All Men and Women Must Learn: Using Game of Thrones as a Pedagogical Tool

Curator's Note

In December 2012 and 2013, my online course “A Game of Thrones: A Contemporary Medieval Frame Story”, a cross-media examination of Game of Thrones at the University of Oklahoma, looked at the dynamic of how the romanticized narrative of Medieval European feudalism Martin’s book series and HBO’s adaptation utilize is viewed and perceived by an audience situated in American free-market Capitalism. The course examined the socio-economic and cultural climate of Medieval Europe and early 19th century capitalism to locate tropes which American society valorizes (chivalry, hierarchy, the underdog, etc.) are co-opted by Game of Thrones’ narrative and how this could result in our current disproportionate economic statuses being viewed through a romantic lens.

To do this we looked at Hegel’s claims of the self/other binary in the process of human process of identification - for if we had no one or no ‘thing’ from which we could compare ourselves, then we would not know who we are via who or what we do or don’t want to be. Everything that we want to be gets placed in the primary category of ‘self’. Conversely, all the stuff that we decide we don’t want to be, gets placed in a supplementary category of ‘other’. As such we see these binaries everywhere: rich/ poor, human/animal, male/female, civilized/savage, hero/villain, light/dark, strong/weak, etc. Jacques Derrida amongst other poststructuralists have said that it is through the process of setting up primary and supplementary terms in binaries that cultures and social systems establish dominance.

Game of Thrones’ narrative takes place in a world where summers can last decades. However, we are frequently warned that “winter is coming” - a veritable summer/winter binary. One discussion was based on the following prompt, which we can use for our discussion today: Who exists in geographical locations of ‘perpetual winter’ and “perpetual’ summer? How do they compare to each other socio-culturally and – economically? In this vein, how does the warning “winter is coming’ threaten summer’s comforts and securities”? Seeing as Game of Thrones has a modern author and audience who bring their modern positionality to a historical text and settings, how does this interpretation relate to our current socio-cultural and economic milieu?

Comments

Garret Castleberry's picture

Narrative Reflection Is Easier Than Self-Reflection

Sarah, thank you for brining our week of GoT discourse full-circle through combinations of autoethnography and meta-discourse. Sometimes academia can become a cantankerous loop in which the post-millennial student checks out for any number of social, cultural, technological, or economic reason. As academics, it can be difficult to counter apathetic dispositions that quickly dissolve into anti-intellectual nihilism. Whatever shortcomings or misgivings contemporary students have for the classroom, the narratives that capture the spirit of the age gain and retain audiences in and out of ivory tower spaces.

GoT in particular pleases the masses because it re-presents an alternative world that reads as more authentic than traditional TV shows that occupy our “real” world. The series deftly places conversations of power front and center, issues of gender front and center, conflicts between old and new ways of thinking and behaving front and center—in essence forcing audiences to identify and experience authentic human conflict we typically suppress under the guise of “political correctness” or cultural apathy or some other passive affect.

From the pilot onward “Winter is Coming” assumes a foreboding conclusion if society continues down the current path. It is as apocalyptic as it is cryptic. On one hand, the North’s mantra is very Old Testament in how it creates binary opposition between ideological tensions of living in worldly excess (Southern territories) versus strict adherence to moral codes and religious beliefs (Northern territories). One the other hand, while such coding is ancient, it is also clearly contemporary.

Some ancient cultures recognized the metaphorical language of “seasons” as signifying plentitude versus famine. It would certainly be telling to see if and how contemporary audiences (not just students) reflect the allegorical language and socio-cultural warnings GoT posits.

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