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.