"Game of Thrones" isn't "just fantasy": Westeros is a reflection of our terrible realities

Salon talks racism, sexism and reactionary politics in Westeros and the U.S. with Timothy Malone

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 18, 2019 1:00PM (EDT)

Nathalie Emmanuel and Emilia Clarke in "Game of Thrones" (Macall B. Polay/Courtesy of HBO)
Nathalie Emmanuel and Emilia Clarke in "Game of Thrones" (Macall B. Polay/Courtesy of HBO)

The last episode of HBO's "Game of Thrones" series (which is based on George R.R. Martin's book series) airs this Sunday. This tale of political intrigue, sex, violence, betrayal — and of course dragons and magic — is grand human drama. This is why the books and television series are so popular.

"Game of Thrones" is set in a "medieval" version of Europe that does not exist. This is the appeal and allure of the genre known as "high fantasy": it is familiar yet different; this is a world of legend, myth and folklore.

But regardless of where and when epic stories such as "Game of Thrones" take place (be it "Europe", "Asia", "Africa", "Latin and South America", "the Middle East" or some other fantastical version of the medieval and ancient world) they are ultimately about the here and now. As such, "Game of Thrones" both reinforces and reflects America's (and the West's) social and political norms and values. In that way "Game of Thrones" is both pedagogical and ideological.

What assumptions about human nature and politics are being communicated by "Game of Thrones"? Is "Game of Thrones" sexist and racist? How is the character Daenerys Targaryen an example of a "white savior figure"? Does Daenerys Targaryen symbolize an inherently problematic type of white feminism? What is the role of toxic masculinity and rape culture in "Game of Thrones"? In what ways do the characters Missandei and Grey Worm represent problematic assumptions about black people and their relationship(s) to whiteness? How does "Game of Thrones" represent American Empire as represented by the White Walkers and the wall?

I explored these questions with Timothy Malone. He teaches philosophy at Antioch University and is the author of the recent essay "The Real Monster in 'Game of Thrones' Is Its Hidden Reactionary Ideology," which can be read at Truthout.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Why do people like "Game of Thrones" so much? What is the appeal of the show?

"Game of Thrones" offers us a way to identify with what can be described as "realpolitik." One of the things that is most interesting about the fantasy genre in particular is that it offers ideological escape. So if you read a lot of the comments on my recent Truthout article about sexism and racism in "Game of Thrones" they have been very intense and threatening. Many of the comments have said that "Game of Thrones" is "pure fantasy" and "you need to stop with your 'liberal critiques' of everything" and "Not everything is about race."

People believe that the fantasy genre is a space outside of politics. The moment that a person thinks that they can escape or be outside of politics in the world that is the moment when we and they are most embedded in it. People are also deeply invested on an emotional personal level in "Game of Thrones" and other fantasies. "I'm Team Stark" or "I'm Team Lannister." These connections are not always conscious. The fantasy genre and including recent superhero comic book movies such as "Avengers: Infinity War" is also a vehicle through which the truth and reality of a given political moment shines through, sometimes very explicitly.

How do we think about the motif of this European fantasy and what it says about race, and politics and gender in this moment with the rise of Trump and the so-called "alt-right"?

The Nazi and other white right-wing types who are using that imagery as we saw in Charlottesville and elsewhere are not invested in the real history of medieval or ancient Europe in the first place. What they are invested in are things like "Lord of Rings" and "Game of Thrones." These white supremacists are not scholars of European history.

These are people who are getting their incorrect historical understandings of race for through popular culture and then re-articulating them through their own political frameworks and for their own reactionary right-wing goals.

What are the working assumptions about race in "Game of Thrones"? What are some other the rules of that world?

The most obvious is that agency lies with the aristocratic white ruling houses. This dynamic plays out in "Game of Thrones" in a number of ways. The first is obviously the Missandei character. Missandei is a light-skinned, sexually attractive black woman and close to power but never a threat to it. And that allows for a type of unthreatening love that could develop between an audience and this black female character. You have Grey Worm who is also a nonthreatening black male character. He is also able to be close to power but he is a slave. Grey Worm is also castrated.

The Daenerys Targaryen character demonstrates the fundamental way that race works in "Game of Thrones." In our neoliberal multicultural moment, race and the racial Other can be present and accepted but only at a distance. Race must also be presented in a Eurocentric way. Nonwhites are still the Other in "Game of Thrones." The wall and the White Walkers work in that way. What is on the other side of the wall is a type of monstrous Other. When "urban blacks" are discussed in America's popular discourse or when we discuss "the ghetto" this is about race and who is on the other side of the literal or metaphorical wall. Who are the monsters in America that we put either behind or outside of walls?

In response to the last episode before Sunday's upcoming finale some critics have observed that Daenerys fulfilled this lazy trope of the crazy ex-girlfriend and Mad Queen who was spurned, made jealous and then acted out. But if you think about what Daenerys did with her dragon, destroying King's Landing, who gave her the directive, the permission and encouragement to do such a thing? Her "best black friend" Missandei, who in that moment is fulfilling the cliched role as the emotional surrogate for a white woman. This reinforces Daenerys role as a type of white savior figure.

"Game of Thrones" has featured multiple versions of white savior figures. The show is basically the struggle of different white saviors in order to liberate what is called "the Realm."

All the nonwhite characters in "Game of Thrones" are given no agency. They are always the foils upon which the white heroes are constructing their battles. These white saviors are also empowered to contemplate things like genocide. This too is an example of the ultimate logic of white supremacy.

There is a class element as well in "Game of Thrones" with the so-called "smallfolk," those peasants and others who are outside of power. Because there's no voice from these perspectives, they just become fodder for the development of the soap operatic stories of white wealth and power fighting their fights and struggling for dominance.

What are some of the ways that black and brown viewers make sense of "Game of Thrones" given how the show centers whiteness?

I'm a white man. So I don't want to speak for black and brown folks. But what I can speak to is how "Game of Thrones" creates relationships and offers a particular vision of society. A lot of people identified with Missandei as the sole, prevalent black voice within "Game of Thrones." And then when she got decapitated, a lot of people were done with show. But we must also not ignore how race works in the show, often in subtle ways, until it is made so obvious and shoved in the viewers' faces and cannot be denied.

In your recent Truthout essay you highlighted how black and brown folks are "imperial cannon fodder" in "Game of Thrones." What social and political commentary is "Game of Thrones" offering there?

It's normal. The show is reflecting our assumptions. "Game of Thrones" is not asking us to look at people of color as cannon fodder per se. It's not asking us to look at immigrants and the incarcerated as contaminant zombies. "Game of Thrones" reflects that dominant American and Western society already does this.

The show is not asking the viewer to look at the Dothraki as cannon fodder. "Game of Thrones" is saying that we already think of black and brown and poor kids as cannon fodder. Like other types of popular culture "Game of Thrones" simply reflects a type of cultural commonsense that is already operating in our society.

Many viewers are upset about how Daenerys has somehow rejected or undermined her (white) "feminist" potential and power by committing mass murder and the other choices she has made as the show approaches its finale. Why would anyone expect "Game of Thrones," as a type of commercial, corporate popular culture, to be "radical" or "transgressive" in any way? Almost by definition, "Game of Thrones" is going to be conservative if not reactionary in its politics.

Hollywood can imagine anything in the world. It can imagine alien invasions. It can imagine adventures at the subatomic level. It can imagine the multiverse and other alternate realities. What Hollywood cannot imagine is an end of capitalism. "Game of Thrones"  channels that logic through a type of cynical exhaustion with the status quo. People have invested a lot of hope in the Daenerys character as some type of revolutionary figure who, like in the Iraq War, is going to invade these lands in order to "liberate" them. This is the limited imagination of so much mainstream political thinking.

When Daenerys basically commits war crimes in this last episode by annihilating entire civilian populations, how do viewers react? Do they ponder, "does white supremacy through these white savior figures, acting in way rooted in imperialism, necessarily end in genocide?"

Other people say, "well, you know, this is a totally unforeseen turn of events and poor writing etc."  It may well be all that. But "Game of Thrones" cannot get outside of its own racist white supremacist logic. It can't get outside of its classism. "Game of Thrones" can't suddenly shift focus and get down on the ground, and start asking, "What do the Dothraki want?" Or asking the peasants in King's Landing about what they think the world should look like and how can these powerful ruling houses be held accountable.

And what is "Game of Thrones" saying about masculinity?

Toxic masculinity is made to appear natural and normal. It is a key part of how gender is performed. In order to even be a strong woman in "Game of Thrones" it becomes a question of who can perform violence the best? Who can suppress their feelings the best? There is still a binary where men are defined as being rational and women are understood to be emotional. The capacity to become a ruthless, cold, calculating, violent person is the measure not only of masculinity but of femininity as well. There are feminist theorists who explore the following dynamic as well — in "Game of Thrones" being a victim of rape is turned into a vehicle that defines one's individuality. Rape is also a means through which a woman's strength is earned — a type of trial by fire. This is beyond problematic.

There is an aspect of fandom that also needs to be explored in this moment. From "Star Wars" to the Marvel Comic Universe, and I am sure "Game of Thrones," you see fans online and elsewhere celebrating how much money these huge corporate juggernauts have made. As though this is some marker of quality and value. What does this tell us about how individuals are thinking of their own identities? It seems very sad, lonely, and pathetic to me. They are celebrating huge corporations making money.

There was something on Twitter the other day about how Marvel fans are trolling James Cameron because "Endgame" has surpassed Titanic in global ticket sales. This is apparently some type of huge "victory" for Marvel fans.

This speaks to questions of identification and how under neoliberalism there is a collapse of the public sphere. Human social relationships have been hurt. This means that many people are developing stronger identifications with these cultural vehicles such as movie franchises, video games, or big global corporations like Apple. These entities do not have much to do in a positive and meaningful way with people's lives. People who are trapped in that feedback loop are just repeating the logic of this economic and social moment and all of its precarity. This is all about identity formation.

"Am I team this" or "am I team that"? These types of people want to express some type of identity and emotion whether it is  domination or some feeling of victory.

What is the fantasy that "Game of Thrones" is offering its viewers?

There is monstrous otherness at the gate. And there can be pleasure in annihilating these threats. Seeing this type of monstrous Other repelled generates a feeling of satisfaction.

What was the most surprising and/or troubling responses to your "Game of Thrones" essay over at Truthout?

I was prepared for consternation. But in its own way the reaction was still shocking. There were, of course, all of the complaints about how "Game of Thrones" is "just fantasy" and that I should just stop writing about it and making these types of analyses. Some readers also made the tired complaint that "not everything is political." I do not understand how in this day and age that there is a TV show that is explicitly about war and the Other and so obviously political is so many ways there are people who want to claim that "Game of Thrones" is apolitical. To make such a claim and to come to that conclusion is willful disavowal. There is a deep desire to escape from the world as it is. That is fascinating to me.

The personal vitriol and backlash towards me is a function of how some people do not want to contemplate or be critical in their thinking about popular culture and shows like "Game of Thrones." My working assumption is that the United States is a society where race and racial inequalities are omnipresent.

By definition America is a white supremacist society. Racism is in our culture, it's in our politics. It's in our economics, It's in our law. And if that's the assumption, then racism — and sexism as well — are going to leave their mark on popular culture.

Many people watch "Game of Thrones" and see the White Walkers as a metaphor for climate change. I wanted to challenge that a bit in my Truthout article about the show. So of course there is right wing, anti-science view of "Game of Thrones" that immediately rejects the show having anything to do with climate change.

But what was surprising to me given that Truthout is a progressive left-wing site is that some of its readers who are presumably not conservative were telling me to shut up and that what I wrote was nonsense. These supposed liberals did not want to see the show as having a racial or gender component. The defensiveness and intense reaction to my observations about the politics of "Game of Thrones" really demonstrated that I had tapped into something. I hit too close to home for some people.

What would you like to see happen on the "Game of Thrones" finale? What do you think will happen?

What would I like to see happen? I abandoned that hope after about season three of the TV show. However, I still watch the show religiously.

What I'd like to see happen with the finale of "Game of Thrones" is for the show to continue with its own internal logic and narrative. This show has to end on a pessimistic, exhausted note. The show channels the exhaustion of our current mainstream politics and how it solves problems. I wish that "Game of Thrones" would show a potential way out of the crisis that we are in at present in the United States and around the world. But "Game of Thrones" the TV series will likely end in a feeling of pure cynicism and futility.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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