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George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels-turned-acclaimed television series Game of Thrones has gone from a series of nerdy, long fantasy books with a small cult following to a pop culture multi-media universe.  There’s a lot to love about Game of Thrones, and it also receives a vast majority of its criticism due to the near-constant gratuitous violence, sexual encounters (including a fair amount of rape), race representations, and cruel treatment of characters in general.  Yet Game of Thrones, for all its social downfalls, excels in a category often lacking in other contexts: perhaps more than any other series that has ever reached the same status among popular culture, the portrayal of disability in Game of Thrones is front and center.  There are many types of disability involved, ranging from the beloved Tyrion Lannister’s dwarfism to Varys’ missing genitals to Hodor’s intellectual disability.  Other characters fall into disability at different points: early on, Brandon “Bran” Stark becomes paralyzed from the waist down; his sister Arya is magically induced into temporary blindness, Maester Aemon becomes fully blind in his old age, and the knight Jamie Lannister loses his hand (his sword hand, no less!).  There are characters with a variety of inherited physical deformities (Shireen Baratheon’s “greyscale”) and disabilities acquired as a result of war and/or corrupt leaders (the executioner Ilyn Payne’s tongue is intentionally removed to render him speechless).  Even the Mother of Dragons, Khaleesi Daenerys Targaryen, frequently brings up her infertility and Samwell Tarly is obese, which can both fall under the category of disability, though to many viewers unacquainted with disability studies, it may not seem so.

The variety of disability present on Game of Thrones is a little overwhelming when compared to most modern literature or TV series, but where the series really excels is its ability to focus on so much more than disability without losing the crucial narratives of the disabled characters.  Tyrion transforms over and over again, always bearing the social stigma of being a dwarf: he becomes the Hand of the King, a soldier, a traitor and outlaw falsely accused of murdering King Joffrey, and then finally Hand of the Queen (we’ll have to see where season seven leaves him).  Likewise, Bran goes from royalty to a wise yet homeless boy, and then becomes the next three-eyed raven: a sage-like character who can see into the past and visit people in their dreams.  Bran and Tyrion’s growth and development as characters does not render their disabilities invisible, nor does it rely too heavily on their disabilities as conduits to drive the narrative forward and does not fall prey to the trap where disability is represented as a plot device instead of part of a character’s identity.

 

 

Unlike many other cultural identities which are absent from popular literature and media, disability is present, but often in a way which marginalizes the disabled experience.  These representations perpetuate ideas of needing to be “fixed” by presenting disability as a problem, and also uses disability as an “opportunistic metaphorical device”; the disability is used to propel the storyline, thereby neglecting the character’s relationship to their disability and the value that disability has as an identity.[1]  We see this happen, for example, when villains become evil because of some deformity or disabling problem.  For the villain’s characterization to make sense, there needs to be a reason for this character to react in such a way as to be the antagonist, so disability is slapped on as a stock trait to create a motive for a villain.  As disability scholar Paul Longmore writes about the portrayal of disability in popular media representations, “Deformity of body symbolizes deformity of soul.”[2]  The metaphorical significance of a disability creates enough of a connection in our brains for us to overlook the disability and only see the associated stigma.

But disability is not a means to an end for Martin.  Rather, disability is incorporated as an identity that many of the characters discover; it changes how they are viewed and interact with other characters and how they make accommodations for themselves when others won’t.  Regardless of whether or not the characters accept their own disability, Martin forces them to work in and around their disabilities.  The reader often has to sit with discomfort while waiting for a character to navigate their disability.

Yet critics Harvey and Nelles are not satisfied with the progress Game of Thrones makes in terms of representations of disability.  They make the argument that despite its variety of disabilities, “Game of Thrones is not immune to reductive, stereotypical portrayals of disability. Hodor’s intellectual disability is played for laughs; most often, he serves as comic relief, and his habit of uttering his own name has even spawned a rather mean-spirited meme. As for Bran, after his spinal-cord injury he begins to have prophetic dreams and develops the ability to enter the minds of animals. This is known as the ‘disability superpower’ trope – that is, a character having some compensatory, mystical superpower as a result of his disability.”[3]  Though some of the representations (particularly Hodor’s) are quite problematic, looking at how disability is portrayed in positive as well as negative aspects is important in understanding how modern society can continue to improve their understanding of disability to reduce microaggressions and neglect of the disabled.  We cannot reduce a better-than-most representation to be the end-goal of all representations of disability; rather, acknowledging the flaws will improve the ways we navigate disability in our own lives and opinions.

One of the benefits of analyzing disability in Game of Thrones, despite its downfalls, is that the representations are not limited to a single type; there are physical and intellectual disabilities, genetic and acquired.  Sometimes, the disability is the product of magic, and sometimes the result of carnal medieval wars; but Martin shows that both cases are treated the same way: the stigmas attached to disability do not cease to exist when Arya struggles as a blind orphan on the streets of Braavos.  To add to the humanity of the disabled, regardless of the magic or not, all of Martin’s disabilities are real things that people on this earth are living with right now.  Though it is easy to forget that Game of Thrones is anything more than a fictitious story based in a twisted and exaggerated medieval history, the difficulties these characters face are the most directly relatable components of the series.  We laugh and cry with them; our own humanity is reflected in their experiences.

 The following analyses of Tyrion and Bran seek to show how they have power as meaningful disabled characters within the context of the HBO series Game of Thrones.  Please click one of the links below to read about a specific character’s representation of disability, or continue navigating the site as best suits your style of exploration.

 

Bran                Tyrion

 

[1] Mitchell and Snyder, “Narrative Prosthesis,” The Disability Studies Reader, 222.

[2] Paul Longmore, “Screening Stereotypes,” Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability, (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2003), 133.

[3] Dan Harvey and Drew Nelles, “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things: Disability in Game of Thrones,” http://hazlitt.net/feature/cripples-bastards-and-broken-things-disability-game-thrones