In Wrather’s thought provoking post on Game of Thrones the other day, he points out that Daenerys Targaryen’s wedding is morally simplified in the televised version. I’d had the same thought, and although I don’t want to put words into Wrather’s mouth, I think this aspect could do with some elaboration.
Daenerys’ arranged marriage to Khal Drogo (basically Genghis Khan with the serial number filed off), is a pretty traumatic event, both for her and for the spectator. There are several reasons why.
1) She’s thirteen years old at the time, at least in the book. (They age her up a little in the series because they want to be able to show her naked.)
2) She’s never met her husband before their wedding day, and they don’t even speak the same language — her brother, an exiled prince, needs an army to retake his throne, and he’s basically sold Dany off to the highest bidder.
3) It’s not at all clear during the sex scene how much her consent is going to be an issue.
For Martin’s imagined setting, all of these make a certain amount of logical sense. Plenty of medieval nobility would have been married by the time they turned thirteen — Shakespeare says as much of Juliet, and I once read a frankly erotic description of a woman in that age range by the 14th-century French poet Guillaume de Machaut. Standards of decency change. The fact that she hasn’t met her husband before the big day isn’t surprising either: marriages of political expedience were more the rule than the exception, and although I don’t have a specific example in mind, I can almost guarantee that if you trace the current European monarchy back far enough you would come up with an example where the couple didn’t even share a language in common. And as for the consent thing, marital rape was not a crime anywhere in the world before the 1920s, and in North Carolina not until 1993. So again, these aspects of Martin’s fictional world make sense. That said, he had the option of creating a fictional world where none of this happened, or one where it only happened off camera. Why have this scene?
One major purpose of the wedding sequence is to show how alien this culture is to our own. Not just the culture of the savage Dothraki horse lords (about whom Edward Said would have, I think, a thing or two or three to say), but also the “European” culture of Dany’s Westeros. It drives home how crappy women’s position was in feudal society: even if you’re a princess, your main value is as a brood mare and a bargaining chip. The age thing, the marrying-a-stranger thing, the lack-of-consent thing — they’re all just there to throw it into sharper relief. To make the horrible more horrible, like.
But in the book, and only in the book, there’s something else that the scene is about too. Because Dany accepts that this is her lot in life, and although she does get cold feet a couple of times, and even once begs Viserys to call off the wedding, she does not find the whole situation nearly as unnatural as we do. She understands that this is part of being a noblewoman — it’s not what she would choose, but she goes through with it out of a sense of duty, not under duress. And the reader is made to accept it too, on some level, because Martin throws another wrench into the gears: all her life, Dany has been expecting that she will marry her brother when she gets old enough, this being a tradition of the Targaryen house (as it was for certain Egyptian dynasties). And since incest is the ultimate in abject sexuality, and Viserys is already one of the most unmitigatedly loathsome characters in the entire series, suddenly an underaged marriage of convenience to a noble savage type begins to look like the lesser of two evils. Finally, although there are several points near the beginning of the sex scene where Dany wants to stop and Drogo ignores her, it ends with this exchange:
He stopped then, and drew her down onto his lap. Dany was flushed and breathless, her heart fluttering in her chest. He cupped her face in his huge hands and looked into her eyes. “No?” he said, and she knew it was a question.
She took his hand and moved it down [CENSORED CENSORED NAUGHTY BUSINESS CENSORED]. “Yes,” she whispered as she put [CENSORED CENSORED GEORGE SHE’S THIRTEEN WHAT THE HELL CENSORED CENSORED].
That’s right: eventually, he does ask. (Which is a more nuanced version of Khal Drogo than we see on the show, but we’ll talk about the show’s orientalism another day.) And eventually, she does give consent. And we’re given to understand that the sex is not terrible.
This is extremely weird and uncomfortable territory for the viewer/spectator! Our modern legal code is designed to treat this sex as rape anyway: there’s implicit coercion involved, she said no several times before she said yes, and she’s underage, which means that she’s not legally capable of giving consent in the first place. There are very good reasons for these laws. But because and only because we are placed right smack inside Danaerys’s head while this is going on, we know that when she says yes she really means it. She’s not thinking “I’ll just say yes because otherwise he might hurt me,” she’s not thinking “I’ve said no a hundred times and he’s worn me down so much that I just don’t care anymore,” she’s not even thinking “I’ll say yes because that’s what wives are supposed to do.” She says yes because she’s been seduced — and part of that comes from the fact that Drogo does allow her the choice, which is more than Viserys ever did. She’s still part of a system under which women are largely chattel, but her current position is better than her previous position, and that matters to her.
Leave aside for a moment the question of whether this bodice-ripping, consent-eliding, women-want-bad-boys-who-literally-don’t-know-the-meaning-of-the-word-no model of sexual desire is a harmful social script that shouldn’t be repeated in our fiction. Leave aside for a moment the question of whether George R.R. Martin, by projecting consent and lust into a 13-year old’s head, hath made of himself a Humbert Humbert in his heart. Leave these questions, and turn instead to another interaction that is flattened in the film version of the book, again involving a woman. In the book, when Robert Baratheon offers Ned the position of King’s Hand, his wife Catelyn is the one who tells him that he has to accept it. She’s an uncompromising realist, is Catelyn. It’s not that she wants Ned to go, it’s just that she understands that you can’t turn down this kind of offer without insulting the king… and she’s not blind to the opportunities this would create for her husband, herself, and their family. She’s no glory hound, but she’s an aristocrat. Part of her job, part of being Lady Stark, is increasing the status of house Stark whenever possible. The film version jettisons this interesting element of her character, in favor of a woman that just wants her man to stay at home with her (although I do love that line they gave her where she’s like “I’ll say, ‘Listen, fat man, you can’t take my husband'”). Then when they learn that John Arryn’s death was not an accident, Cat
suddenly becomes terrified and desperate for Ned to stay — oh no wait, that’s the version from the series. In the book, she’s even more insistent that he go to King’s Landing, not because they need to stay on the King’s good side, not because of the increased opportunity (which under these circumstances she couldn’t care less about), but because an old and dear friend has been murdered under circumstances that point to a treasonous conspiracy. She wants justice for her own sake, and as the Lady Stark, she wants to defend the realm! And while there are certainly more self-actualized ways for a woman to handle these problems than to stay home and watch the kids while she sends her husband off to actually handle the problem, this is still a more progressive, and a far more interesting characterization than the one in the series, where she’s again all like “Oh no, Ned, don’t enter public life! Stay home with me and take care of our baaaabiiieeees!” The book version of Catelyn does consider begging Ned not to go, once, after Bran has fallen from the tower. But she immediately squashes that thought as unworthy and weak: none of the reasons that Ned has to go have changed, and she knows that, so she keeps a stiff upper lip. Not like in the series, where she breaks down sobbing, begs him to stay, and when he says he has no choice bitterly tells him “You do have a choice! And you MADE it!” The actress delivers it splendidly, but it’s a terrible damn line. And in the book, remember, she is the first one to realize that he has no choice.
The damsel in distress has been a stock character in melodrama for as long as melodrama has been around. So has the long-suffering wife who pines for her husband while he’s off grimly doing what needs to be done in the public sphere. There are elements of these stock characters in Daenerys Targaryen and Catelyn Stark. (Dany even took a couple of levels in the “white woman sexually menaced by a swarthy ethnic type” prestige class.) But in the books, this is not all there is to them, not even the main part of what there is to them, and in the series, at least in the pilot episode, it’s all that they are. Why this flattening? Well, both of these stock characters are women who have been damaged by a patriarchal system. This is an aspect of Cat and Dany’s stories, so that’s fine. But in the book, they are also a part of the same system that is grinding them down. They’ve got a role to play in that system, and each of them accepts, excels at, and even to a degree relishes that role. And this is too much complexity for a TV show to stomach, even an aitch-bee-oh TV show. It’s like the writers are afraid that if Daenerys enjoys the sex, the audience will forget that politically expedient quasi-consensual child marriages are a BAD thing. Or perhaps they’re afraid that the audience will think the writers have forgotten it. Whatever the motivation, the televised version of these characters is sadly diminished.
On the bright side, though, I feel like they pretty much nailed Tyrion Lannister. (Peter Dinklage should go ahead and buy a stand for that Emmy he’s got coming.) And Cersei, who is one of Martin’s least well-realized characters, has actually grown in the adaptation. And my guess is that the TV versions of Cat and Dany will get more complex over time — TV characters, after all, never spring forth full formed from the brow of the pilot. Rather, they are created over the course of many episodes, and many seasons, shaped by many different writers and directors, and by the actor’s slowly evolving performance. Even in the second episode, we see both characters take steps in the right direction. The televised version of Game of Thrones is not yet the true steel, but all the necessary iron and carbon is there. We just have to hope that the ongoing TV development process, always a pressure cooker, turns out in this case to be a blast furnace.
[Postscript: After I finished writing this, Wrather pointed me to Isaac Butler’s excellent post, which makes several of the same points, and goes further by pointing out that the show’s fumbling of Dany’s wedding night is going to make her large scale character arc that much weaker. It’s well worth a read]