Burned by the Flames
Who Died and Made You Khaleesi? Privilege, White Saviors, and the Elusive Male Feminist Who Doesn’t Suck
Mansplaining, whitesplaining,—the way you can tell someone who’s 'privileged' is the unconscious belief that they have something to say, and that everyone will listen.
Season One, Episode 10 of Game of Thrones, “Fire and Blood,” was one of the most memorable season finales in TV history. The long-suffering eternal victim Daenerys Targaryen emerges miraculously unharmed from the flames of her dead husband’s funeral pyre; the savage Dothraki, in an unprecedented moment for their culture, kneel before their new Khaleesi, a queen who rules over them in her own right; and a newly hatched dragon roars an announcement of the fiery rebirth of the Mother of Dragons. We realize this is the kind of story Game of Thrones is, one where even in the midst of wretched injustice and brutality sudden shifts are possible, the powerless becoming powerful, the victim becoming victor, and we thrill with hope and inspiration—at a white princess surrounded by kneeling, rapturous brown savage people.
Oh my, oh dear. Haven’t we seen this exact trope before, and, err, isn’t it supposed to be a bad thing now? Haven’t we condemned the idea of a white person installing themselves as the leader of a whole non-white civilization? Aren’t we supposed to have moved past this?
Well, apparently not. We repeatedly tell stories about a white protagonist who goes on a journey of self-discovery by mingling with exotic brown foreigners and becoming better at said foreigners’ culture than they themselves are. We eat it up in the form of faux-historical epics, splashy science-fiction special effects extravaganzas, and earnest nonfiction projects about writers paid by their publishers to take exotic vacations.
The frustrating thing about being annoyed by the Mighty Whitey trope—and there are a ton of people upset— is that it’s so frequently employed by the well-meaning “good guys.” The whole point of “going native” is that the familiar Western civilization is portrayed as inauthentic, ugly, broken, flawed. The “exotic” foreign civilization is somehow more natural, more primal, more sensual, the way people really ought to live. You know, hearing the wolf cry to the blue corn moon, painting with all the colors of the wind, like you do. Even though the Dothraki in Game of Thrones are painted in a decidedly uglier light than the noble savages of Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas, from the beginning they’re certainly more likable than the conniving, hypocritical Lannisters and Tyrells of the Seven Kingdoms.
What’s the root of this trope? Is it just that we get sick of living in modern society with McDonald’s and McMansions and mandatory vaccinations so we develop intricate fantasies about how much better life would be if we had to hunt our own food, build our own shelter, and develop our own resistance to dangerous microorganisms?
Sure, that’s part of it. But it’s less common that the “bad” Western civilization in these stories is something to be passively fled, a la Eat, Pray, Love. More often it’s an enemy to be actively resisted.
A movie like Avatar doesn’t just get people on the left wing rolling their eyes at the Mighty Whitey trope, it also gets the right wing freaking out about the fact that Mighty Whitey is leading the noble savages to kill the American military. Whether it’s John Smith turning against his fellow colonists in Pocahontas or the title character of Dances with Wolves taking up arms against the U.S. military or Jake Sully in Avatar laying waste to the RDA mercenary forces—the most compelling, crowd-pleasing, and consistently award-winning form of this narrative requires a climactic explosion of white-on-white violence.
It’s hard to avoid the feeling that this repeated fantasy—of a white person shedding their whiteness, abandoning their home culture, joining the oppressed, and finally taking up arms against all the other, still-racist white people and killing them all—stems from a desire to be absolved of guilt. White guilt, that dreaded emotion that’s been inflicted on countless white Americans through social studies classes, Black History month TV specials, and lectures from left-wing non-white bloggers like myself at this very moment.
Here’s another question: Is it actually possible for men to be feminists?
Well, I have some personal stake in trying to answer that question “Yes.” I mean, the “male feminist” brand identity is what got my fading post-Jeopardy! 15 minutes of fame a second shot of life after I wrote that article with the Mario reference in the title that got shared like 400,000 times. “Male feminist” is what they called me when they pulled me onto a CNN panel. “Male feminist” is what I keep getting called in emails sent to me over the “Your Princess Is in Another Castle” piece, interviews about that piece, and (hopefully) ironic marriage proposals inspired by that piece.
But there’s a reason self-identified “male feminists” have gotten a bad rap.
When #YesAllWomen was trending in the wake of the Isla Vista shooting, there was another stir brewing in feminist Twitter-land over #StopClymer, a drive to get HuffPo and PolicyMic to stop paying prominent “male feminist” Charles Clymer to write about women’s issues for them. This seems to have less to do with the general idea that men shouldn’t be feminists and more specifically with Clymer being an abusive power-tripping control freak. Strip out all the context from Clymer’s posts and what you see is an angry, entitled man whose approach to talking to women seems to be demanding total agreement and obedience lest they face tongue-lashing and expulsion from society.
That’s, you know, the kind of behavior we call “patriarchy.” The whole point of feminism is theoretically to get men to stop doing that to women, on both the large scale and the small. But here’s Charles Clymer crowning himself a “leader” within feminism and utterly unaware of the irony.
But this isn’t a new conversation. Feeling entitled to power, leadership, and control is a general description of patriarchy. There are more specific and ugly things that we associate with the term, like men in positions of authority abusing their power to prey on their female students or subordinates sexually. Or men trying to murder their girlfriends because they can’t deal with the emotions they’re feeling. Or men earnestly attempting to persuade women that there’s nothing wrong with pornography’s obsession with guys ejaculating on girls’ faces because it’s just a way to make men feel validated and accepted. Well, prominent “male feminist” professor Hugo Schwyzer did all of those things and admitted all of it shortly before his explosive public breakdown last year.
It’s not hard to see why this kind of blatant hypocrisy and public self-immolation drives feminist women to despair while providing plentiful schadenfreude fodder for anti-feminist men on the sidelines. Plenty of dudes have used #StopClymer as an argument for why guys shouldn’t even try to be feminists at all and just sincerely, straightforwardly be sexist assholes instead of being all hypocritical and two-faced about it. And sure, Clymer and Schwyzer clearly both have their own issues as individual human beings that hopefully do not translate to all men (yes, I slipped a #NotAllMen in there).
But here’s the thing—sexism, like racism, is defined by actions, not beliefs. When you’re a girl you’re taught to sit down and when you’re a boy you’re taught to stand up—not just in restroom situations, but in all of life. Teachers call on boys more than girls and don’t even realize they’re doing it. Women are so routinely ignored that people, both men and women, perceive crowd scenes as having a balanced mix of the sexes when they’re in fact 83 percent male, 17 percent female. Men get so used to their opinion and expertise being deferred to that they will “mansplain” the content of a book to the woman who wrote it.
This doesn’t just happen on the axis of gender. Mansplaining, whitesplaining, richsplaining—the way you can tell someone who’s “privileged” is the unconscious belief that they naturally should take center stage, that whatever they have on their mind they have the right to speak up about, that everyone will listen to them. You know, the trait the Grim Reaper points out is endemic to Americans traveling abroad in Monty Python and the Meaning of Life in a scene that I too often cringingly identify with.
People of privilege making an effort to be better people face a difficult quandary. You get inundated by all these examples and studies and historical anecdotes and moral arguments about the tremendous destructiveness and evil of the sexist or racist system you grew up in. You really want to not be a horrible person.
At the same time, being used to being deferred to and having your opinion listened to and having your feelings matter is very pleasant. Actually giving that up and stepping aside to become the unimportant one for once is very unpleasant, even painful. When you’re used to being in charge you perceive any balancing of the scales as an attack, any leveling of the playing field as something being stolen from you.
And one critical, central thing to learn about human nature? Is that we will do anything to have our cake and eat it too.
Daenerys as Khaleesi is, in a way, an amplified version of this. Daenerys doesn’t just represent the white people of Westeros, vaguely analogous to medieval Europe, she represents the whitest of the white people of Westeros—the platinum-blonde Targaryen dynasty that oppressed everyone else with an iron fist, known for their effete decadence, corruption, and eventual descent into madness. The ultimate aristocrats, against whom red-blooded, dark-haired lesser nobles like Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon were ultimately pushed to rebel.
The slimy, childish, petulant Viserys starts off as a symbol of everything about Targaryen rule Westeros has rejected. He and his sister, at the beginning of the story, are the last people we should be sympathizing with, the polar opposite of the honest, unpretentious, unambitious Stark clan.
And what does Daenerys do? She turns it all around. She goes from being a helpless bargaining chip used to acquire barbarian soldiers to being a barbarian soldier-queen herself—as un-Targaryen as un-Targaryen can be, riding a galloping horse in the wilderness with no need of civilization. She reverses the Targaryen reputation for arrogance and cruelty, her own life experiences pulling her into a mission of liberating slaves.
The heir to the hated, overthrown Targaryen dynasty transforms into someone totally different, into a wild savage freed from the shackles of civilization and of her past, into someone that we can and do root for as an underdog standing up to oppression rather than a symbol of past oppression making a comeback.
And the best part? She doesn’t even have to stop being the heir to the Targaryen dynasty! She still is the rightful queen of Westeros! She even has the dragons to prove it!
Just like Jake Sully goes from what is, honestly, a pretty crappy life as a wheelchair-bound former Marine living in the cramped barracks of a human colony to an idyllic life as a Na’vi warrior. Becoming a Na’vi gives him back his legs, it gives him a hot girlfriend, and it even gives him greatly elevated social status—“Toruk Makto” is a way cooler job title than “Corporal.” And best of all, now he gets the self-righteousness of being the underdog!
Want to hold on to the power and privilege of being a pompous male academic with female undergrads holding onto your every word and willing to sleep with you for your prestige? But want to do it without feeling like a sexist jerk? Just be a feminist academic. Now you’re one of the good guys, and you’ll find it even easier to pressure younger women into sleeping with you. No downside!
Want to be a domineering jerk and take charge of things on the Internet and yell at people who disagree with you? Just form a Facebook organization called “Equality for Women” and say you’re doing it for feminism, and suddenly you’ll get people defending and protecting you for behavior that anywhere else would make you a sexist douchebag! No downside!
Like most other “have your cake and eat it too” no-downside choices, the choice to do this is founded on hypocrisy and bullshit, and you will eventually be found out and called out.
So is it possible for men to be feminists? Or for white people to be allies of non-whites? Is it possible to actually confront your privilege and set it aside, to try to be one of the “good guys”?
Well, I hope so. But it’s not going to be that easy.
Becoming one of the good guys should hurt. It should be painful. It should involve seeing uncomfortable and ugly things about yourself that you’d rather not see. It should involve changing your behavior in ways that you’d honestly rather not do.
One of the great injustices of the world is how much more money and attention Avatar got than District 9, a film that came out in the same year about the same themes but was pretty much better in every way. As reviewers at the time pointed out, the important thing District 9 focused on is that being a human in a world where aliens are oppressed is actually pretty awesome. Giving that up wouldn’t be an act of liberation, it would be painful and terrifying and humiliating. Wikus’s nightmare of being plunged into an unfamiliar challenge where he keeps screwing up and being confronted with his own guilt rings far truer to my experience of what being a male feminist is like than Jake Sully’s awesome-adventure wet dream.
Descending into the world of those who lack your privileges and seeing it from their perspective shouldn’t be like coming home, or discovering a beautiful new wonderland. If you’re honestly actually trying to see what the comfortable world you live in looks like from the perspective of one of the people that world shits on, you should feel like Gregor Samsa—you should feel like you woke up one day and realized you are in fact a giant bug. You should look at yourself in the mirror and at the world around you and feel sick. Your motivation to try to fix the world should not be the prestige, or the money, or the sense of satisfaction that Clymer admitted to chasing. It should be because the state of the world makes you feel sick and you want to stop being sick.
So no, even though I remain enormously glad I did write that article everyone shared and hopeful that it makes a difference, I don’t feel personally pleased or gratified that people liked it. I get worried when I catch myself feeling that way, because feeling gratified and validated and lapping up the praise—as Chris Rock would put it, eagerly accepting “cookies” for doing and saying shit everyone should be doing and saying—would be easy. And the easy path is the path to the Dark Side—male feminists who get off on female fans telling them how awesome they are should keep the horrible visage of Hugo Schwyzer in their mind to remind themselves where that path of temptation leads, the way Luke Skywalker does with Darth Vader’s mask or Frodo does with the Ringwraiths.
Because even though we applaud Daenerys successfully transforming from a mere scion of the hated, corrupt Targaryens into her own woman, champion of the oppressed, Breaker of Chains, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, those of us who’ve read the books know that it’s not that easy to stay on that path and there’s no guarantee that, in the end, she will succeed.
And remember how she got there. Remember what enabled her transformation to Mother of Dragons, why she succeeded where her brother, with all his schemes and plots and desperate desire, failed.
Because she walked into the fire, of her own free will. She went through Hell, and let herself be burned by the flames, and lived.
To all my fellow male feminists out there who feel the temptation to pull a Charles Clymer and deny that they are privileged, claim that they’re a “good guy,” post on the #NotAllMen hashtag, yell “But I do all the right things! I’ve written articles, I’ve posted supportive tweets, I’ve been a shoulder to cry on, I’ve donated money,” and then, quoting Clymer, quoting Jake Sully becoming Toruk Makto, “I’ve earned this!”:
Be honest. No bullshit. How much have you actually earned? Read the stories that have multiplied throughout the media these past few weeks in response to the #YesAllWomen hashtag. How much of that pain have you tasted, how much of that hurt have you swallowed? How much have you taken upon yourself—how much could you ever take upon yourself if you really had to?
How much fire have you walked through?