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 new challengers, Andrew Marr is still the king of the Sunday-morning politics skirmish

The year began with a strong challenge from Sophy Ridge, who scored a coup with her Theresa May interview. By week two, though, the normal order was restored.

The BBC can declare at least one victory for its news division in 2017. In what was dubbed “the battle of the bongs”, ITV’s regrettable decision to shift the News at Ten to 10.30pm for a couple of months this year in favour of a new entertainment show means that the corporation’s flagship bulletin will be once more unchallenged. But the war among the UK’s television channels has shifted to new territory: now it’s Sunday-morning sofa skirmishes.

This year began with the equivalent of ravens leaving the Tower. The Prime Minister’s New Year interview, cherished for decades by David Frost and then by Andrew Marr, migrated from the BBC to Sky News. It was a coup for Sophy Ridge, whose new show marks the arrival of a woman into what had previously been male territory. It intensified the pressure on the BBC after the blow last year of the defection of Robert Peston to ITV, lured by the promise of his own show to rival Marr’s.

By week two, though, the normal order was restored. The biggest interviewee, Jeremy Corbyn, was on The Andrew Marr Show and his lieutenants John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry were deployed on Sky and ITV. These things matter because the Sunday-morning political programmes often generate the headlines for the rest of the day’s broadcasting and for the Monday papers; and the commercial companies want to dent the BBC’s reputation for setting the agenda. The corporation can often do it by the sheer volume of its output on TV, including the estimable Sunday Politics, and on radio; but it’s a plus for audiences if other voices can be heard.

The Andrew Marr Show has traditionally secured the A-list guests because it has by far the highest ratings. Its most powerful asset is Marr, who was a transformative political editor for the BBC and possesses, as New Statesman readers know, an original and free-thinking take on the issues of the day. The energy in the programme comes from him but he is not helped by a staid production: a predictable format, a set with a London skyline and a superannuated sofa. There aren’t many laughs. The review of the papers has become cumbersome with the addition of a statutory Brexiteer, and the supposed light relief is supplied by arts plugging of the kind that seems mandatory in every BBC News programme. We are invited, wherever we are in the UK, to pop along to the West End to see the latest production involving the actor-interviewee of the day. However, if there is a new political line to be found, Marr is the most likely to sniff it out.

By contrast, Peston on Sunday seems to have consumed a lot of fizzy drinks. It is sharp and contemporary-looking and it bounces along, thanks to the interplay between Peston and his sidekick, Allegra Stratton. It is more willing to take risks, as in the entertainingly acidic recent exchanges between Piers Morgan and Alastair Campbell, and it works as a piece of television even if it doesn’t have the top guests. It merits its repeat in the evening, when it gains a bigger audience than in the live transmission.

Guests may be more crucial to the success of Sophy Ridge on Sunday. It looks lovely in its sparkling new studio, but the prime ministerial scoop of the launch show was followed by an interview with Nigel Farage and a dull encounter with a union official. There is a commendable attempt to get out of London and to hear from the public, and it’s refreshing to locate an MP such as Tom Watson in a West Bromwich café. The programme is also trying to book more women interviewees, and one paper review featured a token man; but can it be a must-watch for news junkies or entertaining enough for a casual viewer?

There is only so much that producers can do to lure the right guests. If you meet any broadcaster these days, they immediately gripe about the attempts by Downing Street to control who appears where – which has been applied with particular vigour under the May administration: hence Boris Johnson recently appearing as duty minister on both Marr and Peston on the same morning, which neither channel finds ideal.

There is a trap, in that obtaining quotesfor the rest of the media is only part of the remit. In these uncertain political times, audiences need knowledge, too, and an interview that merely zips through the news lines of the day may add little to our understanding of policy and the choices faced by government. All of these shows feature presenters with formidable brainpower and it is perfectly possible to meld that into a programme that is worth watching.

Peston’s show makes an attempt with Stratton’s big screen to provide context and statistics, but it could do more – and it might painlessly lose some of the witless tweets that pass for interaction. It’s a further conundrum of television that Marr’s most interesting takes on current issues are often in his documentaries or writing rather than on his eponymous show. The guardians of impartiality may twitch, but viewers would benefit from him being given more freedom.

There is the rest of the world to consider, too. It was striking on a Sunday just ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump that none of these shows had a major American player. While Michel Barnier was making the news in the weekend papers, no decision-maker from the EU was featured, either. This is not a phenomenon of Brexit: television has always found it easier to plonk a bottom on a sofa in SW1 than to engage in the long-term wooing that gets significant international guests. Yet, as we are allegedly preparing to launch ourselves into the wider world, hearing from its key decision-makers is part of the enlightenment we need, too.

Roger Mosey is the master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television news

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era