People sometimes wonder how can one be an animist in an urban environment. There is an assumption that one can only have a relationship with living things like people, trees, dandelions and the neighbour’s cat. I think animism includes that but can be more. It can also be about establishing respectful relationships with our homes and objects as Marie Kondo teaches. It can also include our relationships with the ways we occupy our time: how we interact with the internet and how we connect with stories and other diversions. And truth be told, most of us spend a lot of time interacting with phones, computers and televisions. This is part of our environment — important territory for urban animists to explore.
Arthur Frank once said stories may be made of air but they leave their mark. The study of stories may involve looking at themes, characters and other features but perhaps most importantly, one might also ask: what does a particular story do?
Here’s an example of how one story touched millions of lives.
Following the end of the Second World War, the Americans crafted a very powerful myth. They believed that since they won the war (overlooking the fact that the Soviet Union did the lion’s share of fighting) that they would now be responsible for protecting democracy everywhere. They cast themselves as incorruptible superheroes.
This myth was told so often and so well that the people of America came to believe it. Elite officials exploited the myth and used it to overthrow democratically elected governments, disrupt peace in many regions and cause terrible suffering for millions of civilians across the planet.
The stories we tell ourselves matter; they have real world consequences. So just for fun, I thought I’d interrogate my relationship with the television show, Game of Thrones. Warning: plenty of spoilers, some uncomfortable content.
You are an adaptation of another story by George R.R. Martin called A Song of Ice and Fire. I notice you chose to make a lot of changes to the characters and the plot. Why did you magnify the violence, sexism and racism?
That’s obvious, isn’t it?
Maybe, but could you spell it out?
Martin’s story is a nuanced presentation of point of view characters. He seems to enjoy playing with and subverting many of the tropes of the fantasy genre. And he might have an end in mind. By presenting the action through a variety of characters the reader tends to learn how to feel compassion for these diverse people – even those first judged as villains. As a result everyone takes on a bit of a grey tone. Yawn. My makers could not care less about that kind of stuff. Details are for book reports. Our goal was simple: make a lot of money through spectacle. Who cares about the colour grey when you can push a little harder to make the world as nihilistic as possible. Sex sells, violence sells and controversy generates free advertising. But let’s turn this around. You hated the changes from the start but I noticed you watched the entire thing. Why did you do that?
That’s true. I watched faithfully. I was fascinated by how thoroughly you were able to flatten every character and all meaning.
In the way that Joanne Gilar has described. She recently spoke about how the inclusion or removal of certain elements can create “stories that sometimes feel like they’ve had the heart taken out of them …” Her prescription for allowing the heart of a story to beat again is to compare and contrast the details of different versions. So as I watched the show I kept referring back to the books.
I could tell you what I saw in the magnified violence and racism in your story but for this conversation I’ll limit myself to the issue of sexism and how you flattened one particular character: Sansa. You chose to have Sansa raped and tortured by her enemies and you made that plot point the most important aspect of her story — just when the actress ceased being a minor. You sanctioned her suffering by having her say in the end that the experience of being humiliated and degraded made her a stronger person. This is a harmful message and grossly inaccurate depiction of how people survive and cope with the trauma of rape. This flattens her character, leaving her relatively two-dimensional.
It’s a stinky trope but rape as a motivator is still popular in video games, you know. Maybe we wanted the gamer gate crowd to feel comfortable.
Hmm. One wonders why it wasn’t important to invite half the population to feel comfortable in your setting. Your message of condoning sexism and misogyny was clear and consistent. One of your characters, a castrated man, even said a woman couldn’t possibly rule because like it or not, power is always about the size of one’s “cock.” You decided that the final boss battle would not be the existential threat of eternal winter but a fight to make sure no woman would ever sit on the iron throne. The comic relief at the very end was a joke about opening up the brothels again, presumably so that women would once again assume their appropriate role as sex servants. You deliberately wove these elements into your story during a me-too moment, the Brent Kavanaugh controversy and the introduction of repressive abortion laws in the larger culture. Although your makers claim disinterest in delivering themes suitable for book reports, by choosing spectacle over character conflict and development they crafted propaganda for death, destruction and oppression.
That’s just the way things were in the Middle Ages. We like to think we were being realistic.
The setting is Westeros, not Europe so you had every opportunity to create all the rules of your world. But, to continue answering your question, as I watched you flatten the characters and as I thought about what I saw, the heart of Martin’s original began to beat a little more strongly, a little more clearly. I didn’t think much about Sansa when I first read the books. But thanks to your presentation I came to appreciate the value of her book journey. In the books, Sansa is exploreing the idea of romantic love, the bonds of family, how gender shapes our choices and some of the dilemmas and traps of obedience. She is so much more than a victim. Thankfully, all the women and girls presented in the books have character arcs that are interesting and life affirming.
For years I wondered what it was that people liked so much about you. It became a bit of an obsession. And then as we approached the end, I was surprised and delighted to see public opinion start to shift against your narrative. Apparently, there is a limited tolerance for spectacle just for the sake of spectacle. Flat characters are going to fall flat, I guess.
Fine. Sure. Whatever. But you have to give us our due: we made a lot of money and we’ve got a sequel coming up.
Thanks for the talk!
Dear Reader: If you had a different experience with this entity I’d love to hear how it touched your heart and soul. Your comments are welcome. For more information on Dr. Joanne GIlar and her work with stories as living beings please visit Fabula Rosa
mitsubachi spends a lot of time with bees and flowers.
2 thoughts on “Interview with The Game of Thrones”
Yes! This is great. Haven’t watched the last season yet because I’ve become increasingly disillusioned about the show. I 100% align with this assessment—I too have been astounded at the rendering of Martin’s characters on screen, for exactly your reasons. Especially the shallowness of the characters and their moral struggles and dilemmas. Plus the pornified rape scenes (ugh). I do hope Martin will write the end differently and in his own inimitable way, with the thoughtfulness and complexity his characters and the story deserve.
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I trust Martin to do right.
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