For as long as we can remember, the act of giving birth on screen has either been glorified or used as a plot device. We are not criticizing it but just pointing it out. Somewhere, that has seeped into reality, where we often see the glorification of the very act of giving birth. Don’t get us wrong; we do not deny the magnitude of the strength and sacrifice that it takes. But our criticism is of how this very glorification is so sneakily used for oppression. “A woman is strongest when she becomes a mother.” “Motherhood completes a woman.” “Being a mother is the most important role you will ever have.” and other such statements that we have all heard time and again. Again, we are not contesting the statement itself but its sneaky usage, which creates a very unequal choice for women. For the average modern person, it is “the completion of a family,” “the fulfillment of divine duty,” or “feeling complete as a person” when you choose to become a mother, but it is “just fine” if you choose not to. It would be foolish to say that there is no societal pressure put on women in the name of the ticking biological clock, but even if that is absent, do we see the difference in adjectives used for either choice?
Maybe that’s why people are so big on baby showers. Because it is one of the last days when a woman, as a person, is going to be celebrated. After that, for a long time, she would just be a mother with her personhood on very shaky ground, especially in a society like ours where the bulk of the caregiving responsibilities lie with the woman. The world has a history of not paying heed to women’s voices, and it doesn’t get any better after giving birth to children because hasn’t your purpose in life been fulfilled? Do you want something as an individual, which means you don’t love your child? It is almost as if what is a natural biological process is just another tool that is co-opted by patriarchy to oppress women. And we saw that happen with the women of “House of the Dragon.”
Aemma Arryn/ Targaryen
“House of the Dragon” featured three pregnant women whose pregnancies altered the course of events throughout the entire storyline. Let’s start with Aemma Arryn. She had one of the shortest screen times of everyone, but her story arc is one that fills us with rage and disgust for what happened to her. We know from the show that she had suffered a few miscarriages before she gave birth to Rhaenyra. That must have taken its toll on her health. Rhaenyra remarks multiple times that the reason she doesn’t want a traditional life is that she doesn’t want to suffer the same way her mother did. Aemma once tells Rhaenyra that the woman’s battlefield is her womb. It is the number of children that she can give birth to that strengthens the Kingdom through its politics. But apparently, despite her beliefs, Aemma was done fighting. She tells Viserys about how she did not wish to have any more children, as she did not have the strength anymore.
Viserys was convinced that the child in his wife’s womb was a boy, just as he had wanted for a long time. He loved Aemma, but the desire for a male heir ruled his head. So, when the time came to choose between his son and his wife, he chose the former. His reasoning must have been that he was doing his duty as a king by making sure his lineage would continue. But the cruelty he had inflicted on his wife in pursuit of that would be his heaviest burden for the rest of his life. Viserys was right, and his child did turn out to be a boy. It was nothing short of fate’s crooked play that he did not survive for more than a day. That pushed Viserys to consider that it was a punishment for him by karma taking its course. That is why, till the end of his days, he did not waver from the issue of Rhaenyra being his heir, even after he had sons. And that is why when death finally came to him, he welcomed it because he could be with Aemma.
Viserys suffered his entire life due to illness, but we never heard him complain because he himself considered it his due for what he had done to Aemma. In fact, it can be argued that it was precisely Aemma’s death that set the wheels in motion for the events of “House of the Dragon.” The complete and agonizing pain of a woman that led to the death of the Targaryen House, who flew close to the Gods on beasts they had tamed with magic for centuries. But there is an important point to be noted here. Had Aemma and Viserys’ son survived, Rhaenyra would never have been declared heir? It was not just the death of Aemma but the death of her son as well that directed the course of the story.
Laena, one of the effortlessly likable characters, deserved a lot more than what she got. In the series, her flirtation with Daemon starts right away, but it is a little different in the books. He was the person she ended up with after he defeated her previous betrothed, who was a drunk and a gambler. It is said that she and Daemon had a good marriage; they were even in love. We saw that in the series, in the brief screen time they had. But the fact remains that when Daemon married Laena, he was a defeated man. He loved and respected her, but it couldn’t be denied that he was not living the life of his choice. Laena understood that. The structure of the world is such that it grants men the right to be selfish, something women don’t have. Their only role is to love and support, and that is what Daemon wants from Laena. Even without the world’s permission, he was an inherently selfish man. Laena wished to go back, but Daemon wanted to keep running away. It did not even occur to him that his responsibility towards his wife was not just about protection but extended to satisfying her emotional needs too. But Laena was not okay with that. She knew she was not the woman who had his heart. In Daemon’s hierarchy, he came first. Next was his unsaid love for Rhaenyra, his regrets, and then the family he currently had. Even in that, Laena’s role was limited to just following Daemon. What was she even getting out of this relationship?
Let’s not forget that she was the daughter of Rhaenys Targaryen and Corlys Velaryon. She had to have the fire of independence and a zeal for life in her heart that could possibly never fructify with the way things were. When she goes into labor, Daemon is faced with a choice similar to his brother’s-to protect his wife or his child. It is possible he chose Laena since he had no driving desire for a male heir. But in a land with no medical technology to speak of, how do you ensure the safety of either? The pain and the hopelessness of the situation must have driven Laena to take the step she did. We don’t believe it was a well-considered move. It was a split decision, probably motivated by the death of the child in her womb. It makes us angry that Laena was a plot device. She was written to give Daemon a purpose in the 10 years he spent apart from Rhaenyra, and when it was time for them to be reunited, she was killed off, using her pregnancy as an excuse. It was her death that set the wheels in motion for Rhaenyra and Daemon to come together.
One can argue that even Laenor supposedly needed to die for that to happen, but we can’t ignore the fact that throughout his marriage to Rhaenyra, he still lived a life of his choice, a luxury not afforded to his sister. And his lack of a womb presented him with the chance of a happy ending. Laena could have been given a kinder death if nothing else, but the usage of female pain and grief for titillating the audience is the oldest misogynistic tool in the world. And it worked, with the world applauding her for her ‘bravery’. We were guilty of it, too, until we eventually realized that, until that point, she had been fine. It was the pain and disappointment of losing a child in the womb that had driven her to her end, and we will forever be mad at the makers of the show for putting her through that.
Rhaenyra received the shock of her life when she came to know that her father had passed away and her throne had been usurped by her half-brother. That caused her to go into premature labor. While she was struggling, she refused the help of her maids. It could be the anger, or it could be the fact that her mind was working on ten different things at the same time. Daemon, again, chose himself over everyone else and was conspicuously absent from his wife, the one he loved, even when she was calling for him. Rhaenyra started having visions of her dragon when in labor. It is said that dragons are connected to their riders. Maybe the vision was the dragon comforting Rhaenyra when no one else could. Maybe it was showing solidarity and communicating that she understood her pain. We are not entirely sure what those visions meant, but this is our guess. Hopefully, we will know in the coming season of “House of the Dragon.”
But back to the plotline, Rhaenyra’s premature labor was another tool to convey the nature of the injustice that had happened to her. In the books, she blames the Greens right away for it. However, she is more restrained in the series. In fact, it is the loss she has faced that makes her restraint all the more heroic and presents her as being worthy of the crown because she was able to think of the Kingdom over a great personal tragedy. Until that point in “House of the Dragon” Season 1, we had just one example to say that she probably deserved the throne-that of her letting the white stag live. But this right here, of her setting aside her grief and anger and thinking about the move that would be best for everyone instead of just her, cemented in our minds that she was the right contender for the crown. It made us root for her and raised the stakes for the audience.
Some people will argue that such pain is inflicted even on men when trying to bring out their heroism. But please note that the difference remains that when doing that for women, it somehow always has to do with the violation of their body or the death of a child. We saw something similar happen to Danaerys Targaryen. She was bought and sold and lost the child in her womb. It was this tragedy that led to the birth of her dragons in the fire and started her journey as the “Mother of Dragons.” Sansa Stark was repeatedly violated by Ramsay Bolton before she hardened and gained the growth to be the “Queen of the North.” Isn’t it just misogynistic that this is what you want to put women through to ‘build their character’ for great things?
What can we say except that it is all a little tiring? Couldn’t Aemma have had a natural death? Couldn’t Laena have married someone who would have made her happy instead of just being a plot device in someone else’s story that we like less and less as the days go by? Even better, couldn’t Rhaenys have been the queen, and Laena succeeded her like she should have? And couldn’t we have seen earlier and better instances of Rhaenyra’s capability as a ruler than just through this incident? Apparently, not because even George R.R. Martin cannot free himself from the mindset that the greatness of a woman is directly tied to her suffering. Either way, the second season is coming up in 2024, so we will know then how the story will progress through the pain of women. Hopefully, it will get better. Maybe it will not. We are somewhat desensitized to it. But we can always hope.