We have chatted and swapped emails about our occasionally differing views of popular culture. But we have yet to really dialogue in a constructive manner to try and illuminate and — perhaps, I sincerely hope — resolve our differences. With your compelling defense of Game of Thrones and your encouragement of Christians to engage with reality and the culture at large, this looks like a good opportunity to illustrate how my perspective on film has changed over the last four years and why we’re now in some ways polar opposites on pop culture preferences, at least when it comes to HBO’s offerings. You’ve named Game of Thrones as your favorite show. Sorry, but having watched everything up to tonight’s finale, I really HATE this show. It’s a textbook example of everything that sickens me about our culture today and that someday I’ll write a book about to diagnose fully. I agree with th commenter “Recovering Lutheran” from your post:
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. “Game of Thrones” is not art. It is “Dungeons and Dragons” crossed with Playboy magazine, with a dash of “Days of Our Lives” thrown in. The plot is meandering and often pointless, the dialogue is tedious and sometimes predictable, the acting is mostly wooden, and the only thing that keeps much of the audience from tuning out is the prospect of a shapely actress doing the Full Monty. Most of the things that make science fiction and fantasy absorbing are diminished or absent in “Game of Thrones”. If you ever wondered what would have happened if Hugh Hefner had tried to make “Lord of the Rings”, you need not wonder any longer.
You’ve known me since not long after I started editing full time. I was 25 and was only a defense hawk and fiscal conservative but still “socially liberal.” Since then, for a variety of reasons (particularly my return to belief in God), I’ve come further in my ideological shift. I’m genuinely embarrassed by some of the socially conservative positions I find myself now arguing. Never in a million years did I foresee myself as the type that would ever side with those cautioning against pornography’s downsides and the “shocking” content in art. You’ve talked in the past about how you disagree with our mutual friend Ben Shapiro about his Orthodox Judaism-inspired approach to culture and sex. I used to also — and I still disagree with Ben from time to time on issues and tactics (particularly on gay marriage. This is a theological difference deriving from an interpretation of scripture. He and I will just have to keep arguing about it). But on the fundamental issue, the social conservatism he explicates from his traditional reading of the Torah is correct: sex is sacred. It’s impossible to have “casual sex” with someone — every sexual act is transformative. I came to this understanding differently than him, though, through first-hand experience and painful mistakes.
As a high school and college film buff, my circle of movie-obsessed friends and I cherished the game of shocking each other with new weird and transgressive films. We constantly tried to top one another in finding a new, obscure foreign film or exploitation bootleg DVD that upped the ante. For years my future-wife and I even made an annual date of going to see the new Saw movies. (Seeing them had been one of our early dates when we first met in college.) But nowadays we don’t get out to the horror movies as often. Now HBO streams the shocks right in. But after the “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones, we’re done. (My wife, fanatical animal lover, was most offended by the needless killing of the wolf. I, a few years older and with what’s gradually grown into a burning jealousy of my dad-colleagues and peers, felt sick to my stomach at the stabbing, bloody murder of a father’s unborn child. Did they really need to dwell on the knife into the womb and then the father’s grief in the America of Kermit Gosnell? Perhaps really my newfound social conservatism is just the “I-need-to-be-a-father-someday” switch having flicked in my brain recently…)
We’ve actually been talking about just cutting the cable. It’s such a depressing show — aren’t they all on HBO? — and honestly our lives have often been challenging enough. Why curl up at night and watch a show filled with cruel, crazy, unpredictable people stabbing each other in the back for no reason whatsoever when that’s what we have to maneuver around all day in the real world? This passage from your piece jumped out at me:
The very power of Game of Thrones derives from the fact that the author of the source novels, George R. R. Martin (an atheist, I believe) treats his characters as harshly and heartlessly as the real world treats the rest of us. If Christians can’t look at that without losing their faith, they better not watch the news either, or look out their windows, or leave their rooms.
I’m cautious about overanalyzing my own change of mind too much, but the truth is that part of my shift toward social conservatism has come from not just watching the news each night like most folks but having to do so full time while participating in its creation. Really dark, disturbing dramas no longer appeal to me as they did years ago when I spent my days as an idle college student and then working a boring day job while developing my freelance writing part time. The kinds of material that once shocked me no longer do. Now instead of the hit of seeing something new and horrible and feeling the emotional reaction of witnessing it, scenes of rape, torture, and prostitution remind me of real people I’ve known, history books I’m reading, and stories that I’ve participated in editing.
A show like Game of Thrones isn’t an escapist pleasure for me. (Nor does it provide any high-minded artistic insight into why people cruelly treat each other like objects.) It’s just a reminder of the tragic quality of life that I’ll have to start wrestling with again if I make the mistake of checking Gmail on my phone when I should be trying to relax. I pop open my email: Oh, what’s this? A story submission? Another video of gay Muslims being burned alive in the Middle East? Pictures of a woman’s mutilated face after she’s had acid thrown at her? But it’s no use putting the phone down. Just change the channel and it’s much the same. What’s this on CNN? Some sordid story of a sexy murderess, Jodi Arias? Is that her name? Why is this news? At USA Today: “Transcript of Jodi Arias sex-tape hearing unsealed.“ When I see headlines like that, you know what I’ve come to think as an editor? “I wonder how many pageviews that sex and violence headline will generate? The editor must be so proud for finding something shocking that the 40% of the electorate who didn’t care enough to bother voting for president last year can eat up.”
My apologies for being Buzzkillington about your favorite show, but, well, this is something that hits me on a daily basis and is perhaps another key in my shift. Remember, my wife and I have lived in the San Fernando Valley for almost three years now. When I take Maura out for her walks, it’s not uncommon for us to run into prostitutes hopping out of cars with their thuggish pimps. I don’t know if the various women we run into around the neighborhood with their tiny, irritating Paris Hilton-style Chihuahua dogs are actually porn “stars.” But they’ve certainly adopted the tattoos and fashion stylings that lend one to suspect it. I’m not exaggerating about life in “Porn Valley.” It’s so weird, we actually come across used Magnum condom wrappers all the time:
I’m not a prude and have no intention of being an anti-porn zealot or anything. While I of course have a tendency toward radicalism, I think I’m pretty moderate on the issue. Human beings are going to make and consume sexually charged media and there’s little that government can or should do to stop it. What I’m concerned about is talking honestly about what it actually is and arguing that everyone should regard porn as comparable to junk food, drinking, and smoking. An indulgence every now and then is fairly benign but binging on a regular basis can do serious damage.
The real issue with Game of Thrones that I’d challenge others to consider is this: it used to be that “porn” and “art” were two very distinct categories. Those who made shocking media to excite people’s basest instincts admitted they were pornographers. But with Game of Thrones we’re dealing with something very different from traditional pornography. It’s a subject that I hope to explore more at PJ Lifestlye; my friend Susan L.M. Goldberg started approaching it today with the introductory piece to her Biblical Feminist analysis of Girls.
The concept that I propose discussing, which Game of Thrones illustrates better than any show on television today, is this: Postmodern Pornography. How is pomo-porno different than the traditional variety? In much the same way that Barack Obama’s Saul Alinsky-style, pragmatic community-organizing Marxism differs from the more honest Marxism of his mentors Frank Marshall Davis, Derrick Bell, Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, and Bernardine Dohrn. Postmodern pornography does not acknowledge that it’s pornography and its makers would likely protest that they aren’t pornographers. They think they’re just artists telling the truth about the world. But they’re not. They’re just shocking people to get attention and make money. If you’re going to argue that Game of Thrones is “art” then so is Saw V (the last of the series that we got around to seeing).
Here are two truths about life that Game of Thrones doesn’t want people to consider. But they’re the reasons why I hate the show (and — this is another discussion we should have at PJ Lifestyle — part of the reason why I’ve returned to belief in God and a reliance on the Bible as the source of my values and strength. Oh God, doesn’t that sound embarrassing to say?).
1. Game of Thrones Normalizes Prostitution.
One of our popular culture’s favorite archetypes — that I came to understand since childhood via TV and movies — is the “hooker with a heart of gold.” The idea of the prostitute as a kind of fallen but benevolent, wise woman just struggling to survive and improve herself hides the historical and contemporary realities of why women actually become prostitutes or porn stars — or choose to live promiscuously, sleeping with too many men and way too quickly.
How come nobody ever educated me about “daddy issues” while I was growing up? With all the lessons that culture saw fit to teach me, how come I had to learn this the hard way for myself? This description from Urban Dictionary summarizes the problem in a sanitized way:
Unresolved Daddy Issues. When a female has received inadequate or inappropriate attention from the father-figure in her life leading her to seek male approval elsewhere through sex or a romantic relationship, usually from an older man.
Andrew, I learned this as I started dating feminists in college. It’s very sad but a perpetual truism: the women who are the most promiscuous usually got that way as a result of sexual abuse and/or an absent father. Normal, healthy women who have not been abused don’t choose to have sex for a living or try to get close to a man by having sex on the first date or dressing like Jenna Jameson.
But Game of Thrones can’t tell the truth about prostitution. To tell the story of how the ultra-feminine sex goddess transformed herself into that in response to primitive males hurting her as a little girl would destroy the fantasy. The creators of the show don’t want us to think about what circumstances would lead the characters into the life we find them. Nor do they ever spend much time focusing on the sex slaves and how miserable their lives must actually be.
2. Game of Thrones Normalizes Sadomasochism.
So often the talk when it comes to media content and the MPAA rating system is about “sex and violence.” They’re generally thought of as two separate categories. A movie gets an R rating because either somebody gets their head chopped off or we see a pair of naked breasts and a simulated sex scene. But in the Game of Thrones world they blend together as torture scenes and sex scenes shift together and the menace of gang rape looms over every female character. The true appeal of Game of Thrones is in its postmodern quality. You may not care about the characters or be able to follow the plot, but like with Seth MacFarlane’s terrible cartoon Family Guy one never knows which emotions will come in the next scene. Will it be something funny? Cool? Exciting? Violent? Sexy? Which feelings will the show choose to invoke? One can never guess and that’s the primitive thrill that Game of Thrones provides. I’ve made it through the three seasons not caring about any of the characters or which of the evil tyrants will end up with the coveted throne just because of the low-brow thought, “Gee, I wonder who gets killed or how they’ll try and horrify me next.” It may be a show promoting terrible values, but if there’s any praise that it warrants at least it’s not boring. Better stay on your toes — anybody can die at any moment. Kind of like life.
As you might have observed, I’ve been reading Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae lately and while I don’t agree with her all the time I think she’s right here in this excerpt I featured last week at PJ Lifestyle, and Game of Thrones, the art celebrated by critics across the political spectrum, demonstrates it:
“Romanticism always turns into decadence. Nature is a hard taskmaster. It is the hammer and the anvil crushing individuality. Perfect freedom would be to die by earth, air, water, and fire.”
What begins as a kind of romantic tolerance of extreme sexual freedom (“if I tolerate other people’s sexual quirks then they’ll tolerate mine”) devolves into a tolerance of cruel sexuality. The conventional wisdom today, with housewives reading Fifty Shades of Grey, is that to blend sexual pleasure with violence and dehumanizing cruelty is just one more flavor of a liberated sex life. One might enjoy it, one might not, but who are we to judge? As long as everyone’s consenting then what difference does it make if someone likes to beat their spouse during sex? It’s weird, but who isn’t a bit weird these days?
That’s the postmodern attitude that we’ve been conditioned to accept in the name of “tolerance.” But it runs alongside a deeper, more important question: why is it that someone would get sexually aroused by causing pain to the person that they’re supposed to love? What has happened to them during the course of their life to rewire them in such a way that they feel a need to treat another person like this? And more importantly: what effect does it have on them at a subconscious level that their mind is switching from being excited sexually to feeling the thrill of violence? What is the effect of Game of Thrones’ ultraviolence on the especially naive and ignorant?
Now Andrew, maybe I’m wrong, but I think it does real damage to our culture that the bloodlust and prostitute-idolizing of Game of Thrones receives the praise it does. Is it just a coincidence that the same culture that celebrates Game of Thrones’ bloodbaths also looks the other way at Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans who were left to die (for reasons still unknown though we have some suspicions…)? The more fake, watered down, make-believe evil our culture soaks up, the less prepared we are to confront the real-life evils.
Rather than praise Game of Thrones I think the “conservative” argument on it should be to declare it a guilty pleasure. It’s just a trashy show. Or is it art? Did I miss something?
Thank you for your friendship and the inspiration that your writing continues to give,