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.

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Despite its Brexit victory, the hate-addicted right rages on – but the left is silent

The Brexit victors aren’t addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

The weirdest thing about Brexit is how angry the victors are. You would expect the losers to be sore – but open any British newspaper and it’s as if getting what they wanted has rendered the winners yet more snappish. At any time, you can guarantee that the medium least likely to offer principled opposition to any assault on democracy is the British press. Even so, it’s astonishing to open a copy of the Daily Telegraph and find that a byline has become a mere technicality, a breakwater for the eye. Page after page, countless squads of identical bald clones drone on – all chorus, no counterpoint – ranting about the evils of a Europe, which, in theory, they are supposed to have vanquished.

What is the point of having so many writers when they all write the same article? It turns out that it wasn’t Europe they wanted to leave. It was contemporary Britain. They’re not addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.

In the United States, television and newspaper reporters have understood that their president is out to get them. So they are fighting back, challenging him on his lies in a way that the BBC does not dare. Women, African Americans and Latinos have all staged impressive demonstrations to disrupt the idea that the current state of affairs in the US is either necessary or, more important, normal. Republican senators aiming to take away their voters’ rights to health care have been facing impassioned town-hall meetings. There is exhilarating satire on television.

But over here, the 48 per cent of people who feared a loveless future of cringing isolation, austerity and social backwardness have been largely content to take defeat on the chin, as though cowed by the fact that so many of the poorest among us don’t agree.

In Britain, the silence is eerie. We know from experience that it takes time for artists and film-makers to respond to sudden changes of temperature.

Margaret Thatcher was first elected in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1982 that we were enlightened by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff; My Beautiful Laundrette didn’t ­arrive until 1985; and it was 1987 before Caryl Churchill gave us Serious Money – a full eight years after Thatcher’s election.

All three works may enjoy an enduring power and authority denied to the collected speeches of Norman Tebbit. They define the era. But they all came too late to do anything more than raise morale. The damage had been done. You may feel that the musical of Billy Elliot nailed Thatcher’s government definitively, but it began to offer its insights 15 years after her resignation.

Politics in the West is in a mess because no one can answer the question of why Western labour should continue to enjoy its relative privileges when labour in the rest of the world can offer to do our work so much more cheaply. The standard answers from left and right are equally unconvincing and polluted by residual imperialist attitudes to race. Conservatives swing wildly. On some days, they behave as if they can continue to enjoy the free movement of capital while planning to forbid the free movement of labour. On others, they pretend that they still believe in the same market that failed so spectacularly ten years ago.

Neither position is coherent, and the mix of the two is crazy. But the left has done little better to explain how social justice can be advanced in the face of an international buffeting that has no care for workers’ rights.

In 2015, Ed Miliband, the then leader of the Labour Party, went into the general election without having decided whether he was or wasn’t going to defend the Keynesian public spending that had saved Britain from the corruption of the banks. The present leader of the Conservative Party, always marching fearlessly behind a thick cladding of popular prejudice, is implementing a European divorce against which she campaigned only a year ago. Small wonder that people have so little hope of Westminster.

Historically, we have always been taught that change comes from below. When people suffer intolerably, they overturn the cause of their suffering. Yet they still need representatives who can articulate their needs. Revulsion has to bubble up soon, but so do policies.

In our daily lives, we all meet people who are thoughtful, kind-hearted, efficient and serious. We encounter such people in medicine, in education, in law enforcement and in social care, and it is their generosity and foresight that make life worth living. Yet Theresa May is content to hug close individuals who would be thrown out of any job but politics. Her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was sacked by the Times for lying. Her Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, was accused of trying to interfere with a prison inspection report while he was justice secretary, and he banned sending books to prisoners.

Most inexplicable of all was the elevation of Liam Fox, her International Trade Secretary, who is in permanent disgrace because he has refused fully to admit wrongdoing for overclaiming expenses and using public money to pay a close friend who attended 57 per cent of his Ministry of Defence engagements without security clearance.

Why on earth are such people promoted by a vicar’s daughter who boasts of her moral values? It is in that disparity between who we are and how we are represented that the best hope of opposition lies.

Disbelief will shade into outrage, even if Labour continues to be led by a man blithely indifferent to the practicalities of getting ­anything done. Confronted with the ascen­dancy of scoundrels such as Fox, Grayling and Johnson, anyone, from any part of the UK, will agree with Karl Marx: shame is the only revolutionary emotion.

David Hare is a playwright

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition