I’ll admit, I was mad before the ruckus even started. I expected to be disappointed. Prequels always feel predetermined, doomed.
We, fantasy fans, are spectators to a war if the prequels Rings of Power and House of the Dragon are facing off. The critics are comparing special effects and characterization but the real contest is in their portrayal of women.
It’s time we put our visors up and ran, full tilt and eyes open, at the way women are portrayed in fantasy and what that says about us, the fans.
House of the Dragon focuses obsessively on gender from almost its very first lines. The show opens with a tense decision around who will succeed the Targaryen king as his heir. The choice comes down to Rhaenys Targaryen and Viserys Targaryen. Rhaenys is older. Viserys is male. And that settles it. Rhaenys is denied the throne and also, it is later revealed, a seat at Viserys council table. With carefully articulated voice-over narration and excessive repetition, House of the Dragon makes it clear: we’re talking about women and power here.
The belabored debate over succession is interspersed with a barbaric depiction of a cesarean-section delivery, where King Viserys obsession with having a male heir leads him to gruesomely sacrifice the life of his wife.
A matter of hours later, Otto Hightower, Viserys’s right-hand man, instructs his teenage daughter to seduce the king in a bid to increase his own power.
In fact, every named female character in the first episode is vulgarly maligned, deliberately sidelined, or shamelessly used and abused by a male family member.
When Viserys finally names his daughter, Rheanyra, his heir, it is only to spite his brother, who has insulted him. Not one single woman in the whole episode performs a single meaningful act toward her own ends in her own agency.
Now, the defense frequently offered is: “it’s historically accurate.”
The hysterical absurdity of excusing gratuitous abuse of women on the grounds of “historical accuracy” in a world with actual dragons almost doesn’t need to be stated.
What does need to be said is that by arguing that sexism and misogyny are a logical necessity in your fiction, you are saying that the abuse of women is essential to produce your beautiful and intriguing fantasy world. You cannot imagine a world without it. The rape, murder, and dehuminizaiton of women is your fantasy.
And you are an evil and predatory ass.
Tolkien, at least, was more imaginative in his literary works.
Tolkien could think of a woman who wasn’t solely a plot-convenient means of producing protagonists. The women of Tolkien are sometimes queens and mothers, and also warriors, sorceresses, and primordial spiders. More importantly, they are many of those roles at once. Éowyn is a warrior, but also a sheltered young woman who wants to be loved. The women of Tolkien’s works don’t have to choose whether to be a mother or a warrior or a queen.
Rings of Power may have spread its first episode too thin over too many storylines to achieve the rich character investment and gripping stakes of Peter Jackson’s movies. It’s costuming and stunts may verge on the preposterous and distractingy fake. But, by the stars, the women live, act, and make choices.
Like House of the Dragon, Rings of Power, is about choices that define the future. Galadriel’s choice whether to remain in Middle Earth or sail to the Undying Lands presents an interesting juxtaposition to Viserys’s. A dagger even serves as a symbol of a sacred trust in both series. Galadriel, too, is a headstrong leader with obsessive tendencies, but she eventually submits to wishes of those she leads, sacrifices her mission for their safety.
But Galadriel isn’t the only example of a strong, growing female leader in this first episode. Nori, a young Harfoot (ancestors of Hobbits), protects and leads a gaggle of other children. Nori is the unexpected gem of this series. She embodies curiosity, gentleness, bravery, agency, leadership, and emotional intelligence.
The critics have largely praised House of the Dragon while the response to Rings of Power has been lukewarm at best. But I feel refreshed and hopeful after the first episode of Rings.
House of the Dragon leaves me angered and exhausted, and not just with this show. In fantasy, women are either compelled to trade their fertility for power (Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, Yennifer in The Witcher, Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron) or their fertility is used against them as a convenient means of forwarding the plot and disposing of them (Padmé Amidala in Revenge of the Sith). Moms die in fantasy, even the moms of Disney princesses and boy wizards.
The prevalence of the trope leads me to believe that we, fantasy creators and fans, have an insidious appetite for it. Like racism, the fantasy fan community returns to it like the irresistible urge to dig at an infected wound.
It should surprise no one that Rings of Power’s diverse cast received the deluxe Star Wars treatment—abundant racist backlash. Fundamentally, the argument that elves must be white is the same as the argument that a woman must be carved to ribbons on the childbed in a medieval-coded fantasy: the prejudices of this world are irrationally essential to your make-believe one.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.