I’m very new to the Game of Thrones world. Since some of my students are really into it, I decided I would start watching this season. And I got hooked. I watched enough key episodes from past seasons and read enough online summaries to get up to speed on this season. A major subplot this season has been the disintegration of the power of Danaerys Targaryen who now only has one out of her three dragons left. As she has lost power, she’s gotten more paranoid and reactive. This past episode, I turned on Dany, but then I was bothered at myself for having done so.
See, there’s a contrast that’s being set up that makes me very uncomfortable. On the one hand, we have Jon Snow, the humble reluctant ruler who deserves the iron throne because he doesn’t want it. And then there’s Dany, the mad queen who’s obsessed with the iron throne and makes increasingly paranoid and reactive decisions because of it. Plenty of critiques have been made about the Game of Thrones series being misogynistic and problematic. I’m not particularly interested in raging against the show itself. I’m more interested in thinking about the way that this trope plays out in real life.
Think about the female leaders in our country. How many of them are set up to be mad queens? How about Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? All of them are very different people who have little in common besides their gender and political party. But all of them have been successfully cast as power-obsessed crazy bitches by our media. Men on the other hand get to be reluctant rulers who deserve the throne because they don’t want it. Because we don’t have to fight for respect and authority.
In Andy Crouch’s Playing God, he talks about the subtle way that celebrity megachurch pastors use casual dress and invisible microphones to create the illusion that they are on a level playing field with their congregations even though they have all the power. When I read that, it got me thinking about the way I dress as a college minister (shorts, t-shirt, and sandals with no clergy collar unless I’m going to a political protest) and the way I always tell people to call me Morgan instead of Reverend Guyton. It’s easy to be humble and approachable when you have power.
I think about my friends who are female pastors and the way that I often see them dressing very formally in their clergy collars. My wife is in a clergy mom group where they share the constant stream of patronizing misogyny they deal with every day in their churches. For women of color, especially if they have to navigate predominantly white spaces, the threat to their authority is even more acute.
One of the most eye-opening moments I’ve ever had was at a radical Christian conference in Oakland several years ago. Some women of color spoke very stridently and angrily about issues they had dealt with in white spaces. They seemed impenetrably confident and self-assured; I was completely intimidated by them. But when they were done talking, they started sobbing and holding one another. And that just undid me. Because it made me see how much it costs to stand up for yourself when you’re a woman of color.
When I had been in confrontational situations in the past with a women yelling at me, I just thought okay here’s a crazy bitch whom I have to placate with my self-sacrificial magnanimity. It never occurred to me that only people with power get to be magnanimous and that usually when someone has to yell to get what they want, it’s because they don’t have power, and when they’re yelling, it’s usually not a self-righteous ego trip but a terrified assertion of their right to exist.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to be loving in how we communicate with one another or that rudeness should be normalized. Nor am I saying that we should enable tyrants and let people who yell get whatever they want in order to stop them from yelling. I’m just saying that if someone seems like a mad queen to you, maybe it’s because they’ve been betrayed and abused by a lot of people. Try your best not to moralize other people’s anger and not to take it personally. Even if they are attacking you personally, it’s still not necessarily actually about you.
Also people who are very adamant about asserting their authority are not morally inferior to people who innately have authority that they are indifferent to. If you’ve always had something by default, then it’s easy to be a reluctant ruler. So be gracious to people who don’t have what you’ve got.