Of Slavoj Žižek, Game of Thrones, Women, and Revolution
Every man and his dragon clearly wants to have their twenty-cents’ worth on Game of Thrones at the moment. Celebrated Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has written a piece in the Independent, which criticises the implicit conservatism of the ending. It’s this piece that I thought I would comment on today.
I have a soft spot for Žižek generally. He marches to the beat of his own drum – ideological non-conformists are all-too rare these days. He may go off on his own little weird tangents, and pinning down his exact position is often like fighting a cloud, but he’s never a dull commentator, even when you disagree with him. And, well, I disagree with him today, because I think he simultaneously gives Game of Thrones too much and too little credit – at least in this particular article. You never entirely know with Žižek, who, as ever, delights in provocation.
GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS
The last season of the Game of Thrones has prompted public outcry and culminated in a petition (signed by almost 1 million outraged viewers) to disqualify the entire season and re-shoot a new one. The ferocity of the debate is in itself a proof that the ideological stakes must be high.
There is an almost naive assumption here that ferocious debate must imply high stakes. It’s a profoundly mistaken assumption, of course – the debate over Game of Thrones is ferocious, not because the stakes are high, but because lots of people have become emotionally invested in the outcome. If anything, this episode is a sign of a curious disconnect in modern society between emotional attachment and what has actual meaning – many of us care far more about the fate of these fictional people than real people. There is even a meme going around at the moment, comparing Daenerys on Drogon to US foreign policy, which makes light of this.
(On the other hand, the fact that so many people care so deeply about the story is arguably a success of the story, not a failure on the part of the audience).
The dissatisfaction turned on a couple of points: bad scenario (under the pressure to quickly end the series, the complexity of the narrative was simplified), bad psychology (Daenerys’ turn to “Mad Queen” was not justified by her character development), etc.
Except that the showrunners were not under pressure to quickly end the series. HBO offered them a full ten episodes, but they decided to wrap it up in six. It was a problem of their own making. And Daenerys’ mad turn most certainly was badly handled character development.
One of the few intelligent voices in the debate was that of the author Stephen King who noted that dissatisfaction was not generated by the bad ending but the fact of the ending itself. In our epoch of series which in principle could go on indefinitely, the idea of narrative closure becomes intolerable.
If I were being facetious, I would suggest that Stephen King is an interesting authority to cite on the subject of endings. I also thoroughly disagree that the objections are rooted in hostility to narrative closure – if this is the case, why have there been so many calls for The Simpsons to be put out of its misery?
Season eight stages three consecutive struggles. The first one is between humanity and its inhuman “Others” (the Night Army from the North led by the Night King); between the two main groups of humans (the evil Lannisters and the coalition against them led by Daenerys and Starks); and the inner conflict between Daenerys and the Starks.
Problem is, the ordering of these struggles undermines the core theme of both book and series: human politics is not important.
This is why the battles in season eight follow a logical path from an external opposition to the inner split: the defeat of the inhuman Night Army, the defeat of Lannisters and the destruction of King’s Landing; the last struggle between the Starks and Daenerys – ultimately between traditional “good” nobility (Starks) faithfully protecting their subjects from bad tyrants, and Daenerys as a new type of a strong leader, a kind of progressive bonapartist acting on behalf of the underprivileged.
Daenerys believes she acts on behalf of the underprivileged, yes. It’s why her destruction of King’s Landing made so little sense. But there is a distinction between belief and reality, and really what Daenerys (post-madness) offers is a return to the absolutist tyranny of the early Targaryen years, dressed up as a plea for freedom. Why should we be forced to take propaganda – even sincerely believed propaganda – at its word?
It is also mistaken to see the Starks as necessarily representatives of traditional good nobility. After all, Jon explicitly rejects the throne, then rejects a hierarchical structure altogether (our last sight of Jon is him running off with the Wildings). Arya has never fitted within the traditional framework, and she too runs away for a different life. Bran is a weird inhuman being divorced from mortal realms, full stop. Even Sansa, the most conventional of the four, has more regionalist ambitions – to pull the North out from beneath the heel of the wider realm in the name of self-determination.
What we therefore see is not so much a dispute between Tradition and Bonapartism, but rather a dispute between a Dark Messiah (complete with that image of Luciferian wings) and her sceptics. Rather than representing a coherent view of what the social order should be, the Starks are more certain of what they are against than what they are for.
The stakes in the final conflict are thus: should the revolt against tyranny be just a fight for the return of the old kinder version of the same hierarchical order, or should it develop into the search for a new order that is needed?
This reminds me of the old arguments that posit Tolkien’s Sauron as progressive. He isn’t – and neither is the Mad Queen of Game of Thrones. Certainly, Sauron believed that he was necessary to bring order to Middle-earth, just as Daenerys believes that she is necessary to bring liberation to Westeros and beyond. It’s just that, again, belief is rather different from reality.
This is not a binary choice: to be a sceptic of a “new order” (especially one involving thousands of people being burned to a crisp) is not to be an advocate for the old. Hell, Samwell Tarly proposes actual democracy, and no-one would accuse him of being a Daenerys fan.
The finale combines the rejection of a radical change with an old anti-feminist motif at work in Wagner. For Wagner, there is nothing more disgusting than a woman who intervenes in political life, driven by the desire for power. In contrast to male ambition, a woman wants power in order to promote her own narrow family interests or, even worse, her personal caprice, incapable as she is of perceiving the universal dimension of state politics.
Now Žižek is giving the writers too much credit. Game of Thrones engaging with Wagnerian criticisms of women? No. It is not that sophisticated. Not least because the truly monstrous representative of overweening ambition in the work is not Daenerys (who, after all, inherits familial entitlement from her brother) but rather Petyr Baelish, the decidedly male Littlefinger.
The same femininity which, within the close circle of family life, is the power of protective love, turns into obscene frenzy when displayed at the level of public and state affairs. Recall the lowest point in the dialogue of Game of Thrones when Daenerys tells Jon that if he cannot love her as a queen then fear should reign – the embarrassing, vulgar motif of a sexually unsatisfied woman who explodes into destructive fury.
I agree that the scene in question is weak, but one can rationalise it as being less about the sexual satisfaction, and more about the idea that Daenerys wants (and is denied) acceptance – the People love Jon, but not her. I would also point out that the root cause of the War of the Five Kings is a battle over whose squirt of semen created Joffrey – one can reduce a fair bit in this story to the embarrassing and the vulgar.
But – let’s bite our sour apple now – what about Daenerys’ murderous outbursts? Can the ruthless killing of the thousands of ordinary people in King’s Landing really be justified as a necessary step to universal freedom? At this point, we should remember that the scenario was written by two men.
Gender is less relevant here than the fact that (in-story) thousands of ordinary people were cooked alive. The most relevant analogies to Daenerys’ action are not female ones, but the rampages of the (male) Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame.
Daenerys as the Mad Queen is strictly a male fantasy, so the critics were right when they pointed out that her descent into madness was psychologically not justified. The view of Daenerys with mad-furious expression flying on a dragon and burning houses and people expresses patriarchal ideology with its fear of a strong political woman.
The objections to the scene would be just as fierce if Daenerys were male. If it were a matter of fearing a strong political woman, why has Sansa Stark not been set up as a similar monster? Ditto Yara/Asha Greyjoy? Brienne and Arya are ultimate subversions of Westerosi gender roles, yet both get what passes for a happy ending.
The final destiny of the leading women in Game of Thrones fits these coordinates. Even if the good Daenerys wins and destroys the bad Cersei, power corrupts her. Arya (who saved them all by single-handedly killing the Night King) also disappears, sailing to the West of the West (as if to colonise America).
Again – too much credit and too little credit. On one hand, Daenerys was corrupted because the writers wanted a cool scene (or because it was part of the intended ending and they couldn’t be bothered laying the groundwork), not because they were displaying the biases of the patriarchy. On the other hand, more charitably, Daenerys’ corruption was because she was complete master of a Weapon of Mass Destruction. She did, after all, have absolute power at that moment. The fact that Daenerys is a woman is irrelevant – Lord Acton’s famous dictum is not gender specific!
I am not sure of the point Žižek makes about Arya. She is never in power, but rather a stone-cold killer, who nevertheless avoids the fate of Sandor Clegane.
The one who remains (as the queen of the autonomous kingdom of the North) is Sansa, a type of women beloved by today’s capitalism: she combines feminine softness and understanding with a good dose of intrigue, and thus fully fits the new power relations.
Well, no. Sansa as ruler of Winterfell is explicitly treated as a competent, pragmatic figure – far more so than any of her other siblings. She operates as a lord among lords, yes, but that is a comment on class, not gender-relations. Honestly, if Daenerys were successful, I wonder if Žižek would be lamenting Daenerys as “the type of woman beloved by today’s capitalism.”
This marginalisation of women is a key moment of the general liberal-conservative lesson of the finale: revolutions have to go wrong, they bring new tyranny, or, as Jon put it to Daenerys:
Again, Žižek is treating scepticism of Daenerys’ Revolution as an endorsement of the old system. It isn’t – Jon himself rejects the system altogether, and runs off to live with anarchists. It’s an understanding that Revolutions are complicated beasts that very rarely go as intended.
Consequently, Jon kills out of love (saving the cursed woman from herself, as the old male-chauvinist formula says) the only social agent in the series who really fought for something new, for a new world that would put an end to old injustices.
The implication being that she would put an end to old injustices and create entirely new ones.
So justice prevailed – but what kind of justice? The new king is Bran: crippled, all-knowing, who wants nothing – with the evocation of the insipid wisdom that the best rulers are those who do not want power. A dismissive laughter that ensues when one of the new elite proposes a more democratic selection of the king tells it all.
Does Žižek imagine that a place with Westeros’ level of development, with feudalist economic relations, and limited literacy, would support a modern, democratic, political system? Surely not. The best shot Westeros ever had at delivering Power to the People was the High Sparrow and his merry bunch of religious fanatics… which would have created its own problems.
I would also point out that, between the beginning and end of the series, there has been a shift in power. Recall that the series began with political power in the hands of highly patriarchal Houses – Baratheon, Arryn, Stark, and Lannister. Warlords all. By the end… we have a cripple on the throne (who may well have engineered events to get power, but I digress). We have a dwarf as his chief minister. We have a woman running his Kingsguard. We have an overweight nerd with democratic sympathies as Grand Maester. And we have two working class plebs (Bronn and Davos) operating as the rest of the Small Council. All told, we’ve come a fair way from a world run by Robert Baratheon, Jon Arryn, Ned Stark, and Tywin Lannister.
And one cannot help but note that those faithful to Daenerys to the end are more diverse – her military commander is black – while the new rulers are clearly white Nordic.
Daenerys was the most Nordic in appearance of the lot – to the point where the image of setting her up as the great liberator of the brown-skinned masses had more than a whiff of White (Wo-)Man’s Burden. Do other peoples really need a Great White Conqueror atop a Weapon of Mass Destruction to free them? Some of us can remember back fifteen years or so, to when certain (white) people were enthusiastically talking about bringing freedom to the Middle-East. I, for one, can also remember the consequences thereof.
The radical queen who wanted more freedom for everyone irrespective of their social standing and race is eliminated, things are brought back to normal.