Breaking the wheel

By Tania Evans, PhD ’19


More than 20 million viewers watched the final episode of the phenomenally popular fantasy series Game of Thrones – a series that leaves behind a complex message about masculinity and violence.

George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire and its television adaptation Game of Thrones are among the most popular cultural texts of the twenty-first century so far, but they are also among the most violent. Of the major characters, more than half die by the end of season seven and, of those deaths, 63 per cent are caused by assault and 24 per cent by injuries sustained during warfare.

Male characters make up a substantial 71 per cent of these violent deaths and they also perpetrate most of these violent acts. In the final season of the series, this violence continued in a spectacular fashion, although the vast majority was carried out by masculine women.

The connection between violence and masculinity has been widely discussed in the real world and cultural texts. Sociological studies of masculinity have, for example, examined sport, the media, domestic violence, school shootings and the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and violence. These studies concur that violence is associated with normative masculine discourses in the real world, and the same is true of popular culture.

The high levels of violence in Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire are often criticised. For many of the series’ detractors, the violence is gratuitous. Game of Thrones has been referred to as engaging in ‘the glorification of violence for violence’s sake’ and many public figures have boycotted the series because of its depiction of sexual violence.Academic scholarship has generally echoed this assessment, particularly in relation to sexual and sexualised violence. For instance, Debra Ferreday claims the series reinforces rape culture even as the online fandom resists normalising sexual violence.

These literary readings of the violence in the series reflect an assumption that stems from the idea that violence in cultural texts leads to real world violence, a notion that is disputed by media violence scholars.

In both A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, violence is far more complicated than its detractors suggest. There is certainly a large amount of blood and viscera, sexposition, and sexual violence, but it is important to think about how these elements work within the text.

For example, the latest season of Game of Thrones shows a graphic battle between two armies in the pseudo-medieval city of King’s Landing. The violence is at its goriest: blood sprayed everywhere, scores of people are burnt alive, and bloody and smoking corpses litter almost every scene.