Very few people were happy with the ending of the epic HBO extravaganza Game of Thrones last Spring—especially most women. Daenerys, the warrior Queen who harnessed the power of dragons to free slaves and liberate the world, ultimately turned out to be as power-mad as the men she conquered. At the pathetic end of the series, she was killed by her perpetually pained and ever honorable lover and nephew—robbing her of the throne, her life and the promise of romantic love.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, not only because I am still bitter over this weak ending, but because our collective inability to imagine women as viable leaders doesn’t only percolate through the fictional worlds of popular culture. It also frames consequential political debates—and elections.
It’s not just that the tired old double standards still prevail, where “likeability,” and even “electability” become code words for the familiarity of white male leadership and female candidates are judged by their looks and their demeanor, even the timbre of their voices, far too often.
It is high time this sort of everyday sexism disappeared, although there are few signs that we have seen the end of it. But as the 2020 election season plays out—and women candidates and candidates of color drop out from an initially refreshingly diverse Democratic field—something deeper seems at play, going beyond the tired playbook of double standards and prejudiced assumptions.
If a dragon does indeed need slaying, can a woman be the slayer? Can we imagine a mother, of dragons or of regular little humans, as the slayer who nurtures and simultaneously vanquishes evil? Our cultural world has ample evidence of our vexing inability to imagine this pairing. Rarely do we see mothers as heroes unless they are saving or avenging their children, and they often die doing so, driving off the cliff a la Thelma and Louise, patriarchy smacked down but briefly as the slayers plummet to their dramatic demise.
Women who want to slay dragons are after all, just women, and women aren’t really dragon slayers—they’re too soft or have too much baggage or not enough strength or too much anger. They are, like poor Daenerys, very flawed—but their flaws, unlike those of men, don’t make them human. Women’s flaws are fatal. Men’s anger is what makes them passionate about dragon-slaying; women’s anger is what makes them too emotional and antagonistic, too out of control to focus on the work at hand that they shouldn’t be doing anyway. (Must keep those dragon fires burning back home!)
Imperfect men are the very definition of heroic figures, alluring in their quixotic complexity. Imperfect women are disqualified for dragon-slaying and Presidenting.
In the real world, right now, women and girls are doing most of the heavy lifting in the dragon slaying department. Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and Sanna Marin of Finland are imagining whole new ways of compassionate governing. Greta Thunberg is leading on climate change, and Emma Gonzalez on gun control, and the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter and #TimesUp and #MeToo and “the Squad” and—the list goes on. There would be no resistance without women’s leadership, and this is as true now as it was in the past—when women were the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the labor movement.
But as the Democratic primary slogs on, we’re hard-pressed to fancy a woman as our champion or our knight in shining armor. Women can be mothers, of dragons or otherwise. They can be damsels in some sort of distress. They can even be heroines if they wear bustiers and are animated. But dare to be the mother of dragons and the slayer at the same time and you can be sure patriarchs will do their level best to diminish, demean and dethrone.
Let’s take Elizabeth Warren as a case study—a women whose dragon-slaying language of fighting (“Dream Big/Fight Hard”) is deemed “too angry;” whose plans are too wonkish to be suitably heroic in a world in which female intelligence is suspect and unappealing. Slaying the dragon of corporate greed seems to be Bernie Sanders’s job, while Elizabeth’s commitment to Medicare for All is strangely only her albatross, or so the pundits seem to report.
Yet Warren even dares to reclaim “masculine” language—big, fight, hard—in the service of slaying really gnarly monsters. In doing so, she implores us to imagine something other than a world of dragons who need constant slaying.
The detailed plans Warren and other women in politics so often offer up for fixing everything might, in fact, be what intersectional feminist dragon-slaying looks like.