No, I didn’t watch Game of Thrones. Or read A Song of Ice and Fire or the subsequent novels. But I do know about all that stuff, whether I want to or not.
And that’s weird, for a fantasy series.
This is the opposite of normal, especially if the brand hasn’t been filtered through “YA Lit” popularity channels. Typically, if you don’t want to know or understand fantasy media, you don’t ever have to hear about it. It is for nerds. The stereotype of fantasy books is that they are impenetrable tomes with medieval babes, dazzling fractals of bullshit detail and made-up magical problems and fake countries with contrived political dilemmas.
And… that’s what A Song of Ice and Fire basically is.
That’s what George R. R. Martin’s works are. That’s what HBO’s A Game of Thrones series is.
Why did it ‘work’ this time? Why did a mainstream audience pick it up? Why was it selected to make into a TV show, when just about any fantasy doorstop might be just as viable.
I can’t say why for certain. There’s a random chance factor to it, I suppose. Why did Harry Potter become the most well-known and successful fiction property in history, when the true best childrens’ literature of all time came out in 1997 right alongside it?
But I can take a guess based on the media that was made trying to figure it out. Let’s to back to 2014, when Forbes featured an article written by Alice G. Walton, “Deeper Than Swords: 10 Reasons We’re So Hooked On ‘Game Of Thrones’
Her thesis was to analyze reasons why “people (yes, even women) who haven’t historically been into fantasy fall for it. And hard.” As a self-proclaimed person who is in to fantasy and hasn’t fallen for it, I want to see if what she says holds up, especially in 2019 when fantasy literature has long responded to the success of Game of Thrones but hasn’t actually gained mainstream popularity due to it.
Like, come on. You don’t see total non-nerds clamoring to go buy The Dark Tower series or start playing Warhammer because Daenerys flashed a tit or something. Even highly popular new media with fantasy content like Critical Role finds primarily a niche audience.
So what did Walton have to say, and does it suggest Game of Thrones differentiated itself such that it achieved mainstream acceptance where so much hasn’t?
The first section that Walton goes into is titled “It’s the best “world-building” there is.” It is led by this quotation, from Barna Donovan, PhD professor of film and media studies at Saint Peter’s University:
One of the most obvious values of Game of Thrones is that it’s aimed at adults and it’s not, you know, about kid stuff. Barna Donvovan, PhD, professor of film and media studies at Saint Peter’s University, says that “Game of Thrones is aimed squarely at adults, and it is not campy, self-referential, or comical. It basically does what serious science fiction and fantasy have always done, functioning as a symbolic commentary on the main social and political issues of the day.” In other words, it’s definitely not for the little ones, and even an adult audience has to stay on their toes to follow all the plotlines and innuendos.
Whoa boy. That’s a lot to unpack. This quotation is contradictory to me.
On one hand, Game of Thrones is not campy, self-referential, or comical— ok, a lot of fantasy is, that’s true. But comical fantasy is often in response to, and trying to dodge, how fantasy stories get weighed down by excessive seriousness that few but die-hard fans can care about. Is the lack of self-awareness suddenly a selling point to non-nerds, where self-awareness is a hard-fought attempt to be more approachable as a genre?
And are campy, self-referential things inherently “less adult?”
But at the same time, the section goes on to say that “it basically does what serious science fiction and fantasy always have done.”
So it didn’t break the mold at all, is the same as all other heavy fantasy phone books. This film and media professor’s point seems to boil down to “it’s for adults, not for kids.” OK. Cool. There are tons of fantasy tv shows and books that are “for kids” that think the people watching, of any age, can handle nuance.
And even when stuff is “campy, self-referential, comical” do they think it’s all aimed at young children who are not smart enough to understand things? Are they hallucinating that all fantasy media was just that weird Dungeons and Dragons cartoon from the 1980s?
None of this even goes into what “world-building” is though: the details and points of interest that define the setting that the characters must traverse. Is “this is the Mommy’s Juice of fantasy shows” really ‘world-building?”
Supporting point two is, “It’s ridiculously smart: Your brain has no choice but to stay engaged.”
In a world of flat, personality-less characters on TV (mostly in the sit-com world), dramas, period pieces, and fantasies have emerged as the cerebral antidotes. And Game of Thrones is arguably one of the smartest, most nuanced shows around, in both plot and language. So smart, in fact, that it can be hard to follow, but doing so is rewarding, since our brains crave the cerebral work the show has us do. Some critics, like the author of this article, have pointed out that shows like Game of Thrones cater to the rising “mass intelligent” and have spawned a whole new genre of TV. With its wry humor, lyrical dialogues, and complicated moral questions, Game of Thrones makes its audience do some serious intellectual work – a welcome activity these days.
I guess we have to take into account both that this is from 2014, before the rise of alternate TV, and that this is a Forbes article targeted to reassure watchers that yes, they are so much smarter than those proles who watch, uhhh, sit-coms or something.
But it’s telling to me that in the entire section about how “smart” the show is, there is not one specific instance of the show being “smart.”
Here’s a hot take: I don’t actually want to do superfluous work when I read or when I watch TV. It’s not because I am lazy. It is because if I am working harder than I have to, that means the actual directing, writing, content is not working hard enough to tell me the story. If I have to infer with my meat brain absolutely everything of significance it is not a chance to “do some serious intellectual work.” It is a failure of storytelling, bogging me down with distracting details that overwhelm me, baffling me with bullshit rather than dazzling me with brilliance.
So, how is ‘the nuance’ of Game of Thrones’ plots actually different from other fantasy media such that it would explain its mass success? Fantasy media has always been known for its complicated details and high concepts. Here’s a partial campaign summary from the 1999 fantasy strategy game Heroes of Might and Magic III, a nerdy cult classic:
Erathia’s capital of Steadwick is sacked by the dungeon lords of Nighon and the demons of Eeofol. Queen Catherine Ironfist’s first task is to establish a foothold in her own conquered kingdom by enlisting the aid of allies. The wizards of Bracada and the elves of AvLee answer her call, and together they push towards Steadwick and eventually retake it. In the meantime, the necromancers of Deyja, having been responsible for the assassination of her father, King Gryphonheart, plot to revive his corpse as a lich.
It only gets more complicated from there. Fantasy has always asked the audience to do a ton of work remembering why we’re here, who is allied with and who betrays who, who wants what, and how many armies exist.
Like Shakespeare’s plays, Game of Thrones doesn’t just explore ethical, existential, and political dilemmas – it has enough lowbrow stuff to keep everyone watching. There’s sex, violence, jack-in-the-box moments, and gushing internal organs, which all act as a nice counter to the talkier parts. Sexposition has been a hallmark of the show, and supposedly forces people to pay attention to essential plot explanation through the nakedness. Whether background sex really helps us follow the intricate monologues any better is not totally clear.
George R. R. Martin’s dense prose is in no way Shakespeare-like. And in terms of the TV show, these words are weird when the previous paragraph just complimented the audience of being so intellectual and high-thinking. The inclusion of “sexposition” is a hard signal that the only way the audience can tolerate the deluge of detail and complication is if we showcase it with sex as the backdrop.
Which is it? Is the audience’s brain engaged figuring out complicated plot stuff, or is it so bored that they need to break out the naked tushy?
It’s worth noting also that nubile women having mystical or politically complicated sex has been a staple in fantasy for ages. And in the past it has nearly always been a strike against the credibility of genre fiction, has been part of its campiness or pulpiness. It’s never been a reason why the genre has gone mainstream.
“You can’t bank on what’s to come.”
The alluring, if somewhat frustrating, element of Game of Thrones is that just when you think you see a thread, the show proves you wrong. Central characters are killed, psychopaths claim power, weddings become bloodbaths, and bad guys develop consciences as time passes. The twists and turns of the plot lock us in, and the developments that are impossible to anticipate give us a dopamine rush that keeps us coming back for more.
The last time I checked, all this was just part of “having plot twists.” There certainly are some static narratives in the fantasy genre, but no more so than in any other genre of fiction. It’s not as if all fantasy media is about unbeatable heroes who are the only people who accumulate power on-screen, versus an unquestionably static villain that exists only to be defeated. You’re thinking of like, The Legend of Zelda.
All of these traits that Walton describes, the unpredictability, the twists and turns, the overturn of central characters… they all also describe sit-coms and soap operas and telenovelas and whatever else other tv show genres out there that are for dumb people as was already stated.
Why is ‘being frustrated’ about clues not having an intelligible payoff elevating Game of Thrones over the rest of its genre?
There’s enough to discuss in the concept of ‘gray morality’ that I could write a whole article just on that concept. Walton begins her discussion of it with this:
The complexity of the characters in the show has been hailed as one of its major accomplishments. It may make them more likeable, in some ways, at least. “I think we become so emotionally invested in the characters in part because they’re more human and flawed,” says Forbes contributor Erik Kain, who’s written a lot about the show. “Ostensibly ‘good’ characters often make horrific mistakes. Both Eddard and Catelyn Stark, for all their good intentions, are guilty of being absolutely awful at politics, and of course that ends badly for them and many of their loved ones. Other less sympathetic characters like the Hound still have scraps of goodness shining through, little moments of heroism. But I think the real point is that save for a handful of truly wicked people—Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Bolton—even the best characters are flawed and even the worst have something redeeming.”
Now, I’ve said before that I am not a fan of the show or the books so I can’t say anything about these characters in specific. But none of these things described seem truly ground-breaking for the fantasy genre. Fantasy is full of highly flawed people. Even those J.R.R. Tolkien elves that everybody who saw Fellowship of the Ring in theaters thought were perfection embodied, are full of murder, betrayal, and tragic outcomes.
In my personal experience, moral grayness in a work of fiction does not arise from imperfect people, mistakes characters make, or from ambiguous villains. It comes from a lack of clarity in the moral logic of a story. If we don’t get a consistent view of who is punished by the narrative, and for what, we can’t clearly understand its worldview. If everyone is punished for everything, all the time, then no points are made and no stance is taken, no matter how much of a contrast this might be to a story where the moral logic is a little bit too heavy-handed.
And even then, there are almost always points being made. If backstabbing is rewarded with success by the narrative more than it is punished, the moral logic of the story begins to be “backstabbing gets things done.” If slaughter just happens and you’re supposed to accept it more often than it is an atrocity, the moral logic begins to be “slaughter is inevitable, an event to be planned around or even maximized.”
No matter the intent, signals come through no matter how ‘gray’ the noise appears at a distance. And this is by no means unusual or a distinguishing feature from other fantasy unless you believe it’s all white knights who must purify the land with their totemic goodness or something.
“The interesting thing about Game of Thrones,” says Donovan, “is the way it incorporates many of the archetypal characters and plots of fantasy and classic heroic and mythic storytelling, yet it does so by often altering them and even subverting them,” says Donovan. “This kind of experimentation with the archetypes makes Game of Thrones a truly superior piece of art.”
The primary example listed is a “virginal blonde” Daenerys shedding her oppressive husband and brother to get ” a whirlwind education in sex, love, death, politics, and ethics,” that transforms her into “a promising female power,” and eventual descent out of idealism to become another jaded and pragmatic player in The Game.
But… what archetypes are being destroyed? That virgins are damsels? That queens can’t be powerful? That women can be ruthless conquerors? These things were all destroyed decades ago, which is enough time for reactionaries to get angry that sexual liberation and female leaders are normal now . Didn’t I just list up there a campy computer game with a queen that does all that kind of stuff? She did do it in a thong though, because it was still 1997.
Another example listed is Tyrion, but like… what’s the archetype being broken? That nobody has a growth condition in fantasy literature? That little people are oompa loompas? If anything, people far below the average adult height being clever is absolutely not destroying archetypes in fantasy, a genre that classically features halflings and dwarves, both known for their wit.
Just featuring women with complex arcs and people with atypical bodies is not somehow groundbreaking, it is a bare minimum that people expect of media nowadays and to suggest that the inclusion of basic decency “breaks archetypes” also suggests that they think fantasy is otherwise confined to virgin women and normative bodies.
Walton titled this section, “Women are Madonnas, whores and everything in between.”
Oh. Oh boy.
I first want everybody to be perfectly aware that the “Madonna/Whore complex” is a long-debunked Freudian concept that characterizes men as unable to maintain sexual interest in their wives after marriage. It basically theorizes that men see all women as either mothers or sluts, thus women outside the domestic sphere are sexually desirable where wives remind husbands of their mothers, which is a boner killer.
What Walton means, I think, is just that there is a diversity of female characters. And I guess that’s true, and could explain some kind of popularity when female audiences like to see more than one woman important at a time. Cut to that movie poster where Black Widow was the only female avenger and the poster showed her butt.
But it’s not exceptional today to see literature and TV and movies that include women doing stuff, and more than one woman doing stuff. It’s not common enough, definitely, but not exactly blazing the trail either. I don’t think, no matter how many kinds of women there are in Game of Thrones, it can be said to be breaking many boundaries if the first thing that comes to mind is “women can be mothers and sluts… and I guess whatever’s in between those two things.”
Especially when Donovan has this to say:
“The titular ‘game of thrones’ was not meant to be played by women,” says Donovan. “In a medieval society like that, women are pawns and tools for the advancement or the pleasure of men. Therefore they must all learn to use their wits to maneuver and manipulate the more powerful men around them.”
That’s basically saying that despite the diversity of women in the cast, they are all trapped by sexism. They must all use the soft power schema that women tell themselves they have to survive within an ultimately disenfranchising structure. Except when they have dragons. Then I guess they can do what they like.
But I guess women like to watch other women so Point In It’s Favor, TRUE— female cast members increase media popularity. No matter how much money middle aged dudes have, women and especially young women determine the cutting edge of what’s popular in our culture.
Something Something Modern Reality
The last points in the article are mostly the same, or are in a similar vein. That the show, and the books, somehow reflect the real world because bigotry is real, expies for hyper-partisan politics are real, political correct storytelling despite politically incorrect worldbuilding, etc.
But as an outsider to the fandom, someone would have to work very hard to convince me any of that is exceptional. Or even would be something the public would be attracted to in specific beyond justifications after-the-fact. Don’t we typically develop attachments to the stuff we watch and say it reflects the greater world around us?
Besides, I have intense distrust for the following paragraph:
Life in every corner of Westeros is completely un-politically correct – good guys are killed, bad guys gain power, women are raped and pawned about, and people with “differences” are ridiculed and marginalized. That said, there’s an undercurrent of sympathy that runs through the narrative. “The story is not politically correct but the storytelling certainly is,” says Freeman. “Issues of gender, race, the differently-abled, and multiculturalism are all handled with a sensitivity that would make the series welcome in any university survey course on fantasy fiction.” It’s obviously an ugly world that we’re peering into, but there’s something deeply compassionate about the way it’s revealed.
Something isn’t politically correct because the story wink-nudges that it knows its norms and even in-universe ideals are bad and wrong to our own sensibilities. There is no undercurrent of “sympathy” that redeems or suggests a sensitivity regarding gender, race, disability, or other minority status. This approach could have tanked the popularity of the media as much as elevated it, and the implication that other fantasy works are not grounded in reality and Game of Thrones is an exception is just wrong.
Nearly all stories are a reflection of their times and the political interests of the author. The perspective on war in The Lord of the Rings is definitely informed by J.R.R. Tolkien’s experience in the first world war. Ursula K. LeGuin’s works feature protagonists with dark skin and overall question race as a structure, and later feature anarchist and collectivist themes.
Even Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern has a suggestion of the reality of when it was first published. Vigilance of a society against total destruction of the land that falls from the sky and must be eliminated midair by cleansing fire? It was 1967, and the Cold War was on.
Through articles like Walton’s, and through mass marketing, Game of Thrones has won by pretending it’s an Anti-Fantasy: inverse in logic to the genre it is actually a typical example of.
- Culture consensus is that fantasy is for children, and because GoT is Adult, it is popular.
- Culture consensus is that fantasy has no good female characters, and because GoT shows a few on screen at a time, it’s popular.
- Culture consensus is that fantasy is campy, comical, not about real drama, and not to be taken seriously. Because GoT is framed to be about Serious Things, it’s popular.
- Culture consensus is that fantasy is sexless, or the sex is tasteless. Because GoT’s sex is framed as intriguing, it’s popular.
- Culture consensus is that unironic fantasy is stupid media full of uncomplicated characters, boring plots, no relevance to politics and culture, featuring simple good-and-evil morals. Or like, an airbrushed van from the ’70s.
Game of Thrones’ marketing poses itself as for the non-childish, intelligent but non-nerd, sexually mature person. Even when all of its traits do not vary from typical fantasy in any way: not in its attitude toward women, not in its attitudes toward sex, the amount of butts, or its level of complexity.
Fantasy typically centers around themes of a balance of power to be understood, explored, and maintained, and Game of Thrones is actually about such a balance of powers, that is what The Game of Thrones is.
This explains why, even though fantasy fiction has attempted to tag along the heels of Game of Thrones, it hasn’t experienced a true renaissance of popularity like the YA Lit genre experienced as an outcome of Harry Potter. Because Harry Potter positioned itself as representative of its own genre, but Game of Thrones and its marketing does not put its foot in the door for the fantasy genre, which is childish and cringy nerd shit, with spreadsheets.
Personally, I would love to see a revival of campy fantasy, embraced rather than denied, updated for contemporary sensibilities. I want to see inscrutable wizards in shimmering robes pondering the mysteries of the universe, mystical unicorns running through threatened glades, ruins of crystal cities, and butts.
The age of edge and Anti-Fantasy hasn’t done fantasy as a genre any favors, profiteering off of the general audience’s distaste with genre fiction stereotypes while also not truly challenging them. And some of them should absolutely be challenged, because they are rotting and attracting flies: many fascists thrive in ‘heroic fantasy’ and the LARP scene. And it’s notable that Game of Thrones, in being an Anti-Fantasy in marketing, does very little to make itself unattractive to that element even while its entirely the burden of fans to interpret the White Walkers as similar to encroaching white supremacy.
For a lot of us, Winter has not been coming. That’s just the marketing, to convince people who’ve never read about Winter that it’s cool to do so. We’ve seen Winter many times before, and we’re over Winter. It’s not special and it doesn’t break any conventions. Winter has overstayed its welcome. Get Winter out of here. Happy spring.