How the Patriarchy Screwed the Starks

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The King In The North is dead. In Game of Thrones' latest ridiculously daring narrative move, it killed off Robb Stark, a character who could easily have laid claim to the role of “hero” on the show. Robb was handsome, talented, and possessed of an intrinsic decency rare to find in the show's world of Westeros. He was also the son of the first season's protagonist, Ned Stark, himself killed in the big twist, which positioned Robb as a traditional fantasy hero. And unlike his rival would-be kings, Robb was motivated in an entirely positive fashion. He rebels against the crown in order to free his father. He allows himself to be crowned King In The North in order to free his people, winning battle after battle for that cause. Even his tragic mistake is motivated by the best of intentions—instead of fulfilling his lordly obligations and marrying for strategic gain, Robb chose to marry for love. For the crime of being insufficiently cynical about the world, Robb, his mother, and most of his vassals were betrayed and killed by the family whose political marriage he rejected. Robb may have been a good person, but he was bad at being a great lord.

The past 15 or so years have seen the rise of “quality television” as a cultural force, as dozens of magazine articles and blog posts have articulated time and time again. These shows can vary fairly widely in setting and tone, but there are two consistent similarities found in most of them. First, they're usually serialized; if you haven't seen the episodes preceding the one you're watching you'll likely be confused. Second, they're thematically powerful, and they're not usually subtle about it.

Take the very first scene of the most golden of the Golden Age shows, The Wire. A man who always robs a dice game robs a dice game, except this time he gets shot. That farcical tragedy is explained with “This America, man.” In just a few minutes, the show explains that it's about how ideals turn into habits and institutions that can't prevent—and sometimes even encourage—the worst to happen, themes that appear again and again until the fifth season’s final moments. That's just one example. There's also Buffy, which turned from curiosity to cult hit by cleverly using “growing up is hell” as a central metaphor. The Sopranos examined masculinity and violence in the context of the modern American dream. Comedies like Arrested Development examined the push and pull of family, while Parks And Recreation became one the best shows on television by shedding its cynical shell and working as a paean to the power of optimism.

Game of Thrones' biggest obstacle to entering the modern pantheon of classic television is that it hasn't had an obvious, powerful theme to rest its laurels on. But Robb Stark's betrayal makes arguably its strongest just-below-the-surface theme even more apparent: Game of Thrones is about how patriarchal systems damage men as much as they damage women.

The idea that patriarchal systems are universally damaging is, rhetorically, one of the most important for spreading many forms of feminism. Far too many men believe that feminism is an attempt to prop up women at men's expense (the entire men’s rights movement hinges on that belief). Convince these men that feminism will help them as well—by allowing them to be emotional, by not forcing them to follow honor and pride, by showing that men don't have to be defined by job title just as women don't have to be defined by maternity—and many of these people will resist less and support more. But the somewhat counterintuitive proposition that feminism helps men too can be difficult to demonstrate. That's where popular culture can be incredibly useful.

In Game of Thrones' case, its fantasy setting becomes its greatest strength for examining patriarchal systems in-depth. A real-world setting would be too difficult to use as an example of a patriarchal system, since it's too “normal”—we're too immersed in it to see what's different. The metaphorical potential of a speculative setting helps—Game of Thrones, with its lords and kings battling for supremacy, is inarguably patriarchal. It uses an agnatic-cognatic primogeniture system where only men can inherit titles unless only a woman is the sole successor. This is obviously bad for women, who are used as political pawns and very rarely wield institutional power on their own. But what Game of Thrones manages to do is demonstrate how it damages men as well.

That is why Robb Stark is dead. In the world of Westeros, Robb's innate goodness was at odds with his job title. As heir to Winterfell, and then as King IN The North, he had obligations that had to be fulfilled, which included marrying for strategic gain—obligations that he didn’t keep. Marrying Talisa Maegyr instead of Roslyn Frey wasn’t his only shirked responsibility. His inability to maintain relations among his vassals led directly to his death as well, in large part because he was unable to punish his mother after she worked against him. So Robb didn't just die because he'd married for love; he also died because he'd been kind to his mother. Both of those actions seem like they should be no-brainers, but because of the world he was in, they combined to ruin the hero.

Robb Stark isn’t the only man in the series ruined by the patriarchy. Tyrion Lannister, perhaps Game of Thrones' greatest character, is in many ways an ideal lens to see this grand theme through. Tyrion’s primary motivators are not power or wealth, but a fundamental human decency, emotion, and occasionally base desires—a real person, to put it simply. He is also one of a tiny handful of non-sociopathic characters who are able to maintain political power in the chaos of the show's civil wars.

Yet the world he lives in cannot recognize him as such, because he is a little person, known as “the Imp” or “Halfman.” As such, he is never treated as a man who can hold and wield power effectively, because he is not an ideal man like his father, brother, or nephew appear to be. This point is hammered home in a magnificent scene early in the third season, when Tyrion confronts his father, demanding recognition for saving the kingdom during the events of season two. Tyrion's father, Tywin Lannister, refuses to give his son credit, saying that he was only doing his duty to the family. Yet when Tyrion presses for a legitimate reward—becoming heir of his father's possessions—Tywin rejects him by refusing to do his duty as a lord and lets his only viable son (Jaime, as a Kingsguard, is ineligible) inherit his title. “I would let myself be consumed by maggots before mocking the family name and making you heir to Castlerly Rock.”

The chief weapon of the patriarchy in maintaining and destroying its men is the drive for honor. The most surprising development of the second season was the elevation of Theon Greyjoy, the Stark family ward, into a major character and villain. Theon was the only son of a rebellious father, who journeyed to visit that father as another rebellion was brewing. Theon was forced to choose between his actual life with friends and lovers among the Starks, and his imagined life with honor and pride as a Greyjoy. Theon chooses honor, which takes him down a path of betrayal and child-murder.

So many of the show's best scenes deal directly with how power is acquired, lost, and maintained in the patriarchal system that this becomes an effective lens for seeing when Game of Thrones loses its moorings. The show's much-discussed—usually female—nudity is often illustrative of a sexist world, but occasionally and subjectively goes too far and illustrates no real point other than to show nude women. And some of the worst parts of the show's third season have deviated too far from the theme of systemic oppression. For example, both the murder of the lowborn character Roz in the middle of the season and the constant torture of Theon Greyjoy have demonstrated little except for the personal cruelty of a few of the characters. The brutal depiction of Robb's wife Talisa's death at the wedding falls into that category as well.

But when Game of Thrones works, it's a magnificent depiction of how sexist systems ruin everyone, even those they're supposed to help. Every woman on the show is oppressed in some way. And the only men who can succeed are those who submerge their humanity and happiness, or were sociopaths to begin with. Westeros’ patriarchy may be a metaphor that can't exist in our real world, but that's what makes it so rhetorically powerful.

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