Choosing the Right Cultural Comparison for Something is Actually a Lot Like Game of Thrones

Over the weekend, a story break wherein celebrated actor Robert DeNiro, star of such films as Raging Bull, the Godfather II and Last Vegas, compared Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to one of his most celebrated characters, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. The comparison makes sense on a very basic level — both men are attention hungry, have delusions of grandeur, and both are New Yorkers — but that’s where the similarities stop. Bickle is a poor cab driver, while Trump is a rich businessman’s son; Bickle has a badass mohawk, while Trump wears a specially inbred fox-possum hybrid on his head; and the woman Bickle is obsessed with is a young prostitute instead of his own daughter.

It’s understandable that DeNiro would compare Trump to Bickle, though, because he’s familiar with the character, and the film, released in 1976, is particularly relevant at this moment in time because it’s celebrating its 40th anniversary. Still, making this sort of analogy between art and current events is a delicate thing. Choosing the wrong cultural touchstone can color the views of a generation raised on Tarantino’s festishization of pop culture in unpredictable ways, which makes choosing the right comparison important.

Is Donald Trump more like Travis Bickle, Voldemort from the Harry Potter series, or maybe Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon? Is Hillary Clinton a Joan of Arc or Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? As it turns out, choosing the right pop culture analogy for current events is a lot like the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.

There Are a Lot of Stories to Choose From

Game of Thrones takes place in a universe that is almost overwhelmingly large and detailed, and the events portrayed in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books and the TV series based on them represent only a tiny part of that world’s history. It would be difficult to take in the entirety of the available stories and mythology of that universe, so Game of Thrones focuses on the key figures: the Lannister, Stark, and Targaryen families take up the majority of screen time, with supporting characters from other lands and nations serving to eventually push the members of those families together in a variety of ways.

Similarly, there are countless stories in human history to choose from for a cultural comparison, but only the key ones serve as effective fodder because everyone knows how to relate to them: Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Wire, and other such ubiquitous properties are generally applicable, while more of-the-moment phenomena like the first season of True Detective or Napoleon Dynamite are long since expired for the purpose of current events analogy. Anything more obscure or mentally taxing — Taxi Driver, for example — will require a defter touch and a deeper, more specific dive to be worth the paper it’s printed on.

No Matter How Splashy It Looks, It Has To Make Sense

This piggybacks on the idea of a less ubiquitous title like Taxi Driver requiring more detail to be a useful comparison. This is what DeNiro said when comparing Trump to Travis Bickle:

“What he has been saying is totally crazy, ridiculous, stuff that shouldn’t be even … he is totally nuts… One of the things to me was just the irony at the end, [Bickle] is back driving a cab, celebrated, which is kind of relevant in some way today too… People like Donald Trump who shouldn’t be where he is so … God help us.”

That’s it. You could say that about lots of people from books, movies and TV shows. It looks good in a headline — “Revered Movie Star Says ______ is a Lot Like One of His Most Greatest Anti-Heroes” — but without the substance to back up the statement, there’s nothing more to be gained beyond the headline. That means it can’t resonate or help people process a given event or public figure, which means the comparison is ultimately empty calories. If it doesn’t make sense, in other words, there’s no use for it.

The same can be said for Game of Thrones. Dragons, hot people, swordfights, and sex are all interesting or cool, but you can find that stuff in a lot of places. Eragon and Reign of Fire had dragons, the 300 sequel and every other failed sword-and-sandal film like it has had hot people and swordfights, and despite being just chock-full of sex, how many pornos can you name (without just putting a couple porny-sounding words and a comically high number together)?

In order for those generally appealing elements to be worth the audience’s time, they have to make sense. Even with its intricate plot and impossibly sprawling family tree, the stories Game of Thrones make enough sense that people empathize with the characters and care enough to theorize about and be affected by their futures. The fantasy elements aren’t just empty calories; if they were, like a splashy headline with no substance, the show wouldn’t work.

There Are Often Fictional Characters Involved

When people are comparing current events to something else for the purpose of popular consumption, they can choose something from the past, because those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. However, most people don’t know history, which can make that method ineffective. Instead, they often choose fictional characters from popular culture, because they tend to be more well-known and less complex than actual historical figures.

Voldemort and Sauron are straightforwardly evil, while Luke Skywalker and Coach Eric Taylor are straightforwardly good. This means that comparing someone to them associates them immediately with either positive or negative emotions.

As I mentioned earlier, Game of Thrones takes place in sprawling universe created by author George R. R. Martin. A consequence of this fact is that none of the characters on the show actually exist. This seems obvious, since we no longer live in a world where the best way to fight is with swords, bows and arrows, and horses, but if you dig deeper, you’ll find that Dany, Jon, Cersei, and the rest of the gang aren’t in any history books either.

They may have elements that we recognize in other people — they may even look like people who exist in the real world — but everything they do and say is made up, either by Martin himself or the writers for the show. The use of fictional characters, then, is something that Game of Thrones has in common with many analogies between a current event or public figure and popular culture.

Using a character or event from a well-known, beloved book, film, or television show can be an effective way of helping people understand a complex issue, and of making that event seem more engaging to people who gravitate more to works of fiction than the local or national news. Choosing the right one means sifting through a dizzying amount of available material to pick one that will actually make sense and resonate with people, and that often means using fictional characters rather than real-world historical figures. In these ways, the choice is a lot like Game of Thrones, and that means that when you plays the game of cultural analogies, you win or your potentially viral content dies.