Women in pain: How 'House of the Dragon' traded the sexual violence of 'Thrones' for birth trauma

Spoiler alert! The following contains details from "House of the Dragon" Season 1, Episode 6, which aired Sept. 25. 

It must be Westeros if women are suffering.

Over the course of its eight seasons, HBO's "Game of Thrones" came under fire for its portrayal of sexual violence. Even as it wrapped up with record-breaking ratings and hype, it never really did its female characters justice. 

The new spinoff, "House of the Dragon," which premiered on HBO in August, promised something different. The series, based on author George R.R. Martin's "Fire and Blood," is primarily about two women: Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock in early episodes, replaced by Emma D'Arcy after a time jump in Sunday's episode); and Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey, and now Olivia Cooke).

Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra and John Macmillan as Laenor in "House of the Dragon."
Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra and John Macmillan as Laenor in "House of the Dragon."

Yet from that first episode, "Dragon" slid into the bad habits of its predecessor, swapping a predilection for sexual violence and rape with one for traumatic births. In the first six episodes, three gratuitous birth scenes included two that ended in the death of both mother and baby. It's clear from the way these scenes were filmed, and what the creators have said about them, that their intentions were good. But the scenes came off not as revolutionary or revelatory, but as clichéd, exploitative and in poor taste.

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The first birth, in the series premiere, was a gruesome and violent C-section, intercut with a jousting sequence, that resulted in the death of mother Aemma (Sian Brooke) and child. The second, in Sunday's episode, a normal birth was followed by a grueling walk for the immediately postpartum Rhaenyra (D'Arcy), bleeding and leaking all the way. In the third (also Sunday), a stalled birth for Laena Velaryon (Nanna Blondell), ends in Laena dying by suicide after telling a dragon to burn her alive, still carrying her unborn child.

Sian Brooke as Queen Aemma Targaryen in "House of the Dragon."
Sian Brooke as Queen Aemma Targaryen in "House of the Dragon."

Director Miguel Sapochnik, who worked on the original "Thrones," has spoken at length about the series' desire to show these births.

“Each birth in this show has a theme, just as the battles I’ve filmed in the past have a central concept," he told the Los Angeles Times in August. “The hope and intention of the show ... is to shine a light on how the experience of men and women in this world has parallels to our own past and present.”

Sapochnik also told the Times that midwives were consulted before filming Aemma's scene, and that he received "positive" feedback from other women.

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As a woman who recently gave birth and has talked to others who have seen these episodes, my feedback is less than positive. As I watched each birth unfold, I was instantly reminded of the worst of the rape scenes on "Thrones." The spectacle of the violence was the focal point. So was the pain and trauma of the woman, not realism or the experience of the mother. The sequences felt like they were there for shock and awe, not for thematic or character reasons.

Paddy Considine as King Viserys and Sian Brooke as Queen Aemma in the season premiere of "House of the Dragon."
Paddy Considine as King Viserys and Sian Brooke as Queen Aemma in the season premiere of "House of the Dragon."

Each of the three women is barely given enough characterization to add emotional depth to their scenes. Aemma is a throwaway character who has virtually no dialogue that isn't about her pregnancy. The audience is introduced to D'Arcy as the adult Rhaenyra in the childbirth scene, and it is impossible to connect her to the teenage version Alcock played in a scene that is all screams, sweat and squelches.

Laena's labor and death is designed more to show the difference between her husband, Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), and his brother Viserys (Paddy Considine) than it is about Laena and her child. All of these scenes could have been improved if the woman's experience was more central, even if her agency was taken away from her by men.

Nanna Blondell as Laena in "House of the Dragon."
Nanna Blondell as Laena in "House of the Dragon."

The "Dragon" creators deserve a small amount of credit for trying something here. Pop culture in general has long shied away from what childbirth is really like. When you think of famous birth scenes, you think of Phoebe on "Friends" shooting out triplets without much issue. You think of doctors that are present at all times and someone shouting "push, push, push!" for 30 seconds and then a smiling baby pops out covered in raspberry jam.

It isn't like that. It's long and sometimes boring, and it smells and it is often traumatic and dangerous. Even in 2022, women die (the U.S. has a very high maternal mortality rate among developed countries, and the risks of pregnancy and birth increase dramatically if the mother is Black).

When series are realistic about birth and infant care and motherhood, it can be a radical act. When I think of pop culture that can capture what it's really like to birth and care for a newborn, the list is desperately short. PBS' "Call the Midwife," a series all about birth, is one. CW's "Jane the Virgin" offered a realistic take on postpartum life, from adult diapers to lack of showers. These portrayals are important. When people see just how hard the work of motherhood is, it can change the perception of parenting in the real world.

But in "Dragon," the births just hit the wrong note. It doesn't feel like Rhaenyra bleeding all over the palace floor or leaking breast milk in a small council meeting is anything but a gratuitous use of her body for drama. When Laena kills herself during a labor that isn't going well, it sends the message that women would rather die than fail to give birth, and take their unborn baby with them. The violence of Aemma's birth is over the top, almost cartoonish.

Shortly before she is seen half-naked, cut open and bleeding in the series premiere, Aemma tells her daughter that for women, "the birthing bed is our battlefield." Heavy-handed as that dialogue is, it points to the fact that there are more nuanced and important things "Dragon" could have said about birth. There was a way to actually make these scenes as empowering and feminist as the writers seem to believe they are. I want to give the series, which has some good elements amid messy episodes, the benefit of the doubt. I want it to be able to say something profound about women and motherhood. But I don't want to be retraumatized after my own birth experience at the image of blood leaking from a crude C-section wound.

I don't want birth to be just another horrible thing that happens to women on TV.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'House of the Dragon' birth trauma is a new version of rape on 'GoT'