Gender Trouble, Racial Salvation and the Tragedy of Political Community in ‘Game Of Thrones’ (2012-2013)

A shamefully-delayed commentary on Game Of Thrones, Seasons the Second and Third, since the first one went so well. As before, *great clunking mega spoiler alert*. You have been forewarned.


Recall three justifications for an analysis of pop culture politics. First, for all their superficial escapism, cultural products represent political ideas and ideologies, and do so in ways that may matter more than what we receive through the news. They are full of desires and fantasies that refract and reflect (and to some extent are themselves) real politics. Second, you can criticise the thematics of the show without hating the show. In fact you can do it while loving the show (and finding the fact of that love interesting in itself). In other words, look, I really like Game of Thrones. Moreover, that as great as comparisons with the source text can be, a TV series is a different kind of beast and is entitled to judgement on its own merits. Third, objections that “it’s just a show” don’t wash. If you’re reading this it’s because you have some sense that there are ways of understanding and being embodied in even the lowest of cultural objects (paging Dr Adorno!). That doesn’t mean that the substance of the relationship between media and politics is simple or settled, but it’s there.

Let’s start where we left off last time. It was claimed in some quarters that the plot subverts – even refutes – certain standard typical ideas about the feminine, and critiques feudal social relations along the way. So, rather than being a “racist rape-culture Disneyland with Dragons”, the many strong, complicated, agentic female roles in fact set Game of Thrones as a critique of patriarchy. But only the most one-dimensional of sexisms regards women as utterly abject. The mere presence of intelligent, or emotionally-rounded, or sympathetic female characters is not enough (and that it might be taken as inherently ‘progressive’ probably tells us a lot about contemporary gender politics). No, the issue is how a cultural product deploys some common tropes of masculinity and femininity and, with appropriate caveats about not reading every plot twist as an allegory, how those celebrate or reinforce certain orderings of gender. So a narrative which makes the family the primary unit, and which does so in a conventionally heteronormative register (twincest notwithstanding), is selling a particular idea of gender (and of community and nation and legitimate violence and…).

In Seasons 2 and 3, a few female figures threaten to upset the patriarchal framework. As before, there is Arya, astute, principled, fierce, and eager to promise death to her enemies. Brienne of Tarth, giant, loyal, lethal, dismissive. Ygritte, rugged, capable, sexually dominant, a hardened killer with no respect for rank (“If you ripped my silk dress, I’d blacken your eye”).[1] And yet in each case the threat is contained and wrapped in some familiar gender constraints.

Arya Says Most Girls Are Idiots

Where Arya once promised to undermine the crucial gendered division (men are the warriors), she has been kept in abeyance for two seasons now. When she acts it is through a mediating male agent of death. We have not seen her sword skills, and her own interventions in combat have amounted to running away, protesting the rights of the innocent, and shouting impotently at older men. Or, at least, we were fed a steady diet of such things until the final glorious episode and her stabby return to form (long may it continue). Here and there, it is hinted that she will have her day, and take her blood price, but we cannot yet be sure that it will even be by her own hand, rather than (again) through the interventions of a phallic guardian like Jaqen H’ghar (or The Hound). For now, she is largely returned to girlhood, given a certain licence to honest observation and earnest rage, but tolerated by those around her precisely because she is so unthreatening. Adolescent, tamed, if capable of the odd act of sneaky murder.

As for Brienne (who never knew her mother), the politics are more ambiguous. For the defence, she is able to articulate a running critique of masculinism over the seasons, not just refusing the natural rights of men-as-warriors, but indeed queering permissible gender bodies (“I am no lady”). And for the prosecution, there is her occasionally over-enthusiastic identification with militarist misogyny (or as she chastises Jamie: “You whine and cry and quit. You sound like a bloody woman!”) and her eventual softening in the bath before The Kingslayer (in what is surely one of the best scenes of the show). Ygritte, too, is able in all her apparent ignorance of ‘civilised’ ways, to defuse the pretensions of Jon Snow, and show him up on the battlefield and in the bedroom (or bedcave or whatever). And yet, having initiated him sexually and also saved his skin, she is in turn abandoned by him. Having risked everything in a bond-of-two, the warnings of her father and brother figures are ultimately vindicated. The endlessly looping story of womankind. She too takes her revenge, although she does so not as so much as Wildling warrior as spurred lover.

The pitiful trajectory of other female figures continue. Having encouraged policies that led to the death of her husband and the collapse of her House, Caitlin Stark continues her run of bad advice, making the mistake of freeing Jamie against her son’s will (Robb is the wiser, and more instinctively strategic, warrior). And although she cannot be blamed for the Red Wedding, it is her own role as tragic mother that presages its occurrence (“All this horror in my family…all because I couldn’t love a motherless child”). Cersei drips cunning poison, and to some degree still runs the show despite her father’s appointment as Hand of the King. Her monologue in Season 2, a kind of parallel to Drogo’s before it, nevertheless carries the predictable weight of woman-as-seductress: “Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon…the best one is between your legs”.

Among the menfolk, the Father continues to transubstantiate the Nation (“There’s a King in every corner now”). The sword, the throne, the war, the rightful King: all still the discourse of the phallus. Robb Stark fails like Ned before him, and we end Season 3 with the über-dad, Tywin Lannister, as omnipotent and untouchable as ever. Jon Snow has been scattered, his distance from the scene of high politics a direct reflection of his diluted blood, a bastard son at the margins. And Stannis Baratheon, having lain with witches, is nearly compelled into a literal nephew-bastard-sacrifice of his own. When Theon Greyjoy is castrated, his estranged father can find no more use for him, and we can see his point. For Theon is no longer a man, or a son, or an heir. In each case, a politics of lineage and organicist rule, however much the rutting and plotting covers for it.

Or take the traditional Westeros wedding vows, which we hear in the context of an unmistakeable love match (one entered into without political calculation, unlike so many of unions). Father. Smith. Warrior. Mother. Maiden. Crone. Stranger. I am his/hers, and s/he is mine, from this day, till the end of my days. Father-Smith-Warrior. Mother-Maiden-Crone. The man takes the woman as wife by placing his cloak around her shoulders (there can be no gay marriage in alternative universes: only shape-shifters and dragons and green fire and black magic and wargs and vengeful wraiths). It would be hard to find a clearer expression of male protection – the wife moves from ward of father to ward of husband – in our own mundane world. A moral universe of appropriate gender roles laid out in plain sight. A fantastical patriarchy troubled at this margin and that, but rotten to its seductive core. The Sword Needs a Sheath and the Wedding Needs a Bedding!

Mother Robb Stark Mother New Spock Mother Arrested Development Buster The above found via Gerry Canavan.

That said, the entitlements of lordship are subjected to more critique than ever before. Numerous minor characters express distain for such a civilisational order and we enter some spaces arranged according to different principles. Quarth is the most multi-cultural of these settings, but also the one most haunted by both the dark arts and narrow economic instrumentality (a city of hollowed magi, metallic burkhas, and trickster merchant-kings). There is more of a sense of disloyalty amongst the lower martial ranks too, those who laugh off Theon’s authority, or who like the Hound are caught between a vestigial sense of honour as a Knight and a contempt for that life. That so much hope for the series rests in the hands of the freaks and the bastard sons (Tyrion, Jon, Gendry) of course reflects that this is not Tolkien High Toryism, but it is hardly the rule of the demos either: they are half-in, half-out of the Westeros ruling class, and in all cases are only even possible candidates for salvation because of their connections to powerful families or their magic blood, each called back to home and to duty. The unwashed masses can’t do political movements, and behead no Kings.[2] In other words, the much-observed bleakness of the plot (no one is safe from GRRM’s pen!) translates to a tragedy of political communities too. There is probably no great saviour first-born in the wings, but then the need for one – rather than some other transformative force – is rather inscribed in the framework of the world.

Versions of political community apparently beyond the daddy model come in two forms. On the one hand, there are the proto-anarchist insurgents. There is revolt amongst the Wildlings (who self-describe as “free people” in choosing barren wastes over feudal loyalties) and the magic-tinged horizontalism of the Brotherhood Without Banners. Like the people of Quarth, the alternative they offer is not quite as pure as it first appears, compromised in each case by economic necessity or unchecked aggression. The initial liberation they offer (“We don’t kneel for anyone beyond the wall”) turns sour quickly, and even bastard Jon finds that previous loyalties are to be preferred to this autonomy. Both groups have had to choose between comfort and freedom (settled habitation apparently being incompatible with anti-monarchism), but both also seem progressively less adequate to those higher values of honour, values rarely executed, but still possible, in the cities of the South (a game of Good King/Bad King).

Khaleesi Among The Natives

And then there is Khaleesi, and her subaltern army. The racial rhetoric has transmuted instructively: from a representation of the dark-skinned as incapable of even fully human experiences (remember, the Dothraki had no words for thank you) to a fantasy of the white saviour. For all the redemptive joy of watching the Mother of Dragons in the ascendent, this is a textbook imperial feminism (we might even, out of the corner of our eye, identify a latent homonationalism: after all, the only community with open female fighters is ruled by a gay king). First, Daenerys teaches the remaining Dothraki principles of gratitude and honour (they initially wish to steal from their hosts), and then jokes with Jorah Mormont that they are essentially good at killing and theft. Then, once they have left the scene, an analogous dark mass takes their place. The Unsullied too, combine murderous talents with a certain deferential nature. Although they ‘choose’ the freedom Daenerys offers, their willingness to die for her is not that far from their compulsion to sacrifice under past masters. As she herself puts it on the cusp of liberating a people, some “learn to love their chains”. What, we wonder, would happen if they were not appropriately thankful?

The visual rhetoric of this is striking throughout, and not complicated. Whether with the Dothraki, or Mirri Maz Duur, or the Unsullied, or the peoples of Yunkai, dark-skinned peoples are liberated, educated, made human and whole by Daenerys’ grace. They are usually martial races, raised up on the civilisational ladder but also kept useful as killers by white tutelage. In this sense, they are more degraded than even the peasants of Westeros: where the latter can at least articulate their resentment of the aristocratic order, Daenerys’ wards muster little in the way of speech. In the final, rousing scene (and is there really any other way to read except as a celebration?) they raise Khaleesi up as saviour, chanting ‘mother’ over and over with childish relief. A subjectivity of enslavement and gratitude.[3]

Peasant Uprising GOT

Some years ago, Jeffrey Sconce wrote of the Game of Regression:

Medievalesque fantasy is especially sad when it is framed as some type of compensatory escape from the problems and confusions of modern life.  Ah, the middle ages, when men were men, women were women, and the Gilles de Rais could sodomize and murder over 400 children with complete impunity…How sad that “fantasy” – a protean and theoretically limitless domain – should be so rigidly codified around such a ridiculously childish set of conventions: kings, queens, knights, jousts, quests, faithful hounds, noble steeds, etc.  It’s as if “comedy” could never advance beyond variations on the banana-peel gag.

That still holds. There is critical possibility in this world yet, and everything may shift (I’m holding out for the benevolent reign and quick abdication of King Tyrion and Queen Arya, followed by a socio-economic transition to full communism, with dragons for all as a transitional demand). George R. R. Martin is clearly a player of the long time, although the self-conscious aping of Tolkien, right down to his name, is not an encouraging sign. The question, as ever, is what our desires for this kind of fantastical world disclose, and what other possibilities they foreclose in the process.


[1] I neglect here Margaery, Shae, Melisandre, Osha, and Meera the Arya-substitute, amongst others. A full accounting would doubtless have to take notice of these recessive figures, but they seem less central to the plot, and less potentially usurping of standard masculinity/femininity ideas to deal with at length. The Red Woman is potentially the most powerful female figure apart from Daenerys, but conforms much more closely to the role of the manipulative and over-sexed witch.

[2] Having not read the books like a proper fanboy, a statement like this might well come back to bite me on the ass, but my sense is that bastard Kings is about as radical as it will get.

[3]  The only redeeming possibility is that she is not meant to stand in for Westeros whiteness, but for the more otherworldly force of dragons: a sorceress of sorts who, thanks to her magic blood, can do stuff beyond the ken of mere mortals.

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6 thoughts on “Gender Trouble, Racial Salvation and the Tragedy of Political Community in ‘Game Of Thrones’ (2012-2013)

  1. Lots to agree with, especially the para on lordship and rank in the GoT series. Daeneyris as a white feminist imperialist – certainly, but wait to see where this plot goes. On the Westerosi Seven Pointed Star religion, there is nothing so far in the TV series to suggest that the religion is anything more than the ideology of a feudal, patriarchal society. Contrast with the religion of R’hllor the red god, whose followers seem to wield mystical powers and which thus might be ‘real’ (the actual doctrine is rather vague, but seems ruthless yet egalitarian). Melisandre and Brien are both well cast, but the script lets them down – M for the reasons you give and B by turning her into a bit of a muttonhead (there’s some hope for future seasons though).

    But I disagree with the thrust of what you are saying when you write: ‘there can be no gay marriage in alternative universes: only shape-shifters and dragons and green fire and black magic and wargs and vengeful wraiths’. No, there can’t: standard fantasy offers a putatively realistic setting based on a period in history, onto which totally fantastic paraphernalia are layered. Standard fantasy is the opposite of speculative fiction, which feature social arrangements very different from those which have actually existed, the existence of which is explained in part through technological artifacts/events that are realistic or at least rationalised (Brave New World, Handmaid’s Tale etc). Now a lot of standard fantasy is bad, presenting a romanticised caricature of medieval Europe full of noble knights, jolly lords and grateful peasants (Charlie Stross has criticised steampunk along similar lines). But part of why GoT has been a success is itslevel of verisimilitude and honesty about the realities of a feudal/dynastic society.

    Maintaining that verisimilitude rules out gay marriage, but it demands that gay people are shown to exist within the Seven Kingdoms. The danger is buying a society’s ideology in the process of depicting it, and here GoT is pretty good if not perfect. There are obviously big limitations intrinsic to the conventional fantasy genre, but they come with the territory. Speculative and science-fiction are better vehicles for exploring alternative social arrangements.

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    • I concede that this is the fantasy norm, but I deny that it is intrinsic to the definition of ‘fantasy’ itself. As Michael Moorcock argued in ‘Epic Pooh’, this is but one form, and a form that became hegemonic in the wake of Tolkien. I don’t think your view of fantasy fits the work of, say, Moorcock himself or someone like Ursula K. Le Guin, even though they do the fantastic in all the other relevant ways. Otherwise we just end up with a definition that the fantastic is reactionary/historical and sci-fi is radical/progressive, which is often true in practice but won’t quite wash I don’t think.

      Moreover, I don’t quite accept the ‘verisimilitude of feudalism’ thesis. Most fantasy, of course, has a feudal-ish feel, but it seems that it usually means ale and knights and blacksmiths, rather than any kind of plot connection to the relevant social relations. The distinction between dragons as paraphernalia, but institutionalised homophobia as essential to the realism of the thing, doesn’t work for me for that reason. A show that had wizards and peasants and corsets but with communities ruled be meritocratic collectives of gay lovers would still be ‘fantasy’ and wouldn’t, I don’t think, be mistaken for ‘sci-fi’ by the median viewer. It may disturb them, and unsettle their expectations, but the genre motifs woudn’t be in doubt.

      In any case, it gives the lie to the ‘critique’ function of such narratives, since there aren’t any actual defenders of feudalism left to disprove (not even craven monarchists). No, it still seems to me that some kind of libidinal identification is what’s going on, some enjoyment of the regressive that wouldn’t be possible if the same characters and plot were set in the mid-1990s.

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      • Thanks for the response. Here’s some more thoughts if you are interested:

        Moorcock ranges from pretty standard (although subversive in tone) pulp fantasy to New Wave experimental writings. At some point on that spectrum his writings are pretty clearly no longer fantasy as such. The settings in his pulp fantasy stuff are pretty standard pseudo-medieval (or pseudo-antique) set-ups, despite the very different ideological slant to Heinlein (Elric was envisaged as an anti-Conan) and Tolkein that he takes.

        In most fantasy dragons, wizards etc. are pretty much paraphernalia sprinkled on top of a pseudo-medieval social world. It’s pretty rare that magic geegaws actually affect the social structure of fantasy settings (as they obviously actually would), they just provide macguffins and special effects. I grant that people often categorise narratives by certain signifiers, rayguns=scifi and magic swords=fantasy. But that’s not all there is to it. Star Wars is clearly fantasy despite scifi trappings (complete with a knightly religious order and a pseudo-Roman political set-up). I think my working definition of fantasy as supposedly realistic historically-inspired setting plus magic sprinkled on top holds up fairly well. Once the social setting is primarily the work of the imagination I think we’re heading off to other genres (speculative/science fiction if it is rationalised, slipstream if not).

        Le Guin’s Earthsea series (haven’t read her other fantasy) is a cut above most fantasy because magic in those books possesses a unique sort of verisimilitude. Le Guin obviously has a keen sense of how actual human societies have understood magic.

        The reason most fantasy is pretty lame is because it rarely makes much internal sense and the medieval social world it presents is usually sanitised and romanticised. Fantasy is ideological in that it buys into nonsense elite narratives from the actual medieval era (knights errant etc. ). But fantasy settings provide good canvasses for big special effects, exciting adventures and power fantasies without moral complications – so the genre stays popular in film, book, comic, rpg, computer games etc.

        When fantasy is acting as a vehicle for escapism verisimilitude doesn’t really matter, and I agree it’s pure entitled whining to start complaining about gay monarchs or [a href=”http://fuckyeahscifiwomenofcolour.tumblr.com/post/37413846476/author-scott-lynch-responds-to-a-critic-of-the”]black female pirates[/a] in a genre full of chainmail bikinis. But I think GoT is aiming at something a bit different, something that of necessity ties it (a little bit) more closely to historical reality. I may be attaching a bit too much importance to genre boundaries in all of this though.

        I don’t think GoT is really a critique of actual feudalism, but it portrays the medieval era with a fair degree of honesty – which counts for quite a lot I think (but maybe all of this is special pleading). I guess it could be considered a critique of standard genre fantasy, Sansa’s plot line involves the systematic destruction of her romantic ideas of chivalry. But yes it still does play on the romance of fluttering house standards and brave knights even as it displays a level of mercilessness about showing us what underpins such a system.

        True, if GoT were set in the 1990s it would have to be set in Mogadishu or Myanmar or somewhere, which I agree wouldn’t have the same appeal. Knights and castles increase the distance from the backstabbings, battles and brutalisations. But then again everyone loves The Wire…

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  2. Guns, Germs and Steel. And Dragons.

    Basically, blame geography for the absence of technological and subsequent social revolution in Westeros and it starts making sense.

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