Students discuss the female gaze and fan community of House of the Dragon

Kathryn Cloonan and Tatiana Geroulanou

Students share thoughts about HBO’s House of the Dragon. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Content warning: This article includes mentions of sexual violence and rape. 

From dragons to epic battles to the political intrigue of tumultuous succession stories, HBO’s House of the Dragon has everything a fantasy fan could want. Adapted from George R. R. Martin’s novel Fire & Blood, the show is a prequel to the Emmy award-winning Game of Thrones and focuses on the story of the Targaryen Civil War. The first season of House of the Dragon premiered on HBO Max on Aug. 21 to audiences both old and new to the world of Game of Thrones. 

Having watched both shows, Trinity Conant ’23 noted some differences between Game of Thrones and its prequel. “The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that [House of the Dragon] is so much more focused on one story, and that changes the whole vibe of the show,” she said. “We are entirely focused on these five central characters.” 

She also discussed the shift in sexual content between the shows and the role of women during intercourse. “Often, the way sex was portrayed in Game of Thrones was that the male characters were having sex, and women were getting raped,” Conant said. “The woman was not a character in those scenes, she was just present for male validation.” 

Conant added that the depictions of sex and violence between Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon differed in how the prequel prioritizes being purposeful in its display of sexual content. She said that the original show featured more rape and sexual assault scenes, while House of the Dragon balanced commentary on sexual violence with intimate, romantic scenes. “After Game of Thrones, I did not expect sex to be emotionally charged,” she said. “I think a lot of the commentary around the original show was, ‘Why do you have to depict rape so [graphically]?’ [The commentary discussued] these weird male sexual fetishes or fantasies and the weird matter-of-fact way that sex was portrayed in the original. In this show, the sex is erotic and it’s sensual and it’s emotional.” 

Other viewers of the show also called attention to how the presence of women behind the scenes directing the sexual content and female character development influenced visible changes between the two shows. During Game of Thrones’ nine-year run, only one out of its 19 directors was a woman. House of the Dragon has already had four female directors in its first season, and some episodes have also been led by female  writers and cinematographers. “When I was watching Game of Thrones, I wasn’t paying as much attention to who was directing and producing [the episodes], but I think it’s very clear that some [House of the Dragon] episodes are directed by women,” Conant said.

When describing the differences between the female presence in both shows, critics have claimed that House of the Dragon represents “the female gaze.” In a Slashfilm article, Danielle Ryan described how Director Claire Kilner focused on highlighting female agency and a female point of view: “Kilner explained that the scenes were carefully blocked out to show Rhaenyra’s interests, fears, and desires.” 

Conant said she enjoyed the new portrayal of female power in the show. “I like watching women who are in their domain and seeing them operate in a way that we saw men do in Game of Thrones,” she said. Conant added that she was hesitant to identify the change in representation as the female gaze. “I think the term ‘female gaze’ is tricky, because I know it’s very in the zeitgeist right now,” she said. “I don’t know if I technically know what it means.”

In cinema, the female gaze is an idea that opposes the “male gaze,” which Tori Telfer claimed in a Vulture article “looks while the female body is looked at; the gaze can come from the audience, from a male character within the film, or from the camera itself.” 

“You can definitely tell that the male gaze is not as powerful in [House of the Dragon], which I really like,” Taylor Braswell ’23 said. “I never found myself looking to any of the female characters [as] a sex symbol or object of desirability, even though they were desirable and powerful.” 

All three of the students the Record interviewed — Conant, Braswell, and Liz Girvan ’22.5 — said Rhaenyra Targaryen was their favorite character, in part because of her feminine power and ability to fail while still preserving her integrity. “I like seeing her make mistakes and do things that are wrong,” Braswell said. “She’s not this righteous figure. She actually hurts a lot of people and often fails to do what people consider to be the right thing. But her motives stay true, and she doesn’t waver in why she’s doing those things, which I really appreciate.” 

Braswell expressed excitement about how House of the Dragon depicted its female characters as relatable and human. “I think that House of the Dragon does a really good job portraying women — at least in the ways that I want to see women portrayed as powerful and complicated and sometimes unlikeable,” she said. “They’re actual human beings with nuance and personality.”

Girvan shared Braswell’s enthusiasm for the complex female characters. “It’s fun to see a female character with issues who isn’t a one-dimensional human,” she said.

A member of the women’s soccer team, Girvan has watched all of the episodes alongside some of her teammates. She discussed how House of the Dragon’s popularity among a young audience has created a global fan community on social media. “I think there’s a lot of pop culture and lore around the show,” she said. “Social media and TikTok [make watching the show] more fun.” 

Conant described how the collective cultural experience of watching the show was what drew her to watch House of the Dragon in the first place. “I think so much of what made Game of Thrones so cool was the community around it and how invested people were,” she said. “It’s really cool to be part of this moment [for House of the Dragon] in a way that I wasn’t old enough to be when Game of Thrones came out.”

Beyond the community it has created, Braswell said she would recommend House of the Dragon because it provides a fantastical distraction from college responsibilities. “I think that [House of the Dragon] offers a unique opportunity for escapism that not all TV shows can offer,” she said. “If you choose to watch House of the Dragon, you’re guaranteed at least one hour a week where you don’t have to be on Williams College campus mentally. You are in an entirely different world that you can escape to and really feel immersed in that has nothing to do with anything happening on this campus, this country, this continent, this world — I think everyone could use a bit of that.”