How ‘Game of Thrones’ is like America
(CNN) — A fire-breathing dragon has never vaporized a senator giving a pompous speech on C-SPAN. No candidate has ever poisoned a rival at his wedding reception, and no “white walker” zombie has ever dragged a screaming climate change skeptic away.
Yet anyone who thinks HBO’s popular “Game of Thrones” is just about kings and castles misses how much the show reflects contemporary America, several scholars, authors and fans of the show say.
The fantasy TV series is set in the fictional kingdom of Westeros, where a small group of powerful families scheme against one another to seize control of the “iron throne.” Look past the dragons and knights, though, and the show offers eerie political and racial parallels between the world of Westeros and the United States, fans and scholars say.
Here are five of them:
Only elites can play the game
There is no middle class in “Game of Thrones.” The “99%” of Westeros — the peasants, innkeepers and farmers — survive at the whim of a small group of wealthy families who treat them with indifference and cruelty.
The HBO show is an adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s series, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” (HBO and CNN are both owned by Time Warner.) Martin modeled his books on medieval Europe, where there was a huge gap between the rich and poor, says Steven Attewell, author of “Race for the Iron Throne” and editor of a blog with the same title.
Medieval thinkers justified that gap by using some of the same rhetoric people use today to explain poverty: It’s the poor’s fault.
The poor were told that there was something inherently wrong with them: They were the descendants of Noah’s son, Ham, a cursed Biblical figure, Attewell says.
“They said that because the poor people are sons and daughters of Ham, it was God’s will that they serve as peasants,” Attewell says. “They also cited passages in the Bible that commanded obedience to the king and the servant to the master.”
Social mobility was extremely limited by modern standards, Attewell says. A typical peasant paid taxes to a lord who essentially owned him.
“It was hard to get past the idea of a monarchy,” Attewell says. “They didn’t have examples of democracy. Even when you had a social revolution from below in this period, they didn’t have an alternate model of government to look to.”
Neither does “Game of Thrones,” because the rich control everything. They own the land and the political process, and the only contenders for the iron throne come from a small group of powerful dynastic families.
The show’s depiction of families fighting for control mirrors where U.S. politics could be headed, says Joshua Weikert, a political science professor from Albright College in Pennsylvania.
The 2016 presidential election could well feature another Clinton vs. Bush contest if Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush decide to run. Could Americans one day say, without irony, “The House of Bush” or “The House of Clinton”?
In the show, “two or three primary families trade off and form alliances to enhance their position,” Weikert says. “Can we really see none of the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons in these machinations?”
When the rich control the political process, it’s difficult for a country to remain a democracy, according to one of the most popular books in the United States.
“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is not just a best-seller, it has become a cultural phenomenon. Thomas Piketty, a French economist, warns in his book that concentrating wealth at the top invariably corrodes democracy. He argues after studying two centuries of economic data that economic inequality is wired into the machinery of capitalism. And he says the United States is headed toward an aristocratic future resembling 19th century Europe, where powerful families sustained by inherited wealth rule the rest.
There are no royal families in the United States, but Weikert says many Americans share the same sentiment as the jaded “99%” of Westeros:
“The game is played among elites.”
It’s a man’s world
The late soul singer James Brown never makes an appearance in “Game of Thrones,” but his song, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” could be its unofficial soundtrack.
There are no men pushing for gender equality in “Game of Thrones.” Male characters unapologetically beat women, rape them and throw them away as if they’re old sofas. Yet to paraphrase Brown, the show “wouldn’t be nothing” without a cast of formidable female characters who refuse to play the roles assigned to them.
The women of Westeros don’t wait for knights to rescue them from dragons; one of them commands three dragons of her own. She is Daenerys Targaryen, the young sole survivor of a royal family. She starts as a timid pawn of men who violate her and treat her with contempt. She becomes a legendary warrior queen.
The show’s fan base is filled with women who identify with characters like Daenerys Targaryen. They revel in her ability to rise to the top in a male-dominated world, says Paul Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University in New York.
“They’re seeing women in positions of power more and more,” Levinson says. “Not only Hillary but people like (Sen.) Elizabeth Warren and Sarah Palin. Daenerys captures that aspect. She constantly gets the better of men.”
One of the most beloved characters in the show is Arya Stark, an adolescent girl who outthinks and out-toughs men. Born to a noble family, she rejects the notion that she must marry a lord and bear his children to be a successful woman. She forges herself into a skilled warrior to avenge her family’s honor.
“We gravitate to Arya because she provides a refreshing alternative to the damsels in distress we typically see in medieval dramas,” says Jamie Adair, editor of the “History Behind the Game of Thrones” blog. “Arya’s assertiveness speaks to our modern values. She’s driven by revenge and she’s willing to be ruthless.”
The show’s portrayal of women is a reflection of a deeper message in Martin’s “Game of Thrones” books: Kings may rule, but their rise and fall ultimately depends on the small folks, says Charli Carpenter, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“What Martin has done is create a story about elite politics told through the viewpoint of the marginalized: women, prostitutes, bastards, dwarfs,” says Carpenter, author of an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine entitled, “Game of Thrones as Theory.”
Political paralysis jeopardizes the future
In one of the most famous scenes in “Game of Thrones,” another powerful woman, Cersei Lannister, the Queen of Westeros, schools a rival on political power.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” she tells him. “There is no middle ground.”
Cersei Lannister isn’t much for bipartisan cooperation. She would fit right into the current U.S. Congress, which is on its way to becoming the least productive and most ideologically divided one in history, according to some reports. (It’s also the richest, as well as the first Congress where the majority of its members are millionaires, another report says).
The price of political paralysis is one of biggest themes in “Game of Thrones” and a persistent theme in U.S. politics, scholars and fans say.
In Westeros, leaders spend more time fighting one another than helping their subjects. Most are only driven by self-interest. They constantly question the right of other kings to rule. The kingdom even has its own version of a “birther” controversy: A king is accused of being illegitimate because his family hid his true lineage.
The political paralysis in Westeros comes at a dangerous time. Feuding leaders ignore the real existential threat to their world. An army of ice-encrusted zombies called “white walkers” is mobilizing to destroy the kingdom and usher in an ice age. “Winter is coming,” is the ominous conclusion one leader delivers after watching the deadly white walkers in action, but no one listens to him.
You couldn’t find a more apt comparison to feuding political leaders in the United States who are ignoring global warming, says Gordon Coonfield, a communications professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
“Multiple factions are so busy with infighting,” he says, “that they are completely unaware or indifferent to a looming apocalypse.”
The rulers in “Game of Thrones” also ignore another looming political issue, fans and scholars say: Westeros, too, has an immigration problem no one wants to tackle.
Instead, the rulers have relied on a giant wall originally built to keep out white walkers but now used to stop border crossings of an impoverished group the people of Westeros dismiss as “wildlings.” The rhetoric used to justify the wall is similar to some of the language used in America’s immigration debate, says Weikert, the political science professor at Albright College.
“They say we need to make sure that ‘they’ don’t come in here and ruin our society and culture,” Weikert says. “Some people were lucky enough to be born on the ‘right’ side of the border and have an interest in keeping out those who are threatening the existing order.”
A nation lives beyond its means
There are plenty of supernatural creatures and vicious villains in “Game of Thrones,” but there is one entity that no one dares cross: The Iron Bank of Braavos.
If you think the Wall Street money managers who almost ruined the global economy are heartless capitalists, you should meet the dreaded bureaucrats from the Iron Bank.
It’s the most powerful bank in the world of “Game of Thrones.” It doesn’t really care about the health of Westeros’ economy or the poor people living on a “bowl of brown” in the kingdom’s “Flea Bottom” ghetto.
They just want their money, and they’re willing to unleash chaos to get it.
“The great thing about the bank,” says Weikert, “is if you don’t pay what you owe, they give loans to your enemy to overthrow you.”
Think of the Iron Bank as America’s deficit, fans of the show say: It’s an economic guillotine that hangs over the future, they say. Several kings of Westeros have amassed huge national debts because of Iron Bank loans, but they’re afraid to tell their subjects that their country is living beyond its means.
National debt, in the United States as in Westeros, scares political leaders. In “Game of Thrones,” all leaders dread the Iron Bank’s motto:
“The Iron Bank will have its due.”
Race still matters
There are no racial scandals in Westeros. No one secretly recorded a ruler dehumanizing another ethnic group. But that doesn’t mean racial stereotypes in contemporary America haven’t wormed their way into the show’s scripts, some bloggers and authors say.
Much of that criticism centers on the storyline involving Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled warrior queen.
The pale, silver-haired leader liberates an army of black and brown slaves as she marches through a North African-like region, breaking the chains of oppressed peoples. It’s thrilling stuff — “Occupy Wall Street” with three fire-breathing dragons.
Still, some critics say the plotline unwittingly resurrects a racial stereotype often used to justify U.S. imperialism: white saviors rescuing dark-skinned people from the barbarity of their ways.
Whiteness is “both a conquering and civilizing force” in “Game of Thrones,” stand-up comedian Aamer Rahman wrote in his blog. British blogger Shane Thomas called Targaryen’s conquests the “save the coloureds” tour.
Saladin Ahmed, author of “Throne of the Crescent Moon,” says the show also reinforces some stereotypes about black and brown men in its depiction of the Dothraki people, a nomadic, brown-skinned tribe portrayed as hypersexual and hyperviolent.
Even more fully drawn characters of color like Missandei, a regal woman who acts as Daenerys’ translator and aide, slip into stereotypical behavior, Ahmed says. The actress who plays Missandei, Nathalie Emmanuel, is fantastic, but her character becomes a cliché at times, Ahmed says.
“She is the black best friend every white girl has,” he says. “She has no story of her own. She has no desires or wants of her own. She’s just there to give advice to Daenerys.”
With the introduction of new characters like Prince Oberyn Martell of Dorne, also known as the “Red Viper,” there are hints the show may begin treating its characters of color with more complexity. But that day hasn’t quite come yet, Ahmed says.
The show, Ahmed says, “has the same problem Hollywood in general has: limiting actors of color to villains, best friends and martyrs for white people.”
“Game of Thrones” may yet evolve. Part of its appeal is its unpredictability. No one really knows where the story is headed because Martin is still adding books to his series and he’s not afraid to kill beloved characters.
Martin may yet give fans a happy ending. But as some Americans look ahead to their own country’s future, they may also conclude:
“Winter is coming.”
By John Blake