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On ‘Game of Thrones,’ Daenerys Targaryen faces a sexist double bind — like so many female leaders

Or let’s put it this way: Is she “electable”?

- May 10, 2019

Before reading, take note: This piece is full of spoilers from the most recent episode.

Things haven’t gone well for Daenerys Targaryen since she returned home to Westeros. The Dragon Queen arrived with the greatest fighting force the world had ever seen: an enormous and intensely loyal army of fearless warriors, a Westerosi navy, and, most important, three full-grown dragons.

Dany also arrived home in a strong political position. She had a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne as the only known living child of a former king; she had the support of the Great Houses from two of the Seven Kingdoms; and she was maneuvering to depose a hated despot in Queen Cersei, who ascended to the throne by incinerating the continent’s political and religious leadership.

Since then, the Mother of Dragons’ army and fleet have been devastated; her main allies in Dorne and the Reach captured or killed; her two closest friends and confidants, Jorah and Missandei, killed; her top-two political strategists, Tyrion and Varys, are privately considering treason against her; and two of her three dragons were taken out of the skies right before her eyes.

How did the once mighty Khaleesi’s fortunes change so drastically in less than two shortened seasons?

Well, fighting an ostensibly unstoppable army of the dead, which slaughtered most of her Dothraki and Unsullied forces, certainly didn’t help.

But even more costly than “the Great War” has been the inexplicably awful advice she has repeatedly received from her Queen’s Hand, Tyrion Lannister. Aside from getting allies and dragons killed, Tyrion’s terrible plans effectively constrained Daenerys in the same double-bind dilemma frequently confronted by women in leadership.

Women in leadership often face the double bind

Women in leadership roles often encounter a “double bind.” If they conform to masculinized notions of strong and competent leadership, they risk being characterized as aggressive, overly ambitious and unlikable — a “nasty woman,” as Donald Trump labeled Hillary Clinton in one of the 2016 presidential debates.

Yet when women in male-dominated professions show compassion, emotion and humor, they are often seen as ineffective and soft — lacking “the strength” for the position, as Trump repeatedly said of Clinton. This double bind is surely magnified when the office at stake has been historically held by men, such as commander in chief of the military (or in GoT parlance, Protector of the Realm).

The double bind, for instance, was evident in Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, which sought to neutralize the issue of gender even at the expense of her likability. Her chief strategist, Mark Penn, suggested in an early memo that Margaret Thatcher should be the role model: “The adjectives used about her (Iron Lady) were not of good humor or warmth, they were of smart, tough leadership.”

Perhaps consequently, voters perceived Clinton as a much stronger leader than Barack Obama — but much less likable. The pattern repeated itself in the 2016 primaries: Clinton had a large lead over Sanders on leadership traits but trailed him in likability.

Daenerys Targaryen’s double bind

Dany’s path to power seemed straightforward at the beginning of last season. As one of her allies, Yara Greyjoy, told her in episode 7-02, “If you want the Iron Throne, take it. We have an army, a fleet and three dragons; we should hit King’s Landing now, hard, with everything we have. The city will fall within a day.” The ruling matriarchs of Dorne and Highgarden concurred.

But Tyrion cautioned restraint. He warned against collateral damage from dragon fire and the optics of using foreign soldiers to overthrow Cersei. He constrained Dany to the softer/likable side of the double bind in a time of war against a ruthless enemy. The people of Westeros were arguably left worse off because of it.

Olenna Tyrell, later assassinated as a direct result of Tyrion’s disastrous plans, knew immediately that it was a mistake. She warned Dany that being likable was overrated in Westerosi politics, saying, “I can’t remember a queen who was better loved than my granddaughter … and what is left of her now? Ashes.”

Instead, Lady Olenna tried to free Daenerys from the double bind that Tyrion put her in. The Queen of Thorns took a prescient shot at him while doing so, too, telling Dany: “He’s a clever man, your Hand. I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. Do you know why? I ignored them. The lords of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No. You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.”

Tyrion repeatedly represses Dany’s instinct to be a dragon. Even after saving humanity from the Night King in an epic battle against all odds — a fight for survival that Cersei duplicitously refused to aid in — Tyrion curbs Dany’s desire to “hit her hard” and “rip her out root and stem.” He once again constrained Dany to the softer/likable side of the double bind. Her best friend and another one of her dragons are dead because of it.

Of course, it’s possible that all this has nothing to do with gender. But Tyrion’s advice has always been aimed at winning popular support — a much tougher task for a queen than a king. In fact, Varys explicitly plays the gender card when trying to persuade Tyrion to defect from Daenerys to Jon Snow/Aegon Targaryen, saying, “He’s a man, which makes him more appealing to the lords of Westeros.”

She’s also made some questionable decisions

This certainly doesn’t mean that Dany’s problems are entirely rooted in gender. She has surely been constrained by the fact that many of her potential subjects worry that she will resemble her father, the Mad King — a demented ruler assassinated over his penchant for burning people alive. She also has no one to blame but herself for leaving a continent where she ruled an ancient city as a (mostly) benevolent monarch who was (mostly) welcomed as a liberator by her subjects.

But much the way that gender has crept into concerns about the electability of female candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary, gender is inseparable from Tyrion’s concerns about Dany’s actions alienating the lords of Westeros. Daenerys Targaryen enters the final two episodes of GoT in quite a bind as a result.

Read more culture analysis on Good Authority:

Are ‘Game of Thrones’ dragons the equivalent of nuclear weapons? We don’t think so.

On ‘Game of Thrones,’ dragon power is awesome. But it can’t tell you how to rule.

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