(Here be dragons and spoilers)
A discussion with a friend who likes Game of Thrones ended with a stab through my heart.
“Bro, don’t get me wrong. I love Game of Thrones, but it’s just boobs and dragons, right?”
It felt like shock and betrayal – as a massive fan of both show and book, I’ve been drooling since the GOT Season 7 was announced back in March.
For those who live on Mars, Game of Thrones is an epic fantasy set in the world of Westeros about various noble families vying for political power. With its intriguing plotlines and colourful characters, it’s no surprise that it’s built up a massive fanbase across the world.
Despite its popularity, my friend is not alone in thinking that GOT is glorified pornography. Back in Season 1, the show attracted many haters for its excessive use of sex and violence. In more recent years, it’s been condemned by The Guardian and even a US Senator for its graphic portrayal of rape.
They are not entirely wrong, but GOT is more than just an R-rated Lord of the Rings. Although the story is set in a fantasy world, I think it teaches us much about kindness because it addresses sexism, discrimination and other issues pertinent in our real world.
It shows us the violence faced by many women
In six short seasons, Game of Thrones has inflicted more violence and abuse upon its female characters than the past nine decades of television combined.
In the previous episodes, Queen Cersei, Daenerys and Sansa Stark were brutally and controversially raped on screen – by husbands, lovers and whatever the hell Ramsay is supposed to be.
Is this normalising sexual violence? Does the show have a problem against women?
The short answer is “no”.The problems faced by Sansa Stark or Cersei Lannister may seem dramatised for TV, but gender violence and domestic abuse are legitimate issues suffered by real women in the real world, every day. Young girls are really married off without their own consent like Season 1’s Daenerys and you don’t need to look far to find a victim like Sansa Stark – Singapore’s courts tried a wannabe Ramsay Bolton just six months ago.
In a case of life imitating art, the victim was stripped naked with the aid of “a pair of scissors”, but managed to escape by “jumping out of a window”, just as Sansa did.
The real-life Ramsay was subsequently brought to justice and sentenced to six months in prison.
Instead of hating GOT for depicting sexual assault and violence, we should commend the show for portraying strong women who rise above the challenges thrown at them by a brutal world – whether you do so with your wits like Sansa or with a trio of fire-breathing dragons like Daenerys.
It shows us how discrimination works
Tyrion Lannister a.k.a Halfman a.k.a Imp is everything you can ask for in a statesman. He is fearless in battle, ruthless in getting the job done and smart enough to come out on top in every situation.
Yet, despite his obvious talents, the world regards him with contempt because they cannot see past his dwarfism. They cannot let go of their prejudices to recognise the intelligence and ability beneath his ‘monstrous’ appearance.
After saving Sansa Stark, his own ungrateful family, and everyone in King’s Landing, they continue to despise him for the inescapable conditions of his birth.
In Tyrion’s case, the prejudice stems from dwarfism, but you can easily substitute this for race, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation. The world is full of Tyrions – short and tall, light and dark, all fighting for their rightful place in the sun.
For a real-life example, just look at any minority actor struggling for equal recognition or the unfair treatment dealt to para-athletes like Singapore’s own gold-medallist Yip Pin Xiu. Is their situation any different from the Imp’s? I don’t think so. Just as Tyrion’s appearance prevents him getting the recognition for his heroism , Yip Pin Xiu received a significantly smaller monetary reward than her able-bodied peers for achieving the same world-beating feat.
It shows us how women continue to be judged by their gender
Some women have to work twice as hard to get half as far. Our introduction to Brienne of Tarth is the perfect illustration of this.
The first time we meet her, she is masked and fighting with sword in hand. After smashing Ser Loras Tyrell to the ground, she emerges as the champion and removes her helmet… to a chorus of gasps and murmurs.
When you zoom in to the scene, you can catch a glimpse of the half-hearted clapping, a note of reluctance in Renly’s voice and the disgruntled look on the faces of the men – a look that asks: “Are you sure that a woman is suited for this task?”
Even though she had just proven her merit before all of them.
It’s a metaphor for the global warming crisis
One compelling theory has it that Game of Thrones is really an elaborate metaphor for climate change.
By now, most of us can see that Westeros’s most important war is the battle between the living and the dead. White Walkers are coming to kill everyone, but the people of Westeros are unable to put aside their petty squabbles to address this tiny matter of a looming apocalypse.
Just as the good people of earth are unable to set aside petty differences to fight climate change or global warming.
Yes, George RR Martin’s epic fantasy imparts the same lesson as your secondary school racial harmony celebrations – work together or die together. A harsh lesson, but highly relevant in an increasingly divided world of Trump and Brexit. Stark or Lannister, conservative or liberal, either we work together or risk turning into a bunch of ice zombies.
All men must learn
When the latest episode of GOT came out, all eyes were on Daenerys and her dragons, as usual.
However, my favourite scene from the Season 7 premiere has neither Dragons nor White Walkers. It’s the scene where Arya Stark meets the Lannister soldiers by the campfire.
When I saw Arya approaching, my heart skipped a beat. Was she going to murder all of them in cold blood for being Lannister soldiers? Was she going to poison them like she did the Freys? (GOT does that to you.)
I could almost see the bloodlust in her eyes.
Unexpectedly, nothing happened except a cordial meal by the fire, and a drink of blackberry wine. I have no doubt that she dismounted from the horse with violent intentions, but something during the interaction changed her mind about killing them.
Perhaps it was the man praying for a daughter. Perhaps it was the blonde lad’s incessant worrying about his father’s fishing boats. In those moment, they were not Lannisters or Starks or soldiers belonging to any faction. They were just ordinary people struggling to get by in an unjust world. She could recognise in them the remorse, hope, longing, worry and all the unspoken symptoms of a shared humanity that deserved better than Valar Morghulis.
In short, she learned to empathize.
For me, moments like this are why Game of Thrones matters. Like all great literature, it teaches us to see things from another’s perspective and experience, however briefly, another person’s suffering.
As we watch the show, everyone of us is an Arya – we learn to empathise with Cersei’s love for her children, Jon’s tortured sense of honour or even Hodor’s tragic fate. The show helps us to feel as they feel and it is in those moments of empathy that the first seeds of kindness are planted.
Holding the door isn’t kindness. Neither is helping an old lady who fell. They are just gestures of kindness – movements that signal the deeper understanding that is empathy, sympathy or whatever you wish to call it.
If Game of Thrones can bring us just a few steps closer to this stirring, all the boobs and dragons cannot stop it from being the kindest show on TV today.