The Game of Thrones Effect: How the HBO Show Has Impacted My Students’ Approach to Life and Literature

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.

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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.

 

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Wonder Woman’s Bisexuality, Speech Acts, and Disclosing Queerness

In case you haven’t heard, Wonder Woman writer Greg Rucka confirmed in a recent interview that Diana Prince is, in fact, bisexual. Since then, there have been a number of blog posts and articles celebrating the confirmation, including support from comics writer Gail Simone, while also expressing the need for Diana’s sexuality to be more than just implicit. Donna Dickens for Hit Fix writes of the pushback from LGBT+ readers on Twitter, saying that “Words matter. Saying them out loud gives them weight.” Elle Collins writes for Comics Alliance, “If it’s not a big deal, then put it in the comic. If DC doesn’t care if she’s queer, then put it in the comic. Whether you want Wonder Woman to be queer because it makes her a better hero (as Rucka said in his interview), or because it makes sense due to her origins, or because we need more queer heroes and she’d be the most high-profile one ever, the way to let Wonder Woman be queer is to put it in the comic, not to state it in an interview.”

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These writers (among others) have done a brilliant job pointing out the importance of Wonder Woman’s sexuality and its significance for bisexual visibility. I’m not going to repeat those arguments here, only say that I 100% agree with them. My task is instead to think about the implications of saying the word “bisexual” or “queer” in the comic, mainly by using a bit of speech act theory (sorry, guys) and a bit of queer theory/film studies. Next, I’ll interrogate the need for these declarative statements in order to legitimize LGBT+ identity in texts, especially for straight audiences. Last, I’ll ramble. In short, this post less interested in the symbolic significance of saying “Wonder Woman is bisexual” in the comics and more considered with how words create meaning and realities.

 

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Possessed Women in Comics

I’d be a liar if I said I don’t enjoy a good supernatural story in which one of the main characters becomes possessed by a demonic entity. Back when I watched Supernatural, the most exciting moments for me were when the heroes had to make a decision to either save the human vessel or destroy it along with the demon inside, a decision that muddled the seemingly clear-cut lines of morality and the value of human life. These lines became muddied again with the loss of the self that occurred when angels entered the mix in season four – the battle between heaven and hell forced us to consider if it is “right” to give up one’s body to a potentially murderous, morally grey entity if it’s in the pursuit of “good” and the security of the human race. These questions are exciting to me because there’s no right answer, and they continue to pop up in a number of other forms, not just Christian-themed mythological storylines: the Nogitsune’s possession of Stiles’ body in season three of Teen Wolf, the Phoenix Force in various X-Men adaptations, the Spectre that inhabits Jim Corrigan’s body in the DC universe (though I guess that’s also “Christian”), June Moone in the recent Suicide Squadfilm. All of these characters present the potential for complex moral dilemmas while the beings inside them heighten the horror in a number of different ways: not only do the entities put our natural, human world in touch with the mystic or cosmic otherworld, but they also deprive humans of the one thing they can count of to have control over – their bodies. These characters are faced with a kind of terrifying Lovecraftian reality that the universe is home to not just mortal human beings, but also they face the threat of being dominated in a way that the human cannot always reasonably or easily protect itself from.

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Of course, possession is not without its perks. Possessed characters often get to enjoy a number of different superpowers, from telekinesis to teleportation to immortality; but even with these abilities, the humans often long to get back to their original state. The resulting angst and the tension between the conscience of the human vessel and the goals of the entity allow for writers to build towards “larger” themes in the work – questions of morality, the human condition, the self, etc.

It wasn’t until I read Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda that I realized there’s often a sharp divide between female characters that are possessed and male ones, especially in comics and their film/tv adaptations. When male characters become possessed, the story revolves around the questions that interest me above. Possession is an opportunity for reflection, and the original male character whose body becomes a vessel is never deprived of their worth as a human being or a character worth following. Female characters, on the other hand, often have to be saved. The entities that take over their bodies endow them with superhuman powers, but because they’re female, that power is portrayed as too much for them to handle, and the narrative is all about finding someone (usually a man) to save them from this power. Take the following examples of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, Jim Corrigan/the Spectre, and Jesse Custer/Genesis versus Jean Grey/the Phoenix and June Moone/Enchantress. These patterns show that the damsel in distress narrative is far from extinct, even in more contemporary works of “nerd media.” Though these women have extraordinary abilities, they still need to be rescued, and the resulting impression is that women are less equipped to handle great power and even less prepared to deal with the moral and psychological aftermath. But all is not lost – from there, I’ll turn to Monstress and argue how it is disrupting these patterns by giving readers a female character whose possession follows the narrative arc often given solely to males.

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