In our current media society, it is nearly impossible to escape certain popular articles. Whether it be a social media site or a television show, our interconnected world makes us aware of whatever is most popular at the time. At this time, one of those popular articles is HBO’s hit television series, Game of Thrones. Even with no knowledge or history with the show, one can recognize names like Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, be familiar with the phrase, “Winter is Coming,” or even identify Game of Thrones images and influences in current culture.
Being called the most popular show in the world – due to the series finale recently becoming the most watched television episode in the history of HBO – comes with a plethora of different and diverse people watching every week. People of various ages, genders, ethnicities and cultures actively watch the show because of its worldwide recognition. This recognition and acclaim makes representation paramount; with such an influence on the world, accurate and modern representation has the potential to spark change.
While Game of Thrones has many progressive qualities (such as featuring many women in powerful positions, attempting to depict LGBTQ+ relationships, and present characters with disabilities), on common problem with the show’s representation comes with people of color. More specifically, the show has been challenged in its tendency to fall under the “White Savior” trope.
According to Metro, the white savior complex refers to a white person who acts to help non-white people, but in a context that can be perceived as self-serving. However, in film, it refers to a cinematic trope in which a white character “saves a person or persons of color from some horrific plight” that the person(s) of color “was unable to get out of by themselves”, according to Ranker.com.
The White Savior trope has a long history in American media, with seemingly endless examples. Within these examples and according to definition, the White Savior character is overwhelmingly male. However, a more recent and controversial example of a white savior character in modern media is Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen. In fact, when you simply google “white savior complex”, the most prominent image that is associated with the complex is Daenerys being carried by the slaves she had just liberated.
The fact that Game of Thrones’ White Savior is a woman – and a powerful woman at that – is significant. Daenerys is a feminist and a feminist icon for many (until the tragedy that was the season 8 writing); she abolished slavery in Slaver’s Bay, became the first Khaleesi without a Khal, and was one of the top contenders to win the game. The pitfall in her feminism comes with her White Savior characteristics. As put by Joanna C. Velente of Luna Luna Magazine, “It is a diss to inclusive feminism to ignore the fact that our Mother of Dragons is a mother first to herself – and a faux mother to everyone else. Daenerys obviously understands what it feels like to be oppressed as a woman, and to be abused, but when it comes to race and class, she is ignorant”. In following her journey chronologically, we can highlight these White Savior characteristics and how her gender allows her white savior journey to function differently than traditionally seen.
In the first season, we meet Daenerys when her brother is selling her to Khal Drogo, who is the fierce leader of the Dothraki – group of warriors often described as bloodthirsty savages. We get our first impressions of the Dothraki as a people during Daenerys’s wedding, where it is clear that they fit perfectly into how media traditionally depicts native tribes as primitive, violent, and backwards. They are painted as an exotic other with skewed morals and misogynistic social structure; because of this, Dany is expected to have no power.
However, with time Dany is able to gain the respect and admiration of her husband. The shift in their power dynamic – from Drogo seeing her as a purchased object to seeing her as his equal – only comes when she learns to be a better lover. A drastic change is seen in his character after this; he is loyal to her only, and puts her wishes before that of his Bloodriders. In many ways, it seems as though Daenerys “tamed” him while simultaneously moving up in the power structure. While she does not use her sexuality/femininity to intentionally become more powerful, it becomes a recurring plot point for her story (Drogo, Ser Jorah, Xoro Xhoan Daxos, Daario Naharis, Jon Snow…). This could have a lot to do with the fact that the main writing staff for the series is made up of white, cisgendered men who believe that Dany’s most powerful asset is her beauty.
The first instance of Dany’s white savior habits comes in season one when she saves a group of women from being raped by the Dothraki Bloodriders. Dany tells her Khal that the women she saved belong to her now, thus initiating her liberator persona. These women that she has collected are all women of color, and not so subtlety imply that Dany did not “save” them, despite her own belief. One of these women, in retaliation, kills Khal Drogo when Dany orders her to save him, in order to prove to Dany that life is worth nothing when “all the rest has gone”.
Next, Daenerys and her dragons travel to Astapor to purchase the Unsullied, who are a group of highly trained warriors. In her agreement with the Master’s to purchase the men, she also asks for the slave woman Missandei, as a “gift” after seeing the way the masters treated her. Here, Daenerys has “saved” another person of color, who eventually becomes her advisor and occupies a position commonly associated with the White Savior trope; the black best friend. This particular trope’s significance plays a key role to Daenerys’ storyline – not Missandei’s – in the final season.
Missandei is taken captive by Daenerys’ enemies in season nine, and used as leverage. She is then brutally murdered by beheading in front of Dany after being her friend for six seasons. What is particularly upsetting about Missandei’s death is not her unfulfilled potential as a character or the fact that she dies in chains, but that her death – the death of one of the only significant female characters of color – was merely used as a plot point to drive Daenerys to become the “Mad Queen”. The focus is on Dany whenever Missandei is killed, and remains on Dany and her mourning until the series finale, when she turns from the most fitting ruler to a murderous dictator (a shift that happens in the span of one episode).
In season three, after Dany officially owns the Unsullied, she demands that they slay the masters in Astapor and then “frees” the soldiers. Immediately after their liberation, she asks for them to fight for her as “free men”. The Unsullied stick with Daenerys for the remainder of her journey as loyal soldiers. What Dany’s group of women, Missandei, and the Unsullied have in common is that they are all people of color; thus far in Dany’s journey, she has fit the white savior trope definition very accurately. In terms of her actions being self-serving, she gains not only loyalty, but the beginnings of her army and council. Her liberation serves to increase her power and authenticity as a Queen, rather than doing it out of the goodness of her heart.
With her new army and counselors, Dany travels to the slave city of Yunkai with the intention of taking the city. Her plan in order to do this? Liberate the slaves in the city, gain their loyalty, and use that to overthrow the Masters. In this particular liberation, however, Daenerys gender as a white savior comes into play once again.
The opposing force in this fight for Yunkai is the Second Sons, who are sellswords hired to protect the Masters. They are led by three men who constantly oversexualize Dany – suggesting she is a former prostitute, telling her to take her clothes off, and molesting Missandei more than once in their three minute meeting. One of the leaders, however, kills his associates and pledges himself to Dany and her cause because he “fights for beauty”. This adds to the common occurrence for Daenerys; men who follow her often do it because they are in love with her. Because she is a woman, she is able to rise to power with different tactics than male white saviors.
With the Second Son’s now at her side, Daenerys easily takes Yunkai and liberates the slaves, as planned. This victory produced the most controversial image the show has ever presented. It has been described as “…crowdsurfing over the brown people like some kind of Targaryen Bono with all of the smug satisfaction of a gap-year backpacker that has just built an orphanage in a village somewhere,” by Joanna C. Valente. While she is being held and worshiped by these former slaves, they are calling out to her, “Mhysa,” which means mother in their language. Becoming Mhysa is another way in which Dany’s womanhood and feminine qualities allow her to rise in power in new ways.
After Astapor and Yunkai, Dany heads to the mother of all slave cities, Meereen. She uses the same tactic of arming and empowering the slaves to gain their loyalty and their aid in taking the city. In Meereen is where Daenerys exercises her monarch status; “I will do what Queens do. I will rule.” In her eyes, she has saved thousands and affected their life for the better. In reality, she has imposed her own beliefs on a group of people that offered loyalty in return for her aid. This becomes evident when she makes no effort to understand the Mereenese culture, leading to a rebellion of slaves and masters.
In season six is where the line between liberator and conqueror gets blurred. After the rebellion, Dany finds herself a captive of the Dothraki. While they do not kill her because she is a former Khaleesi, she is sent to live out her days with the other former Khaleesis – the Dosh Khalen. In order to escape this fate, Daenerys burns all of the Khals of every Khalasar, resulting in her becoming Khaleesi of all the Dothraki people. Because she is a woman, which are seen as nothing more as “sexual objects and mothers of children” in the eyes of the Dothraki, she is vastly underestimated by the Khals; another way her gender allows her white savior complex to function differently than it has historically (Clapton, 2017, p. 11). In this example, Dany’s self-serving motivations are clear for the first time and she abandons her savior ideals from this point.
Dany’s unfortunate white savior characteristics can have a major effect on representation. For example, Daenerys Targeryen is statistically the least liked character in the Games of Thrones universe in the Arab fandom. The reason for this is due to Daenerys being the “female version of the imperial white savior”. Due to their own experiences, they collectively despise the idea of the slaves “welcoming a conqueror who pretends to be a savior” (Alhayek, 2017, p. 3751). In addition, a great number of these fans dislike more because she is a woman. This is important to note, as it shows that her gender can help her navigate the power dynamic differently, it is also a hindrance due to stereotypical patriarchal views.
In her journey, Daenerys has “saved” an alarming number of different groups all comprised of people of color. Her journey has been comprised by her numerous liberations that are self-serving, but disguised as heroic deeds; by definition, the White Savior character. In addition, Dany’s gender has allowed her to do this in a way not traditionally seen; her ability to make men fall in love with her has helped her to rise to power. Being a woman and seen as a “mhysa” is unique to her experience, as she is seen as a motherly figure in addition to a savior. Being underestimated by the men around her due to her gender has given her the upper hand numerous times (such as when she burned the Khals). In addition, her gender simultaneously causes her to be disliked by some real world audiences as well as characters in the show. While the White Savior complex is one that had been seen numerous times in our media, Daenerys’ white savior complex brings her acts of feminism into question and influences the conventional ideas of this complex.
Clapton, W., & Shepherd, L. J. (2017). Lessons from Westeros: Gender and power in Game of Thrones.
Politics, 37(1), 5–18. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1177/0263395715612101
Alhayek, Katty, “Emotional Realism, Affective Labor, and Politics in the Arab Fandom of Game of
Thrones” (2017). International Journal of Communication. 8.Retrieved from https://scholarworks.umass.edu/communication_grads_pubs/8