Game of Thrones: Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. Photo: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on Game of Thrones and the Good Ruler complex

There are many problems with this series, but subtlety isn’t one of them.

I love Game of Thrones, but it’s not subtle. The stupendously popular swords-and-sorcery HBO romp is a glossy smorgasbord of rape, gratuitous sex and ultra-violence. Its major plot points, based on George R. R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels, are so simplistic that they may as well have been scrawled in crayon on the intricate wallpaper of literary-televisual tradition: the goodies are the rough, noble Northerners, the Stark family, none of whom have any discernible character defects, and the baddies are the yellow-haired Southern Lannisters, prosperous, duplicitous, incestuous, murderous and lots of other horrible things ending in ‘ous’, and somewhere in there are ice-zombies and prostitutes and blood-feuds and dragons and prostitutes and eunuchs and prostitutes and pirates and prostitutes and witches and prostitutes and one randy dwarf with daddy issues. The whole thing is about as sophisticated as a sucking chest-wound, of which, incidentally, the series features a fair few.

Game of Thrones is, in short, about as much gory, horny fun as any pop-cultural artefact can be in a post-Fordist, post-crisis spectacle society which has not yet sanctioned hatchet-slashing death-matches between social outcasts and starving circus animals, although David Cameron has not yet revealed the details of his plan to tackle Britain’s housing crisis. No wonder everyone’s watching.

By ‘everyone,’ I mean almost four million people viewing the premiere in America alone, and many millions more watching the show online and in repeats across the English-speaking world. The general awfulness of what passes for reality means we need least an hour every week where everybody gets lost in a crypto-Medieval saga of mythical beasties, heaving bosoms, court intrigue and buckets of blood. Which is probably why so many otherwise discerning liberal viewers choose to give Game of Thrones a free pass on its staggering race and gender problems and enjoy the shit out of it anyway.

As well as being mightily entertaining, Game of Thrones is racist rape-culture Disneyland with Dragons. To say that this series is problematic in its handling of race and gender is a little like saying that Mitt Romney is rich: technically accurate, but an understatement so profound that it obscures more than it reveals. Take, for example, one single sub-plot: a very young princess, a blonde and beautiful thirteen-year-old virgin whose remarkable fairness of complexion is a motif of the series, is sold off as a child-bride by her unscrupulous brother, a man who likes to have sex whilst talking about dragons in the bath.

The unfortunate girl’s new husband is a dark-skinned, savage warlord from the Mystical East who, being a savage, is unable to conceive of any sex that isn’t exclusively rape-based, and as such violently assaults the little princess every night. But it’s all ok because a prostitute slave teaches the thirteen-year-old princess super sexy sex skills, and she proceeds to blow the warlord’s mind so throughly that they fall in love. Later in the series she uses her magical blondness and a bunch of baby dragons to free all the slaves in the Mystical East. If the enormous teetering pile of ugly stereotypes here is not immediately obvious, see me after class and we’ll go through it step by step.

None of which is to say the story isn’t exciting. That’s rather the point. A story doesn’t need to be comfortable, realistic or generous towards the downtrodden in order to be gripping; and a piece of art doesn't have to be perfectly politically correct to be fun, or important. We're allowed to enjoy problematic things, as long as we're honest about their problems. It would be nice, though, if those of us who enjoy this series despite its many, many prostitutes problems could just stop making asinine excuses for it. The worst by far of those excuses is “Game of Thrones is based on the Medieval World, and the Medieval World Was Sexist and Racist.” Well, yes, 14th century Europe wasn’t a lot of fun if you were a woman, but nor did it have, for example, dragons, or magical shape-changing witchy-woo assassins. Westeros does, because Westeros is a fantasy world. If the creator of a fantasy series can dream up an army of self-resurrecting zombie immortals he can damn well dream up equal marriage rights, and if he chooses not to do so then that choice is meaningful, as is our assumption that the default setting for any generically legendary epic must involve really rather a lot of rape.

That, for most of us, tends to be where the discussion around Game of Thrones stops. The whole thing is so obviously screwed up that it’s easier just to accept its problems and be entertained anyway - in comparison to, for example, HBO’S Girls, also airing this season, whose every scene-change and plot twist has been minutely vivisected for cultural relevance by the ready scalpels of internet pop-criticism.

But the most interesting thing of all about Game of Thrones is what you get when you strip away the blood and tits and get to the bare narrative bones under all that greasy meat. I’m talking about the basic story of the whole saga. I’m talking about one of the oldest stories of all, a story with the power to draw millions of us around the flatscreen just as our notional ancestors gathered around the hearths. I’m talking about The Search For The Good Ruler.

The clue is in the title. Game of Thrones is all about kings and queens, all about who gets to be in charge and how they win and retain power, by violence, by force of will or simply by accident. The essential assumption of this story is a familiar one: sovereignty and leadership are inherently good things, common workers need decent kings or queens to make them happy and prosperous, and even if a catalogue of leaders are bad, mad or murderous, if you can just find the right king, the true, wise, noble king who deserves to be on the throne, then everything will be okay. 

Related to this narrative is the Training of the Good King, another extremely old and powerful story. The question of who will be in charge of Westeros when the whole enormous megaplot screeches to an end has still not been resolved in the books or the series, and as this season closes there are several candidates, each with their own individual hurdles on the road to ultimate crowniness. There’s Daenerys Targaryen, Her Aforementioned Blondeness. There’s Robb Stark the boy warrior, who doesn’t quite get enough screen-time to imply narrative or personal longevity, and his brother Bran who, despite being only ten, has been treated to a crash-course in Lordery by virtue of everyone else in the vicinity being either common, a woman or dead. And then there’s Jon Snow, illegitimate son of Eddard Stark (or is he??!?!) and general beefcake, doing his time in the wintry Northlands fighting beasties. All of these people are the Westeros version of the one per cent, and any of them who make it to the end of the series will surely end up with the power of life and death over large numbers of anonymous agrarian workers.

The Search for the Good Ruler is the big story of Game of Thrones. One of the reasons that it’s so compelling is that it’s also the big story of most of the nations in which the show airs, in various different ways. That fundamental notion - that if we are just lucky enough to get the right ruler, the ruler who, by might of right or right of might or by virtue of being the richest bastard or simply because their German great-granny happened to marry into the right family of inbred peasant-butchering Saxons, that if we just find the right one everything will still be ok - that’s still a story that we cling to. The Good Ruler. It’s going to run and run.

So it’s interesting that Game of Thrones is reaching its climax just as the Diamond Jubilee really gets under way in Great Britain. My feed-reader, favourite news websites and Twitter timeline are simultaneously full of babble and gossip about fantasy kings and queens and chatter and nonsense about real-life kings and queens to an extent that excitement about the two rather overlaps. When I try to explain to people in America exactly why it matters that Britain has a queen and not a president, I’m thinking as a republican in the literal sense but also as a person who loves stories, a person who believes that stories are politically important, and as a fan.

The stories we choose to tell about power are important. It doesn’t matter if the Queen actually wields any of the surprisingly significant amount of power she has for anything other than the purchase and maintenance of a large collection of ugly hats*. It matters that the people of Britain are subjects, not citizens, and that the rest of the world - especially the United States, which was supposed to have gotten rather definitively over all this two centuries ago - gets all het up about that. It matters that the big stories we tell each other about power are still about the Good Ruler, still about kings and queens, good lords and loyal subjects, with all the assumptions about hierarchy and inequality that that entails.

The Jubilee weekend would have been slightly more interesting had there been more of a Game of Thrones aesthetic to the whole thing, with feasting and stabbings and half-naked prostitutes gyrating all along the Thames under the bunting and Paul Burrell’s head rotting on a spike in Westminster. Personally, I think we need a different sort of story right now, one that isn’t all pomp and ceremony and ruthless social hierarchy wrapped in gold brocade, a story with, just maybe, no kings or queens at all. But if I have to watch a game of thrones, I’ll take the one with the horny dwarf any day.


*Really, fashion press: can we please stop pretending that Elizabeth Windsor is a style icon now? It’s the most godawful forelock-tugging lie I’ve seen put out by an industry that runs on stimulants and self-deception more than any other grimy corridor of the media, and that’s saying something. The Queen is not a style icon. She never has been, and she never will be. It’s just that nobody has been allowed to tell her she looks shocking in candy-coloured box-waisted twin-sets in over sixty years. 

Note: This article was edited at 8.07pm on 4 June.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage