Admitting that I am a fan of the hugest TV hit series of the moment can get me some side-eye in Catholic circles, but it is true: I love Game of Thrones. I love the book series on which it is based, A Song of Ice and Fire, even more: a slightly more morally acceptable confession, because at least no one yells at me for watching porn.
“Game of Thrones is porn” is the mantra I keep hearing from right-wing bloggers and posters of memes. One is tempted to dismiss this charge on the grounds that everyone who repeats it does so while also stating that they haven’t watched it – since anyone wanting to do art analysis should probably start by seeing the thing before making a judgment on it. But, of course, people can decide what they want to see or avoid based on descriptions. And yes, some things we know are porn without having to see them. They are marketed as such, labeled as such. The question is, is there a grey area where a work of art or entertainment veers somewhat into the pornographic? And does Game of Thrones veer this way?
In order to answer this we need to be a little clearer on what pornography is. The presence of nudity, and even of explicit sex, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a work to be sexually pornographic. The necessary condition is manipulation towards the end of sexual arousal. Towards this end, stories in works of pornography are at best tenuous frameworks designed to get as quickly as possible to the point. Porn viewers do not want to sit through fifty minutes of complex story-telling in order to get a brief flash of nudity. No one who has access to internet porn is going to waste time on Game of Thrones – unless, perhaps, their interest in the story is sufficient to lure them away from a porn addiction. In which case, that is a good thing.
This doesn’t mean people won’t be aroused by nudity, but at a certain point the fact of possible arousal becomes negligible, because it is culturally conditioned. There was a time when seeing a woman’s calf would have sent men reeling into helpless lust. This does not mean that showing a woman’s calf is pornographic. In some cultures, it is typical for women to go topless. This is not pornographic, either.
Pornography by its nature dehumanizes the body and reduces it to a sex object for gratification and use. This is different from representations of the human body which elicit heightened awareness of personhood. Such representations are not always necessarily lovely. The crucifixion, a bodily image at the heart of the Catholic imagination, is proof of this. Some Protestant Christians are horrified by our seemingly ghoulish obsession with a depiction of horrific torture, the twisted and bleeding human body which is also the body of God. But it is precisely this juxtaposition of horror and beauty which is the message of grace.
I would suggest that for the most part the representations of sex and violence in Game of Thrones are intended to elicit this heightened awareness of humanity. Yes, much of the sex is exploitative, but this is portrayed as negative, intended to awaken a sense of justice. Again, a juxtaposition of horror and beauty.
The few sex scenes that are tender and intimate are portrayed with a kind of veiling that respects the privacy of human love. Actor Emilia Clarke’s insistence on being clothed for her representation of Daenerys’ “seduction” of her warlord husband had the effect of increasing awareness of the surprising tenderness that bloomed within what should have been a traumatic relationship, a forced marriage for military and political ends. The contrast between truly loving relationships that endure even in the midst of the darkness and violence of a world at war – and the violent sex acts performed in the moral corruption of that world – tends to showcase what it is that is vulnerable and lovable about persons, and personal bodies.
“I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things,” says Tyrion, my favorite character, and this could be considered the deepest theme of the story. Bear in mind, too, that in the novels, George R. R. Martin makes it clear that “broken” can mean “morally broken.” There are “broken men” who, shattered by war, roam the country like ravening wolves, but we are reminded – by one of the few truly good characters in the story, a holy man – that they are to be pitied. So, yes, most of the people in Game of Thrones do dreadful things, even some of our favorites. That’s what brokenness means. That’s what sin means.
This is connected with a sort of via negativa in the religious sense of the story, in which the divine is made present in moments of silence, and among the most disenfranchised – but that is a subject for a different post.
I will close with two caveats: first, no, it is not a show for everyone. Not everyone finds catharsis in stories of darkness and violence, but some of us do. Some simply find these representations disturbing. And obviously, it is not for children….but, then, neither is wine. And just as wine could be dangerous for some, so could depictions of graphic violence be harmful both for those inclined to perpetrate such acts, and those who have been victims of them. Second, I agree with some critics that the showrunners sometimes go too far. Storytellers have to tread with care on many issues, especially in depictions of sex and violence, and not everyone always gets it right. Especially when money is at stake. Especially when rape culture is so, distrubingly, normative.
The books, as we always say, are better – in this regard and in others.
But fundamentally, I believe, the story unfolding in Game of Thrones is profoundly moral, and – at a time of global unrest when we look on helpless at the suffering of the most vulnerable – very timely.
image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bagogames/16632632814