Game of Thrones: Why fans ship the Jon-Daenerys romance, incest be damned
A major talking point from Game of Thrones' season 7 episode 2, was when the characters Missandei and Grey Worm made love: people were curious to know the mechanics of the act, especially since (as an Unsullied soldier) Grey Worm has been castrated. Experts gave their opinions on how Missandei and Grey Worm may have achieved sexual pleasure (Missandei mischievously, later tells Dany that she and Grey Worm did "many things"), and there were clarifications on what castration actually entailed.
By the time the Game of Thrones season 7 finale rolled around a few weeks later — and the series' two protagonists, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen had consummated their relationship — viewer interest was piqued by an entirely different thing: 'incest'.
Some fans couldn't care less about the fact that Dany and Jon, Westeros' latest power couple, were related. (Dany is Jon's aunt; he is her brother Rhaegar's third child. Jon is born roughly 8-9 months before Dany.) Others were disgusted. Some took issue with the way Jon's true identity was revealed in an exposition (by Sam and Bran), as he was in the act of making love to Dany. Others felt the juxtaposition of scenes from Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark's relationship with Jon and Dany's lovemaking made for an insightful reveal about what these two characters mean to each other. The reactions were strongly expressed by both sides. Newsweek even got a therapist to comment on 'why it's okay that you're okay with Jon and Dany's relationship' and explain 'genetic sexual attraction'.
In a world where sexual mores are fairly permissive — where we're beginning to come around to the viewpoint that anything occurring between consenting adults is their business — incest is still a no-no. It's interesting to note that discussions on incest often club it with cannibalism, as one of the 'last great taboos'.
Incest — a romantic and/or sexual relationship between blood relatives — has both horrified and fascinated people for centuries. Royal families practised it for a variety of practical reasons: it kept power within the family, avoided the dilution of riches/titles with 'outsiders', it ensured matches were made between 'equals', and in a class of society that set much store by their own special-ness (this last bit being essential if they were to assert their 'divine right' to rule) — a way to keep their bloodlines 'untainted' and pure. Well-known cases of royal incest include the Emperor Nero, and Cleopatra (who married two of her bothers). There has been so much dynastic intra-marrying among the royal families of Europe that all the current ruling hereditary monarchs have descended from a common ancestor, Johan Willem Freso, the Prince of Orange.
Lacking knowledge about genetics and how it worked, what these royal families didn't realise was that they weren't just keeping their 'bloodlines' from being contaminated — they were magnifying hereditary flaws that would otherwise have been diluted/not expressed themselves. Egypt's King Tut was believed to have suffered a variety of debilitating illnesses, because of inbreeding (DNA studies in 2010 proved his parents were siblings). Inter-marrying was why haemophilia was seen among so many of Queen Victoria's descendants, and why the Habsburg jaw so plagued the royal line for which the condition was named.
The horror of incest is a species' way of protecting itself. Apart from evolution however, there are also strong social barriers to incest — not least because it is inherently difficult to separate it from child sexual abuse. As this report from 2013 states, child sexual abuse at the hands of a family member affected more people annually in the United States than gun violence, the mortgage crisis, AIDS, cancer and LGBT inequality, combined.
And yet, incest — or to make a crucial distinction, fantasies involving incest — isn't an uncommon phenomenon in the arts. Classical allusions to it can be found in the works of Sophocles (Oedipus Rex), and Wagner (the Ring cycle). Modern fiction too has dealt with incestuous couples: In Flowers in the Attic, the Dollaganger siblings Cathy and Chris fall in love (while held captive by an evil grandmother); in later books, they are shown to marry and have children. We also learn that Cathy and Chris' parents too were in an incestuous relationship, being half-siblings. And one only needs to look at data from Pornhub Insights to realise that incest fantasies are popular: as per worldwide trends for 2016, 'stepmother' is the second most searched for term on porn sites. 'Stepsister' is fifth, followed by 'mom' in sixth. ('Lesbian', 'MILF' and 'teen' take the first, third and fourth spots, respectively). When the data is restricted only to the US, 'stepmother' jumps to the number one spot, with 'stepsister' at number two.
A thinkpiece in The Atlantic posited that in Game of Thrones, incest is also a metaphor — it seeks to show the insularity of certain families (the Lannisters or Targaryens, for instance), their beliefs about being better than the rest of the world, and how that same insularity/myopia could lead to their downfall (Joffrey's madness could be a symptom of him being the product of incest; the 'Mad King' Aerys' insanity is certainly the product of generations of inbreeding among the Targaryens, as is Viserys' instability).
More obviously, the incest in Game of Thrones is yet another instance of its creator George RR Martin's abhorrence of moral absolutes. Unlike JRR Tolkien, who made his characters in Lord of the Rings clearly good or evil, the bulk of GoT characters occupy a moral grey zone. It is why we can feel affection for a character like Jaime Lannister, or a Theon Greyjoy, though we have seen them commit terrible transgressions — and why a seemingly upstanding/honourable character like Stannis (a stickler for doing what is right) can murder his brother and burn his own daughter at the stake. Even Jon, as he admits to Theon in 'The Dragon and the Wolf', struggles to do the right thing (although he does invariably do it). It is the conflicts that Game of Thrones characters struggle with that make them so much more compelling than if they acted without an iota of self doubt, or without slipping up and making mistakes.
In setting up what is undoubtedly the most epic romance in Game of Thrones between blood relatives, GRRM raises those questions of moral absolutism again. Even incest, in GoT, happens within a context, so you look differently at Jaime and Cersei, Craster and his many daughter-wives (such as Gilly), Jon and Dany, the entire Targaryen dynasty.
And while incest is as taboo in the Seven Kingdoms as it is anywhere in the real world today, the Targaryens are exempt — mainly because of their power; but also because as a race they are physically different from the Westerosi (the distinctive silver hair and purple/lilac eyes) and can be thought of as 'the other'.
Since GRRM also takes a special delight in subverting readers' expectations, perhaps he decided: oh here's a fine, perfectly matched, attractive couple that people will root for — why not make that a little more difficult, by say, making them related? (That's only conjecture of course — the way the story is built up, Jon and Dany's coupling is seen more as matter of destiny. For a full account of why that is, click here.)
Despite giving fans a troubling set-up, the fact is most do them do appreciate the Jon-Dany union, incest be damned. Maybe they sense, as GRRM wants them to, that what we condemn and what we condone isn't always straightforward. Or maybe it's just that they understand very well, that like the rest of A Song of Ice and Fire, the incest too, is just a fantasy.