Game Of Thrones isn’t escapist, it’s an allegory of today’s new feudalism

“Old-fashioned escapism”? | Definitions | Win or die | Brands and circuses | “The slavery of being a girl” | “Winter is coming” | A “cracked-mirror” Europe | A critical or ideological fantasy? | Notes | Works Cited

“Old-fashioned escapism”?

Fantasy may think of itself as escapist, but it of course escapes nothing, and the idea that it therefore does not have anything to say about ‘reality’ is wildly simplistic. (Miéville ¶40)

Game Of Thrones season 1 screenshotThe HBO TV series Game Of Thrones is one of today’s most popular TV shows. Based on a series of novels by George R.R. Martin, Game Of Thrones is set in a fictional world “like a cracked-mirror reflection of medieval Europe” (Tucker ¶2), and its plot concerns a struggle among several aristocratic families, or “Houses,” for the monarchy of a realm called Westeros. Game is mainly a character drama about these “high-born” families embroiled in this war for the realm’s “Iron Throne,” but it belongs to the fantasy genre that was innovated by J.R.R. Tolkein. The setting is a feudal, agrarian society; battles are fought with blades and bows among castles, cavalry, and catapults; and there are fantastic elements like magic, and monsters: dragons, giants, and, yes, zombies too.

In the popular press, Game is often described as “escapism” – whether for better or worse. In the UK’s Independent, Sarah Hughes attributes the popularity of Game to audience demand for “fantasy and escapism, which tends to happen when times are hard” (Hughes ¶11). Critic Navneet Alang praises violent shows like Game and The Walking Dead for their “brutal escapism”: Martin_STFUaboutGoT“both shows are escapist dreams,” he writes; “[w]hile The Walking Dead is a look into an imaginary future … Game of Thrones is a look back into an imaginary past” (¶3). BBC journalist Ken Tucker applauds Game for its “old-fashioned escapism … invit[ing] you to join a world where you can solve your problems with a sword and a saddle” (¶2). In contrast, Vice columnist Clive Martin states his “aversion to anything that could be described as fantasy” and categorically dismisses Game – together with the whole fantasy genre – for its escapism: “I’ve always seen it as a culture that tends to be adored by people who can’t quite deal with the chaos of the real world” (¶8).

Nevertheless, some of the critics who call Game escapist still point to elements of social relevance from which they would otherwise distance the show (or fantasy in general). The Independent‘s Hughes mentions “hard times”; and the BBC’s Tucker notes that “at a time when people fear upsetting the boss lest they find themselves tossed into a frighteningly small job market … the escapism of a programme in which bosses can be cut down to size with one precise slash of a sword exerts a gut-level allure” (¶6). Other critics question the supposed escapism of Game. In The Nation, Michelle Dean asks if Game is “escapist enough”: “typically the escapism we once preferred was, as in the Great Depression, social-comment-free: musicals … utopian dreams and escapist fantasias … about … the hope of a better world in a really bad one. But Game of Thrones … isn’t about that. It is about choosing the lesser of evils” (¶ 4, ¶8). Dean suggests that Game’s “postmodern approach to power” signals a “politically interesting shift” in how popular culture “imagin[es] alternate worlds” (¶7-8).

Detail of "Realms of GAFA" by David Parkins (The Economist 1 Dec. 2012)

Detail of “Realms of GAFA” by David Parkins (The Economist 1 Dec. 2012)

Likewise, in 2012, The Economist commented that, for Silicon Valley audiences, “the escapism [Game] offer[s] may be tinged with … recognition. … [Its] tales of a world that has lost its king echoes the reality of today’s technology industry, where the battle lines between the four large companies seen as dominating the consumer internet … are in furious flux” (¶2). The Economist article compares Game’s contenders for the “Iron Throne” to Silicon Valley’s competitors for “the iron phone”:

Their lordships Page, Cook, Zuckerberg and Bezos thus need to map a course for their respective firms through dangerous legal and regulatory territory. At the same time they have to avoid being distracted from fighting their rivals; the mad emperors of Microsoft … And the shareholders, hungry for returns in a moribund global economy, need to be kept happy. (¶28)

Connections like these, between the feudal world of Game and today’s capitalist world, are what the Vice columist alludes to, when he ridicules fans of the show who claim “it’s about politics” (¶4). In what follows, I want to challenge “escapist” readings of Game – which mystify the show’s social relevance – by elaborating on its relevance, on how, exactly, “it’s about politics.” Game is not “escapist,” it’s an allegory of today’s new feudalism.1 (Fans should note that what follows is only about the TV series only, not the books it is based on.)


Some definitions are now in order, for my key terms: allegory, neoliberalism, and new feudalism. First, allegory can be summarized as “the concrete presentation of an abstract idea, typically in a narrative – whether prose, verse, or drama – with at least two levels of meaning. The first level is the surface story line, which can be summed up by stating who did what to whom when. The second level is typically moral, political, philosophical, or religious” (Murfin and Ray 10).

This meme made Game Of Thrones an allegory for the 2012 US presidential election: it’s illustrative, but parochial. We can think bigger.

That is, allegory is “an extended metaphor” – extended, sometimes, to the length of an entire narrative (10), and involving extensive and often subtle use of tropes – figurative language and images – to convey multiple meanings, to convey irony and subtext. And irony and subtext need have nothing to do with the intention of a text’s creator, but are equally valuable (if not moreso) as acts of reading. I read Game as an allegory of what has been called the “new feudalism” of neoliberal capitalism.

Neoliberalism basically describes a free-market ideology that masks a globalized economy of governments controlled by corporations. David Harvey calls neoliberalism “an elite-political project that ‘proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade’” (qtd. in Smith ¶4). That’s the free-market ideology part; however, as Peter Jay Smith writes, “[f]ree enterprise does not mean free competition as depicted in neoclassical theory.” Instead, this “free-market fundamentalist” ideology conceals the real operations of global capital as an oligarchy – a system of elite rule by corporations, with state leaders as their servants, which means “protection for the strong and socialization of their risks, market and discipline for the weak’” (Smith ¶15). In other words, neoliberalism means, in practice, “socialized costs” and “privatized gains” (Hjersted ¶8) – for the rich, the “socialism” of generous tax breaks and subsidies, and, for everyone else, the cut-throat capitalism of the “free market.” The demonstrable result of neoliberalism has been the impoverishment of the public good, and a corresponding, sharp increase in wealth inequality.

The dog-eat-dog neoliberal ethos, together with its resulting wealth gap and financial crises, has led some artists, thinkers, and even businesspeople to understand capitalism today as a return to feudal society: a new feudalism. William Gibson’s “Sprawl” novels from the 1980s envision a near future ruled by heavily fortified corporations. For political scientist Tim Duvall, writing in 2003:

The New Feudalism is much like the Old Feudalism. We call it ‘liberalism’ now, we think of it as ‘democracy,’ but it is really what it always was: the freedom of the economic elite to dispose of their property at will. (83)

The “serfs” of our New Feudalism are the shrinking middle classes and the growing working classes and under-classes of poor and precarious labourers, all redefined as consumers. The “lords” of our New Feudalism are corporations that have annexed the state and the media, to enforce business interests by any means necessary, persuading us that business interests are society’s interests, and attacking as heresy any questioning of “the deified Market” (87).

Occupy LA photo courtesy of

Occupy LA photo courtesy of

The 2008 “Great Recession” has breathed new life into feudal analogies of the modern world’s economy, amidst the “economic awakening” of Occupy Wall Street and related movements. US journalist Chris Hedges writes: “a slow-motion coup by a corporate state has cemented into place a neofeudalism in which there are only masters and serfs” (¶3). UK blogger C.J. Stone writes: “we are in the midst of … a return to feudalism. … The new Feudal Lords use financial rent – indebtedness – [for] living off the back of a servant class” (“Empire”). The comparison of late capitalism to feudalism recurs often enough in the Huffington Post that the term “neo-feudalism” is a searchable tag on the Huffington Post website (see “Neo-feudalism”, Pederson, and Whitehead). And even a US venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer, makes the same point: “Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. … If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us” (¶6-8).

We see the feudal character of neoliberal capitalism in the ways that corporations cultivate consumers’ “brand loyalty”; in the ways that workers toil like serfs in a globally distributed and fortified gulag of “export processing zones”; in the ways that corporations enjoy more rights and representation than citizens. Corporations are the new aristocratic “Houses,” while workers are being disciplined or coerced to work under conditions of serfdom, indentured servitude, or guild apprenticeship (e.g. unpaid internships), if not outright slavery.

Win or die

In this context, Game allegorizes the new feudal society that has been built by neoliberal policies (and it is far from the only TV series to give allegorical form to neoliberal capitalism2). The show dramatizes the competition among an aristocratic elite for “the Iron Throne,” object and symbol of a monopoly on power and wealth; this dramatization includes forceful scenes of the wealth inequality, militarization, corruption, and patriarchal violence on which that power and wealth depend. The “high-born” Houses of Westeros echo those of feudal Europe. As the creators acknowledge, Game borrows from many historical sources, mainly the 1455-85 War of the Roses between the English houses of Lancaster and York; in the series, they are “Lannister” and “Stark” (“Plot”). But these Houses are also figures of corporate business. Many corporations are family dynasties that rely for their sustenance and reproduction on kinship, a patriarchal division of labour, and ties of loyalty (chiefly the loyalty of their client governments, and also that of consumers). Among the Houses, the “rapacious values” of neoliberalism characterize the contest for the throne as a “war of all against all” (Vint 139, 141). Early in the series, the queen of Westeros, Cersei Lannister, expresses this ethos with her characteristic economy of words: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Claims to the Throne that base their legitimacy in anything but violence and guile are ridiculed as naïve: among Westeros’ noble Houses, as among today’s corporations and investors, lofty claims to legitimate rule are most often a smokescreen for force and cunning.

In Game’s world, only might makes right, as we also see in the summit meetings of state leaders and corporate lobbyists (like the routine show of elite force and narrow interests at Davos, Switzerland, which is happening as of this writing). Since the 1990s, such summits have been met by escalating public protests, and accompanied (and sometimes sabotaged) by disproportionately growing security forces. Corporate capital routinely presses its entrenched advantage with state leaders in closed-door meetings that, like sites of capitalist production, are hidden and militarized zones.

The main reason we never see the so-called “invisible hand” of the free market is because it’s hidden behind the pointy end of the weapon it’s pointing at us.


Stannis Baratheon asks for a loan in Davos. I mean Braavos.

Game features many characters who are “sellswords,” or mercenaries – the realm’s private security contractors, as it were. The loyalty of these characters, like that of their cynical “high-born” lords, is always for sale to the highest bidder, and self-preservation trumps all bids. Likewise for its financiers, as seen when Stannis Baratheon, brother of King Robert Baratheon whose death precipitates the war for the Throne, gets a loan for his war campaign from the “Iron Bank” of Braavos, a city-state in Essos. Scenes like this also present an alleogorical image of the familiar link between force and finance: as it turns out, the monarchy is running a deficit. In the first season, we learn that the realm’s finances are badly managed; in season three, we learn that the monarchy is in debt to the Iron Bank. The fact that the Westeros government is indebted to a foreign eastern power is a detail that resonates with the present financial relationship between western powers like the USA and eastern powers like China.

Brands and circuses

The ruling elite also spends conspicuously, not just on repressive apparatuses, like armies, but also on ideological apparatuses, like displays of leadership and charity. We learn the monarchy is in debt amidst the Throne-occupying Lannister family’s planning for King Joffrey’s royal wedding. circusesThe expense of the wedding is justified as a nation-building spectacle for the masses, a spectacle of conspicuous consumption calculated to inspire the poor with a circus, not give them bread. This subplot resonates with the media attention and public finance spent on British royal weddings – amidst the neoliberal dismantling of Britain’s welfare state that has continued steadily since the “iron” rule of Margaret Thatcher. Westeros’ Houses are as concerned with their subjects’ loyalty as corporations are concerned with consumers’ “brand loyalty.” Each House has its own distinct heraldry and “words,” which together function as brand and trademark.

Significantly, “low-born” and poor characters are mostly marginal to the plot. Where poor characters do appear – as servants, soldiers, sellswords, serfs or slaves – they are shown to be abject, exploited, and yet still loyal to their lords. mobWhen depicted as crowds, the poor become a stereotypical menace. A scene in season one shows a royal parade get mobbed in a poor quarter of the capitol. This mob, with its bare hands, dismembers a royal priest, and some men threaten to sexually assault the young girl Sansa Stark. She is rescued by a royal bodyguard, who kills her attackers. With very few exceptions, the low-born, labouring, and poor characters in Game tend to be depicted either as virtuous individuals who are unquestioningly loyal to their lords, or as wretched masses always ready to riot.

“The slavery of being a girl”

Game‘s allegory of capitalism as new feudalism also becomes apparent in its images not just of class inequality, but also of gender and sexual inequalities. The series has become controversial for its harrowing and graphic scenes of sexual assault, abuse, torture, incest, and other kinds of gendered and sexual violence. takeordersMen in the show constantly subject women of all classes and ranks to violence and humiliation; one of the most striking and distressing details of the show is the frequency (and sometimes even the tone of resignation or boredom) with which the word “rape” gets used. In Game, women are commodities and objects; and the complicity between feudal rule and patriarchal oppression is shown as clearly in the expectations of aristocratic women characters as it is shown horrifically in the all-too-predictable fates of prostitute women characters. These representations have prompted some important feminist critiques in their own right (see Murphy and Zeisler)3 – especially since some of the show’s most compelling main characters subvert or oppose these strict and exploitative gender and sexual norms – but these representations are also integral to Game’s allegory of our economic world-system, which bell hooks describes, bluntly, as “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (46). Corporations and feudal Houses alike traffic in gendered divisions of labour for their reproduction, by consolidating family fortunes through bloodline succession and marriage, and by exploiting women in all kinds of precarious service work (Rogan 77). Game’s “high-born” women protagonists are constantly reminded of their one job: to produce future kings. Girl children are traded and bartered to strengthen ties – and treasuries – among the aristocracy; or they are exiled or abandoned; or they are imprisoned; or they are assaulted and killed outright.

The complicity between capital and male privilege may be highly stylized and sensationally depicted in Game, but it accords with the intersectional critiques of this complicity in our own world, critiques well expressed in the work of feminists like hooks, Donna Haraway, Adrienne Rich, Dionne Brand, and Jasbir Puar – to name just a few among so many others who remind us that we are nowhere near living in anything like a “post-patriarchy,” but instead are living through something more like a “war against women” (Mallick ¶11). This gender aspect of Game’s allegory is memorably captured in a scene between Cersei and a Prince from an eastern land, Dorne, where Cersei’s daughter has been sent. Bristling at the “barbarism” he finds in Westeros, the Prince tries to assure Cersei:
Cersei’s reply is a curt but unflinching condemnation of patriarchy:

“Winter is coming”

Just in case the economic and gender parallels between Game’s world and our own aren’t striking enough, the story also includes extreme weather and characters’ preoccupation with weather – both of which are uncharacteristic for the fantasy genre. whitewalkerIn the world of Game, seasons do not turn with the years; instead, seasons themselves last years, sometimes generations. Game’s plot begins as “the long summer” is ending; and as we constantly hear, “winter is coming.” The descriptions of winter, given early in the series, evoke grim images of snowdrifts high as houses, of mothers murdering newborns to spare them from being raised in darkness and starvation. The onset of winter, in other words, amounts to climate catastrophe.

In an io9 article (which piqued my initial interest in watching the show), George Dvorsky offers five scientific hypotheses that could account for such “messed-up seasons.” Climate change is not one of these hypotheses, but it is mentioned as a factor in how “oceans, currents, and winds” could make for unpredictable seasonal change and “long-term weather trends” (¶24-25). The very mention of climate change in an article about Game highlights how the show resonates with current concerns; what’s more, while Game leaves largely unexplained the reasons for Westeros’ unpredictable climate, it does hint at one large-scale human intervention in the natural environment that is strongly associated with – and may even have influenced – weather: the continent-barricading Wall, said to have been raised by magic in ancient times to protect Westeros from dangers lurking in “the North” such as “wildlings” (read: indigenous peoples) and fantastic creatures (mammoths, giants, and zombies). The Wall often stands as a sharp spatial division between winter and summer, and the story’s consistent preoccupation with weather augments Game’s overall relevance to the real world that has been wrought by neoliberal capitalism.

A “cracked-mirror” Europe

The Wall is one of several geographical details that further build Game’s allegorical relevance. Patrolled by a conscript army recruited from bastards, criminals, and the poor, the Wall exists to keep “the wildlings” out of Westeros. One subplot involving these wildlings represents them as a colonized, indigenous people who engage in anti-colonial resistance against Westeros. The Wall thus resonates with the real-world wall erected by Israel, the wall that US conservatives perennially want to raise against Mexico, and the overall sharp rise in wall-building that has followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, as found by Elisabeth Vallet’s research on “democraties fortifiées” – fortified democracies. Whereas in 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell, some fifteen state or territorial walls stood to divide a supposedly “globalizing” world, by 2011 over fifty such walls could be found (“Des murs d’argent”).

Élisabeth Vallet: “Toujours plus de murs dans un monde sans frontières : nombre de murs frontaliers, 1945-2012” (“Always more walls in a borderless world: number of territorial walls, 1945-2012”).
Note especially the dramatic increase after 11 Sept. 2001.

Other geographical cues to Game’s allegory appear in the map that is shown in the series’ opening title sequence, a clever TV adaptation of the fantasy novel’s convention of introducing its with a map. In this map, Westeros looks like the UK: the capitol, King’s Landing, looks like London on the Thames; and the Starks’ House, Winterfell, is in the north, like England’s York. Westeros is separated from the continent of Essos by a “Narrow Sea,” or channel; Essos looks like Europe, and the specific area of “Slavers’ Bay” – where the subplot involving the exiled princess Danaerys Targerian takes place – closely resembles the rim of the Mediterranean. Westeros map, Game Of Thrones titlesPredictably enough, then, the people of Westeros are quite English looking and sounding, while the various peoples of Essos are ambiguously “ethnic” in their darker complexions and vaguely Slavic and Arabic sounding languages. The map of the opening titles looks very much like a “cracked-mirror” map of Europe.

A critical or ideological fantasy?

So, among with its depictions of feudal economy, patriarchal oppression, climate change, and Eurocentric geography, Game constructs an allegory of the new feudalism that is resurgent today, a new feudalism brought about by free-market ideology and corporate-controlled governance. The point of my allegorical reading is not whether the show depicts feudalism with precise historical accuracy, or even whether Game’s feudalism maps precisely onto the social systems of globalized capitalism. Rather, my point is that Game’s image of feudalism provides an apt and timely metaphor for today’s wealth inequality, the economic and political structures that support it, and the social effects – and side effects – that it has produced. This allegorical reading challenges capitalism’s claims to modernity, progress, and above all democracy; it challenges the tired capitalist hype about “the end of history” – which Game shows, instead, to be something more like history’s rewinding, or its barbarous revenge. In this way, Game can be read as what leftist fantasy author China Miéville calls “critical fantasy,” in which

the realism of concern and the weird of expression are each their own end, but through metaphor, that magic dialectical glue, they are also … functions of each other. (¶11)

But to read Game as critical fantasy is to miss some key aspects of its narrative strategy: Game might create a critical allegory of the new feudalism in certain details of its setting, imagery, and tone; but in its plot and characters, Game also reproduces the dominant neoliberal ideology that has brokered feudalism’s return.

The plot reproduces neoliberal ideology in the main story’s constant focus on competition and conflict among the noble Houses. The plot of traditional fantasy, after the fashion formulated by Tolkein, is a quest story, in which an individual or group attempts to achieve an arduous or impossible task: the main story of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saga is the fellowship’s daunting quest to infiltrate Mordor and destroy Sauron’s ring. Quests provide the plot structure of most popular fantasy plots, from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, to Dungeons and Dragons franchise pulp, to Harry Potter’s long struggle to solve and exorcise the enigmatic scourge that is Voldemort. Game does include some sub-plots that could be construed as heroic quests: the travels and travails of Arya Stark and her brother Bram Stark are both individual voyages of apprenticeship and self-discovery. But the main plot that drives most of the character drama is a story of vicious, no-holds-barred fighting and treachery among elite families in pursuit of the monopoly on power promised by monarchical rule. This is a kind of decentralized plot, in that it is not organized around any one specific quest, and in the way the early episodes establish all families’ claims to the throne as more or less equally pretentious.

So the plot of Game differs sharply from that of most fantasy. The quest plot is linear, monumental, with a fixed end in view; but the contest-for-supremacy plot is lateral, and this kind of decentralized plot works better for the television serial drama format: it more effectively deals in suspense and continuation than in beginnings and endings, as scene changes sustain the viewers’ interest in several families and individuals at once. The way that Game privileges multiple points of view and choreographs them around the pursuit and achievement of monopolistic power, the way each viewpoint commands our sympathy in greater or lesser degrees – these elements of the show’s plot depart significantly from the traditional fantasy genre and are legible as symptoms of the neoliberal ideology that is creating a neo-feudal world.

Furthermore, Game makes this ceaseless competition – this feuding – of the new feudalism seem not only like the only story worth telling, but also normal, even natural, by anchoring the plot action among “high-born” aristocrats as the characters who we viewers are supposed to relate to. We are invited to identify with protagonists who are monarchs, royal family members, and nobles of Westeros’ ruling elite. In this focus on elite charactes and their concerns, Game promotes the interests and values of the ruling elite, and, moreover, misrepresents such values as the values of society in general (Duvall 85). This is nothing new in culture, literature, or media, from Jane Austen’s dramas of leisure-class match-making, to Fox News’ constant pleas of sympathy for beleaguered, persecuted big business. Such invitations to identify with the elite are long-standing symptoms of culture and entertainment under capitalism, a powerful strategy with which the elite continues to persuade us “low-borns” that the interests of the “high-born” are our own interests too.

Moreover, the construction of elite characters as the most “relatable” characters belongs to the same ideological system that encourages audiences to interpret a show like Game as merely “escapist,” as irrelevant to contemporary everyday life. mastersCritics who read Game as “escapist” (whether positively or negatively) fail (whether by deficiency or design) to pay attention to the uses of allegory and metaphor, and such critics are either underestimating the interpretive powers of the viewing audience, or they are actively mystifying the metaphorical work that fantastic and non-realist narratives can do. In this work, much of the political power of these narratives can be found, if we exercise the critical imagination to detect it, raiding the stories of the rich to make them speak for the rest of us.


1. While chasing down some last research details for this essay, I stumbled upon David Stubbs’ article on Game as an allegory of “modern times”; his argument is similar in premise, but it’s briefer, attuned to different details, and overall rather vague about how exactly Game relates to “modern times” (a side effect, perhaps, of understandably wishing to avoid sharing spoilers).

2. Several TV serial dramas have developed extensive allegories of neoliberal capitalism, economic globalization, and the market society. As I wrote in 2009, of the re-made Battlestar Galactica series:

Battlestar belongs to a recent trend in specialty cable programmes about the US as an increasingly deregulated and/or underground market society – such as Showtime’s Dead Like Me (Canada/US 2003-04), in which the grim reaper’s work is all outsourced to undead sub-contractors; Showtime’s Weeds (US 2005- ), in which a single mother tries to maintain her gated-community lifestyle by dealing drugs; and HBO’s Deadwood (US 2004-06), a Western which, like Battlestar, works as a frontier allegory of diasporic migration, militarised public space, technologised security threats and unregulated enterprise in a society characterised less by democracy than ‘adhocracy’ (Doctorow qtd. in Jenkins 251). Among these series, Battlestar most stridently articulates questions of market-society culture, technologies of reproduction and political-economic ethics to a military problematic. (21)

More recently, AMC’s zombie apocalypse series The Walking Dead has generated widespread interpretations as an allegory of the neoliberal market society – and some compelling interpretations as an allegory of settler-invader colonialism, as in Cutcha Risling Baldy‘s must-read post about teaching The Walking Dead in Native Studies courses:

for a long time in California, if you were an Indian person walking around, something or someone might just try to kill you. They were hungry for your scalp and your head. They had no remorse. There was no reasoning with them. And there were more of them then there was of you. (Zombies. But even worse, living, breathing, people Zombies…) (¶18)

In the wake of the burgeoning popularity of zombie texts, the increasing volatility of global economics, and a corresponding boom of critical and scholarly interest in “zombie economics” (e.g. Quiggin and McNally), The Walking Dead has become a cultural lightning rod for critiques of neoliberalism in culture and society. For just a few examples, see Clitheroe, Powers, and Sherryl Vint, who reads the series as “an extended meditation on the problems of community and individuality” (139), “in a world understood to have peeled away the veneer of community and revealed the ‘true’ state of nature as a war of all against all” (141). This understanding, for Vint, represents the “rapacious values” of neoliberalism, “a discourse that acts on the population to ‘make survive’ … but one that simultaneously dehumanizes and makes monstrous these survivors”- who, like the zombies they flee, are also, ironically, “reduced to endless walking and consuming” (141). As Gerry Canavan sums up readings like Vint’s, “narratives like The Walking Dead map onto a form of capitalism that has itself become completely monstrous” (143).

3. More than I’d have expected of the online discussion of Game Of Thrones and feminism seems unduly concerned with whether the show, or its creator, “is” feminist in and of itself. I agree with Zeisler’s suggestion that such a concern seems misplaced, neglecting the interpretive powers of audience response to search instead for the creators’ intent (and doing so well after Roland Barthes’ famous 1967 declaration of “the death of the author,” the idea that every reading is a new re-writing). As Zeisler puts it: “does it matter if Game of Thrones is feminist? Maybe not. But what does matter that it’s one of few shows to give us a reason to even argue the case.” Whether a given cultural text itself “is” feminist seems to me a less urgent question than how a feminist reading of that text is productive for feminism.


This essay is a revision of a talk I gave at the Fourth Research Forum of the Centre for Humanities at Athabasca University, on 28 Nov. 2014; I want to thank the audience for their questions and comments. I also want to thank AU alumni Sarah Mann and Heather Clitheroe, who, in reading courses I supervised, found and built on key studies of the new feudalism and of neoliberalism in pop culture.

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Further Reading

Larrington, Carolyne. “Game of Loans.” 1843 Magazine, ca. 2016.

10 responses to “Game Of Thrones isn’t escapist, it’s an allegory of today’s new feudalism

  1. “Escapism” is a word beloved by pompous curmudgeons, to chastise people for having the wrong type of fun. Anything that one does for enjoyment is escapist; fantasy is simply more honest about what it is. Those who dismiss fantasy as escapist and imagine that their own pastimes are any less so are the ones who are truly deluded. And those who have no pastimes at all are a simply a waste of a human existence, and would have been better off had they been born as dogs or worms.

    • academicalism

      Thanks for your note. I well take your point, though the last line seems a bit harsh. But to whom might it refer? Who has no pastimes? (This question’s meant rhetorically but I’m open to possible answers…for instance, those who are exorbitantly overworked, underprivileged, imprisoned, or enslaved may have few to no pastimes, and it would seem profoundly unfair to deny them full share in humanity for that reason.)

  2. How can you put that much effort into analysing the TV show rather than the books, where ALL of the tone for the show comes from ? You wrote all of that and didn’t use the word ‘smallfolk’ once, which is a term from the books which is adopted in the TV series as well.

    • academicalism

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure the post makes it clear that I don’t discuss the books simply because I haven’t read the books … like many fans of the TV show, for whom the show works very well on its own. I study adaptations, but this is a case in which I’m entirely unfamiliar with the source text and so haven’t approached the show from that angle (though I have heard some fascinating arguments about how the show is adapting a print series that itself is not yet done being written). Here I’m mainly interested in analyzing how a TV show as such can foster critical (or even subversive) interpretations and cultural functions. Still, I may yet crack the books one day.
      So I also appreciate your note about the “smallfolk” detail, which I hadn’t noticed in the TV series. In the context of this post and your comment, I presume it’s a word that signifies something about class: are the “smallfolk” at the bottom of the hierarchy ruled by the “highborn”? If so, the word makes vivid use of the imagery of size and scale to depict the have-nots: “small” as insignificant, beneath notice, even powerless … but then again, they who are small can demonstrate surprising power and agency: David versus Goliath, the first mammals versus the last dinosaurs…

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