House of the Dragon starts by announcing to its audience that “Rhaenys, a woman, would not inherit the Iron Throne.” The Great Council instead chooses Viserys, the male descendant next in line. No woman can hold the highest power, even in the world of fantasy. Rhaenys was more than competent to sit on the Iron Throne, but to rule, any man is better than a woman.
The story is of a succession crisis told apparently from a female point of view. Viserys has named his eldest daughter Rhaenyra the heir to the throne. Her claim is contested on the grounds of her being a woman, and that she has a half brother, the oldest male descendant. Otto Hightower is so confident in his grandson’s succession that he has already plotted to discredit Rhaenyra as an heir and question her legitimacy. Her sons are seen as bastards, not borne of her husband, Laenor Velaryon. They don’t have the silver hair of their parents but resembled Ser Harwin Strong, the Captain of the City Watch of King’s Landing. The legitimacy of her sons is just an excuse, her claim would have been questioned either way. It’s like Rhaenys says to Rhaenyra, “Men would rather put the realm to torch than see a woman ascend to the Iron Throne.“
It is only Rhaenyra whose personal life and character are subject to scrutiny, while her half-brother Aegon is a known rapist but his claim is unquestioned. If men spoke about other royal men the way they spoke about Rhaenyra, they’d be executed.
Both the leading women in the show, Rhaenyra and Alicent are rivals for the throne. Rhaenyra for herself, and Alicent for her son, Aegon. Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, defines an abject as something that “disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” Women are abject in any patriarchal world, fantasy or otherwise. Women seeking power are more so. Any woman in power is a threat to the established social order. It disrupts the existing power structure held by men. This is evident in the behaviour of the men in power in the show. They would rather go to war, and kill millions of innocent people than accept a woman ruling over them.
Is telling a story from a female lens enough? The visuals are more of men using women to gain their ground. We see this in the case of both Alicent and Rhaenyra. Alicent is a highborn woman of power, a Queen. She is perfectly groomed to be a pawn, to be moved about on her father’s wishes and his reach for power. He pushes her into the King’s bed, and she ends up marrying her best friend’s father. Otto even convinces her to usurp Rhaenyra’s throne in favour of her own son.
As he says in episode 5, “Listen to me, daughter: The King will die. It may be months or years, but he’ll not live to be an old man. And if Rhaenyra succeeds him, war will follow, do you understand? The realm will not accept her. And to secure her claim, she’ll have to put your children to the sword. She’ll have no choice. You know it. You’re no fool and yet you choose not to see it. The time is coming, Alicent. Either you prepare Aegon to rule, or you cleave to Rhaenyra and pray for her mercy.”
Yet it is not Rhaenyra who tears the Kingdom apart, it is the greed of the men in power for more power. Men see women as objects to be used to fulfil their own desires. Otto uses Alicent for power. She has to succumb to Larys’ foot fetish to support her rapist son. Despite being the Queen, men who serve her control her. She has no real power, she can’t even stop Larys from masturbating to her feet. She’s aware of this, in her exchange with Rhaenys she says, “We do not rule but we may guide the men that do.” To which Rhaenys rightfully replies, “You do not desire to be free but to make a window in the wall of your prison.“
Despite being a show about two women and their journey for power, both women are shown as reluctant contenders, only pushed to war because of the men in their lives. Daenerys in Game of Thrones was clear in her ascent to power, she wanted to break the wheel. She strives for her goal. Even Cersei believed that power isn’t bestowed, it has to be taken. She refused to be boxed in by the things that women weren’t allowed to do. Her brutal thirst for power is in opposition to Rhaenyra’s reluctance and Alicent’s insistence on ‘duty and sacrifice.’ Their refusal to leverage power is frustrating.
Like Dany, neither of these women is winning. The patriarchy strives on with or without them. It’s larger than the relative power either of them yields because of their birth as highborn women. Alicent is nudged into the king’s bed and she has to defend her rapist son. Rhaenyra, on the other hand, is put under harsh scrutiny for having premarital sex, and choosing whom she sleeps with. She’s deemed unworthy and damaged goods while her half-brother commits grave sins every day and is still backed by all men to be the heir to the Iron Throne. The show has reduced them to mothers and daughters reluctant to fight. It is gender essentialist. Both have agency, though curtailed. Both have reason to go to war and be at the top of the hierarchy.
The end of season 1 is just the system repeating itself, we know how this ends with Dany. Alicent ends up defending the system that put her there and is frustrated by it. She strengthens the system under the mantle of duty and honour when it’s misogyny and bigotry. Had it not been Rhaenyra, someone else would have acted as a screen to project her frustrations on. She’s the perfect example of how the system damages women. Even Rhaenyra’s protests are seen as whining and complaints, rather than an appropriate response to systemic misogyny. The shapes that women’s passions take under patriarchy are belittled and blame often assigned to their sex.
Rhaenyra wants the feminist ideals of equal treatment, to not be discriminated against. Alicent on the other hand passively accepts her fate. The show, however, uses the visuals of popular feminism to tilt the scale on Rhaenyra’s side. In an interview one of the show runners mentions that their version of Rhaenyra “needs to be punk rock, non-conventional.” Women aspire to men’s roles, there’s no subversion of power. It may have the appearance of feminism but it is shallow to assume women want what men what, and their ambitions are just like other men. There’s no concrete action taken to dismantle or even point out how men stifle women’s rights and gain power.
Women are put under the knife for the most humane reactions while everyone conveniently forgets that Daemon murdered his wife because she didn’t fit into his scheme of things. People applaud him for killing Vaemond Velaryon and defending his wife, but I wonder what the reactions would be if Rhaenyra did the same.
It is not enough to acknowledge sexist systems of power, nor is it enough to show birth scenes and rape scenes. What you do with that acknowledgement is what matters. I do know that the stories today are relatively better, and that progress takes time. But it is not fast enough. It is not enough.