Feminism & Groomers: 'The House of The Dragon' Was Always About How Men Use Women
Patriarchy, abusers, moral panic, and the breaking of the wheel.
HBO's Game of Thrones spinoff, The House of the Dragon (sometimes referred to online as House of Dragons), knew what it wanted to talk about in the very first episode. After it's revealed that between two contenders to the throne — the cowardly Viserys I Targaryen and the wiser Rhaenys Targaryen — Viserys is given the Iron Throne because he is a man, we know that patriarchy is going to be a throughline in this story.
Westeros is a misogynistic society. Protagonist Rhaenyra Targaryen is repeatedly told that she cannot succeed her father — even after he has named her his successor — because he has also fathered a son. While both Rhaenyra and her gay husband (played by snack John Macmillan) fool around on the side, she's the one who is scrutinized for it. She sires children outside of wedlock, and people talk openly about it in a way that would get them straight-up executed if she were a man. Hand of the King, Ser Otto Hightower, is so confident in his grandson's succession that he undermines Rhaenyra's legitimacy and treasonously plans for how he can ascend to the throne after Viserys's death.
Yet more than the unfair expectations that women who want power must deal with to vie for it, The House of the Dragon is about how men use women to get what they want. It's not simply that women are barred from positions of power and must work harder for less, but how they are so thoroughly groomed from an early age to follow the whims of men that resisting them becomes nearly impossible.
The Grooming of Alicent Hightower
Alicent Hightower and Rhaenyra Targaryen were once good friends. They were confidantes and companions, but after Alicent marries King Viserys and becomes Queen Consort, they are slowly pulled apart by their male influences who do not want their friendship to exist.
For Alicent, the most significant source of this rift is her father, the Hand of the King, Ser Otto Hightower. He convinces Alicent that the first thing Rhaenyra will do upon ascending to the throne is to execute Alicent's children. As he says in episode five:
“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.”
Yet the person who destabilizes the throne is not Rhaenyra but Ser Otto. He's the one, not the realm, who does not accept her claim. We have no idea if these murders would have actually happened if Rhaenyra and Alicent had maintained their relationship, but it's the emotional reality that Alicent is groomed to accept. Alicent comes to believe this truth so much that she repeats it back, nearly word for word, to her child Aegon — the person Ser Otto is trying to push to the throne.
Yet it's not just her father, Ser Otto Hightower, that creates this tension. All the men in Alicent's life perceive her as an object. Her knight, Ser Criston Cole, has an intense fixation on her, treating her as this devout object that must be venerated. "Every woman is an image of the mother, to be spoken of with reverence," he monologues to Alicent's sociopathic son Aemond.
Her confidante, Lord Larys Strong, has a perverse sexual fixation on her feet, leading to her having to engage in foot play to get information out of him. Not the sort of action the Queen should have to do if she genuinely controlled the men around her. When King Viserys dies, and Alicent is no longer needed politically, Ser Otto and Larys almost seem to negotiate over her. "You've spent many hours with the Queen of late," Ser Otto states. To which Larys responds: "There's no reason those hours could not, in the end, benefit you."
Alicent may try to tell herself she is in control, but she is a good the men in her life barter over. She has been groomed to believe that, as a woman, she has no value. As she monologues to Rhaenys, the woman who was passed over for the Iron Throne: "We do not rule, but we may guide the men that do. Gently, away from violence and sure destruction and instead toward peace." It is a delusional mindset that has actively denied Alicent any semblance of real authority.
In the second to last episode, Alicent tries to break this pattern by pushing for the idea of negotiating peace with Rhaenyra. But this goal is not one that she can truly deliver on because she has no power. The men in her life are operating under the winner-take-all logic of Ser Otto, and they don't value her counsel. Everyone from her son Aemond to her father openly flaunts her wishes.
In fact, Aemond ends up starting the Civil War by killing one of Rhaenyra's sons. It is the first shot fired in a war neither woman wanted, but both were powerless to stop because the men around them think they know better.
The Grooming of Rhaenyra Targaryen
This aspect of abuse is even more direct with Rhaenyra, who Matt Smith's Daemon Targaryen (her uncle) has groomed since childhood. They have a close relationship, where the tension uncomfortably sits in nearly every scene.
Daemon is the one that opens Rhaenyra up sexually, bringing her to a brothel where the two make love. Rhaenyra never moves on from this early grooming. She eventually arranges for her first husband to seem like he was killed so that she can later marry Daemon and abscond with him to Dragonstone. Rhaenyra may think she's choosing this path, but it's hard to believe that when Daemon's been such a domineering presence in her life. As she says to him shortly before they reconnect:
“I’ve been alone. You abandoned me…I was a child. And look at what my life became without you. Droll tragedy…I’m no longer a child.”
Daemon may likewise think he loves Rhaenyra, but he still views her as an object to be controlled. He ignores Rhaenyra's wishes for peace when Ser Otto first vies for the throne. He instead plots for a retaliatory strike and straight-up chokes Rhaenyra in rage when she doesn't immediately follow his counsel to go to war. He's undeniably abusive, and it's convenient that the death of Rhaenyra's son pushes her to act because it's not clear that Daemon would have truly respected her desire to remain neutral.
Yet, unlike Alicent, Rhaenyra had people in her life that attempted to counterbalance these terrible influences. The only reason Rhaenyra has any semblance of a claim at all — outside the blood that allows her to birth dragon wielders — is because of the men and women who respected her as a person, not an object.
One was her father, who was so steadfast in his support that he clung to her claim even when it wasn't politically expedient. His dying wish was for her to take the throne, a claim which allowed her to marry her children with the House Velaryon. These political marriages ultimately gave her access to their navy and control of the narrow sea.
Another supporter was Princess Rhaenys, the first woman to be denied the throne. While the realm also rejected her, she is not constrained by the same lack of imagination as Alicent. Her husband, Lord Corlys Velaryon, initially doesn't want to align with Rhaenyra when the Civil War begins. But by the time he makes his appearance before Rhaenyra's war counsel, he has given his support — undoubtedly because of Rhaenys. She can imagine a world beyond the cage men are trying to put her in.
The question is whether this support is enough to stop the pattern of oppression that we have noted.
Near the end of the first season, both Rhaenyra and Alicent are trying to grasp at this better world. Rhaenyra will not strike first, hoping to shore up her alliances and try to find a path forward. Alicent tries to do the same by offering a peace treaty with Rhaenyra that will avoid bloodshed.
The sad reality is that these efforts do not succeed. We know how this tale ends. The country becomes overtaken by war, the dragons die, and over one hundred years later, it still remains difficult for women to grasp power (RIP Daenerys Targaryen). The message that we end with is that patriarchy is an all-encompassing force that grooms women to build their own prisons, which are difficult to break free from.
It's easy to feel defeated with such a message. We exist in an age where real groomers often misappropriate the language of grooming (see the current LGBTQ+ moral panic) to keep women and other marginalized identities down. It's not lost on me when analyzing the reaction to this show how a lot of people are very hard on Rhaenyra and Alicent but are so quick to forgive Daemon's character—a predatory figure who groomed Rhaenyra her entire life.
We are a society quick to ignore when men treat women as objects and even quicker to penalize the women who do not go away quietly. This reality doesn't mean we should give up in the face of such a system. We are better suited than Rhaenyra ever was to resist. It just takes us targeting our ire at the men (and the few women) keeping this misogynistic system running.
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