Game of Thrones: What keeps us watching

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

It’s easier now than ever before to disconnect from reality. We have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and HBO (where season 6 of “Game of Thrones” premieres next Sunday) – the list of potential virtual escape routes goes on and on. In a sense, this ceaseless array of media at our disposal brings people together, giving them a common subject to discuss. The Internet is chock-full of forums wherein anonymous souls gather to debate the minutiae of “Game of Thrones;” and even if you don’t like swords, dragons or boobs, there’s so much other media to devour. Something for everyone. “With all these different formats and platforms and ways of engaging with narrative, we can personalize our media consumption,” said Michele Malach, media scholar and Associate Professor of English at Fort Lewis College. “You watch what you want to watch, when you want to watch it. Plus the proliferation of platforms has forced producers to think about different audiences, so now we have access to even MORE stories. We can learn about ourselves through our understanding of all those characters.”

So what’s the problem? Withdrawal from the real world, for one thing. It’s easier to connect with characters on TV than real people. On TV, you’re privy to everyone’s intentions, fears and flaws. But in real life most of these qualities remain hidden, hence sympathizing with the actions of other people can seem maddening – even impossible. TV also offers the opportunity for characters to develop over long periods of time: You get 10 hours per year with the “GoT” players. No wonder we get so attached! Following the notorious Red Wedding episode, a viral video collage of viewers reacting circulated online. The psychological term for forming emotional connections with fictional beings is “parasocial interaction;” these relationships create the illusion of intimacy, but are technically one-sided. “We’re always worried about the effect this level of media consumption will have on us – like, what’s it going to do to our children?!” said Malach. “But we’re not going to know for quite a while.”

Why do we binge watch?Binge watching is a relatively new phenomenon, but in 2016 it’s common to hear people moan, “I finished the series last night! Now what do I do with myself?” It’s kind of an addiction; when you’re finished consuming one thing, you’re at a loss and crave more. “What’s the next universe I can dive into to take me out of my everyday life for a while?” Malach puts it. Before the glory days of Netflix, we only got to know characters incrementally. “You had big gaps of time to process, think about it and move on,” said Malach. “Yet when you binge watch, that getting-to-know-you period is condensed. There’s an intense emotional experience, then a crash.” It’s almost like finding someone you’re attracted to and moving in with them straight away. The course of intimacy is sped up, so any breakup is subsequently devastating.

“Game of Thrones” is the most pirated TV show in the world, according to data from piracy tracking site TorrentFreak. . The content is simultaneously high fantasy and topical in its narrative reliance on the dirty business of politics. “One of the things people like about this kind of fantasy is the stakes are so high,” said Malach. “For most of us, the stakes in our lives are not that high – but to these characters, everything is a matter of life and death.” Human history has produced plenty of ambitious stories about gods and kings, and a thrill accompanies our interactions with them; it’s exciting when a character’s small action holds monumental importance. For us poor shmucks scraping by in the real world, the things we accomplish can feel depressingly inconsequential.

Controversial feminism“Game of Thrones” gets a lot of flak for its contentious treatment of women, but it’s one of the most female-centric narratives on TV – probably THE most, if you consider the sheer quantity of richly-drawn female characters. There are heaps of men running around too, but they aren’t given spotlight to the exclusion of the women. “I just have a problem with the female nudity and lack of male nudity,” laughed Malach. “I think everybody should be naked! But some of it has to do with the conventions of narrative film and TV. This is a big-budget, mainstream show. I don’t think the producers’ intentions are to be unfair.”

The show’s sexual violence is deeply disturbing; we see women raped, beaten, ignored, shamed and forced to marry terrible people. However, the series’ brutality is equally gendered: We’ve likewise watched men have their manhood detached, hands cut off, tongues cut out, heads chopped off and faces burned to the point of disfigurement. The violence is never flippant, and rarely do cruel characters not get their comeuppance.

“GoT” aims to construct a comprehensive world in which women are repressed, brutalized and treated like second-class citizens. For this to work, it’s necessary to see these brutalizations happening in both major and minor instances. The galling inequality of such a universe is precisely what makes watching these women fighting back and gaining the upper hand so powerful. “You can call it exploitative and sensationalistic – and it is,” said Malach. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is an epic, these are big stories with extremely high stakes. So the violence is extreme as well. Think about what happened to Theon with Ramsay Bolton.” She is referring, of course, to what is arguably the most savage act on the show thus far: After being tortured for days, Theon has his penis chopped off.

“I haven’t been personally troubled by the violence or messages about gender,” said Malach. “They’re trying to set up a universe that’s a world apart from ours. We have to understand the full range of cultural elements in that world. What would you have them do differently? How would you develop these characters, show them becoming who they are? Think of Sansa’s story: Of all the horrible things that happened to her, none of it was treated as insignificant. We saw it so we would understand the character better, relate to her more deeply. This is what she has to go through to become the person she has to become.” Unlike many of the series’ lady figures, Sansa isn’t a warrior type. She is essential because of her dissimilarities; to observe a meek and gentle damsel survive and evolve in a bitter world, without compromising her values, sends a positive message. “Sansa started off a whiny teenage girl – but they’ve developed the hell out of her,” said Malach.

The show features an admirable assortment of female anti-heroes (a rare breed in mainstream media). “GoT” isn’t afraid to admit chicks can be despicable, just like guys. These interwoven storylines brim with complex women who are neither bad nor good, not simply mothers or whores; quite often the mothers love sex, and the whores aren’t bimbos. The girls are not pawns in the hands of masculine characters – they are masters of their own fates, pushing fierce (and ferocious) personal agendas.

Cersei is a prime example. “She’s a woman in a culture that doesn’t give women any power, so she uses what she has to get what she wants,” Malach said. “That ends up being either familial or sexual power. When male characters do it, we don’t mind; when female characters do it, we find them unsympathetic or nasty and manipulative. That’s inherent sexism.” Daenerys is another case in point: She’s brutally raped in the series’ first season by her new husband, Khal Drogo, who doesn’t know any better. His Dothraki tribe lives an animalistic, hedonistic existence – but Dany quickly teaches him that sex should be consensual and pleasurable for her, too. She is not a victim, though she starts out a slave. She eventually rises to queen of a formidable army, and her femininity is her strength; no mere man could be a “mother of dragons,” but Dany’s maternal instincts stir three beasts from their stone age and provoke them to hatch. Her followers love her because she won’t endorse violence unless it’s desperate or deserved.

What’s with all the violence?Audiences seem more outraged by the violence on “GoT” than by the violence on ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘The Wire’ or in any Quentin Tarantino film. Obviously all forms of savagery are upsetting; and frankly, the angrier people get about the mistreatment of women, the better. But why pinpoint this show? “Many of Tarantino’s movies, “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” deal much more with male characters,” suggests Malach. “The women aren’t necessarily insignificant, but definitely more incidental.” It seems people are more gravely bothered by violence enacted toward women, possibly because they’re less used to it. “Those other shows are set in contemporary, realistic worlds,” adds Malach. “It’s violence we recognize and we’re familiar with. They use guns.” You could argue that guns are quick and impersonal weapons; a character can slaughter 20 innocents without seeing their faces, whereas what happens on “Game of Thrones” with swords and arrows is both more graphic and more personal. “Since the female characters in ‘GoT’ are foregrounded and important, we’re more attached to them,” said Malach. Shouldn’t we be praising the show for that?

Maybe what rendered viewers particularly uneasy about Jaime’s sex scene with Cersei (at Joffrey’s casket) was the attachment they felt to him as a “changed man.” We saw Jaime open up to Brienne in the bathtub, risk his life to save hers, grow to love her. But people are complex. The Jaime-Cersei rape scene was about control, power and the twins’ kinky sexual dynamic – but more than anything, it showed rape isn’t always easy to define. We might prefer a clear-cut character development for Jaime, but once he’s back in the context of his family it makes sense that he regress. “It’s like going away to college and visiting home again; you’re still the person you were to your family, and your range of behavior is limited to the relationships with the people around you,” said Malach. “Jaime goes back, he’s clearly in love with his sister, and that’s the only way he knows how to behave with and relate to her.” Remember: In that bathtub scene, it’s also revealed that Cersei is the only woman Jaime’s ever been with.

Audience response to violence is largely about context. “People are reacting to what’s happening to these characters as if they were happening NOW, in our time and culture,” said Malach. “But I think sometimes viewers don’t realize it’s not about having more positive representations of marginalized communities – it’s about having more COMPLEX representations. And having more.” There are so many straight, white male depictions in film and on TV, audiences are desensitized to seeing them suffer. Should you point out how this show’s violence is strictly accurate to medieval history, you’ll receive irritated feedback; “That’s no excuse!” In truth, there weren’t too many repercussions for rape in medieval Europe, nor masses of outraged opinion pieces written about it online. This is a favorable example of our society’s progression. The show depicts atrocious primitivism – but if anything, it also proves how far we’ve come.

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