Game of Thrones Offers A Complex, Nuanced Critique of Patriarchy
Late last night, after tweeting the observation that I wasn’t actually that surprised by the Red Wedding (though I wasn’t spoiled and haven’t read the books) on “Game of Thrones”, I finally figured out why: Because the Stark family’s story is a classic tragedy. Indeed, I would argue that the whole point of “Game of Thrones” is to take various narrative forms we’re already familiar with and subvert or tweak them so we see them—and their flaws—in a new light. In this case, classic tragedy has the tragedy in the final act and the denouement is brief, often indicating that peace follows. In this case, however, the tragedy befalls relatively early in the story and the audience is privy to the prolonged fallout, which I’m guessing is not peace. But in the microcosm, Robb’s story has all the beats of a classic tragedy: Noble hero + noble quest + tragic flaw + dollop of hubris = his death, likely in the middle of a bloodbath that takes many others. Robb Stark is Oedipus. He’s Hamlet. We know this story, and as soon as he ignored a dire warning from a loved one about his impetuous choice of marriage, he was dead. It was just a matter of time.
Of course, as Rowan Kaiser argues in The American Prospect, one really cool aspect of the Stark family’s downfall is that it also functions as a sharp critique of the patriarchy….from a male point of view.
The metaphorical potential of a speculative setting helps—Game of Thrones, with its lords and kings battling for supremacy, is inarguably patriarchal. It uses an agnatic-cognatic primogeniture system where only men can inherit titles unless only a woman is the sole successor. This is obviously bad for women, who are used as political pawns and very rarely wield institutional power on their own. But what Game of Thrones manages to do is demonstrate how it damages men as well.
That is why Robb Stark is dead. In the world of Westeros, Robb’s innate goodness was at odds with his job title. As heir to Winterfell, and then as King IN The North, he had obligations that had to be fulfilled, which included marrying for strategic gain—obligations that he didn’t keep. Marrying Talisa Maegyr instead of Roslyn Frey wasn’t his only shirked responsibility. His inability to maintain relations among his vassals led directly to his death as well, in large part because he was unable to punish his mother after she worked against him. So Robb didn’t just die because he’d married for love; he also died because he’d been kind to his mother. Both of those actions seem like they should be no-brainers, but because of the world he was in, they combined to ruin the hero.
I couldn’t agree more with Rowan. I’ve found “Game of Thrones” to be a fascinating deconstruction of the romanticization of medieval patriarchy, a romanticization that is used as a rhetorical weapon to this day in order to prop up modern patriarchy. (For instance, it’s common for sexists to defend unfair treatment of women by citing “chivalry” as a value, but as “Game of Thrones” brilliantly and correctly posits, chivalry is just a series of futile, meaningless gestures to pretty up systems that treat women like disposable objects.) I will tweak his point a little, however. While I agree completely that “Game of Thrones” shows how patriarchy hurts men, too, it also shows what makes patriarchy so attractive that many men will defend it, often with their own lives.
As I said to Rowan on Twitter, you can see the difference in the experience of the chains of patriarchy for men and women in the way the Red Wedding plays out. We see three major characters experience three very different deaths:
- Talisa is murdered by having her stomach stabbed in a symbolic attack on the heir to Winterfell she’s brewing in there.
- Cat dies after being told under no uncertain terms by Walder Frey that women are worthless, replaceable objects.
- Robb dies as a king in battle, at the behest of his enemies.
Let’s be clear: The only reason that Talisa and Cat die is because they are the wife and mother of the person that Frey and the Lannisters actually want to kill, Robb Stark. Even his death has more meaning than theirs; they are basically collateral damage whose value as military targets only rests in their relationship to a man. Robb gets to be the tragic hero; they are just hapless victims. George R.R. Martin certainly complicates things behind the scenese, showing that Cat brought her own death on herself by making similar tragic hero mistakes like Robb, but what’s remarkable is that regardless of her own personal dignity and will to power, the system she lives in renders her value as simply “the mother” at the end of the day.
This observation is what I find so profound about “Game of Thrones”. Yes, patriarchy hurts men by luring them into its bullshit narrative about putting “honor” over more important things like love and human decency. But it’s not like they’re lured with phantoms. For men, the reward of upholding these unfair systems is that they are given a place of prestige and told that their lives matter—and that the other half of the human race exists solely to uphold and serve them.
You see the same dynamic play out in our modern, non-fantasy patriarchy. Men are harmed in countless ways by stifling male gender roles. They are cut off from their emotions and have to expend a serious amount of energy always maintaining the image of masculinity, and that energy drain appears to lead to higher levels of stress for straight men than for out gay and bi men. However, many straight men appear to believe that in exchange for constantly policing the boundaries of masculinity, they get a number of pretty significant male privileges, including economic opportunities, fewer domestic responsibilities, and, most importantly of all, being treated with gravitas and respect that is not generally extended to women. They get, in other words, to matter, and that is worth quite a bit of sacrifice.*
I think that’s what “Game of Thrones” so brilliantly portrays in its fantasy setting, both the way that patriarchy baits men—at least wealthy men, in this very economic unjust world—into upholding it by giving them real advantages, a genuine sense of superiority for being male, a real shot at real power. In exchange, they get sucked into this dehumanizing bullshit about “honor”, which is a very different quality than morality. They also have to, as modern men, sacrifice a life of emotional honesty, giving up real love and affection for the women in their lives in order to render those women objects to be exchanged with other men for power. Robb Stark’s real problem was he felt entitled to, to use a phrase that is usually wielded as a weapon against feminist women, have it all. He thought he got to have all the privileges not just of being a man in a patriarchy, but being a king, without having to make the sacrifices. And he was very, very wrong about that. Rowan is right that patriarchy is a poisoned apple for men, but it sure is a bright red and shiny one that tastes good going down.
*Yes, yes, I know a lot of men don’t get to experience these advantages—or they don’t get to experience them to the full extent they feel entitled to—but overall, it’s a safe thing to say that patriarchy gives men unearned privileges, and many men are defensive of those privileges and don’t want to lose them.