Armies, Gold, Flags—and Stories

What Game of Thrones Has Taught Us About Pop Culture and Foreign Affairs

The eight-year-long cultural phenomenon of HBO’s Game of Thrones culminated on May 18 with the fiery destruction of the Iron Throne and the death of the formerly beloved Queen Daenerys. The show’s final season has produced an explosion of commentary on what it all means. What is the appropriate basis for political authority? Can Daenerys be both a feminist hero and a war criminal? Does might make right? Should it, in a time of war?

Among the foreign-policy intelligentsia, and society broadly, interpreting Game of Thrones (and the book series by George R. R. Martin that the show is based on) has become a cottage industry. Every political analyst, historian, or theorist has his or her take on what lessons can be drawn from the story for real-world foreign policy. This enthusiasm tells us something about the show’s political implications: fans and writers argue over Game of Thrones precisely because there is power in interpreting a story to support one’s own arguments about what is right and who gets to choose.

In 2012, I joined this fray, arguing in these pages that the overall narrative arc of Game of Thrones favored a constructivist rather than a realist view of global politics, in that it disrupted stale formulas, privileged the marginalized, and taught that power hinges on attention to justice. The series’ denouement largely confirms this reading. Those left standing can include women, cripples, bastards, and “cowards.” Meaningful and necessary institutional changes can arise from global collective action. Brute force cannot win the day in the absence of ethical restraint.

Above all, Game of Thrones contains a still deeper constructivist message about the power of narrative to lead or mislead. Tyrion’s message to the elites of Westeros in the season finale sums up this lesson of the show: “What is it that unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?” The realist answer to Tyrion’s question would have been armies: war makes nations and nations make war. But that claim is refuted time and again throughout this series. The liberal answer would have been gold, but that argument gets short shrift, despite terrific cameos by Bronn and the Iron Bankers. The shallow constructivist would have emphasized flags, along with other symbols, norms, and slogans, but those ultimately did more to dress up Game of Thrones than to drive its plot.

Tyrion’s answer, however, is that “there’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.” His argument draws on a deeper critical constructivism that emphasizes the productive power of political narrative. Storytelling, a critical theorist would likewise say, makes sense of political reality, constructs political community, engenders rebellions, foments genocides, and forestalls wars. At the outset of Game of Thrones, the power of a lie, told and retold, leads to the overthrow of King Aerys at the Trident and sets in motion the War of the Five Kings. And at the end of the series, the power of Tyrion’s storytelling saves Westeros and “breaks the wheel” of endless wars between the great houses.

Throughout the show, the Game of Thrones writers used storytelling as both a theme and a plot device, encouraging viewers to think about how stories influence our willingness to tolerate political violence. In Season Four, Tyrion told his brother Jaime a story about how, as a child, he had desperately tried to understand their cousin Orson’s obsession with murdering beetles. Tyrion’s monologue about making meaning out of madness foreshadowed the audience’s experience during the week between the two final episodes of Season Eight, when viewers were left to make sense of Daenerys’ willingness at King’s Landing to mow down innocent civilians like so many insects.

Tyrion himself no doubt struggled with this, too, because of the story he had been telling himself about Daenerys for several seasons. By the series finale, Tyrion had grasped the point—not only of cousin Orson’s madness but of his own queen’s. You make meaning, he teaches us, by asking a different question. As several analysts pointed out, we already knew who Daenerys was—if we had paid attention to the facts rather than the narrative. Though she presented herself as a just ruler, Daenerys had been smashing beetles all along, be they witches, slavers, Dothraki horselords, rebels, or captured soldiers. She had nurtured a penchant for torture since Season One. The story Tyrion had been telling himself about Daenerys had blinded him to her true nature. But, in the end, why Daenerys did it wasn’t what mattered. All that mattered was how to stop her—and Tyrion knew that to stop her he would need to tell a different kind of story.

It was Tyrion’s pithy reframing of Daenerys’ story arc in his parley with Jon in the final episode that changed the outcome. Not rational analysis—Varys had used logic to reason with Jon. Not data—Jon had the evidence in front of his own eyes. Not persuasive rhetoric—his family had already exhausted that angle. A compelling story is what ultimately changed Jon’s behavior, and thus changed history.

Tyrion’s view of the power of narrative fits with what many political scientists and educators are coming to understand about the impact of fictional stories on real world political behavior. Political power lies where people decide it lies, and people today are locating power in fantasy and science fiction as much as in fact. For this reason, pop culture offers insights into a society’s values that should matter to foreign-policy makers. Those insights should matter to foreign-policy analysts as well: if there is political power in storytelling, then we need to pay attention to how that power works.

THE POWER OF STORIES

People love stories, and, as Paul Musgrave notes, storytelling matters in how we understand political reality. Well-known fictional tropes can be used to set political agendas and sell political ideas. For example, as Manjana Milkoreit has written, environmental activists have used the popularity of Game of Thrones to encourage actions that fight climate change. That climate change turned out to be only a subplot in Game of Thrones doesn’t really matter; here political actors used a cultural meme to serve their own ends. Political analysts need to know more about how people do this and when it works.

Even absent conscious efforts to use them strategically, parables in pop culture can inform how audiences think about real-world politics—often in ways that authors don’t necessarily intend. For example, studies led by the political scientist Anthony Gierzynski have shown that young people who watch Game of Thrones have a demonstrably weaker belief in a just world than young people who do not, when controlling for other variables. The finding is politically significant because people who do believe in a just world are also more likely to believe that individuals generally get what they deserve in life, and are therefore less likely to support government policies that correct for market failures, such as anti-poverty programs or affirmative action. In other words, whatever the showrunners may have intended, the research suggests that Game of Thrones affected audiences in ways that likely made them less willing to accept the political status quo.

Finally, in drawing lessons from Game of Thrones, foreign-policy analysts must remember that audiences matter more than showrunners. Similar to public opinion polls, audience reactions to pop cultural phenomena can provide a window into the national mood. For example, the fact that audiences blamed the writers for the firebombing of King’s Landing should be more interesting to policy analysts than the fact that the showrunners ultimately punished Daenerys for it.

After the sack of King’s Landing, surveys showed that American viewers—both Democrat and Republican—largely withdrew their support from Daenerys and began to support Jon Snow instead. This shift in allegiance suggests that American viewers care deeply about fighting wars justly and protecting civilians. They want rulers who don’t torture prisoners to death, who care about refugees and the environment, who honor their alliances but also hold war criminals accountable. Though they may increasingly believe the world is not just (and this may be a good thing), audiences want to believe that the arc of history at least bends toward justice, and that their rulers will not betray their trust and disgrace them by murdering innocents. That the show’s reaffirmation of these core values resonated with audiences suggests something important about how Americans will evaluate the actions of their own leaders.

If Game of Thrones teaches us that stories matter, then the foreign affairs community should take political fiction seriously—not as fans and literary critics but as political analysts. Except for the purposes of our own entertainment, we need not do that by agonizing over the writers’ true intended meaning, or by adjudicating whether the showrunners were geniuses, incompetents, or mad as the Targaryens. Rather, we can and should take a hard look at the effects of this tale in the real world: how concepts from fictional stories circulate through the policymaking process, and how pop cultural artifacts or narratives influence real-world political discourse and policy decisions. Then—just like Jon Snow—we can use that knowledge to inform difficult decisions about how to act.

This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.


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