The fantastical, dragon-filled world of Game of Thrones is back with HBO’s prequel series House of the Dragon—and so is its uncomfortable, all-too-real spectacle of on-screen gendered violence.
In the relatively slow-paced yet eventful premiere, the show focuses on the Targaryen dynasty (Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow’s ancestors) 200 years before the events of GoT. King Viserys, without a male heir, hopes his pregnant wife Aemma will birth a healthy son; instead, when the delivery is afflicted with gruesome complications and Viserys must essentially choose between saving Aemma’s life or the male baby’s, he predictably chooses his son. What ensues is a bloody, utterly horrifying scene of Aemma screaming, bleeding, and restrained as she dies giving birth to a baby that will also die within a day.
The episode ends with Viserys naming his young, dragon-riding and generally badass daughter Rhaenyra as his heir (notably, only after Viserys’ brother Daemon royally fumbles by publicly celebrating his nephew’s death)—this is a big deal as no queen has ever reigned before in this entirely fictionalized yet, still, somehow historically misogynist land. Despite this, it’s difficult if not impossible to bask in the feminism of this outcome, when mere minutes ago we watched Rhaenerys’ mother physically torn apart for the mere prospect of a male heir. House of the Dragon writers have previously offered interesting commentary on how the show will depict—and not depict—sexual and gender-based violence, confirming that it won’t include rape scenes but will explore patriarchal oppression in other forms. Nonetheless, the violent forced birth scene was frustrating to watch in our post-Roe v. Wade political and cultural context. Forced birth, pregnancy complications without medical help, and the prioritization of unborn, hypothetical life over a pregnant people’s health and safety may not be the same as a traditional rape scene, but it has a similarly traumatic effect to witness—especially right now.
Last week, in the very real world of the U.S. without Roe, a Louisiana woman was forced to remain pregnant with a headless, nonviable fetus. Before her, another Louisiana woman was forced to give birth to a nonviable fetus, subjected to a painful, hours-long delivery and loss of a liter of blood from hemorrhaging. On Wednesday, a Republican lawmaker in South Carolina testified about how an abortion ban he voted for had resulted in a 19-year-old denied medically necessary abortion care after losing a pregnancy, likely resulting in her losing her uterus and possibly contracting sepsis and dying.
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Horror stories like this abound as a result of widespread, real-life abortion bans, and doctors and care providers being forced to either comply with the bans or face upwards of a decade in prison. The U.S. has always maintained among the highest maternal and infant mortality rates—especially among Black families and in states where abortion is more restricted—which will inevitably surge when providing care is a crime. Pregnant people themselves who miscarry or attempt to self-induce abortion have always faced the not-insignificant threat of criminalization, preventing many from seeking medical help out of fear doctors may report them. I didn’t really need to be reminded of any of this.
The on-screen events of House of the Dragon on Sunday hit too close to home when they simply didn’t need to. This is a fantasy world buoyed by dragon-riding and magic. George R.R. Martin, author of the books on which GoT and House of the Dragon are based, and male show writers for both shows frequently invoke historical accuracy as the justification for depictions of routine, brutal violence against women—yet this dogged fidelity to real-world “accuracy” is only ever applied to misogyny; I can’t emphasize enough that this is a world filled with dragons, people. The argument is also dripping in condescension, as if modern women can’t fathom just how bad things once were, because our post-Roe, MeToo-backlash-riddled world is too luxurious.
House of the Dragon writer Sara Hess’ assurance that “we do not depict sexual violence in the show” remains true, in a technical sense. Hess also explained that the show will “focus on the violence against women that is inherent in a patriarchal system,” and is “less obvious than rape but just as insidious, though in a different way.” There’s value in unpacking all of this through thoughtful, meaningful, and victim-centric writing. But perhaps House of the Dragon could benefit from pushing itself beyond scaling back excessive rape scenes to consider the different kinds of scenes that can cause women and pregnant-capable audience members recently scourged of our most basic rights to feel violated. Excluding on-screen rape scenes is a step forward, but subjecting us to a torturous forced birth scene takes a similar psychological toll.
I’m not saying that I want House of the Dragon to be reduced to a hollow ode to the girlboss and a means of over-correcting for the sexist horrors of its predecessor. But this is, after all, a fantasy world—why is it so difficult for writers and creators to imagine one without deeply institutionalized misogyny or gruesome acts inflicted on women’s bodies?
I can’t pretend I’m not excited about House of the Dragon, or that the show’s premiere doesn’t already have me hooked. But when I look at the young Rhaenyra and am so reminded of Daenerys, I’m struck with a feeling of dread about the inevitability of yet another compelling female character being dragged down by the patriarchy. The increasingly inescapable real-life misogyny all around us—abortion banned in many states, male abusers deified as heroes, fetuses accorded more rights than pregnant people—feels just as inescapable in a fantasy TV show. At some point, you just get tired of doom-watching.