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House of the Dragon’s Brutal Birth Obsession Isn’t Realism. It’s Cruelty.

Photo: HBO

The first sound in episode six of House of the Dragon is a faint, panting sort of moan. Even before there’s an image onscreen, the episode begins with noises made by a woman in pain. The moaning, we learn, is coming from Rhaenyra Targaryen, who’s giving birth to her third child. She’s slick with sweat; her eyes are closed. We see only her head and shoulders, but as a midwife urges her to push, we also get some careful work from the sound design team: sliding, wet squelches, to make sure we know exactly what it sounds like when the baby’s head emerges. Compared with other childbirth scenes in House of the Dragon, it’s practically rosy — an uncomplicated birth, a healthy baby. Then the figurative (and literal) afterbirth drops: Queen Alicent demands to see the baby immediately, and Rhaenyra decides to stagger through the palace herself rather than be caught in a moment of weakness. She grimaces as she totters up the stairs and leaves a trail of blood in her path. It’s excruciating to watch her hobbling through the court, waving off well-wishers and curious onlookers. It’s brutally cruel.

The scene is upsetting, but by this point in House of the Dragon’s run, it’s not surprising. As much as dragons or incest or power struggles or even more generalized violence, this season has been defined by traumatic birth scenes. In the premiere episode, Queen Aemma’s baby is positioned badly, and both she and her child die after an unanesthetized Cesarean. The sequence is remarkably, proudly violent: There are shots of a bed soaked with blood, and images of Aemma’s agonized face. The camera holds on her hands and her facial expression as she realizes what’s about to happen, making sure the audience has time to register her panic and terror before she is cut open against her will.

Then, in case Aemma and Rhaenyra’s experiences did not make the show’s obsession sufficiently clear, episode six depicts a second gruesome childbirth. The doctors tell Daemon Targaryen they’ve run out of ways to help his wife Laena’s labor progress. They propose trying to cut the baby out of her uterus with the same method used for Aemma, which they tell him Laena won’t survive; they cannot guarantee the baby will, either. Frantic, desperate, exhausted, Laena staggers outside and begs her dragon to burn her to death. In the last image we see of her, she’s kneeling in front of the dragon, wearing a white shift dress covered in blood from the waist down. It’s awful, and yet it manages to clear the low, low bar set by Aemma’s birth. At least Laena chose her own violent death before someone else could do it for her.

There is, sort of, a feminist argument for these appalling scenes. By some measures, they’re more realistic than the soft-focus, sanitized depictions of birth that have appeared on TV over the decades. House of the Dragon’s birth scenes are full of blood and peril, and it’s foolhardy to argue that childbirth is neither of those things — especially childbirth in the medieval period the series is loosely evoking. “We felt that was an interesting way to explore the fact that for a woman in medieval times, giving birth was violence,” showrunner Miguel Sapochnik explained after the premiere episode. “If given the choice, the father would choose the child over the mother, as a Cesarean would kill you. It was an extremely violent part of life.” It’s time to be honest about the nightmarish outcomes for pregnant people, that argument goes. No more hiding behind comfortable elisions, a scream muffled behind a door or a worried midwife scurrying through a hallway carrying a bowl of mysterious linens. Show the truth! Show the horror. Show what people really go through when they labor and sweat. Let’s hear the afterbirth as it flops onto the floor because that’s the only way to value the risk and sacrifice of childbirth. That will be proof of how worthy and strong these women are. After all, aren’t they suffering? Isn’t their suffering noble?

Never mind that, as Rebecca Onion pointed out in Slate, Aemma’s brutal C-section isn’t at all true to the historical record of births during the middle ages. Never mind that Aemma’s interiority, as Amanda Hess explains in the New York Times, has been “subsumed into the creators’ effort to make a statement.” The idea was never that this one scene should encompass the entire experience of childbirth, after all. “We have a number of births in the show,” Sapochnik told THR. They decided “to give them different themes and explore them from different perspectives, the same way I did for a bunch of battles on Thrones.” “I don’t think,” he continued, “putting a bunch of violence onscreen for the sake of violence does any good in the world.”

The trouble is that we’ve now seen three Dragon birth scenes, and they are all shaped by pain, helplessness, fear, violence, and someone else exerting power over the birthing person’s agency. The idea that there are multiple births to show many perspectives on the experience is already laughable — Laena’s birth scene has a slightly different ending, but the rough contours are the same as Aemma’s. Even Rhaenyra’s birth, which is so humane compared to the other two, appears in the story only because it inflicts more pain on her in its immediate aftermath. Maybe the fact that it’s her stepmother who hurts her, rather than her husband or father, is a version of empowerment. The scene does work as a counterpart to Aemma’s birth — this episode is restarting Dragon’s story with older characters, and Rhaenyra is now taking over her mother’s childbearing role. Still, it’s Rhaenyra’s third child; I wonder what her previous two births were like. Presumably, they were not violent or troubled or politically unpleasant enough to be a compelling part of the story.

By horrible childbirth No. 3, House of the Dragon seems so proud of itself. Finally, fantasy stories are shining a light on how hard it is to bear children! Rather, how hard it was to bear children in the medieval period. Or how hard it was to bear children in a fantasy version of the medieval period, where there are also dragons and magic potions. The repetition starts to feel smug: This trauma was constant and pointing that out is important work. But foregrounding it, especially with such delighted attention to terrible outcomes and helpless women, is not an act of narrative bravery. It’s just a different way of saying that women are most valuable as bodies and that people who can give birth can be reduced to whether or not their bodies behave.

“The child bed is our battlefield,” Aemma says in the first episode, before dying in that bed. Apparently, she didn’t fight hard enough to win the battle. In a show where her worth is defined by anything other than her bodily destiny, maybe her life could’ve had some meaning beyond losing an unwinnable fight. And maybe House of the Dragon would be a better show if it knew how to measure a woman’s worth as more than a cervix dilated to ten centimeters.

HOTD’s Brutal Birth Obsession Isn’t Realism. It’s Cruelty.