*Warning: The following may contain spoilers*
Overview: Game of Thrones is a fantasy, drama HBO original series created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. The hit show is an adaptation of the series of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin. With the sixth season of the show having ended in June of 2016 it is set to air two more seasons. The show takes place in the fictitous lands of Essos and Westeros and follows several different story lines. All of these storylines somehow tie into competing for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms or defending “The North.”
Disability in the Show: The show revolves around many characters that start out with or develop mental and physical disabilities. In a lot of television shows characters with disabilities are usually very minor or cast off to the side. Game of Thrones is unique because many of the main characters have disabilities and are central to the storyline. Another unique aspect of this show is that it mainly moves away from disability being a form of tragedy or inspiration. In a lot of media people with disabilities are seen as being victims of tragedy which is not ok. In Lydia Brown’s writing in Criptiques she acknowledges this. One of Brown’s main themes in her writing is that people with disabilities are often seen as needing non-disabled people’s compassion (37). She explains, “the average person… does not understand disability beyond something that happens to other people, thereby rendering them tragic object of pity, scorn, and charity” (Brown 37). Instead of disability being tragic or a motivating figure, the show portrays disability for what it truly is, just a characteristic. Sure disabilities can make some things difficult or pose an obstacle, but disability is not the only thing that affects someone. Each character is more than their disability and can continue on with their life without it holding them back. Ultimately, a disability a character may have does not define them, it may cause them to do certain things, but it is not the main focus of any character.
In 2013 the show even won a Media Access Award in recognition of its efforts in “promoting awareness of the disability experience, accessibility for people with disabilities, and the accurate depiction of characters with disabilities.” This award demonstrates how disability is portrayed well in the show.
Analysis: In analyzing disability in Game of Thrones I will be breaking it down based on several characters. For each character I will provide an overview of their role, their disability, and how they are in the show. Mainly I will be describing how their disability impacts them. I will then give my opinion and why and how the show does a good job portraying them. In describing each character I will also refer to a couple secondary sources. One of the sources is an article called Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things: Disability in Game of Thrones by Katie M. Ellis. Another source I will be using is an interview called, The Ethics of Hodor by Spencer Kornhaber between him and Lauryn S. Mayer.
Bran Stark: Bran lives in “The North” and is a prince of Winterfell. Bran starts of the series at the age of ten and he is not disabled. Something he enjoys is scaling the walls of Winterfell, though, and that is what leads to his disability. One day, for reasons not necessary to explain, he is pushed from a high up window in a tower, while climbing it. As a result of his fall, he goes into a coma, eventually wakes up, and is then told he will never be able to walk again. After this he has several ways for transportation. He is either carried by his servant Hodor, rides a horse specially fitted to accommodate his injury, or pulled in a wheelbarrow type cart. Anyways, in the first few seasons Bran is a pretty minor character, but later on in the series he is arguably one of the most important. The looming threat of everyone in Game of Thrones is an army of the undead. Bran is so vital because he is able to see the past, the future, or even control some people or animals with his mind. With these powers the threat of the undead will be able to be stopped much more easier. Bran has these amazing powers, but the fact that he cannot walk is still something that bothers him. He is seen struggling and he talks about how much it bothers him often. I believe this is a very accurate portrayal of a child that has lost the ability to walk. Practically anyone that loses their ability to walk will be upset at first and it will take time to get over. The show does a great job of demonstrating this and doing so without making Bran a symbol of tragedy or inspiration. There is nothing done to try and draw sympathy towards Bran. Also his disability does not impact his ability to perform his powers. It presents an obstacle, but he can still go on with his life. Had Bran not been disabled he still would have gone on to have these powers.
Tyrion Lannister: Tyrion is a major character in the show and he is apart of the richest family (the Lannisters) in the seven kingdoms. Tyrion is a dwarf which in turn causes him to be seen as an object of laughter by some. Throughout the show he is referred to as “the imp” and several other derogatory terms. An interesting aspect is that had he been born into a poor family he would have been left to die because of how he is. Tyrion is made fun of quite a bit in the show which is obviously bad, but anyone and everyone is made fun of in their life. It is sadly a natural part of society so I believe this aspect of Tyrion is well done. Also Tyrion is not defined by his height throughout the show. To him it is merely a simple characteristic. He is much more than that, in fact, from the start of the show Tyrion is a very sexual person that loves to drink wine. He is constantly drinking, already drunk, or having sex. In Ellis’ article she quotes a blog saying, “Tyrion is introduced having sex with multiple women, it was clear that his role would be far different from the norm.” It seems like in a lot of other media that characters with disabilities are in they are not very sexual. Game of Thrones switches this up, though, and has Tyrion be one of the most sexual characters in the show. He is even more than this, though. He is a very intelligent person and at one point serves as the king’s advisor. During this time his battle plans help the kingdom out in a war. This is a pretty awesome feat and it demonstrates how he is not held back. Overall Tyrion has a very unique personality and I believe this demonstrates how the show develops the characters well. The creators could have made Tyrion a symbol of tragedy and had him always sulking around or something like that. Instead they have Tyrion deal with things in a distinctive way.
Jamie Lannister: Jamie is Tyrion’s older brother and a famous knight known as “The Kingslayer.” He has a pretty large role in the show and serves in several of the king’s Kingsguard (men sworn to protect the king). Jaime develops a physical disability a couple seasons into the show. He is taken captive by several different people and eventually one of the captors cuts off his hand that he uses to swordfight. At the beginning of the series Jamie is not an honorable man, he breaks oaths, is having an affair with his sister, and at one point even pushes Bran out of a window. However, after losing his hand he changes. In her article Ellis states, “Once losing his hand he rescues Brienne of Tarth, an outsider character by virtue of her height and androgynous appearance, from a brutal gang rape.” Jaime is set free by his captors and they are going to rape Brienne. He could easily leave while he is free, but instead he saves her from a horrible position. This shows a transformation of Jaime. Instead of being portrayed as a tragic or inspirational case, he is a sympathetic character. Later on Jaime tries to learn how to sword fight with his left hand. He is of course extremely bad at the start of training on this. The very interesting part is that he never really becomes a good swordsman with his other hand. In a lot of movies and shows the “super crip” stigma is seen. For example a character will become disabled and then go on to do incredible feats. Game of Thrones does not take this approach, though. They have Jaime try his best, but don’t make him into some super human.
Sandor “The Hound” Clegane: The Hound is not necessarily a huge character in the show, but he does impact several story lines quite a bit. He is a fierce warrior and considered one of the more dangerous men in Westeros. He believes knights act honorable, but they only truly care for themselves. As a result of this he does not wish to be knighted and instead seeks employment as a bodyguard or a soldier. The Hound has a physical disability that he acquired when he was a child. He was playing with his brother’s toy, who got mad, and then held The Hound’s face into the fire. As a result he has a burn mark that covers about a third of his face near the right upper side. The Hound’s disability does not really impact how he is, though. As dark and weird as it may be The Hound solely enjoys being alive and killing people. Throughout the whole show he is seen killing many people, however, he has done a few slightly nice things. One, for example, would be that he tries to return Arya Stark to her home. He may have failed at this task and ultimately did it for money, but it was still a good gesture. Overall, The Hound isn’t a character of tragedy or is he seen as motivation. Instead he is seen how he really is, a dark, angry man that is an amazing fighter. Viewers can make up their own opinion of him which could easily be that they hate him or they love him. Some may enjoy that he is a great fighter while others might dislike him for being so dark. The fact he has a burn mark on his face is not what people look at when forming an opinion on him. Ultimately, his disability is definitely visible, but it is not what makes him the way he is.
Theon Greyjoy: Theon isn’t one of the main focuses in the show, but he definitely has a huge role. Theon is the last male heir of his father, who is the lord of the Iron Islands. We never see it in the show, but his father’s rebellion against the Iron Throne fails so Theon is taken hostage. As a result Theon becomes ward to the Stark family. With the Starks he is not treated poorly, though, he is almost like family and is friends with Rob Stark. Eventually Theon betrays Rob when the Starks have waged war. After this Theon is captured by House Bolton. During his time here he is tortured by a man named Ramsay Snow. This is when he develops a mental disability. Ramsay tortures Theon so much that he ultimately changes how he thinks completely. Theon is now in a mental state where he believe he is Ramsay’s servant/pet and is called Reek. Theon is almost a completely different person, but somewhere deep down he is still himself. The audience can clearly see that this new Theon struggles very much with this mental disability. At first it seems like he may return to his original self, but it becomes very doubtful. He does whatever Ramsay wants and cannot mentally convince himself to do otherwise. Some people may say that Reek is a tragic character. I disagree though, he would be a case of tragedy, but Theon is a kind of evil person. When he betrays Rob he goes to Winterfell and take everyone there hostage. He kills several men and women, including elderly ones. He also kills two young farm boys because the two Stark lords of Winterfell have escaped and he does not know where they are. So Theon has done plenty of horrible things and its almost like he got what he deserved. It is very hard to feel sympathetic for him even though he endures such disgraceful events. Eventually Reek does become Theon again, though. He does this because Sansa Stark had been taken captive by Ramsay and he feels like he owes her. He ends up saving her life and helps her escape. This draws a little bit of sympathy towards him, but overall he really is not a case of tragedy or motivation. Overall I believe the show did a great job of portraying his mental struggles in an accurate way.
Hodor: Hodor is a large, strong man and a servant to the Stark family. His main role in the show is in assisting Bran who cannot walk. He has a mental disability which causes him to only be able to speak the word “hodor” which is why he is called Hodor. Although he has this disability he is able to understand a lot and is very loyal to the Starks. Hodor did not always possess a mental disability, though. He was originally named Wylis and did not develop the disability until he was a slightly old child. It turns out that Bran was having a vision of the past and during it he took control of Hodor so he could save his present self. As a result Hodor developed the disability. In her interview Mayer talks about Hodor’s role saying, “What happens is that he is treated as simply a body to be ordered around. Part of that obviously is class issues-that’s how you treat your servants.” She is touching on how Hodor isn’t always treated the best. However, he is a servant and servants aren’t always treated in a good way. Overall I would say Hodor is treated well, but he does have to do a lot of work. That is his job, though, so I think he is a good portrayal of disability for the most part. Servants that do not have disabilities are treated exactly the same. They do a lot of hard-work, are bossed around, and sometimes are treated nicely. Out of all the characters with disabilities Hodor might be the most tragic. To gain his disability a part of him was completely sacrificed. Viewers of the show definitely see this as a saddening event and it fits with the disability as tragedy tendency.
Conclusion: I personally believe that Game of Thrones does a very good job portraying disability. First off, the show takes a different approach where it has many disabled characters and several of them are in large roles. A lot of shows won’t do this so it is nice for Game of Thrones to recognize that people have disabilities. For example if you watch the Lord of the Rings movies you will notice none of the main characters are disabled or develop disabilities. This is just unrealistic and very improbably. Game of Thrones is very realistic in this aspect which is definitely nice. The show goes further than just putting characters with disabilities into the series, though. They give these characters unique personalities and storylines. In a good amount of other movies and TV shows characters with disabilities are only objects of pity or used to motivate viewers. This series does a great job of allowing viewers to see the characters for who they truly are. They aren’t just a dwarf, a man missing a hand, a boy unable to walk, or a man with a burnt face. They are much, much more. Every viewer has the ability to form their own opinion of the characters without being conditioned to view them in a certain way. Personally, Tyrion and The Hound are my favorite characters. They aren’t my favorite because I feel bad for them or they motivate me in some way. They are my favorite because I can connect to their personalities and understand why they do what they do. Overall the characters are much more than their disabilities, just like any person in real life. Disability is solely a characteristic and Game of Thrones does a great job of showcasing this.
Brown, Lydia. “Disability in an Ableist World.” Criptiques, edited by Caitlin Wood, May Day Publishing, 2014, pp. 37-45.
Ellis, Katie. “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things: Disability in Game of Thrones.” M/C Journal [Online], 17.5 (2014): n. pag. Web. http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/895, accessed 1 Dec. 2016.
Kornhaber, Spencer. “The Ethics of Hodor.” The Atlantic, 27 May 2015, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/05/the-ethics-of-hodor/484643/, accessed 31 Oct. 2016.
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