'Game of Thrones' undermines traditional fantasy for the better

Get out those character sheets. With its fourth season returning next Sunday, anticipation for HBO’s "Game of Thrones" has reached a fever pitch. Considering that the fantasy genre has traditionally been thought of as only appealing to a niche audience, one has to wonder: How did a medieval fantasy show ever garner such clique-defying popularity?

Although I am overjoyed to see a thematically complex show like "Game of Thrones" ascend into the forefront of pop culture (the epic fantasy series is a breath of fresh air when compared to the moral simplicity of the superhero craze currently dominating the cinema), it’s troubling that some people have come to identify the show with wanton violence and excessive nudity (much of which is frankly intended for the male gaze).

While it’s true that "Game of Thrones" is saturated with both violence and nudity, it would be false to pitch the show as “a more bloody 'Lord of the' Rings with a lot more exposed boobies.” Such a crude characterization fails to address the show’s more laudable qualities while perpetuating the myth that "Game of Thrones" only caters to dudes, when this couldn’t be farther from the truth — the ratings for the show’s third season indicate that an average of 2 million women tuned in each week, "about 42 percent of 'Thrones' total 4.8 million viewers."



Despite these statistics, the public perception of "Game of Thrones" is still rooted in stereotypes. Tales of swords and sorcery have long been regarded as the purview of guys, and as a consequence the fantasy genre has lacked the presence of compelling, relatable female characters. This is not to dilute the influence of fantasy pioneers such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan, but the majority of their work is male-centric.

"Game of Thrones," which boasts an abundance of strong and often unconventional female characters, is not only debunking this vile stereotype but also demonstrating fantasy’s capacity for more mature, morally complex storytelling that hitherto was seldom apparent in the genre. Besides the malevolent white walkers and the sadistic King Joffrey, one is hard-pressed to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. This is because most of the characters in the show’s mammoth ensemble are wonderfully flawed, making them more relatable and thereby more likely to solicit the viewer’s empathy.

Perhaps more important is the show’s bold proclivity in punishing its heroes. It’s no secret now that "Game of Thrones" has stoked the ire of its fans by killing several of its most beloved characters, whose blind devotion to honor is not politically expedient. Their tragic deaths are carried out in the most gruesome of ways, though rather for dramatic effect than to satisfy some gore quota provided by the network. Similarly, the show is also not afraid to reward its Machiavellian villains, and for ruthless practicality no less. This undermining of traditional fantasy mores keeps the show from growing stale.

The mature tone of "Game of Thrones" is displayed in its main character. In any other traditional fantasy story, Tyrion Lannister would have been a dwarf in the vein of Norse mythology: bearded, Scottish-accented and elf-hating denizens. It’s telling of the show’s earnest desire to dispel conventional fantasy customs that he is instead a person of slight stature.

Whereas most television shows attempt to court the masses by sacrificing character complexity in favor of mindless action, "Game of Thrones" gives its characters top priority. This attention to the most pivotal aspect of storytelling, coupled with the epic scope of the story, enables the show to exhibit a very broad appeal.

Even most of the sex scenes cannot be considered gratuitous by virtue of the expository dialogue and character development they help unfold. If it continues to subvert conventional fantasy tropes (e.g. not objectifying women, having morally ambiguous characters, as well downplaying chivalry and magic), then expect "Game of Thrones" to become the most popular show television has to offer.

Reach the columnist at Alexander.Elder@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @ALEXxElder

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