“Game of Thrones” and Contemporary American Culture

In a recent Slate article, Jack Hamilton claims that HBO’s Game of Thrones largely eschews (and is often downright hostile) to any claims that it has relevance to contemporary society or serves as an allegory for today’s political and social concerns.  While I agree with Hamilton’s larger claim that the series makes for great television and indeed pushes the medium in new and exciting directions in terms of narrative and character complexity, I think it underestimates the series to argue that it doesn’t attempt to reflect or resonate with contemporary American culture.  From the role that women play in violently patriarchal societies to the status of history for the acts and behaviors of the present day, Game of Thrones has a great deal to say about the ways in which our world works.

Although ostensibly a piece of high fantasy (once, it should be noted, one of the most denigrated and critically shunned of all genres, whether cinematic or textual), Game of Thrones, as well as the series of books upon which it is based, draws heavily upon our own history for both its narrative and its dense mythology.  Most notably, the conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters is a highly fictionalized version of England’s Wars of the Roses between the rival royal houses of York and Lancaster.  However, history works in Game of Thrones in a number of other ways as well, many of which are quite relevant to our own allegedly postmodern moment in which History (not the upper case “H”) as a discipline and a way of conceiving the past is dying.  In the world of GoT, the actions of prior generations continue to exert a terrible pull on the present and, it is suggested, the actions of any given character in the diegetic present can and indeed probably will have dire consequences in the future.  This, combined with the series’ obvious debt to medieval European culture for its worldview and its production design, says a great deal about how we in contemporary American culture conceive of the Middle Ages.  In other words, as a place where life was nasty, brutish, and short.  Oh, and sexually violent.

It is precisely this sexual violence, particularly against women, that is the series’ greatest strength and its greatest weakness.  From the horrific death of the prostitute Ros at Joffrey’s demented hands to Jaime’s recent rape of Cersei, the world of Game of Thrones is incredibly dangerous for women (even more than it is for people of both genders).  While GoT’s use of violence can be used to critique the ways in which even modern America’s social fabric harbors extraordinary dangers for women and those who do not perform “appropriate” masculinity, there are times when it drops the ball, participating in the very culture that it serves to critique.  As I have argued before on this blog, Jaime’s raping of Cersei in particular serves as a potent reminder of what can happen when the avowed purposes of a scene (in this case, highlighting the sexual pathology of the siblings, as well as the true darkness at the heart of Jaime’s character) goes horribly wrong.  As such, GoT is a commentary on not only the highly precarious position women–especially those in power–occupy in American society, but also the contradictions and complexities inherent in the representation of sexual and gender violence.

Finally, as Todd VanDerWerff argues in his review of the episode “The Mountain and the Viper,” Game of Thrones has repeatedly shown us a world in which literally no one is safe.  From Ned’s beheading that ended the first season to the trauma of the Red Wedding to the brutal killing of Oberyn Martell, the series has eschewed any reliance upon the survival of its main characters.  Much as American Naturalism argued that the universe does not care about the fate of humans, so the tides of fate seem to sweep these characters along, with even seemingly inconsequential actions having far ranging consequences that can change the fate of a world.  In addition to resonating with our postmodern society in which horrible events seem to have no precise cause, Game of Thrones also resonates with our terrorism culture, wherein all of life is unstable because one (allegedly) never knows when the next attack will come nor whom it will strike down.  Far from making such randomness understandable or assuaging those anxieties, the series instead seems to amplify them, so that, as viewers, we feel constantly on edge, waiting for the axe to fall.

Much as Westeros during Robert’s reign appeared stable while truly rotting from within, so GoT disguises its political commentary beneath the veneer of high fantasy.  There is a reason, I would argue, that both the novels and the HBO series have gained such cultural cache.  Like all good fantasy (including the venerable works of J.R.R. Tolkien), Game of Thrones holds a mirror up to our society and reflects our own ugliness, misogyny, and violence back at us.  While we may go to the series seeking an escape from the harsh world that we live in, we will find instead that the world of Game of Thrones is uncomfortably close to our own.

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