“Every Sunday I go to sleep wishing I was Daenerys Targaryen,” a friend of mine recently posted on Facebook.
The sentiment is understandable. In the world of Game of Thrones, where showing an ounce of heart usually leads George R.R. Martin and show co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to cut one’s head off, Daenerys somehow has it all. She gets to be the sensitive badass, letting her dragons torch cities on behalf of the downtrodden, all while increasing her own power and glamour. Her list of flaws reads like a job interview transcript: “Uh, well, I guess sometimes I’m too idealistic.” And when compared to the other major characters, it’s laughable how obvious it is that we're supposed to love her. In a series notable for shattering certain conceptions of what a hero should be, Daenerys is a character written specifically for us to want to either be and/or sleep with—just read the passages in the books where Martin lingers over every detail of her body; it gets a bit creepy.
Daenerys is a hero in a way that’s too convenient and that squanders the opportunity to have a truly strong and complex female leader. She’s the fetish of a “strong woman” with none of the messiness of what it actually means to be strong in a non-charmed life.
When we first meet Daenerys, her life is about as bad as it can get for a (living) royal, but quickly turns around because of a few key factors. The most important is the birth of her dragons, the source of much of her political power. Let’s call them “luck,” because that’s what they are. They are a device dropped into the narrative by the gods to give her an enormous amount of power, both for what they represent and because of their projected military prowess. The second is her beauty. She’s hot as the Seven Hells, and men are falling over themselves to fight for her, usually because they want to get in her smallclothes—looking at you, Jorah and Daario, and let’s be honest, probably even the eunuch Grey Worm. The third is her bloodline, for no matter how out of fashion it is in King’s Landing, the Targaryen name still has some magic in it. When you’re a Targaryen, legendary fighters like Barristan Selmy sometimes just show up to lend a hand because they feel like they owe you.
These three factors—luck, hotness, and royal blood—mean that Daenerys will never have to make the same choices as any of you normies out there.
This magical trinity of traits ensures Daenerys can be the idealistic crusader everyone loves, never having to watch her goodness be tested by the backstabbing politics of Westeros, never having to butcher actual three-dimensional characters. The enemies Daenerys fights are caricatures, not just slavers, but rude slavers. While many of the other warrior characters end up killing someone we have partially become attached to, Daenerys gets to have it both ways. She can be the Sheryl Sandberg of the lands across the sea, rising up and up without having to poison anyone’s goblet. All she had to do was "lean in." Even when she allows her husband to murder her brother, it’s not meant to be morally painful, for her or us. It’s easy.
The crux of the problem with Daenerys’ character is this ease, which allows her to float along on a veneer of “strength” without the moral torment needed to forge it in any meaningful way. Strength means facing down shitty choices and choosing what is right over what is convenient. Daenerys is the only character George R.R. Martin lets have the righteous and beneficial paths always be one in the same, and it makes her flat. Though she suffers, often greatly, she is never forced to deal in nuance.
Inner strength doesn’t come from having dragons at your back and men ready to die for your beauty, it comes from knowing nothing can break you, even when you’ve been reduced to pathetically ordinary. Perhaps Daenerys’ polar opposite is Brienne of Tarth. Brienne is neither beautiful nor royal. In fact, we are constantly reminded how legendarily ugly she is. She is also supremely unlucky, as most everyone she begins to care for ends up six feet under. But in spite of these things, or more likely because of them, she has a strength of character that is transcendent and undeniable. Jaime Lannister, rivaled in snark only by his brother Tyrion, is halfway in love with her by the time they end their journey together (even if he will never admit it to himself). And who can blame him.
One day Daenerys might have that kind of strength. Maybe when she crosses the sea and has to outwit Westeros, circumstance will force her to become the compellingly compromised and fully developed role model the audience desperately wants her to be. But until then, the gushing about Daenerys shows little more than our tendency to exaggerate the admirable qualities of celebrities we find aesthetically pleasing. What are we actually valuing when we worship them?
It’s not a coincidence that the men I know who fawn over Daenerys don’t seem to favor strong women in their romantic lives. Strong women, like strong men, are difficult. Daenerys is not. She is powerful, yes, but strength of character comes from depth, and she is written with too much of an eye on universal appeal. Let’s not confuse the agency afforded to Daenerys by a divinely favored life with something to aspire to. She is a lovely character, and meant to be so. But to glorify her is to do a disservice to all the formidable women in our own lives, the ones fighting for a place in a world still stacked against them without the luxury of being born a gorgeous celebutante.
She’s an empty standard to bring to our daily lives, and we need to recognize that. It’s time for us to leave our Daenerys obsession behind.
Nathan McAlone is a contributing writer living on the west coast with a self-described LA face and Oakland booty. He tweets here.
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