Game of Thrones and Disability: Doing and Undoing Ableism

In my recent post “Mystify: Michael Hutchence and Disability,” I noted that a great deal of work has been done in disability studies and philosophy of disability on ableist representations in film and literature. Critical work on representations of disabled people and disability on television and in advertisement is also a steadily fruitful field of research.

Over the past week, social media has lit up with conversations, predictions, and analyses of the final episode of the hugely popular series “Game of Thrones.” During the course of the series’s run, I have of course read various articles about Peter Dinklage’s character and the ways in which both the character and the actor himself have defied stereotypes about little people, though (I confess) I have never watched the show.

Thus, I was intrigued to read Marion Quirici’s “‘The Broken’: How ‘Games of Thrones’ Baited and Betrayed the Disability Community,” a review of the series that condemns the way that disability and disabled people are represented and used in its ultimate episode especially, as well as throughout the series in general. Here is an excerpt from Quirici’s review:

As a side note, the casting of Peter Dinklage in this role — an actor who has the same disability as the character he portrays — was a simple and obvious choice that nonetheless flies in the face of tradition. It felt like a direct challenge to films like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which used little people as stand-ins but never lead actors, instead pouring money into special effects to make actors like Elijah Wood and Sean Astin appear small. In fact, tricking audiences into thinking nondisabled actors are disabled has historically resulted in the highest praise: disability masquerade is almost a guarantee for an Oscar. (See Rain ManMy Left FootThe Theory of EverythingThe Shape of Water…)

With Tyrion’s comment in the first episode that “all dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes,” the series set up a theme that “children are not their fathers” — something Tyrion says with regard to Daenerys Targaryen in season seven (S07 E03). Daenerys’s father Aerys, dubbed “The Mad King,” had been a cruel authoritarian ruler, who died crying “burn them all!” and ordering his pyromancer to set the city of King’s Landing on fire and burn all its citizens.

With the recent history of the Mad King in the backdrop, the show pursues an intriguing exploration of power. Where does power reside? What is the difference between a conqueror and a good ruler? Is peace and prosperity possible for “the realm” when human nature seems to tend toward selfishness and greed?

These are questions for the ages, and although the show is set in a medieval fantasy realm with dragons and white walkers, its explorations of power and humanity feel exceedingly real. To a viewership currently witnessing the death of democracy in our own world, these questions are pressingly relevant. And the disability plots are not peripheral to the show’s explorations of power and humanity, but central. In a feudal society where a person’s station in life is mostly a function of birth and family name, Tyrion’s claim that “children are not their fathers” established an important and empowering message for the audience: biology is not destiny.

No “spoilers” in this post! If you want to be apprised of Quirici’s critical account of the final episode (and the series in general), you must read or listen to the entire review here.

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