Game of Thrones Rewatch: She Schtups to Conquer
A lot of people’s fave Game of Thrones character is Daenerys Targaryen. It’s not hard to see why. She’s smart, brave, ferocious, she has dragons, and she’s played by a beautiful and talented actress named Emilia Clarke who was pretty much perfect for the role.
But some other people aren’t that mad about Dany. Some people even believe that Daenerys is the dreaded too-good-to-be-true Mary Sue, and while I did go into some of the reasons why she isn’t a Mary Sue in my piece Arya Sue: Is Game of Thrones’ Youngest Stark a Mary Sue? I wanted to take a more thorough look at one of the main criticisms of the character.
A lot of dudes fall in love with her.
Everyone inexplicably falling in love with a character, especially a female character, is one of the hallmarks of being a Mary Sue. But please note the key word here – INEXPLICABLY. Inexplicably, of course, means without an explanation. If there IS an explanation, a logical reasonable explanation, a sexually desirable and much sought-after female character is not inherently a Mary Sue just for that reason alone.
Case in point, one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: TNG is The Perfect Mate, which features an empathetic metamorph, a woman that uses her psychic abilities to be whatever a man wants her to be. Men cannot help but fall in love with her, she can’t help but respond, and once she marries, she can psychically meet her husband’s every desire. Though it sounds a bit squick when measured against modern sensibilities, it’s a fun episode and as good sci-fi does, raises some really thought-provoking questions about gender relations.
I HATE IT that because of the Tyranny of Mary Sue, that character would probably never be written today. Honestly, I wonder if Daenerys herself would ever be written. Writers are so afraid of a Mary Sue that they’ll shy away from anything that even bears the faintest whiff of Mary-Sue-Dom, thereby cutting themselves off from plots and characters that really would be quite interesting to explore. Authors are avoiding anything Mary Sue even at the expense of writing things that women would like, even at the expense of investigating issues of gender and sexuality that desperately need to be explored1.
It is completely possible and indeed, desirable at times, many times, such as in the pages of a romance novel, or a fantasy story about a smokin’ hot queen who is literally smokin’ hot because she has three baby dragons playing on her team, to explicably have a female character that is a dick magnet. Just because you have a sexually desirable female character does not mean she is inherently a Mary Sue, any more than a character with superpowers is inherently a Mary Sue, or a smart one is a Mary Sue, or a quirky one is by definition a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Sexual desirability, like intellect and quirk, is an Actual Thing That Exists and is not something (like, oh, let’s say, being the youngest graduate of Starfleet Academy at just fifteen, like the original Mary Sue) made up by an inexperienced writer as wish fulfillment.
Yeah, a character being desired by the opposite sex can be a writer’s wish fulfillment, but it isn’t always. Sometimes it’s just art reflecting life.
One of the weird and wonderful things about being a woman-type-person is that men often like you. Even if you don’t have silver hair and violet eyes and the breasts of Emilia Clark, this happens with some frequency. Sometimes, particularly if you are around a lot of men in close quarters, more than one man starts to like you, simultaneously, awkwardly, and sometimes even dangerously. The love triangle may look fun in the pages of X-Men, but in the real world it’s a recipe for disaster.
Being a woman in a world full of horndogs is not always fun and in fact often brings with it a lot of stress, drama that everyone blames you for, and outright potential for physical harm. This is certainly the case in the world of Game of Thrones, where violence against women is endemic, marriage is seen as a commodity, and a woman having sex recreationally can literally ruin her life. Not only Daenerys, but Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark too, encounter more than their fair share of trouble because men are attracted to them. Even the very proper and motherly Catelyn had trouble on that horizon courtesy of Peter Baelish, and sexual jealousy completely underwrote Littlefinger betraying Cat’s husband Ned Stark.
Male desire is a double-edged sword that all women get sliced by from time to time, and so it is not inherently a mark of a Mary Sue for a fictional character to experience that. Being considered sexually attractive confers benefits upon characters, but also a potential for risk, not to mention complication, and it is a thoroughly realistic way to add dramatic tension.
As it so happens, Game of Thrones is not the only entertainment I’ve seen recently that presents the reality of what being a woman faced with the desire of men, plural, can be like. If you’re just here for Game of Thrones, feel free to skip the next three paragraphs.
A movie I very much recommend is Damsel, written and directed by David and Nathan Zellner (also involved with terrific The Art of Self-Defense which explores masculinity). I don’t want to give too much of Damsel’s plot away, but Mia Wasikowska plays a really unassuming woman who just wants to be left alone with the man she loves, but literally every other man – one of whom is Robert Pattinson, in quite a good performance – she encounters wants to have sex with her. In order to make that happen, they intend to save her whether she wants to be saved or not. She’s a damsel, you see.
Another movie I liked a lot was the very underrated Josie, featuring a fine performance by Sophie Turner (best known for playing Sansa Stark, of course). Unfortunately, while this movie starts off great, it eventually descends into a Shyamalan-esque twist plot, and features a woefully miscast Dylan McDermott. But that having been said, it’s worth watching and Sophie Turner is really great in it, making me even more angry she had nothing to do but look stern in the last couple seasons of GoT. I really connected with the gender relations element of Josie, and unlike many movies – some of which claim to be feminist! – I felt like there was at least an attempt to portray young women’s sexuality accurately.
Josie tells the story of an older, down on his luck, lonely guy who becomes interested in a high school girl in his apartment complex. Or maybe she becomes interested in him; she’s just stretching her legs as an object of men’s desire. She seems to enjoy the attention, kinda sorta maybe is even encouraging it, though without being intentionally cruel (they really thread the needle well on that – Josie is not a misogynistic stereotypical dick tease) but at the same time is hanging with a guy her own age. The thing that really caught my eye about both these movies was that they were showing something really rare in fiction that in the real world women experience constantly.
Now, back to Game of Thrones. For all the talk about Mary Sues and objectification, the actual experience of being a woman in this world, and being unable to just exist without attracting the attention of several dozen dudes who would get with you in a heartbeat if you waved ‘em in, is very rarely captured on the screen. Usually in fiction, we’re presented with the handsome hero, and maybe a skeevy bad guy depending on the genre. No other men are circling the waters around you like horny sharks. But in reality, there is the guy you kind of like, his friends who you don’t like at all but who keep hitting on you anyway, that guy you friend zoned, the clerk at the convenience store who makes inappropriate comments, your coworkers…even the married ones, the weird dude who lives in the apartment next door, your old boyfriend who is still texting you, total strangers who come up to you at the gym and ask if you need a spot, and this other guy you kind of like who flirts with you a lot but he’s got a girlfriend.
So don’t come at me with “But Daenerys had too many dudes who wanted to get with her, it was unrealistic.” Unrealistic? Are you kidding me? Of course dudes wanted to get with her! Dany is beautiful, has a nice personality till that whole King’s Landing debacle, and powerful, and marrying her would make her husband powerful-er. Honestly, it’s a miracle more dudes didn’t try to get with her. It is not Mary Sue for that to happen.
In fact, it would’ve been unbelievable and ridiculous if it didn’t happen that way, if Daenerys donned a Valyrian steel chastity belt and moped around saying “my ability to love died forever when Khal Drogo died”, and then all the men around her were like “whoa ok that one is off limits now” even though she was still incredibly desirable in every other way. Besides being just plain bad writing, that plot is totally sexist!
Having a woman pursued by many men is NOT SEXIST if she is into it and a willing participant in the fun. It doesn’t inherently objectify a woman if a lot of men want to be with her. Having a desirable woman NOT pursued by men because she had sex before and is now spoiled forever more, and so she must set up her vagina as a shrine as a memorial to that dude? Now that is sexist. I mean, you may as well have a Disney princess if all she’s meant to do is wait for THE prince (the one and only, sole handsome prince she has been allotted by the Monogamy Brigade, for all women simply must love just one man from now until forever) to come along and stake his claim upon her flesh with his magical penis, like an astronaut plunking a flag onto the moon. Stay away, USSR/Jon Snow! This inanimate lump with no will of their own is MINE henceforth!
Writing a politically powerful female character constantly pursued by powerful men is even historically accurate – take Cleopatra…and I know that many of my readers totally would if they could. Cleo was like “yeah ok I nailed Caesar, but I’m also gonna hit Marc Anthony too, cause that’s just the way I roll, yo!” And I didn’t hear either of those guys complaining about how unlikely it was that two powerful men would want to be with the same woman. Nor has any Egyptian historian has ever written, “Hmm, this turn of events is straining my disbelief, who’s writing this shit anyway?” Of course not, because we understand the nature of human beings. Beautiful wannabe queens marry strong and powerful men, and when their strong and powerful man dies, she marries another one. That is REAL, and you can go back looking at human history and find countless cases of it2.
I guarantee you there were ten times as many men looking on and thinking about how bad they wanted to nail Cleopatra. I bet Cleopatra had Jorah Mormonts coming out of her asp.
Let’s all of us agree to drop the complaint “Daenerys Targaryen is SUCH a Mary Sue because too many men desired her.” That is misogyny wrapped up in an Internet meme. It flies in the face of both good writing and a basic understanding of human psychology. Worse still, that mindset serves only to limit women’s choices, both in terms of enjoying our fictional pursuits to the fullest extent possible (cause seriously, what girl doesn’t want to read about a woman being desired now and then) and in terms of reinforcing the misogynistic message that women who have had sex are ruined forever for any other men – a message that, thanks to the men’s rights movement, is very much on the ascent these days.
- It’s so bizarre how, even though our culture is so totally obsessed with sex, many fundamental questions about sexual dynamics are no longer being raised in fiction at all, being subsumed to the backburner while we’re inundated with soft core porn and niche kinks that very few people take part in.
- One of my ancestors was a woman by the name of Isabella Smyth Pace Perry Menife and the reason why she had so many last names was because she married so many men. First, she married Richard Pace, who was rich, then when he died, then she married his best friend William Perry who was even richer. Then when he died, she married the richest man in Jamestown, George Menife. During all this, she enjoyed a rather unusual legal status as a landowner, managing her dead husbands’ property for the benefit of her sons until they came of age rather than allowing her living husbands to get their greasy mitts on it. Please note, the richest man in Jamestown was not put off by Isabella having been married twice before, or by her being politically powerful, because Isabella was the freakin’ Khaleesi of Jamestown.