Game of Thrones: Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.