Friday, July 3, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Missandei (Game of Thrones)

Last Friday I made the epic grand announcement that I would no longer be watching or recapping Game of Thrones, not after this disaster of a past season. And that's totally still true. I'm not going back on that.

But bearing in mind that I'm not going to be following the show anymore, that doesn't mean that everything involved in Game of Thrones was awful or anti-feminist. There have been a lot of "hell yeah!" moments over the years. 

I mean, a solid half of the scenes involving Daenerys in season three were fist in the air cheers of feminist glee, while Arya does pretty well for herself and Brienne gets a lot of great speeches. Margaery is a symbol of how weaponized femininity can rule the world, and while Cersei is terrifying and horrible, she's also definitely a strong female character.

Heck, for all that I really loathe most everything that Game of Thrones stands for, it really does have a wealth of amazing female characters. The problem lies in how the show pretty much refuses to do right by them. How it takes this vast treasure of compelling female leads and then poops on them. Or murders them. Or has them raped.

Ugh. I'm bringing myself down again. Anyway, my point is that for all that I'm pissed at the Game of Thrones writers, I still want to talk about some of the amazing female characters they've given us, starting with Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel).

Missandei occupies a unique space in Game of Thrones, and I don't just mean because she's literally the only black woman in the show. Missandei is one of the only female characters to have her storyline revolved entirely not around a man but around a woman to whom she is not related. 

See, Missandei's plotline, and to a large extent her life, revolves around Daenerys. Daenerys is the woman who brought her out of slavery, the woman who taught her to command cities, and her best friend. Missandei is the rare case in this show of a female character who is defined by her relationship to another woman, not to a man.

What's even more interesting, though, is that she manages to be this and to have a romantic relationship with another character that in no way diminishes from her role as Daenery's confidante. Missandei's blossoming romance with the Unsullied general Grey Worm is the rare case of a romance on this show where the woman is shown to clearly be the one calling the shots in a non-confrontational, entirely healthy way.

Honestly, Missandei's whole storyline is so well written, sensitively done, and non-problematic that you kind of have to wonder if the writers had a seizure when they came up with it.

But let's start at the beginning. Her story is worth telling in full.

Missandei is a slave when we meet her, the prized translator/spokeswoman for the masters in Astapor. It is heavily implied that she has been routinely sexually assaulted from childhood on, and she greets her life with no small amount of resignation. 

But even from the beginning, there's an air of rebellion to Missandei. A spark. It's in how she speaks to Daenerys when they first meet, the way she carefully edits what her master is saying into words Daenerys might want to hear, and the way she openly tells this foreign woman, "Valar morghulis". As in, "All men must die." 

I'm just saying, it takes a lot of guts for a slave to say that to a freewoman who looks and seems to be one of the masters she's forced to serve. Missandei might be polite and calm on the surface, but she's got a lot of guts.

And Daenerys recognizes that courage. Though she's technically only there to buy herself a slave army (and then immediately free the slaves and ask them to fight for her as free men because Daenerys has some epic moments of greatness), Daenerys demands that Missandei be included as part of the deal. 

The explanation she gives is that she needs a translator to help her with the Unsullied - they only speak Old Valyrian, which Daenerys "doesn't speak" - but that turns out to be crap. Instead, we are given the impression that Daenerys' instincts were purely altruistic. Missandei was a slave and Daenerys had the power to free her, so she did.

That kind of altruism begets loyalty, and from then on we see that Missandei is basically devoted to Daenerys. She performs the same basic duties for her queen that she did for the masters, but Missandei quickly finds that Daenerys doesn't need a spokeswoman so much as she needs a handmaiden and friend. She needs another human being, specifically a woman, in whom she can confide about her life and her plans.

Missandei becomes that person. What makes this compelling, though, is that it's not a one way street. For all that Missandei is Daenerys' companion and confidante, Daenerys is also that for her. She confides in her queen and even finds herself giving out advice. She isn't just a block of wood for Daenerys to talk at, she's a person with whom Daenerys can converse. And we can see Missandei gaining a little piece of herself back each time Daenerys shows exactly how much she trusts and respects her and how much she wants Missandei to be a free, strong, independent woman.

The show doesn't rush into adding romance to Missandei's life either. Arguably this could be because (cynical reason) the showrunners weren't sure how to go about writing a romance for one of the only women of color on the program, but, optimistically, I like to think that it was because they wanted to make sure she was ready for it.

Missandei came out of slavery and horrific sexual abuse. While it's impressively restrained for the show to leave her abuse as implicit and not graphically detailed for our viewing misery, it's still clearly part of her story. When we meet Missandei, she's no more ready to fall in love than she is to rule a city on her own. Yet both of those are things that happen to her in the fifth season, and by the time they do happen, they feel deserved. Justified. Well timed.

Not only that, but they feel like things that actually really could and should happen. It makes sense that Missandei would develop feelings for Grey Worm. He's a former slave, like her. He's endured horrific abuse, like her. He's permanently scarred by that abuse, like her, and he reveres Daenerys for setting him free from that life, like her. Most importantly, Daenerys is the center of his life, like her.

It wouldn't work any other way. To force Missandei into a relationship with a character who would disregard her backstory would feel cheap and insulting, but to artificially force her character into a life of chaste servitude because the writers are scared to deal with tough issues would be equally frustrating. This is the perfect balance. Missandei and Grey Worm work as romantic partners, and even better, the show spends a lot of time making it clear that they don't have an easy road getting there.

I mean, their story is filled with misunderstandings and awkward moments and really uncomfortable conversations - the real stuff that two people with a lot of baggage really do have to wade through if they want to be in a relationship. 

There's a scene where Grey Worm accidentally sees Missandei naked, bathing in a river, and doesn't do the honorable thing of turning away. She catches him and then they both have to figure out how they feel about it. There's a squirm-inducing scene where Missandei tentatively asks Grey Worm about that thing where he was castrated by his former masters - can he still have sex? Does he even want to?

The show does a typically horrible job at dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse, but in this one really particular storyline, it actually does a great one. Missandei and Grey Worm are both "damaged goods" by the eyes of the rest of the world, but that doesn't make them unworthy of love. They're also both married to their jobs, but that's okay. They have a common goal. In other words, out of every single relationship in Westeros, I think Missandei and Grey Worm is one of the only ones I believe, and definitely one of the only ones that is genuinely healthy.

But, like I said above, the beauty of Missandei's character is that she's not just all about her romance and she's not defined by her past. Her abuse does not make the sum and total of her worth as a character. Nope. She's also a calm and thoughtful advisor, a budding strategist, and a great diplomat. When the group decides that she will stay behind and help rule Meereen in Daenerys' absence, it doesn't feel forced or like she's in over her head. We get that Missandei can do this. She knows how. She might be quiet, but that does not make her weak.

And, at the end, I think that's what I love most about Missandei. Her quiet. Because Game of Thrones is very much a show about loud and flashy shows of strength. The characters are always boasting and burning things to the ground and fighting and being obnoxious. And in all of that, we have this character, this sweet slip of a woman who never raises her voice, who listens more than she speaks, and who is still one of the strongest people on the whole show. 

Missandei doesn't have anything to prove. She knows who she is, she knows what her strengths are, and she knows what she believes. She doesn't have to be loud, she's right. And that's worth celebrating. She speaks nineteen languages. She's an invaluable resource. But she's also a woman and a woman whose storyline is filled with compassion and reasoned thought. Her strongest relationships are with another woman and with a fellow former slave. Missandei is pretty much a list of all the things I want in a strong female character.

So here's to Missandei and to all of the other ladies of Game of Thrones. The story has oftentimes done you ladies wrong, but you're still all fantastic. Especially you, Missandei. May your story remain unproblematic and you yourself remain awesome.

Don't worry, sweetie. He'll get better soon.


  1. You sounded like a child during the whole article " boohoo I can't have exactly what I want so i'm going to poop on it although it was kind of amazing " .
    What do you mean by "the show doesn't do right by them" ( the women) ? please tell me WHO in game of thrones is being pampered , men maybe ? give me a break .
    Because of "feminists" like you , all women , even the ones who are not feminists are seen as moronic cry babies and I resent "feminists" like you for it .

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