly, destructively wrong.  

            Although Rhaenyra is in armor, when she sits on the Iron Throne at last, those present witness the throne leaving several cuts on her legs and left hand. The dripping blood is taken as a sign that the throne had rejected her; her days as ruler would be few. This woman, is not suited to sit the throne and the realm must await her heroic brother, the true king. In a less-than-subtle metaphor, as her people rebel, the queen was “clutching so desperately at the Iron Throne that both her hands were bloody” (760).

            Even her dragon grows irrational, descending to attack the mob at the Dragonpit instead of attacking them from the air or flying away. After her dragon’s death, the queen dies horribly, cursing her brother Aegon II as his dragon devours her in six bites. Only her terrified, babied son, a Robin Arryn type “like a small pale shadow” called Aegon the Younger (776), rather than a hero, survives.

            The queen and the princess thus fought a mighty war, destroying most of the Targaryen dynasty and soon killing off the dragons forever. Both lost nearly all their children, emphasizing the tragic waste caused by female pride and ambition. Their sons are left to claim the throne (Aegon II, then Aegon the Younger) and a law is passed that never again can a queen rule Westeros. Females are thus put in their place.  

 

Works Cited

Frankel, Valerie Estelle. Women in Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2014. 

George, Demetra. Mysteries of the Dark Moon: The Healing Power of the Dark Goddess. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

 “In Defense of Cersei Lannister” Feminist TV. http://feministtv.tumblr.com/post/51697770740/in-defense-of-cersei-lannister

Martin, George R.R. “The Princess and the Queen,” Dangerous Women, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. New York: Tor, 2013. 703-784.

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Sexism on Game of Thrones

Yeah, there’s problems. The biggest one of course is how one or more women in each episode take off their tops to manipulate men. Obviously, this cable show is trying to show as much female nudity as it can manage, but really? The problem, aside from just making this a peep show for heterosexual men, is that it inaccurately portrays and degrades women. Fully clothed powerful men defend themselves with swords, women defend themselves by showing their breasts or seducing the men. Yes, both use their wits. But there a major disconnect in who has the power. Even when women say they have the power, like Cersei or Jon Snow’s “girlfriend” beyond the wall, the women do little to change the system. The one birth we’ve seen was unnatural, the dark wispy thing that killed Stannis’s brother, and everything surrounding it were treated as pure evil. The powerful gods are male, the powerful kings are male, it’s all lopsided.

Arya Stark and Brienne (Lady Stake’s knight) are examples of women who operate in a man’s world, both by hiding their gender and embracing an androgynous life, becoming men in order to beat them. Lady Margaery Tyrell,  Red Priestess Melisandre and Shae, all fully feminine, know what kinds of power they want in life and go get it…however, they do so through sex, seduction, and relationships, once again suggesting that showing lots of body parts is the only path to power. Catelyn is quite strong. But she acts to follow her husband’s and son’s wishes, or gives in to emotion and makes politically poor decisions to avenge Bran or retrieve her girls. She’s not a good example of female power. Her sister, locking the doors of the Eyrie in a burst of feminine irrationalism and refusing to participate as she coddles her son (who seems to be growing spoiled and bloodthirsty as Joffrey) is even worse.

Queen Cersei Lannister in season one knows her family is too powerful for the king to offend, as her sousins fill the castle and her father holds the purse strings. She murders to protect her villainous secret, adopts Sansa as someone she can mold, beats Ned Stark, and takes over the kingdom on her husband’s death.

However, in season two, she’s revealed as the queen who can only get drunk and sulk in her bower. Tyrion out-manipulates her every time, Joffrey ignores her as her father likely will, she has no capable spies that match everyone else on the council. And by this point, everyone knows all her dirty little secrets. She’s been beaten. Finally, her mothering of Joffrey, whom she truly loves, has made him vile and dishonorable – she’s failed as a mother, wife, sister, and daughter as well as queen.

Daenerys Targaryen is of course the empowerment girl. I’m disturbed that she starts the series getting raped in a marriage she loathes and fears and then grows to love her husband as she obediently does his bidding, with a touch of her own manipulation. Once again, we have those seduction lessons and bare skin as her path to power. She’s misled by a treacherous witch woman and sacrifices her own child and husband for nothing. However, surrounded by death, she vanishes into the fire and is reborn stronger than ever. She also redefines the title Khaleesi (which basically suggests a useless concubine in the book) to mean queen over the men who have never served a woman, only warriors. She protects her people and fights her enemies, not with a sword, but with the dragonfire of her children…her own path to power. And, having decided she wants the Iron Throne, she’s going to get it, not by marrying a king or sleeping with a lord (as many other heroines on this series would do) but by forging alliances and taking revenge on those who betray her. She’s cruel but just, and she tries to protect the innocent, as Sansa does.

Sansa is the character I’m having trouble understanding. Season one, she was charmed by the handsome prince choosing her above all others, sweet-talking her, and making her the dazzling queen. But, even as she deluded herself, the final episode left her betrayed as Joffrey valued cruelty over sparing her father.

In season two, she hates Joffrey. She (probably) loathes Cersei and has seen that Cersei isn’t really the power behind the throne. Logically, she might be trying to be a powerful queen someday and doing whatever she must to achieve it…but she’s shown no sign that that’s what she wants. And Cersei’s example shows that she won’t really be a power in the kingdom, even as Joffrey’s wife. Marrying the king and poisoning him a day later would be logical. But we haven’t seen her setting that up. The series has established that most characters are “playing the Game of Thrones” and seeking power. Is Sansa? She’s not manipulating people to achieve her own goals, only acting to save others and convince everyone she’s sweet and helpless.

She might be making the best of a bad situation. But that only makes sense if she has no other choice. Offered several opportunities to let strong, somewhat honorable men escort her back to her family, she refuses. Why? Every character has said she’s in danger. She doesn’t appear to being spying as Arya has been – she’s never in important council meetings only the public throne room. If she’s loyal to the Starks, she should try to sneak back to them, but we haven’t even seen her send a covert letter (which admittedly, could condemn her to death). Imagine how Catelyn will feel upon hearing that Sansa keeps refusing to leave, even with offers of safe passage.

The final possibility is that she’s too scared or traumatized to act, even by running away, and possibly make things worse. She’d rather stand around, no longer queen-elect, and let Joffrey abuse her, rather than acting and possibly being executed as her father was. This is psychologically valid, especially with all she’s been through, from losing her family one by one to her humiliations and injuries at Joffrey’s hands. She’s been taught that nice girls do embroidery, lead the women of the castle in hymns, nod and smile at the men, choose their words carefully, bear humiliation proudly. But this pattern of thought will only lead to a worse and worse life as she gives up her own happiness to be mistreated for the delight of others. If she’s going to be anything other than an anti-feminist punching bag that the Lannisters degrade in every episode for her family’s crimes and for being a “nice girl,” she’s gonna have to get mad. Or at least grow up.

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