Queens behaving badly: three ways fact is more interesting than Game of Thrones fiction
Women are now well established as the wielders of power in Game of Thrones. Daenerys Targaryen is finally conquering Westeros with her dragons, Cersei opposes her as the Lannister queen in her own right and Sansa – in the absence of her half-brother, the warrior Jon Snow – commands the North. It should be a triumph for feminism – but all of them, good or bad, strike hollow figures. They rarely raise their voices, get upset, swear or cry. They speak in a low, monotone register and their body language is constrained.
So, for example, when the Night King kills one of the dragons that Daenerys always proclaims are her babies, she barely grimaces before getting down to talking politics. Losing one’s “child” normally breeds more distress, but this is the most emotion a woman has shown during the latest season of Game of Thrones.
I don’t know where the showrunners get their ideas from, but history is littered with queens who aren’t afraid to let their humanity show: whether through tears, tantrums or toilet humour. Here are a few examples.
Perhaps to avoid showing these powerful women as too feminine or even hysterical, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have reduced them to pompous, robotic – even psychotic – automatons. The problem is that the showrunners seem to think that to be authoritative, a female character has to be more dignified than a male.
But it only takes a glance at historical queens to understand that being complex and showing human weakness diminished none of their influence and authority. On the death of her rumoured lover Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I locked herself away for days in an extraordinary display of grief.
While Daenerys, Cersei and Sansa execute people without the slightest sign of distress, Elizabeth – arguably the most powerful woman of her time and the vanquisher of the Spanish Armada – is reported to have suffered bouts of depression and nightmares following the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots and the Earl of Essex (neither of whom she wanted to execute in the first place). This is the complete opposite to the monosyllabic comments Daenerys makes after having the men of the aristocratic Tarly family burned alive.
Daenerys keeps telling people to bend the knee, but very little indicates that she cares. And yet, historical queens were known to throw tantrums if their political plans were thwarted. Bona Sforza, queen of Poland and niece to the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, spearheaded economic reforms, dictated the course of Polish politics and made Warsaw the city it is today.
But when a squabble with Ferdinand Habsburg over the treatment of his daughter and Bona’s daughter-in-law at the Polish court threatened to diminish her position, according to the Habsburg ambassador she “threw herself onto the ground kicking and screaming in front of the king and started crying”. My translation of this account will be available later this year. What is clear from the document, though, is that she hated the Habsburgs with a passion otherwise reserved for her family, political scheming and gathering financial assets.
Bona’s daughter, Anna Jagiellon, was jointly elected to the Polish throne with her husband Stephen Bathory by the Polish and Lithuanian nobility in 1575. The condition of the couple’s election was that Anna gives up her considerable inheritance. When the nobles made her sign the document before the coronation, chronicler Swietoslaw Orzelski tells us that “she hesitated for a moment, torn by anger and grief, finally she burst into tears”. Her money was important and she wasn’t going to let it go lightly.
3. Toilet humour
The complexity of characterisation that the female characters on Game of Thrones lack is not denied their male counterparts – they scream, laugh, curse, deal with excrement and make unsavoury jokes. As for the women, even as they’re denied the tears and screams that might strike too “feminine” a note, they generally conform to what is stereotypically considered attractive.
Lena Dunham’s show Girls did much to dispel these representations. Her characters throw around used tampons, use deliciously foul language and pee in the street. We care about the characters, because they misbehave and don’t lack normal bodily functions, even if they are women.
Lena Dunham’s style of charm is not just for the modern age. Historical queens enjoyed being naughty sometimes. Legend has it that Queen Victoria occasionally farted in public – for which ambassadors politely raced each other to take the blame (or credit). One gets the impression that if anyone dared to fart in Daenerys’ presence, she would spontaneously go deaf.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth I played a fart gag on one of her courtiers. John Aubrey, a gossipy author of biographical sketches, reports that the Earl of Oxford, making his low bow to Queen Elizabeth:
Happened to let a fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to travel for seven years. On his return, the Queen welcomed him home and said: ‘My Lord, I forgot all about the fart.’
Oh! The humanity
Powerful queens in history cared deeply about their families, politics and money. This showed in an occasional tantrum, which took away none of their authority. They were human and we identify with their humanity. If the producers want a queen to end up on the Westerosi throne, they need to start humanising them quick, because their emotional connection to the audience is lacking, the way things stand.
Wouldn’t it be brilliant if the powerful women of Westeros had period pains and suffered with the menopause? But, disappointingly for female viewers, so far we seem to be dealing with two-dimensional stock characters.