In the seventh episode, she's fighting with her former friend/current stepdaughter Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D'Arcy), and eventually slices open Rhaenyra's arm with a knife. The ostensible source of Alicent's outrage is that Rhaenyra's son took our her son's eye in an otherwise childish brawl. But the rant exposes her deeper motive: plain old envy. Alicent and Rhaenyra were friends growing up, but turned on each other when their lives took very different paths. Alicent was married off to King Viserys (Paddy Considine), Rhaenyra's father. She must spend the rest of her days in a loveless marriage with a man who physically repulses her, while bearing one child after another without much break. Rhaenyra, meanwhile, is the heir to the throne and indulged by her father. She gets to have sex with cute guys (and her uncle, because this is the "Game of Thrones" franchise), fly around on a dragon, and abscond to another castle when she gets sick of being around her miserable stepfamily.
I write often about the psychology of conservatism for a liberal audience, drawing on my background as a native Texan from a GOP-voting family. But I'm also a feminist writer. This combination means that, by far, the most common question I get from readers is, "How can women be conservative/vote Republican?" As the interlocutors note, women who vote Republican are voting against their own basic rights to reproductive choice and equal pay. After the election of Donald Trump, who famously bragged on tape about how he sexually assaults women, the question got even louder. How can any woman support a party so sexist?
It seems weird to say this about a medieval fantasy show set in a world with dragons, but "House of the Dragon" does a great job answering this question. If you want to understand the inner drama of the conservative woman, look no further than Alicent Hightower, the Karen of Westeros. She may not have a Trump to vote for, but she does have her very Trump-like son, the narcissistic rapist Prince Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney). Alicent does not like that her son is a shitbag. But we all know in the Trump v. Hillary Clinton retread that is Aegon v. Rhaenyra's fight over the Iron Throne, Alicent is going to back her boy.
Alicent is a great fictionalized version of a phenomenon I've written about before: Conservative women don't enjoy living under the yoke of male dominance, but most accept it as their fate. As with Alicent, there are a boatload of rationalizations for this resignation. They talk a big game about duty, honor, sacrifice and faith. They don't feel they can direct their inevitable frustration with living as second-class citizens at the men who demand it of them. So instead they turn their ire on feminists, aiming a "Who do you think you are?" rage at those women who say no to all the "duty" and "sacrifice" conservative women have given to the patriarchy.
Alicent hates the joyless sex with her gross old husband, but instead of getting mad at him, she yells at Rhaenyra for pursuing sexual freedom. Alicent is exhausted from constant child-bearing, but instead of asking for a break, she lashes out at Rhaenyra for using contraception. She envies Rhaenyra's cute boyfriend, Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr). (Or, possibly, she envies him his chance to get with Rhaenyra. The show lets you read it either way.) So much so that Alicent even looks the other way when her right-hand man, Larys Strong (Matthew Needham), has the poor, sexy dude killed.
I'm hardly the first person to notice that Alicent is a swords-and-dragons version of Karen. A couple of weeks ago, the Mary Sue ran a Twitter round-up of people making this exact joke. (My favorite: "What not getting a hoe phase does to a person" over a photo of Alicent looking very high-strung.) But in true "Game of Thrones" style, "House of the Dragon" is not going to make it easy for those who want to turn Alicent into a comic book villain. On the contrary, Alicent is a very humanized character. Her envy and resentment are sympathetic, even if some of her choices that result are not.
I was especially struck by the scene in the eighth episode where Alicent meets with a young serving girl her son, Aegon, has raped. (Showing that the franchise has learned from the mistakes of "Game of Thrones," the assault happens off-screen.) Viewers braced themselves for a cartoonish Karen response, maybe yelling at the girl and threatening to cut out her tongue. Instead, Alicent consoles the girl and reassures her that she believes her. She then tells her that she must be quiet about it, because no one else will believe her. She then gives her money and a contraceptive, and sends her on her way. Not a hero, by any stretch, but not exactly cruel, either. Alicent simply believes she's sharing a realistic view: Rape is terrible, but there's nothing you can do about it. It echoed the rationale Republican women often give for voting Trump. They don't love that he sexually assaults women, but believe that's just how men are and there's nothing that will change that.
Like most conservative women, Alicent views male power as immoveable, and concludes the only way she can secure a place for herself is through men. She obeys her father, manipulates her husband and spoils her sons, all with an eye towards leveraging her relationships with them in order to get more power and safety for herself. Rhaenyra, on the other hand, believes herself entitled to hold power outright, as the presumptive queen. She's not exactly a feminist character — that's not really realistic in a medieval setting — but she also has a more expansive view of what women can be, even in this world.
The show recently took Alicent's conservatism a step further by wrapping her in the cloak that most conservative women eventually use to justify their fealty to patriarchy: religion. The character was always faithful, but she's become a religious bully by Episode 8. She tears down all the lewd dragon tapestries that the Targaryens favor in the castle, replacing them with dull religious iconography. In a bit of comedy, she even forces the reluctant family to say grace before a meal. I doubt very much this is just window dressing. As the conflict between Alicent and Rhaenyra turns to war, I expect that Alicent to wield the Seven-Pointed Star (the Westerosi version of the Bible) as a weapon. It's very much going to reflect our real-world tensions, with conservatives claiming to speak for Jesus and decrying liberals as dissolute threats to the moral fabric of society.
Every step of the way, however, it will be tragedy, instead of good-versus-evil fairy tale. Alicent is a villain, but also a victim. Like most conservative women, she's felt the sting of sexism, over and over. Her flaw is theirs: Adopting an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality. Granted, women in our world have a lot more pathways to escape, and so are much harder to feel sorry for when their resentment causes them to go full Karen. But "House of the Dragon" is the smartest portrayal of a conservative woman's psyche as you're likely to ever get on TV, folded in beautifully to a story mostly known for dragons and a whole lot of incest.
"House of the Dragon" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO and streams on HBO Max.
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