Which is Worse: Game of Thrones or the Culture that Watches It?

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It is rare for me to comment at length on contemporary American pop-culture here at the Stage, where I usually reserve myself to discussions of cultural trends found deep in the past or far from American shores. But occasionally I will read a piece exciting or infuriating enough to drag me out of my usual silence. Yesterday Adam Elkus (blogger at Rethinking Security and Zero Derp Thirty, columnist at Slate and War on the Rocks) published one of these essays. It was given the link-baity title, “Why Game of Thrones is Making Us Stupid.” An excerpt will give you sense of its main arguments:

Game of Thrones makes people stupid. It is not a guilty pleasure akin to Jackass or The Bachelor, where viewers understand that the show has no substantive content and merely consists of dick jokes or gawking at the sham of 20-30 women claiming to have a “connection” with a single, douchey playboy. It is a form of power pornography in which viewers watch human beings degrade, hurt, betray, abuse, and destroy each other and then compulsively compete to see how can the most clever gif or IMGUR image out of such depravity. They derive entertainment and satisfaction out of the show’s spectacle of power, domination, and cruelty and then turn such depraved fictional acts in a kind of cultural language and cultural shorthand that they communicate to each other with and even use to describe real-world horrors and cruelties such as the current wars in the Middle East. [1]

Readers who interact with me on other forums, comment threads, or e-mail groups where discussion of American pop culture are par for course are aware of how much I despise Game of Thrones, the books that inspired it, and the adulatory sub-culture that has sprouted up around it. It should not be surprising to find that I agree wholeheartedly with the tenor of all of Mr. Elkus’s arguments, and the substance of most of them. Elkus’s piece is long and far-ranging, and I recommend you read all of it. His thoughts on Game of Throne‘s invasion of American political rhetoric and culture–especially our inability to discuss atrocities that are occurring in the real world without dumbing them down to a series of Game of Thrones memes–is particularly on point.

There is one place where I disagree with Elkus. He describes the appeal of Game of Thrones in the following terms:

Game of Thrones is part of a genre of television that I roughly dub “Machiavellian porn.” We watch it not because we really find the acts so disturbing and despicable but because we want to see powerful men and a few select women outsmart, humiliate, hurt, and impose their will on others. Hence the rape scenes of Game of Thrones are a feature, not a bug. We watch men spend hours cruelly imposing their will and humiliating other men, and then they do so to women in another setting. And this is not exclusive to Game of Thrones by any means. Frank Underwood, for example, humiliates, hurts, and mistreats both his mistress and many of his political allies. Like competence porn, Game of Thrones no doubt fills some deep, sublimated need. Why everyone from the Reddit bro set to Oberlin Critical Studies majors delight in such a spectacle is beyond me, but I don’t imagine it is too different from how our supposedly uncivilized ancestors enjoyed bear-baiting, public executions, gladiator fights, and other similar spectacles. [2]

I am afraid this is altogether too charitable. There probably is some appeal in watching the clever and strong dominate other schemers who thought they were the clever and strong. Displays of mastery impress us. But there is much more to it than this–in writing the Song of Ice and Fire series upon which Game of Thrones was based, George R.R. Martin relies on a regular narrative pattern designed to produce a specific emotional reaction from his readers. It works like this: do everything possible to get readers emotionally invested in a character, and then abuse this character as graphically as possible. [3]

It is hard to describe viewers’ attraction to this pattern as anything but voyeuristic. I use the word a bit loosely here–Game of Throne’s promiscuity is one of its hooks, of course, but that is only part of the ‘voyeuristic’ impulse that drives the show. The allure of Game of Thrones is the allure of seeing the worst of humanity, viscerally depicted, without leaving the comfort of your living room. The extreme levels of violence, torture, and sex, or the constant betrayals and ‘plot twist’ deaths present in the story-line do not have any other motive than astonishment and emotional shock. Much like the Saw films, Game of Thrones allows the viewer to revel in depravity from afar. Game of Thrones is not as gratuitous as Saw and the other Gorno flicks, but its perversion cuts deeper because the viewer has a stronger emotional connection with the characters. This emotional manipulation is (from Martin’s perspective) a brilliant device to keep readers turning pages and one of the undeniable draws of his series. Once it is established that any character is fair game for an unexpected rape, torture session, or grotesque death, the reader is compelled to keep reading to see if  his or her favorite character is not next on the chopping block.

The TV series follows the same narrative strategy as Martin’s Ice and Fire novels, save that  atrocities are depicted more graphically and plot elements are regularly changed to become even more shocking or depraved than what is found in the original source material. (One imagines the writing team’s conversations: “Lets see, Martin wrote about incestuous sex next to a dead body after a funeral in a church, huh? We need to make that more edgy. Hmmm…. I know, lets make it incestuous rape next to a dead body after a funeral in a church!)

Fans of the show do not react well when offered this explanation of Game of Throne‘s popularity. No one likes being called a voyeur, especially a voyeur of human depravity. Apologists are quick to arise, and their defense almost always revolves around one of two claims. The first is that Game of Thrones simply presents world as it “really” is, and it is this “realism” that both justifies the show’s content and explains its popular appeal. Those who contrast the series with the tamer fantasy fiction of yore (especially Lord of the Rings) take this approach explicitly; the endless stream of “how Game of Thrones explains real world event X” articles are an implicit defense of the same point. The second defense apologists offer is that the viewers enjoy the series because its characters are complex, multi-layered, and compelling, and it is these elements of the story that keep viewership numbers high. Both lines of argument are really quite disturbing–far more disturbing than the claim that people enjoy Game of Thrones simply because it appeals to the baser demons of their nature–and offers a sad window into the worldview of America’s chattering class.

The simplest response to claims that Game of Thrones presents an accurate picture of human society is to point out that this is false. As Sady Doyle noted a few years back, Game of Thrones presents a highly selective view of the Medieval past:

Yes, it’s true; in Ye Olde Medieval Europe, female tweens were oft wed to the grown-ups. A Song of Ice and Fire is known for being “gritty” and “authentic,” so really, aren’t I just objecting to the realism? Reader, here are the things that George R. R. Martin changed about Ye Olde Medieval Europe, when he set out to write A Song of Ice and Fire: Religion. Geography. History. Politics. Zombies. Werewolves. Dragons. At one point, when asked why his characters were taller, healthier, and longer-lived than actual Medieval people, George R. R. Martin explained that human genetics and biology do not work the same way in Westeros as they do in the real world. So George R. R. Martin considered that he could change all of that while maintaining “authenticity.” Here’s what he left in, however: Institutionalized pedophilia. [4]

Doyle understates the point. Conspicuously missing from Game of Thrones’s many royal deaths are the kind that littered the true middle ages. Few nobles of Westeros are killed by influenza, alcohol poisoning, or being thrown from their horse. Every one of Martin’s unmarried female characters is raped (or barely escapes it), but if killing and pain must be portrayed, it would be just as realistic to have one of these heroines married off in peaceful circumstances, only to die nine months later as they gave birth. But death by something as mundane as fever or childbirth has no place in the world of Game of Thrones. Both the novels and the TV series are committed to a distorted depiction of a very small sliver of pre-modern life.

This is not to downplay the role of violence or the scale of atrocity of human history. Apologists are quick to point out that the Iliad or Biblical books like Numbers and Joshua depict events just as barbarous, and no one (outside of a few crazies at places like Columbia) objects to those.  But the comparison really works to Game of Throne’s discredit. Barbarous and retrograde as they may be, the Iliad and the Pentateuch present a wider array of emotions and human motivations than can be found in all of the Song of Ice and Fire books combined. This is why they are still read all of these millenia later. They capture a enough of the human condition to resonate across centuries. This is an achievement Martin’s shallow world of vice-driven characters could never hope to attain.

This is an important point worth emphasizing. This is a blog about history, politics, and strategy. My field of expertise is East Asian history–but more specifically, the role that war and empire has played in its history. Examining the atrocities and tragedies of the past is what I do. In this line of research it is easy to forget the real cost of wars and turmoil, to reduce suffering to statistics, battle diagrams, and theoretical abstractions. I fight this temptation by reading memoirs. My rule is that I read one at least once every other month. I find a personal account of someone who lived through the worst of what human beings have done to each other so that I do not forget what abstractions in the mind of strategists become in the world of flesh and smoke. I’ve read dozens of them. They are accounts of soldiers, diplomats, refugees, and survivors. They do not read anything like Game of Thrones. There are powerful–even beautiful–novels like Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan that depict events far more horrifying than anything that has happened in Westeros, yet somehow muster an emotional range that exceeds what Game of Thrones can offer. There is a realness to these books that Game of Thrones cannot hold a candle to–and when you meet those who write these kind of books you realize how insulting such a comparison is.

Image Credit: Good Reads

 Some of these books are bleak. Others are much less so. Many are edifying. A few are funny. But none were meant to be entertaining. One cannot write honestly–that is, realistically–about these things with the aim of entertainment. Any depiction of torture, death, and rape designed to entertain is one far removed from reality.

This is not a problem unique to Game of Thrones. It is a flaw that pervades fantasy as a genre, and most of the other big authors writing today are guilty of it. [5] But the problem is worse for Game of Thrones because of the intensity with which its chosen horrors are depicted. This is what sets Game of Thrones apart from the Iliad or the Bible. Game of Thrones is gratuitous in a way Homer never could be. It is gratuitous in a way accounts of real world horrors never are. And yet we acclaim its authenticity and realism! A comparison with Tolkien here is actually quite instructive. Tolkien did experience barbarity and inhumanity personally. He knew humanity at its worst and most wretched, and he wrote Lord of the Rings in the midst of an even more ruthless conflict. He and his generation knew what words like ‘cruelty’ meant in a way that George R.R. Martin and his audience never could.

This is the most disturbing part of the ‘realism’ refrain. The viewers of Game of Thrones are mostly white, educated, and upper class. Of all of the demographics in America, those who watch Game of Thrones lead the lives which are furthest removed from the barbarity depicted in the show. Game of Thrones does not correspond to any ‘reality’ upper-class Americans have ever experienced. There is nothing in their experience which should lead them to believe that this is how human beings actually deal with each other. Violence is at global lows, prosperity at a  global high. Yet somehow modern Americans, living at the height of the richest, most productive civilization in history, have succumbed to the idea that “real” can only be found in the gruesome, the lewd, and the heinous. 

This dark inclination extends far past Game of Thrones, infecting most pop-culture items pedaled to the “mass intelligent.” It applies with equal force to almost everything HBO and the other  high-end drama channels produce. AMC’s award winning Breaking Bad is a perfect example. More so than the Game of Thrones leads, Walter White is a character educated, upper-class Americans can relate to. Like them, he is smart, white, and comes from a rather tame background. But unlike them he is thrust down into a world of violence and perversity that is utterly unlike anything they have experienced–or indeed, would ever want to. But the desire to see that world up close remains, and Breaking Bad, just like Game of Thrones, allows its viewers to experience the intrigues and evils of the underworld without having to bear any of its consequences. It is depravity voyeurism wrapped up in a neat, high end package. 

This is what separates Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and their sad lot from the less intelligent gorno flicks like Saw, which are designed to elicit a very similar set of emotions from its viewers. The complexity of the plots, cleverness of the machinations and power ploys of the leads, and superb characterization by the actors allow viewers to claim that the real allure of the show are its compelling characters and the story-lines, not its gratuity or darkness.  This is silly. If the story and characters were strong enough to stand up on their own, then why is the rankness (or the nudity) necessary in the first place? The answer is that these things are necessary. The depravity of Game of Thrones is a large part of its appeal. It is what shocks viewers, keeps them returning in suspense, and fools them into thinking they have a realistic depiction of the world before them.

Why they think it is realistic is the great mystery. It is an answer I have not found. We’ve reached a point where a story will not be hailed as authentic, deep, and “real” if it is not also dark, gritty, and violent. Why is a world of grisly barbarity the only setting for moral drama modern audiences find acceptable? Apologists who defend the books on the strength of its compelling characters and gripping storyline need to answer this question before their claims of Martin’s literary brilliance can be taken seriously. The same question should be put to the loyal defenders of the more graphic and (frankly speaking) more perverted television version. It could be put to America’s clever chattering class as a whole:

 Why this thirst for a ‘reality’ that is alien to the values and experiences of the audience? In 21st America, why do so many seek their escape in the dark ages?  


[1] Adam Elkus, “Game of Thrones is Making Us Stupid,” Zero Derp Thirty (11 June 2015). 

[2] ibid.

[3] Much of what follows is taken from past comments I have written about the show in various forums, especially the comment thread of Razib Khan’s post, “Game of Thrones Gets Too Real?“, Unz Review (5 May 2014). This particular phrase is a slight reworking of something Peter Lee said in a twitter conversation on the same topic.

[4] Sady Doyle, “Enter Ye Myne Mystic World of Gayng-Raype: What the “R” Stands for in “George R.R. Martin,” Tiger Beatdown (26 August 2011).

[5] I remember reading Brian Sanderson’s uber-novel Way of Kings shortly after finishing a series of memoirs from the Vietnam War and scoffing at the way the protagonist Kaladin reacts to the torrent of death that surrounds him. Anyone who has read anything by a former soldier will instantly recognize how ridiculous the character’s response was to the events of the novel’s opening chapters.

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This resonates strongly with me (although not American, Australian). I mainly see this… view of the world… in historical fiction — where, more outrightly than in fantasy, it does make a claim to be historical. It is in fashion. Game of Thrones may be a extreme example, I don't know, I didn't pursue the books far. I read enough to know I loathe them.

I do not find the Iliad or books of the Old Testament barbaric and retrograde, because they are human, have a human width, I am quite game to call them humane. I see the Iliad spoken of as if it is a catalogue of horrors, whereas that is a perception of certain viewers — it is not. It is not. As I say, I have not read much of Martin but I know he is no Homer.

The disservice done to the past concerns me. Not so much because we are untrue to them, I suppose, who are dead and gone, as became we narrow down the human in our own minds.

Hey, virtual gladiator fights are better than real gladiator fights. We are going down the Roman path, but our entertainment at least is computer generated!

I'll concede on that one Spandrell. Better fake blood than real blood.

On the other hand, with a few deranged emperors excepted, very few people confused gladiator matches with reality outside the arena. Certainly "authentic" isn't the word Romans used to describe their spectacles!

That would be another interesting investigation: where did the hunt for authenticity come from in the first place? At what point did American culture start to feel like that was the mark of a good story? Keying in on when pop culture turned dark and equated grittiness with realness is a bit easier than finding the origin of 'real' itself.

That`s is why I dont watch television. It is just dumbed down content for the masses. Only the individual has intelligence; "mass intelligent" is a oxymoron.

I've never watched Game of Thrones. I'm trained ad a pathologist though I've never practiced forensics. I have zero interest in make believe gore. But I'm generally not a Sci Fi/fantasy person to begin with. Morgue are always to clean and ornamental in films and tv. The everyday Ness of the work is missing. Too fetishized.

Martin's problem is that he is not in charge of his own story. This became obvious halfway through the third book, at least to me.

Your post alluded to this when it asked why everyone was taller, healthier, and longer-lived (and were more able to carry children to term) than real-world humans were during the Middle Ages. Martin answered this question badly. A *real* answer would be that, during decades of summer (after a winter), people *would* be born and raised healthier… for a time.

But now winter is coming again.

I agree that disease is responsible for too low a percentage of deaths in that fictitious universe, but I disagree on deaths from childbirth. It seems positively rampant in Martin's world, whereas records from midwives indicate it wasn't especially common before doctors got involved and began causing fever before they learned to wash their hands.

I think that the people who watch it not necessarily believe it is reality, rather they need to believe it in order to escape the restriction on their lifes.
It is a bit like the fantasies of half starved medieval peasants craving for a world in which there is no shortage of food and where he can eat his belly full on every day of the week, rather than once a year with christmass.
Just like the peasantry, the white Americans are starved of sex and social standing in a society that is untightening all human bonds and drowns us in a sea of unfulfilling consumerism and sexual images.
So to make up their feelings as social rejects the audience, engages itself into a Hobbesian like world in which sex with beautifull women is plentifull, and where they can enforce their self worth through sadistic violence. (No hassle with dating anymore just rape or use your power to force women into having sex, Annoyed that someone doesn't respect you? Just stab him through his throat, no police or social conventions to stop you now). Total liberty to whatever you please

There is however this irony that none of these social rejects could even survive 2 seconds in such a world since they can't even manage to get of their couches or live without social media.

What annoys me most about game of thrones is that it is sold as historically realistic, but the world in which these people live can't be possibly real because it rejects the social contract, human altruism, every important aspect of social psychology and basic political laws.
For instance according to Thomas Hobbes in such a violent worrld no economy can exist, so how are we supposed to believe that allthese lords can pay for luxuries and armies if everyone is at war with everyone. And all the craftsmen, farmers and civil servants are killed in constant sadistic displays of psychopaths.

I revere your passion for Game of Thrones, and your ability to demonstrate that passion through your writing, however, I must disagree with you completely. As a survivor of sexual assault I am forced to skip almost every violent scene throughout the series, which according to your theory would lead me to not wish to watch the show at all. Personally, the ability of each characters bounce back from the horror that has been enacted unto them has kept me watching. The series is of course highly dramatized, but its ability to render the weakest characters strong, and the strongest characters dead sends a message, to me especially. None are free from the horrors of life, and not all horrors are unsurvivable. I am saddened by your inability to admit that some of the atrocities committed in Game of Thrones are real life problems, although almost all of the atrocities are dramatized (as per television) they are in some way a metaphor for real world issues. We do not live in a world where happy shows like The Waltons reflect the truth of our society. Our problems are not one dimensional and neither are we, the real world is not somewhere where our issues can be solved by the end of an episode and our mothers yell goodnight by bedtime. I in a way I can liken Game of Thrones to Star Trek in its ability to comment on real world issues with fictional characters. Game of Thrones (although set in what seems like medieval earth) IS NOT a reflection of our history, but rather our present and future.

Thank you for this post. I cannot agree more to your views! It is nice to know there are people out there who can see "real" past the bleak depiction in GOT. And, I was so alone with my feelings towards Breaking Bad.. but not anymore!

Hi …Great article! first of all I have to confess I am a GoT fan, nevertheless I really enjoyed read your article, thanks for that.
About your last reflection “Why they think it is realistic is the great mystery. It is an answer I have not found.”
My opinion is that even when the show is not realistic as you have brilliantly established – in fact up to reading your article I thought it as more “realistic” than Lord of the rings -, it’s still excelent fiction…(I dare to say I liked it as much as shakespeare’s)…and fictions are good when you forget it is and you tend to think as it'd be a reality…even a "fantastic reality" which is the GoT’s case. ….

I have to agree with the previous comment. There is a realism about Game of Thrones, but it is not a happy one. It is the realism of a world that hungers for the decades that produces the Lord of the Rings, where Nietzschean pessimism ruled our politics and was sucking Europe and Japan into war, and pleasant fantasy and optimism showed the way out. But now we have the 21st century, where pied pipers are selling us optimism and fantasies, but nobody really believes it, while our ordinary lives are full of little abuses that we simply have to bear. The darkness in GoT is perhaps a "realistic" projection of things we can't really explain well in our own lives, for fear of sounding misanthropic.

I hate GoT — tried to watch it and put it down after 5 minutes, and freely rant to all my friends about how LotR is better because it has poems and music — but I'd feel embarrassed to send this article to my friends because I feel we need to honestly grapple with the truth of GoT's popularity.

"George R.R. Martin relies on a regular narrative pattern designed to produce a specific emotional reaction from his readers. It works like this: do everything possible to get readers emotionally invested in a character, and then abuse this character as graphically as possible."

This pattern certainly exists, but it is not fair to say Game of Thrones "relies" on it in any exclusive or nearly-exclusive way. Daenerys, Jon Snow, Arya–they certainly suffer struggles and obstacles, but their arcs are upwards, to increasing growth and mastery of their circumstances. One watches Daenerys, not to see her tormented, but to see how she grows into herself and overcomes what she is confronted with.

But one particular example puts paid to the thesis that GRRM simply gets you to care about a character, then torments that character: the arc of Theon Greyjoy. Theon commits terrible crimes, and we come to hate him. If GRRM is baiting us into feeling something, it is "Theon deserves the worst punishment imaginable." And then GRRM *grants our wish*. We see what the worst punishment imaginable looks like. Up close, in great and lingering detail. And the implicit question is, "This is what you wanted. How do you feel about it now?"

This isn't tormenting a character we care about, for voyeuristic thrills. This is confronting us with a moral question, by making us confront our desire for (seemingly justified) cruelty, and the possible consequences of that desire.

I have to disagree.

I too was a Game of Thrones skeptic — I read about two thirds of the first book, but gave up as the storyline seemed too chaotic and nihilistic.

I was persuaded to give the series another chance by a friend who sold me on the virtues of the series, and by Stephen Attewell's excellent "Race for the Iron Throne" blog which dissects the various historical parallels of the characters, events and locations in Westeros.

I was inspired to finally watch the TV series during lockdown, and loved it. Sure, it's not high art, but it is a work of historical drama with a lot more to it than most pop culture. Overall I rate it B+.

The central brilliance of the series is how every character's individual story is integrated into the grand political chess-game that drives the narrative. Broadly, the series opens as an alternate version of the Tudor-era Wars of the Roses (with the honourable Starks facing the unscrupulous Lannisters), which then opens out into an elaborate five-way civil war, followed by a slow and grinding conflict between asymmetric centres of power.

There's a conventional military conflict (fought between the rival claimants for the throne), an elaborate political drama in the capital (where various other players try to seize power by more subtle means), and various side-conflicts that emerge as certain regions of Westeros make their bid for independence. Amidst the chaos, the characters aim to either advance their own power, pursue their own objectives, or simply survive in a disintegrating world.

While the conventional military-political chess match is underway, two larger (and more fantastical) developments threaten to overturn the entire chess board — the nonhuman white walkers marching from the north, and Daenarys' dragons in the east.

The story is pretty dark, but there's an overall sense that the arc of GRRM's universe bends towards justice, even if said arc is often extremely long. E.g., though the honourable Ned Stark is outplayed, betrayed, and executed, his legacy, in the long run, survives. The ruthless Tywin Lannister, who seizes power through a combination of competence and sheer willpower, builds a legacy that crumbles very quickly after his death — his children squabble and tear themselves apart, while Ned Stark's uphold their fathers code of honour.


I should also add that there are indeed plenty of "accidental" deaths, including a king who dies while hunting (he's drunk and is gored by a boar). As far as I can tell, the show doesn't really portray the medieval mindset very accurately — after all, it's hard for moderns to understand people who genuinely believed in religious cosmology as a fact of reality — but otherwise does avoid most of the fantasy tropes that put people off the genre.

The trouble with the series, as others have noted, is that in never quite delivers on its initial ambition, and the storyline begins to sprawl out during the later books/seasons. There are simply too many characters, pursuing too many things in too many disparate places for the overall grand narrative to hang together.

Still, it's a very enjoyable show and a ton of fun to dissect in detail.

Other positives include the portrayal of the various fictional cultures, and the clashes between them — there are differences in attitudes and value systems between the different regions of Westeros, and bigger differences between the Westerosi and non-Westerosi cultures, and these differences often tie into the various plot points or character dramas.

The other point in the series' favour is simply the fact that, after several decades of experience writing fiction, GRRM is adept at inventing nifty storylines and original characters. This might be his downfall — one common fan opinion is that he's simply fallen in love with building his world and inventing new personalities, to the point that the story has sprawled out too far to be brought to a satisfying conclusion.

In summary: GoT is not Gibbon or Shakespeare, but it's a fun story that gives you plenty to think about. It would probably be a good way to introduce various ideas from political or military history to high-schoolers or college freshman. Once again, I recommend Stephen Attewell's writings for more analyses of the overall storyline and the various political dynamics portrayed.

I think the real reason is this:
Growing up, for a while, adulthood almost felt like a status dunk on youth. They’d get turned away from x rated stuff which they were naturally curious about because jts “adult”. “Grown up” and “mature” were words reserved for them superior ones whether older youth or adults themselves who could happily indulge in all that exciting sexual context or violence context you as a 10 year old wanted to go poking your nose into

They fetishized this and so as adults, sought out the most adults only entertainment possible. Its a fight against that feeling of exclusion and being put down as they were kids.

That’s literally my view on it. Its just that and nothing more.