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"Game of Thrones and Class Conflict" by Dr. Cynthia Boaz

There are some concepts that always present difficulties for instructors. This is particularly true in a political science classroom where students need to learn but are resistant to terms like patriarchy, racism, and privilege. Sometimes concepts like these are more readily grasped when there is a safe distance between the learner and the subject and when analyses focus on fictional universes that share enough characteristics with our world to be recognizable but are distinct enough to be understood as somewhere else.

For years, scholars from disciplines including psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy have considered the benefits of reading and watching science fiction and fantasy. Some even argue that speculative fiction stimulates moral imagination and makes us more ethical as decision-makers because it promotes empathy and the ability to consider possible utopian futures. These are some of the reasons I created a course that examines contentious political themes through the lenses of these texts. The course—POLS 449, Gender and Geopolitics in Science Fiction and Fantasy—use popular series such as “Battlestar Galactica”, “Star Trek”, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and “Westworld” to deconstruct themes of gender inequality, ethical leadership, racial conflict, colonialism, and more.

One of the tools we use in the course to analyze written and video texts is an allegory. Allegory can be thought of as an extended metaphor, where a narrative is used to express a larger idea or concept. The “Game of Thrones” series has been posited as an allegory for everything from climate change to competing for international worldviews, specifical realism vs. idealism. But one of the more topical theses is that it is best understood as an allegory for modern-day class conflict. In the feudalistic universe of Westeros and Essos, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few houses creates animosity and suspicion between everyday people and those from noble families, i.e. the “highborn.” Even the Starks, who are universally regarded in this universe as the most benevolent of the ruling families, must reckon with problems like keeping their bannermen and “smallfolk” loyal. As the lower classes become ripe for rebellion against an increasingly unpopular ruling class, a man called the High Sparrow steps in to provide moral leadership, and to provide the downtrodden with a righteous rationale for their anger. He is backed by a religious paramilitary called the Faith Militant. Through these proxies, religion becomes the opium of the masses, which the lowborn uses to justify violence against the ruling class. Ultimately though, the people’s rebellion is crushed through a massive show of force by the Queen Regent, and the common people of King’s Landing go on in the final season to become pawns in a last showdown between the noble houses.

As an analysis of class conflict, “Game of Thrones” has a rather depressing message: be wealthy and highborn if you want to have any power, status, or even hope for basic dignity. Everyone else is invisible. The real-world analogies to Westeros, minus the magic and the dragons, are unsettling. As the inequality gap grows, a ruling elite further consolidates power through the exploitation of fear. Abstract enemies like the White Walkers (a metaphor for catastrophic disaster) are ignored or even denied by the aristocracy in favor of focusing their efforts on petty political conflicts and the acquisition of ever more wealth and power. The few members of the elite class who attempt to speak up are called crazy and physically sequestered to a distant ice wall. It’s the Westerosi version of “love it or leave it.” The capital city of Westeros, King’s Landing, is a perfect encapsulation of how two distinct classes of people can occupy the same geographical area without ever really seeing one another. As the occupants of Flea Bottom kill each other for scraps, those living in the Red Keep never even bother to look down into—much less visit-- the depths of the city (except when they need to replenish their political legitimacy with a rallying show of public support). Even Daenerys- who allegedly fights in the name of the oppressed masses-- ends up gaining and keeping power at the expense of that very group.

Back in the real world, we find ourselves in a political moment where class analysis is having a comeback: Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker”—which is a harsh social critique of the perils of capitalism and the consequences of a zero-sum economic system that begets winners and losers—had the largest October opening for a movie in history. Meanwhile Donald Trump and his proxies fear-monger about an abstract threat from “socialism” while at the same time, children in the United States have the highest per capita mortality rate of the 20 wealthiest countries in the world and close to 40 million citizens live below the poverty line. In “Game of Thrones”, everyone in Westeros suffers as a result of the unchecked ambition and greed of a handful of families: the Lannisters, Targaryens, Tyrells, Greyjoys, Baratheons, and Starks. Surely there is a political message here worth unpacking in the context of 2019 United States.

“Game of Thrones” and other visual texts like it are useful as pedagogical tools because they can convey meaning without the ideological baggage that comes with thinkers like Karl Marx. The story of the quest for the Iron Throne doesn’t necessarily make class revolt more appealing to my students, but it definitely makes it more relatable.

Some ideas borrowed from “How Speculative Fiction Can Teach About Gender and Power in International Relations” by the author in International Studies Perspectives Journal, October 2019.

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