Flashback: it’s April 20 and the season six premier of Game of Thrones is just a few days away. For the past month, I’ve been very aware of this, not because I’m an avid follower of the HBO show, but because my students are constantly reminding me that soon, one of their favorite series will be returning to television. I’ve been walking into class on a regular basis to greetings such as “Only three more weeks!” and “did you watch the newest teaser trailer?” and “I don’t think Jon Snow is dead.” It’s rather delightful, actually. I love seeing them excited about tv because it’s something I can use to connect with them: not only do I feel like they care enough to talk to me casually about their interests outside of class, but as a tv show, Game of Thrones is also a fictional narrative – and I teach classes about how to analyze fictional narratives.
Flashforward: I am also keenly aware of the controversy surrounding the show and the backlash against David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ seemingly-antifeminist agenda. A recent string of Game of Thrones cast interviews defending the showrunners’ writing decisions have left a bad taste in a lot of fans’ mouths – and now, all the cool kids are beating up on the program while the actors and writers continue to rake in the Emmys. And that’s not even the worst part – this year has seen a slew of “shocking” and “controversial” plot twists in various other television shows that critics blame more or less on the success of Game of Thrones. In 2016, we’ve seen the sudden deaths of a shocking number of female, POC, and LGBT+ characters, resurrecting tired and hurtful tropes such as Fridging and Bury Your Gays on popular series such as The 100, Sleepy Hollow, Arrow, The Walking Dead, The Vampire Diaries, The Magicians, Jane the Virgin, Empire, Vikings, and more. I’m not sure all the blame can be laid at Game of Thrones’ metaphorical feet. After all, Game of Thrones didn’t make these shows kill off their characters. The blame is solely with those writers who actively make those decisions in the attempts to garner a modicum of esteem that HBO’s program enjoys. But who is to blame or a recap of the damage of these trends are not what this post is about. Other articles and blog posts have done a much better job at analyzing these themes and tropes. Instead, this is a post about how Game of Thrones and shows “inspired” by the shocking deaths of female, POC, and LGBT+ characters have affected the way students have approached fiction and literature in my classroom – particularly, in how they approach female characters. It’s going to be more pedagogical than my usual posts, so here’s your warning for discussions of teaching and analysis as it happens in a college classroom.
In this post, I’ll demonstrate the way in which Game of Thrones-esque media has impacted the interpretation of women in literature from the actual Middle Ages and in fantasy (at least, from what I’ve seen in my classroom). Next, I’ll move on to showing how these misconceptions of the past create a sort of feedback loop – the excuse that “that’s just how things were for women back then” influences the way shows and movies are made, which in turn leads people to believe that the past was riddled with pillaging, rape, and armies of straight white men. Last, I’ll put forward my ideas for how to break from this cycle and reignite interest in history and literature in ways that engage with pop culture while also rejecting its tendency for misogyny.
Warnings for discussion of nudity, sexuality, assault, and rape below.
As both a teacher and aspiring scholar of medieval literature and culture, Game of Thrones has been somewhat of a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, being a medievalist and an instructor in a Game of Thrones era has made my job easier. Students have come to my class more enthusiastic than I would have expected to read texts such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (texts, notably, that have elicited eye-rolls and complaints of “being too dry”). At a bare surface level, Game of Thrones has given them a reference point. I’ve used Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark to explain the concept of the Anglo-Saxon peaceweaver (a woman given in marriage to cement alliances between opposing groups) and more than once, I’ve likened Lanval to characters like Jon Snow, Loras Tyrell, and Ned Stark – “flowers of chivalry and virtue,” if you will. Daenerys’ dragons have also made my students’ acceptance of fantastical elements in medieval literature easier, and a number of them have smartly written papers on how the fantastic and the supernatural work as plot devices or reflections of a particular society’s values. This effect has also spread to works of literature outside of the medieval era: I’ve routinely taught works such as Jane Eyre and The Call of Cthulhu (weird combination, I know) that many of my students approach with a sense of appreciation because the authors use and manipulate elements of the fantastic. Even if the correspondence between Game of Thrones and a particular work isn’t one-to-one, it’s close enough where I can use something familiar to explain something foreign. For many of them, books written before 1950 are archaic and strange, and they need a lot of help from me to make sense of unfamiliar diction and syntax as well as cultural references that have been lost with time. Game of Thrones does a lot of work bridging this gap between past and present, and students can come to my class feeling like they know something about the Middle Ages or about history, despite any glowering inaccuracies in the show.
But not all of my teaching experiences have been as rosy as the picture I just painted. Some unexpected and deeply troubling trends have also made appearances in my classrooms that I’ve spent semesters trying to quell – and the vast majority of these instances have been about women in fiction and fantasy. In the first few weeks of my course, I’ve routinely taught medieval texts such as Beowulf and “Lanval” by Marie de France. One of my favorite things to analyze in these texts is the role of women: in Beowulf, Queen Wealhtheow performs a ritualistic welcoming action by pouring drinks for all the soldiers while the fairy lady in “Lanval” is described as the most beautiful in the world. In both tales, these women claim a sort of power for themselves. By pouring drinks, Wealhtheow cements alliances both between the soldiers and to her, the monarch, while the fairy lady uses her beauty as a tool to save her lover, Lanval, from almost certain death after he’s been accused of slandering Queen Guinevere. My point in teaching these two texts is to show students how women in the middle ages could still be active agents in claiming power for themselves, despite the patriarchal society around them.
Where Game of Thrones has been harmful is when self-professed fans try to “fill in gaps” with knowledge they’ve garnered from the show. Perhaps the best way to explain is to paraphrase an exchange I had with a student concerning “Lanval” and the fairy lady’s appearance. In discussing the role of female beauty in the text, I pointed out how the fairy woman uses her looks to influence the proceedings of the court in her favor. Not only does she ride into the castle with a number of attendants and pomp, but she also arrives showing off her extensive wealth while wearing a very revealing dress. One of my students immediately volunteered the opinion that “she must have been sleeping with all the other knights.” Puzzled, I asked how that thought may be supported by the text. The student replied, “well, she’s almost naked and she’s using her looks to get power.” As an instructor, I welcome and encourage differing points of view on any given text, but something didn’t quite sit right with me about this. I pointed out to the student that the text itself presents the fairy woman as a faithful lover: she tells Lanval directly that she has chosen him to be with above any other knight in the kingdom. Another student, also a Game of Thrones fan, quickly retorted with “she’s probably lying.”
It may be unfair of me to blame this exchange on Game of Thrones directly. Game of Thrones isn’t responsible for making my students interpret a medieval text in a way that ignores some evidence and keeps others. It’s my job as an instructor to correct that. What does bother me, however, is how Game of Thrones has presented women and how that attitude has bled into mainstream culture. My students’ exchange above testifies to a deeply-held presumption that women in medieval literature are the same as the women in the popular fantasy series: all of them are out for power (which is bad – a lady can’t be too power-hungry), but they’re also powerless by nature of living in a patriarchal society (which is also bad – a lady has to always be a “strong woman” to be likable or legitimate). To be a likable female character in “historical fantasy,” a woman must exist in a patriarchal world (“historical accuracy!”) but must also break out of her powerless state – but only in “acceptable” ways.
The powerless-power hungry paradox then looks like this: femininity and power aren’t compatible, and women can only defy a patriarchy by denying their gender and sexuality. For my students, it seems that the powerful woman is the de-gendered woman, and any display of feminine traits or sexuality throws a female character back into a state of powerlessness because of the patriarchy (which they can then fault them for) but also into powerfulness by having an edge over men (a weapon of sorts that men don’t have over women). After all, the fairy woman in “Lanval” can’t possibly be powerful because she’s supposed to be an object to look at (a passive action that puts men in power), she doesn’t don armor and charge into the court, like a knight would (an active one). The same is true in Game of Thrones: women who embrace traditionally masculine traits such as fighting skills or martial prowess (Arya, Brienne, Daenerys) are de-gendered (in some respects) and thus earn power by denying men the power that comes with being male – if the de-gendered female becomes masculine, they’re all the same gender (metaphorically) and thus all equal. But when women thirst for power and use the body/sexuality to get what they want, they’re still acting in ways that underscore the gender hierarchy. They use sexuality to “attack” a particularly (straight) male weakness, thus highlighting the inequality of the sexes in ways that paradoxically shows women to be powerful yet powerless. They’re powerless in the sense that they’re in a patriarchy, but powerful in the sense that they have a weapon (sexual allure) men don’t (at least, traditionally). Cue straight male tears. It’s not fair. Better turn that weapon back on the woman and use it to shame her. Cersei is seen as too ambitious and too feminine (despite her attempts to kill everyone, she’s still a mother and a sexual creature that commits incest) and is eventually paraded around naked through the city in shame – her feminine body puts her back in her place. Students carry this idea over to “Lanval,” where the fairy lady’s body is put on display in court (where a legal trial is happening) in order to testify to the truth of Lanval’s claims – but as we’ve seen with Cersei, the feminine body is a punishment, a spectacle. It’s not a display of power, it’s a display of shame. Powerlessness strikes again.
This is the attitude that some of my students bring to my classroom. It’s not just a problem in getting the Middle Ages wrong – I can deal with that and I expect it to be the case with most people, really. The real problem has been teaching my students to see women as complex, multi-faceted people in fiction and to make them see femininity not as a synonym for “bad.” It’s not all Game of Thrones’ fault – sexism, internalized misogyny, etc. have been around long before HBO even existed. But in our collective failure to resist movies, books, tv, and other media that engage with all those things, we only ensure that more of the are made. For me, the stake is not just about whether or not students come to my class appreciating the Middle Ages or medieval literature. It’s not about forcing them to enjoy reading or history or writing papers about heroic qualities in Beowulf. Rather, it’s about training my students to be ethical consumers of media and fiction. If all they see are popular shows whose creators think it’s ok to treat their female characters with such disrespect, of course it’s going to look like the “norm.” This is how women in fiction are. But it doesn’t have to be – in order to be ethical consumers of media, it’s our job to call out these sexist tropes, crying “that’s not right – that’s not what we as a culture value.” It’s our job to demand better entertainment as much as it is our job to use media to make us more receptive to different cultures and experiences. After all, it’s only a short leap before those ideas make their way into everyday life. Sure, people won’t all suddenly turn into active sexists, but they don’t need to. They only need to be complicit or indifferent about a society which gives Emmy awards to shows that glorify rape and tell their viewers that a woman in power is one to be despised. And this isn’t just limited to women – what happens when all the POC and LGBT+ characters die?
But I must give credit to the majority of media consumers. There are many, many young people who are unhappy with the direction of Game of Thrones and the popular shows I listed above. They have been very vocal about their displeasure, and articles upon articles have been written about how these “shocking twists” are unacceptable and harmful. These voices are important and are just as powerful (if not, more powerful) than my own instruction in a formal classroom.
But how can we break from this cycle in a way that respects people’s admiration for the show? It’s not realistic to call for a complete boycott – as much as media is reliant on numbers and ratings and money – and I don’t think there’s value in just screaming about how sexist the show is while threatening to label people as misogynists if they watch it. My concern is less “how do we make the show/media better?” and more “how do we make people better?” so they can make their own choices about what to support and what to watch and how to watch it.
I’m a big supporter of the idea that you can love a problematic piece of media. You can criticize your favorite things and point out their faults while still engaging with them. Anyone who says a piece of media must be all or nothing erases the fact that every media production is created by people – and people are inherently messy and problematic on their own. I bear no ill-will towards anyone who likes Game of Thrones – unless, of course, they use the show to support misogyny and racism in other fiction and even in our view of “real life.” So, I think the first step is to shout this message about productive criticism loud and clear. CRITICIZE YOUR FAVES. CRITICISM SHOWS THAT YOU WANT THE BEST FOR YOUR FAVES. CRITICISM SHOWS YOU CARE. The mindset that criticism always means tearing something down is a false one. Healthy criticism will point out the flaws of a work with the hope that it will generate discussion and, hopefully, generate more positive, inclusive pieces of fiction.
The next step is to promote curiosity rather than attack people for “getting the Middle Ages wrong.” You like Game of Thrones because it has dragons? What was the lore on dragons in the Middle Ages? You like Daenerys because she’s a badass warrior queen? What other warrior queens were running around in the Middle Ages? If you’re an instructor, assign those questions as research paper prompts. If you’re not in school, ask them yourself and see what wonders the internet holds. Promoting questions that encourage research and discovery rather than spouting vitriol, I think, does wonders for students, young or old, in school or already graduated. By comparing what is fiction with what is historical fact, students can see the difference for themselves and also determine what things are generated by misconceptions and modern ideas of the Middle Ages. Hopefully, that interest will lead to further explorations into the ways fiction is generated.
With regards to women, specifically, another great approach is to challenge the origins of misogynist thought. You think Cersei is a horrible person who sleeps her way to the top? Why is her wanting power bad (especially after all she’s been through)? You think rape is ok in these shows because “that’s just how things were back then?” How do you know that? Where did you learn it? Chances are, it was from a movie, and movies aren’t documentaries.
Discussion and education, it seems, are the ways to go. It’s that simple, and I’m not revolutionary in suggesting it. But I still think it needs to be said, since as an instructor, I’m in a unique position to comment on how to talk about pop culture and media, especially with regards to people not typing furiously and self-righteously on Reddit. I can see these unconscious biases towards women in fiction play out in ways that students’ self-volunteered opinions can’t really communicate. By promoting curiosity and resisting taking “historical accuracy” for granted, people can become more ethical consumers of media as a whole and be more empowered in their own decision-making processes. With more conversations, more learning, and more discussions, we create more communities and connect with people, whereas screaming about the terribleness of a thing only puts distance between individuals and promotes conflict. I’d much rather have the former. After all, that’s what entertainment is all about, right? Getting together with people to enjoy the things you love?