Game of Thrones highlights common problem with defining success in a 'man's world'

Is Daenerys really a feminist bad ass? Maybe not. Photo: HBO
Is Daenerys really a feminist bad ass? Maybe not. Photo: HBO

As winter descends and Game Of Thrones' seventh season draws to a close, there's a thought that has burrowed further into my mind with each episode: what if Game Of Thrones has turned into a cautionary tale about neoliberal feminism?

Or, more specifically, a cautionary tale about neoliberal feminism's beloved goal, which is women succeeding within macho power structures. You know the sort: Margaret Thatcher, Marissa Mayer, Hillary Clinton. The women whose success in A Man's World is held up as feminism's great triumph, even if said women don't do anything to improve the lot of women and marginalised people.   

Arya Stark is hell bent on revenge, at any cost.  Photo: HELEN SLOAN / HBO

Arya Stark is hell bent on revenge, at any cost. Photo: HELEN SLOAN / HBO

On the face of it, things look good for the (surviving) women of Westeros: Daenerys has her dragons and her birthright, Dragonstone, back; Cersei's army sacked Highgarden; Sansa is([acting) Lady of Winterfell, and Arya is back at the family manse with her. What's to complain about?

Sure, it's a great state of affairs if your notion of gender parity is "everyone acting as badly as each other", but whatever glimmers of hope we once had that Dany or Sansa might grow up to forge a newer, fairer Westeros have been snuffed out like fire stomped on by a White Walker. And none is more bloodcurdling a "feminist" hero than the Mother of Dragons herself.

Of the myriad pop-cultural phenomena to emerge from Westeros, using "Khaleesi" as feminist shorthand for "bad ass bitch" has long been one of the more uncomfortable.

Dany has proven – repeatedly – that she's no better than any of her male predecessors when it comes to her quest to rule the Seven Kingdoms. She has been a conqueror since Season 3, if not earlier, but as Season 7 draws to a close, Daenerys is looking more like an out-and-out fascist.

Breaking the wheel

It now seems that all Dany's talk about "breaking the wheel" is less about a brave new Westeros and more about incinerating anyone who dares stand in the way of her plans. (RIP "Dick-On" Tarly.) I mean, I guess one way to break the wheel is to burn it first?

Call me old fashioned, but demanding everyone "bend the knee" and dishing out death-from-above on those who don't with your squadron of dragons doesn't strike me as especially wheel-breaking.

"Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile?" she declared, in episode 3 this season, sounding every bit the #selflove nameplate necklace. "Faith. Not in any gods. Not in myths and legends. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen." Lean in, Dany!

It may seem curious to read Daenerys this way when there are seemingly worse women playing the great Game. It's true, Cersei Lannister has always been more outwardly "evil" (witness her punishment of Ellaria Sand and her daughter!), but then she's never pretended to be anything but.

I still hold out some hope for Sansa, but I fear there's a darkness growing in her; after all, she wanted Jon to banish the Karstarks and the Umbers (if not straight up destroy them) for betraying the North. As for Arya, well, she's now little more than a bloodthirsty mercenary hellbent on vengeance at any cost, even if it means severing her own family ties.

Camaraderie

In the words of Laura Hudson, "It's hard to think of two women who have been allowed to have the kind of (...) camaraderie and 'brotherhood' that has defined so many of their characters. How much more kickass – and compelling – would Sansa and Arya be if they were working together and finally getting to know each other as adults rather than reenacting their childhood squabbles with knives?"

I keep thinking about something feminist academic Eva Cox told me in an interview upon the release of Sheryl Sandberg's working women's manifesto Lean In): "It is time we looked at the ways feminism and women have become complicit in the current inequities. Individualism leads to trying to succeed in a macho workplace model and market economic models. This creates no change and can't work for those who don't want to mimic macho practices."

If Daenerys maintains the tyrannical status quo laid down by generations of Targaryens before her, what good does that do for the women of Westeros?

Similarly, if we continue to praise the "success" of women like former Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer or Clinton, while ignoring the fact that their "same-as-it-ever-was" policies are greatly injurious to women (be they business ones, like Mayer's attacks on maternity leave, or political, like Clinton's welfare reform), we're stuffed.

With one episode remaining in Season 7, and only six episodes in next year's final season, it's possible that everything will shift and Dany will see the error of her ways.

This isn't about some whoopsie denouement where the Seven Kingdoms are transformed into a kinder, happier place courtesy of A Woman's Touch; rather, it's about imagining how a post-patriarchal world might function.

Forget about breaking the wheel: it's time to reinvent it.

- Sydney Morning Herald