Here There Be Bosoms: The Intersection of Empowerment and Sexualisation in Game of Thrones
Daenerys of House Targaryen, Stormborn, the Unburnt, Mother of Dragons, Khaleesi of the Dothraki, First of Her Name arises from her bath. She affixes the brazen mercenary Daario Naharis with an unblinking stare. He has brought her the heads of his former allies and an offer of his loyalty. Daenerys is naked but unashamed; she has nothing to hide.
It all sounds a little bullshit, doesn’t it?
As a character, Daenerys is a rare example of a fictional female character that is resourceful, powerful and not defined by the men in her life or the patriarchal system around her. But as an actress, Emilia Clarke is subject to a lingering close-up on her breasts – a gaze about as male as they can get. Is Daenerys’ nudity in this scene a necessary element to demonstrate her fearlessness and her confidence in her own skin? Or is it yet another example of entertainment produced by men for men, objectifying an attractive woman to increase the ratings – a slim excuse to get Emilia Clarke’s boobs out?
After all, Game of Thrones is notorious for (inadvertently, perhaps) coining the term "sexposition" – where unclothed female actresses jazz up otherwise staid chunks of elucidation. Nudity is not an inherently bad thing, of course, and I don’t mean to take a prudish stance and criticise this scene simply because it uses nudity. Melanie Ashe’s article from the first issue of this magazine demonstrated how the show’s use of nudity to its enduring interest in the fragility of the human body, for example.1 But I think it is worth considering whether the nudity in this scene contributes to or detracts from Daenerys’ depiction in the series.
In order to understand whether this is shameless fan-service or a critical character moment, we need to interrogate the show’s depiction of Daenerys. It’s particularly instructive to compare this moment – captured minutely for our purposes – to the first appearance of Daenerys back in the first episode of the series, "Winter is Coming."
By examining Daenerys’s introduction, our scene of her emerging defiantly from the bath gains extra layers. This scene is an inversion of her first appearance on the show, where Daenerys is introduced with the wind gently sweeping through her air, morning sunlight filtering softly from the desert landscape that surrounds her. There’s a sense of romance, as though we were looking at a Renaissance oil painting; an atmosphere skewered by the arrival of her sneering elder brother, Viserys. "You still slouch," he chides his sister as he disrobes her. "Let them see you have a woman’s body." The camera lingers, leeringly, on her bare breasts as he strokes them. Throughout the scene, Daenerys’s vacant expression remains, even as she strides idly into a boiling hot bath.
For those unfamiliar with George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series that inspired the show, this scene appears to establish Daenerys as an example of an increasingly tired fantasy trope. The damsel in distress: beautiful but meek, reliant on other, stronger, male characters to rescue her from her plight. Similarly, director Tim Van Patten’s choice to unapologetically view Emilia Clarke with a male gaze (the camera even dips to highlight her buttocks when the initial framing of a shot cuts them from the frame) sends a message to the audience. "Don’t take this character seriously," the camera whispers, "she’s just an object."
The scene where Daenerys faces Daario, from episode 3.8 "Second Sons,” is an inversion of this introduction. Daenerys emerges from a bath and assumes her clothing, rather than the opposite, the setting is the deep of night – but more tellingly in its power dynamics. Where her introduction saw her at the whims of a stronger man, now she is unbowed even in the face of an armed assassin before her. She faces her fate – whatever it is – without fear, without slouching. For this mercenary has arrived not to murder her, but to assume a position of supplication. He swears himself to her power in much the same way that she was once at the mercy of her brother’s whims.
The explicit references to Daenerys’s introduction are too obvious to be accidental. Whether the introduction was a conscious bit of misdirection on the show’s part (encouraging the audience to inaccurately categorise her character) or simply some misjudged fan-service, her encounter with Daario demonstrates how substantially her character as changed. This is no damsel in distress, but an assertive matriarch, a figure to be respected and feared. This is not the Daenerys the show led us to expect, and this scene stands simultaneously as apologia and amendment.
As a character, Daenerys Targaryen is unique, not just in the Game of Thrones universe but in pop culture at large. Strong women are not uncommon in fiction, of course: for example, in Westeros there’s Cersei Lannister, Catelyn Stark, Margaery Tyrell and Brienne of Tarth; each powerful in different ways. But each exists within the patriarchy – a system that is the heart of the show, both narratively and thematically.2
Daenerys is different; she challenges the convention of male wisdom and male ‘rules’ with her every action as leader. A typical female leader in fantasy might be dependent on the guidance of her male counsellors. Daenerys is, indeed, surrounded by a coterie of men – Jorah Mormont, Barristan Selmy, Grey Worm and, soon, Daario himself – but their advice is rarely heeded. Again and again, she is advised to follow the rules, to approach with caution. Again and again, she cuts through the strictures of patriarchy (realised quite literally in the bondage of the slave cities she leaves burning in her wake) to do what is right, compelled by an unwavering confidence in her own ability rather than the words of the men around her.
Significantly, Daenerys does not suppress her femininity. She has her own brand of leadership, defined by compassion and justice rather than following the rules encoded by centuries of patriarchy.3 Her decision to raze the Astapor in episode 3.4, "And Now His Watch Has Ended,” is as much motivated by strategy as a refusal to tolerate slavery. Equally, her sexuality is not denied but embraced; when Daario offers his loyalty to her, he states her beauty, not her accomplishments as a military leader, as the erason for his devotion.
Daenerys doesn’t use her sexuality as a tool of seduction – for example, she rejects the advances of Xaro Xhoan Daxos in season two – but she recognises its efficacy in enacting her claim to the throne. Her journey, after all, began with Khal Drogo, and her rise from ‘trophy wife’ to Khaleesi was impelled by her ability to channel her husband’s ambition – but also, critically, her ability to assert herself as his equal sexually. There’s an argument to be made, then, that to shy away from depicting Daenerys as an attractive, seductive woman and treat her as asexual now she has attained power would be disregarding an integral element of her character.
The problem remains that while Daenerys the character may exist outside the confines of patriarchy, the same cannot necessarily be said of the actress who plays her. Let’s consider: the books that guide this series are written by a man, and the adaptation is guided by male showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Ah, but "Second Sons" is directed by Michelle MacLaren – a woman! Perhaps this explains the comparatively empowering presentation of Clarke in this episode when contrasted with "Winter is Coming."
Or perhaps not. It’s exceedingly reductive to regard male participation as inherently sexist and the presence of a female director as inherently feminist. More significant is the show’s history when it comes to the depiction of women, especially in light of the controversy over season four episode "Breaker of Chains." As mentioned, nudity has always been a fundamental element of the Game of Thrones, greeted with a combination of leers, sneers and disapproving clucks. Matt Zoller Seitz mounted an extensive defence of the practice after season one’s conclusion4 – while later lamenting the show’s lack of equality in its presentation of private parts.5
The discrepancy between lady bits and man bits is defensible as a realisation of the realities of a patriarchal society, where women are sexualised disproportionately to men. It could also be demonstrative of a patriarchal attitude from Benioff and Weiss. The latter interpretation carries more weight when considered in light of other choices made by the showrunners. Sonia Saraiya outlines these changes in "Rape of Thrones," a piece written in light of the brutal, controversial rape scene in "Breaker of Chains."6 This is a show that invents new characters, sends them to the brothel, then poses their scantily-clad corpse like a Playboy model. This is a show that takes consensual sex scenes from the source material and repurposes them as rape with little thought to the ramifications.
It’s clear, then, that Clarke exists in a problematic world dominated by men, analogous to her character’s experience. Thankfully this scene, much like Daenerys, exceeds the trappings of its context. MacLaren’s precise direction regards Daenerys not as a sex symbol but as a symbol of strength and leadership. She is beautiful, yes, but she is powerful. The camera seems transfixed by her; it worships her, rather than leers at her. Equal credit lies with the actress; the scene is resonant not because of Clarke’s naked form, but because of her fearless performance. On display here is a complete representation of an unapologetically powerful woman.