I look for the slightest bit of sapphic tension in every piece of media I interact with. Last year, I held my film professor hostage for ten minutes after class to explain my reading of the two women in our assigned 1930s gangster film (Dragnet Girl). In this film, I saw the potential for an enemies to lovers trope in the role of two women who had just met. One of the women stole their boyfriend’s gun and pointed it at the other woman, subverting the phallic image of a gun into a gesture of their feelings for one another. In this thirty second scene, I had crafted an entire romantic arc for these two women. This film brought on only one of many instances in which I have cornered a professor to regale them with my theories about women loving women. I came away from the class – “World Cinema and Crime” – claiming that all I had learned was that every woman involved in a crime film was gay.
The suffering of my professors aside, I lay this anecdote out as proof that I will find the lesbians in any piece of media given to me, even if these texts aren’t canonical. The latest case that has fallen into my long list of ex-heterosexuals – meaning the fictional woman I feel the need to study and ultimately prove the sexuality of – is none other than Daenerys Targaryen. Many fans of HBO’s cataclysmic hit show Game of Thrones would go to war defending the Mother of Dragons’ actions. While I would not defend her, and in fact actively dislike her character, I still feel very passionately about her potential lesbianism. Daenerys is the most interesting case of erased queer identity in Game of Thrones, though she is far from the only character failed by the writers in this capacity.
Across two television shows and eighty-three episodes, the wide world of George R. R. Martin’s adapted Westeros offers three storylines with gay men, a bisexual couple, one interaction between the two canonically gay women, and two scenes where women are teaching each other how to make love (for the pleasure of men). There are also two women classically stereotyped as queer and/or gender nonconforming. Brienne of Tarth faces constant jokes about her sexuality – or lack thereof – throughout the show and is constantly refusing the title of “Lady.” She even responds to being called “m’lady” with a frustrated “I’m not a–!” Notably, Brienne becomes the first woman knight of the Kingsguard in the show and the history of Westeros; she infiltrates a male space and is thus further queer-coded.
Similarly, Arya Stark spends much of the early show mistaken for a little boy and later disguises herself as one. She hides her womanhood for safety but finds more comfort in her new gender than she ever did under the expectations placed upon her as a noblewoman. Both Brienne and Arya learn to fight and hold their own against the many men in the show. In this way, both characters are queer icons within the show. Both express little romantic interest in anyone throughout their time on the show, especially compared to many of the other female characters. Both of their character arcs climax (a little bit of a pun intended), however, with them having sex with male characters – a move that, in some ways, minimizes their queerness. Though Brienne’s sexual encounter had a lot of build-up and great chemistry with the man she ends up bedding, having the capstone of her character arc be her deflowering seems odd. It is further spoiled by the fact that the man she spent so many seasons flirting with – Jaime Lannister – immediately flees her side to return to his sister. This is their last interaction. Perhaps the writers intended to finally break down Brienne’s tough walls and end her story on a moment of vulnerability. A nice idea, but the way they execute it leaves her likely embarrassed, cold, and alone.
A very similar stunt is pulled with Arya Stark. Maisie Williams, who plays Arya, stated that “the first time I was surprised by Arya I guess was probably in the final series where she whips off her clothes and sleeps with Gendry. I thought Arya was queer, you know?” (Game Rant) Me too, Maisie. Arya sleeps with a man she had known since season one, when she was twelve and he was quite a bit older. He acted as a tiny piece of family for her when she had none, which makes her sudden sexual attraction to him upon their reunion feel off-putting. Sure, Arya has grown up and deserves to do what she wants, but the tossing in of this scene feels like a messily constructed attempt to push some humanity back into Arya, even if she is everyone’s favorite cold-hearted killer. And while there is no required connection between one’s gender nonconformity and their sexuality, one of the last major plot points for these two characters being a sex scene with a man felt somewhat surprising, especially for Arya. They spend so much of the show fighting for their independence that this felt like a step back in some ways. It is nice to see stoic characters find intimacy, but there are ways to do so which don’t feel like a heterosexual labeling of their ambiguous identities. Even worse, it felt as though all the time they had spent infiltrating exclusive male spaces was undone by these scenes. This issue infects the canonically queer women (i.e., Yara and Ellaria) as well, for the few romantic moments we see between them are plagued by male characters’ presence. This consistent undoing, erasing, and refusing of queer women is why I believe Game of Thrones and its new prequel House of the Dragon have inadvertently crafted a lesbian void across Westeros.
The lesbian void is a concept presented by Theodora Jankowski in her essay “…In the Lesbian Void: Woman-Woman Eroticism in Shakespeare’s Plays.” In her reading of The Winter’s Tale, Jankowski explores how the character Hermione exists in a state between dead and alive, and how her hiding in an anomalous space is like the experience of living as a lesbian in the early modern era. Because the word “lesbian” was not coined until the late 19th century, “we might suspect that early modern ‘lesbians’ – if they existed at all – did so in that same invisible, inconceivable place.” (319) Jankowski uses the concept of the lesbian void to describe a queer temporality that women who loved women had to form a spectral existence within to enjoy their woman-woman eroticism. Though Jankowski ascribes this void to early-modern real-life lesbians, it is equally useful in assessing the state of on-screen lesbians and queer-coded female characters in Game of Thrones and beyond. She closes her argument by pointing out that “few obvious ‘lesbian’ characters appear in early modern texts. But perhaps the reason there are so few is that we do not know exactly where to look for them.” (333) Theodora Jankowski: I see you, I hear you, and I am on the hunt.
As the world of Game of Thrones is inspired by Shakespeare’s play The War of the Roses, which is based in the 15th century, it could be that I am hunting for more early modern lesbians. However, since the fantasy world of Game of Thrones is set in a fictional time (around 300 AC) only loosely connected to medieval aesthetics, actions, and structures, perhaps the historic expectations of early modern lesbian life can also be fictionalized, or better yet, forgotten. No matter Game of Thrones temporality, the show was released in the 2010s. At this point, we are not dancing around the existence of queer women. We have even come to expect them in the media we watch. The homophobia of the fictional setting of Westeros does not mean the queer characters need hide their sexualities from audiences as well. The creators never shied away from explicitly queer sex scenes and identities for the male characters, so why does it feel like they’re walking on eggshells when writing Daenerys?
The handful of sapphic sex scenes, if you can call them that, in Game of Thrones (there are none so far in House of the Dragon) take place in similar settings to what Jankowski describes. Her article further details how early women-loving-women, mainly noblewomen and their handmaidens or secret lovers, had hidden closets and rooms that could easily sneak in and protect their relations. While Game of Thrones is littered with naked women and drowning in often graphic heterosexual sex scenes, there is only one scene where two women actually have sex. It is not, however, for their own pleasure. The scene depicts two sex workers being taught by their brothel owner, Petyr, how to show pleasure to the men who purchase them/their services. There is a complication in the emotion shown in this scene, as the girls are doing their jobs but not being paid for this interaction. It also is far from intimate, but they are comfortable with/know each other. No one knows their sexual orientations, but it feels safe to assume that this scene is not exactly two queer women getting together by choice. The two girls practice on each other, but Petyr sits at the center of the frame, talking over and at them about himself. They are background noise, a visual delight for the casual bored viewer, and what critic Myles McNutt calls “sexposition” (sex and exposition). This scene is why he coined the term. While this is the only explicit sex scene in Game of Thrones solely between two women, there is a pattern of an intruding male character in the few scenes allotted to queer women.
There are two canonically queer women in the fantasy world Game of Thrones conjures. In all of HBO’s wildest dreams, there is only Yara and Ellaria and a single interaction between them. And this interaction takes place with Yara’s brother, Theon, in the room with them. This single scene, in which they flirt and insinuate and kiss for half a second in the confines of the ship’s cabin – their own little lesbian void, hidden from the rest of the crew yet still invaded by Theon – before they are attacked and Ellaria is stolen away. An explicitly sapphic relationship
between two named characters sat right in front of us for two whole minutes before it was stormed by men and never seen again. Yara and Ellaria never got to be alone together, for Ellaria dies off-screen not much later. Yara, the only lesbian in the show (Ellaria is presumed bisexual and was married to a man, the only other bisexual character in the show, before he also died) has one other charged scene with a woman. After she has been in the show for six seasons, we get to see her kiss an unnamed prostitute for five seconds before she turns her attention to her brother, who is, again, sitting in the middle of her and her lover. Ellaria is introduced in a similar scene, in which her husband, Oberyn, lets her choose the female prostitute they will share. This is how viewers learned these women are canonically queer. Yara’s brother, Theon, has an incalculable number of explicit sex scenes with women compared to his sister’s measly two. Yara is never present for his scenes, but for some reason he infringes upon both of hers. It appears the show does not trust two explicitly queer women to carry a scene. The kiss Yara and Ellaria share was not even scripted; the two actresses improvised it. Gemma Whelan explained that “it was meant to be a suggestion [of flirting] and then it became more sexual than we expected because it seemed right.” (Entertainment Weekly)
In fact, Yara isn’t even a lesbian in the books, meaning the two male showrunners added this aspect to her character for it to essentially go nowhere. This ties back into the tension between the fantasy-era setting of the show and its modern audience. Did they add this aspect of her character to appeal to people like me? Did they think Yara seemed queer-coded in the books but then didn’t know what to do with an actual lesbian character? I’m not sure they know how to have queer women exist independently: if there is no man present to profit from or interrupt their eroticism, there is no point to it.
By the eighth and final season, every canonically gay character has died except Yara, who has one scene in the premiere and one in the finale. Yara escapes the bury your gays trope, but at what cost? They stole her from me! She had so much left to do! Where is her love story?! All of my gay little eggs are now in Daenerys Targaryen’s basket, even after watching her allegedly fall in love with Jon Snow. I know she does not care about that man. Snow is Daenerys’ third serious relationship with a man, each one less tender than the last. Her first was with Khal Drogo, who purchased her from her brother and essentially had sex with her until she began to like it. Then she found Daario Naharis, who she remained with for two seasons and spoke of marrying. Upon breaking up with him, she states, “I said farewell to a man who loves me, a man I thought I cared for, and I felt nothing. Just impatient to get on with it.” (Season 6, Episode 10, “Winds of Winter”) She broke up with him because once she got to Westeros, she would need to marry wisely to form alliances – here she finds Jon Snow, King of the North. They both claim it’s love, but once he becomes a threat to her throne, she turns cold. It seems more of a business deal for her, and she remains adamant that he bends the knee to her even after they have professed their feelings. Contrastingly, following the murder of her trusted friend and handmaiden Missandei, Daenerys throws aside the carefully constructed plan to peacefully ascend the throne and burns an entire city down in a fit of rage. Missandei provided tenderness and trusted secrecy to Daenerys, but they were never intimate or even overtly romantic in the ways she and her male companions were. Yet, Daenerys commits what could be called a crime of passion against the city that Missandei died in.
Compared to the extreme emotion she experiences over Missandei, Daenerys comes across rather detached from her male love interests. Though she may have only burned one city to the ground, Daenerys has quite the passionate history with handmaidens (Missandei is her third handmaiden in the show). When she is first sold off to her husband Khal Drogo, she finds comfort in her two handmaidens, Dorreah and Irri. Soon enough, Dorreah is enlisted to teach Daenerys how to please her husband so she can escape his nightly rape. They sequester themselves on a bed surrounded by candles – quite the romantic setup, as seen above – and Dorreah climbs on top of her. They hold hands and trade secrets. It is an escape from men, at once an act of sisterhood and a tense, erotic exchange, emphasized by Daenerys’ bashful giddiness.
Daenerys often finds respite hidden away with her handmaidens in classic lesbian void settings. This bedroom exchange is one of many scenes showing Daenerys alone, inside a bedroom with another woman. I label her the keeper of the lesbian void because she is the only female character in Game of Thrones given a male-free space to be a little queer in, even if it is only for fleeting moments. Even still, the presence of Men hangs heavily over them. They play at lesbian sex but don’t pass the Bechdel test.
Strikingly, in the books, Daenerys has sex with her other handmaiden, Irri, twice. I’m unsure why they would cut this from the show after making it clear that Daenerys is very close with her two handmaidens yet make Yara a lesbian without any narrative need for it. These choices make Yara feel like a bone thrown to those wishing for representation and Daenerys feel like a goldmine for missed opportunities. They even added another storyline absent from the books where Dorreah betrays Daenerys by sleeping with the enemy (a man) and kills Irri – taking out all the lesbianism from that side of the map in one scene! Considering the Irri and Daenerys sex scenes take place after this would have in the books, it could be that they decided to kill the handmaidens off in a dramatic plot-twist to avoid that part of Daenerys’ character. I’m not sure it worked, as this unfolding of events reads more like scorned lovers gone wild, especially considering Daenerys promptly stuffs Dorreah in a vault (acting as a pseudo-closet, perhaps) to let her suffocate with the man she slept with. She then mourns Irri, despondent over the fact that she died alone. It seems Daenerys can’t get close to a woman without a man sneaking in between them, no matter how much time they may spend alone in her bedchambers.
In short, Game of Thrones left its sapphic potential in the dust. Rather than continue to beat the dead horse that is Game of Thrones for 3000 more words, I’d like to look towards the future. In this case, said future is technically the past; dear readers, I urge you to imagine a queer utopia (a term coined by José Esteban Muñoz) enveloping Westeros’ prequel show, House of the Dragon. I want to take a page out of Muñoz’s book, specifically the one in which he “offers a theory of queer futurity that is attentive to the past for the purposes of critiquing a present.” (Cruising Utopia,18) I have clearly studied the past decade of Game of Thrones, an analysis and critique that I hope shows how they can have better treatment of queer female characters in future projects, and now I must set my sights on Daenerys’ ancestors and House of the Dragon.
House of the Dragon has one season out and the promise of more. The two main characters, Rhaenyra and Alicent, are women who were once very close but torn apart by men. Their lost love and its lingering spirit are the main tension in the story – it keeps the heart of the titular dragon beating. Both fans of the prequel and its actors ship the two women. Emily Carey, who plays young Alicent, stated that her first reaction to the script was that the two were “in love
a little bit” and that her and her costar Milly Alcock (who plays young Rhaenyra) leaned into that reading of the characters when playing them. While they are not nearly as close in their adulthood, Rhaenyra and Alicent still showcase incredibly charged emotions toward one another. The first season of House of the Dragons ends with Alicent reaching out with a piece of their shared girlhood.
I understand their story may be a bit tragic and doomed, but a girl can dream. I beg you, House of the Dragon writers, do not send them to the void as you did in the past. They hold more power in their joined hands than the rest of the fictional country combined. Young Rhaenyra has already had torrid love affairs with nasty men in her youth, and I have not forgiven you for exploring that but only teasing Rhaenyra’s youthful flirting with Alicent. They have suffered at the hands of men enough – let them return to the relief and solace they once provided each other, and this time let it be love.
Tessa Wilkinson is a student in her last semester at William & Mary. She will graduate in May with a double major in English and Film & Media Studies. She has been published in William & Mary’s student magazine The Gallery as well as the online literary journal The Cloudscent Journal.
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