Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things: Disability in Game of Thrones

You saw this coming, didn't you? I didn't know I'd be getting into Game of Thrones as much as I have; I've never read the books (Working to amend that) and I generally watch television once a week, Thursdays from 7:30 to 8:00, to watch The Big Bang Theory. But I moved into a new house with HBO, and my housemate is a Game of Thrones junkie who insisted I watch. So I obliged, mainly because I have had a crush on Peter Drinklage since I first saw him in Penelope.
At first, I was a tad miffed at the female characters; Sansa, betrothed to the curiously Draco Malfoy clone prince, was passive and aimed to please "my prince" at whatever the cost, even when he was awful and exploited others. Daenerys meanwhile, betrothed to Khal Drogo, suffers in silence in a marriage she had no power over so that her brother could have Drogo's loyalty and therefore access to his army for the purposes of reclaiming his throne.
But that was a pleasantly surprising aspect of the show: Character development has taken centre stage, and rather than remaining static and passive, quite a few of the female characters have broken out to become powerful, complex, and downright interesting, such as Daenerys transforming an arranged hell into a loving marriage where she embraces dedication and loyalty to her people. There's also the matter of Arya, Sansa's younger sister, who fits the typical rebellious princess mould, but manages to make it interesting and keep me glued to the screen whenever she practices with her tutor.
But the topic that has intrigued me most in the show of late has been disability. In Medieval fantasy genres like this, disability is not an often broached subject, short of maybe an occasional village idiot, or a blind seer. There's obvious historical truth to this, disabled children would not have been welcomed and accommodated for in this climate, they would have most likely been left to die of exposure or abandoned in some other way, or persecuted for witchcraft as adults.Peter Dinklage's character, Tyrion Lannister, says as much at one point, admitting that it was only his position as a Lannister which prevented an early death for him as a dwarf.
So it is quite interesting when Bran Stark, a young boy, becomes disabled in an attempt on his life, and loses mobility in his legs. It is Tyrion who pulls the boy out of his depression for becoming disabled by offering blueprints for a specialized saddle, enabling him to ride again. This moment is when the quote that forms this blog's title is said, and it's got to be the most damn empowering thing I've ever heard spoken about disability in a mainstream television show. Why?
It's Tyrion welcoming Bran, in a way, to his world, a world where there's going to be more than his disability holding him back. Other people's impressions of him, the expectations on his shoulders from his family and position, and the society of this world in general will conspire against him to leave him studying and losing out on that which he was most passionate about. Tyrion is all-too familiar with that subject, having been born a dwarf and ostracized for it (He's dubbed "the imp" by characters who dislike, or are even neutral, towards him)
I look forward to seeing how Bran contends with his new disability, his gift from Tyrion, and his new position in his family and society as the crippled boy. I also look forward to more Tyrion, he's all around awesome, easily my favourite character on TV right now. And after this, I am going to start eating up the books.


  1. I love the books (don't have HBO, though, so I have to wait awhile to see the series), and I also thought the part where Tyrion gave Bran that modified saddle.

    And Tyrion is wonderful. He's one of my favorite characters, along with the humongous female knight Brienne of Tarth (who, when Tyrion's brother Jaime meets her, tells her she reminds him of Tyrion. Even though Brienne is very large and good and fighting and jousting, while Tyrion is very small and unable to do either; they are similarly unable to play the roles their fathers had in mind for them).

    There's also something Tyrion says when he meets Jon Snow; I don't know if it made it into the show or not but it describes his relationship with his father really succinctly: "All dwarfs are bastards in their fathers' eyes."

  2. That should be "good AT fighting and jousting".

    Also, I'm really happy you're enjoying Game of Thrones, and going to analyze it from a disability perspective! There's a lot in there that lends itself to that sort of critique.

    And good timing on just now getting into the series --- Martin's just finished the fifth book, which is a sort of companion to the fourth, and it's to be released this July. So if you started reading the books fairly soon, you'd probably be ready to read the fifth book right when it comes out, with all the story lines fresh in your mind.

  3. Thanks Lindsay. You're right, there's so much great fodder for disability and feminist commentary in Game of Thrones, I'm having a blast. I'll probably be starting on the books when I find a job, which should be in a couple of weeks, I hope...

  4. I really like Tyrion's awareness that he is a "rich cripple" (and so is Bran) - this line, and the very presence of Tyrion and Bran add a very important dimension to the antics of the nobles that fill most of the storylines. Tyrion is very aware of the ways in which he has a far better position than most people, but at the same time also worse, and that dynamic is something often ignored.

  5. That's something I really enjoy as well, lilacsigil. He's very self-aware, which is something a lot of the other uppercrust characters lack, owing precisely to their comfort within the world.

  6. Hope you continue to enjoy it. The books will surprise you even more. It's not much of a spoiler to let you know that the world centers as much on them as any of the other characters.

  7. This post got me thinking that while Martin misses the boat on some things (subtle gender dynamics, the acknowledgement of race) he gives Tyrion more agency and critical self-reflection than many of the non-disabled characters.

    (almost-but-not-really spoiler alert)
    I can tell you he continues this trend with Bran. Someone has a line (I think in the tv series, too) that when a door closes, another one can open somewhere really unlikely. Although Bran is crippled by the fall, another (powerful) door is opened for him.

    However, characters with cog. disabilities aren't so lucky. The only one that springs to mind is Hodor, and while the later books suggest that he is a virtuous person, Martin also compares him to an animal on many occasions, making him more like a loyal dog. Also, the fact that in the TV series he is presented solely as comedic entertainment with no further introduction really got under my skin.

    Also, the fact that Aerys II is "Mad King Aerys" and no one thinks it's important to distinguish between whether his was a sadistic sociopath or developed some sort of mental illness also bothers me.

    Gregor Clegane is a straight out sociopath, and Viserys is possibly one, although perhaps he's more like Joffrey and they've been enabled in their sadistic tendencies. It MATTERS whether Aerys was like them--a king who was allowed to do whatever he wanted without consequence--or like Gregor, or like none of them and really had "voices" in his head.

    PS--good Joffrey/Draco comparison, although a key diff. is I thought Draco was potentially redeemable.