At the beginning of the 1950s, a series of American science-fiction films were made about things like humans landing on Mars, and an invasion of monsters from the red planet in flying saucers. The French critic and theoretician Roland Barthes analyzed this phenomenon brilliantly in his essay “Martians,” which appears in his 1979 book “The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies.” Barthes argues that even though the movies seemingly portray a weird world, in fact, the inhabitants of the distant planet presented in them share the same history and society, and even the same religion, as the denizens of Earth. He categorized films of this type as belonging to “petit-bourgeois mythology.”
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This genre is characterized by an inability to imagine a truly different form of existence. All that this mythology can offer, time and again, is the same limited and familiar world that we encounter every day in the newspapers – even if it’s projected onto a different planet inhabited by little green creatures. “Probably if we were to land in our turn on the Mars we have constructed, we should merely find Earth itself,” Barthes writes, and adds, with regard to the planet’s depiction in these movies, “Mars is not only Earth, it is petit-bourgeois Earth, it is the little district of mentality cultivated (or expressed) by the popular illustrated press” (translation by Richard Howard).
Our era, too, has a petit-bourgeois mythology. It’s called “Game of Thrones.” Much has been written about the series since it went on air. The boldness and unconventionality of the series has been lauded repeatedly, so much so that for some it enjoys a sacrosanct status. I’m not out to criticize the acting or the writing of the series, now in its seventh season. But it can definitely be said that “Game of Thrones” is destructive. It disseminates stupidity and narrow-mindedness, precisely because it’s a fantasy series that enjoys the status of a wild, creative oeuvre.
Westeros, the world of “Game of Thrones,” is supposed to be completely different from our contemporary planet. It’s a world of kings, dragons and monsters. It’s a cruel, tough place where brain-bashing and rape occur routinely. But in fact, there’s nothing strange and different in the psychology of the heroes of the series and in their human relationships. Like Mars in the 1950s movies, the world of “Game of Thrones” clones the world of the middle class in our time. The attitudes toward the body, toward sex, toward family ties, toward time, don’t even approach the genuine otherness of the alternative medieval world it seeks to portray.
Let’s consider time as it was experienced by people in our Middle Ages. In the absence of email, phones and newspapers, important events did not become known in other parts of the world or kingdom until weeks after they occurred. And people behaved, accordingly, on the basis of very little information. But the creators of “Game of Thrones” couldn’t cope with that alien experience of time. They invented immediate raven mail, which is, in effect, identical to email. The protagonists thus follow one another’s actions like CEOs who are updated about financial developments by the Bloomberg terminal.
But the concept of time is only one example of the difference of life as it was lived in Europe during medieval times. Physically, people living then were usually much shorter than we are; even their horses and sheep were dwarfish. Clearly, aristocrats did not have names like “Ned Stark,” composed of a first name and a surname. Indeed, in many families, all the children had the same first name. Parents engaged in sexual intercourse in front of the rest of the family and also played with the children’s genitals before that sort of behavior came to be considered problematic. It was also customary to put domestic animals and pests on trial in court when they caused problems.
Romantic relations of the sort we are familiar with – characterized by feelings of love and intimacy – hardly existed between husbands and wives. In contrast, men expressed physical love for other men, and also engaged in gestures that we would find peculiar. For example, a ceremony of conferring patronage included a kiss on the mouth. All this was part of life’s routine.
Murder in the coffee line
Of course, “Game of Thrones” does not purport to present a historical reconstruction of the medieval world. It contains elements inspired by other periods as well – from the Roman Empire to the Scythian horsemen and down to the Byzantine Empire. It also goes without saying that it is an entertainment product whose ultimate goal is to provide amusement. Still, it’s depressing to see how limited the imagination of the series’ creators is in terms of conjuring up a different human reality.
For beneath the costumes and the mannerisms, the characters of “Game of Thrones” resemble high-techies in Silicon Valley. The rampant scenes of captivity and torture recall a reprimand delivered by a CEO to a programmer who screwed up. The famous speech of Tyrion Lannister – one of the iconic moments of the series – evokes a tirade by a Facebook employee before he crosses the lines to Twitter, or vice versa. Similarly, the scene in which Jon Snow is stabbed by his protégé brings to mind a confrontation by the espresso machine between a devoted VP and an ambitious employee who has maneuvered and plotted against him to take his place.
Overall, the famous “lack of compassion” that the series boasts of recalls no more than the unsentimental quality of labor relations in contemporary high-tech firms, with the addition of showcased displays of violence. The viewers are led to think that they are embarking on a journey into a different, strange world, but in fact they remain in very much the same world – like someone who thought he was buying magic mushrooms, and doesn’t realize that he’s actually eating portobello mushrooms. For, as Barthes discerned, the petit-bourgeois mythology is capable only of cloning the limited world in which it was created. The greater the pretense of depicting a completely different world, the more embarrassing the failure becomes.
I’m not out to prove that “Game of Thrones” is a bad series. In any event, it’s already left a huge imprint on contemporary culture. But a far more important question looms: whether it’s possible to imagine a different world, in which life is truly of another kind entirely. In this regard, the series demonstrates that our period of cultural creation is quite limited. Some say that “Game of Thrones” causes social damage by its inclusion of scenes of violence and rape. But it’s not so much harming contemporary society as it’s harming the possibility of a different society.
This is not a marginal problem; it’s related to the inability of the left and the right around the world today to propose a vision of a different world – one that is truly different from the liberal-capitalist model. So it’s regrettable that “Game of Thrones” is exceptionally popular among radical circles. It just goes to show that even the folks who are ostensibly striving to change the world, imagine the other world they’re aiming for as a limited projection of our contemporary one. Because just as our era is failing in the fantasy department, it’s failing, too, in the realm of utopia.