Why, As a Christian, I Am (Still) Not Getting on the GoT Bandwagon
We should not ignore depravity, but neither should we underestimate our own.
In spite of the fact that I am something of a nerd and a self-professed Tolkien-head, I have not gotten into HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones, because as a Christian, I don’t think it’s something I really need in my life. Not all Christians feel the same way.
In his article in Arc Digital last week, radio personality and conservative commentator Erick Erickson became one of the most recent Christian conservatives to come out with a reluctantly favorable opinion of the show, even though, as he admits:
. . . watching Game of Thrones is not for everyone. I know people who at one time were obsessed with pornography and it has been a slow climb out of the sewer for them. I do not recommend they watch it. I know others who cannot take the sight of blood at all and I do not recommend they watch it. And I know Christians who are convinced watching Game of Thrones will send them straight to hell. I disagree, but I do not encourage them to watch it.
Erickson’s argument essentially boil down to: motive matters. If you’re watching Game of the Thrones for the “wrong reasons” (i.e. titillation), it’s wrong, but if you’re simply appreciating the story and not “getting into” the sex, nudity, and violence, it’s not wrong and it is in fact a powerful portrayal of the helpless condition of man.
While I agree, certainly, that motive matters, I think there is more to be considered than the motive of the viewer. When evaluating entertainment we should also take into account the intention of its producer, how endorsing it affects our Christian witness, and also the possibility that our own motives for viewing might change.
Is There a Difference Between Game of Thrones and Pornography?
Game of Thrones is well-known for piling on “edgy” content both sexual and violent (sometimes concurrently). Even though I haven’t watched the show, it has become such a cultural phenomenon (in part because of this audacious pushing of the envelope) that I’ve heard plenty through hearsay, and I confirmed the rumors before writing this article by reading a detailed content advisory on imdb.com (after which I kind of felt like I needed to take a shower). Extremely graphic and gratuitous violence, including prolonged torture scenes and violence perpetrated against non-combatants, is pretty much a constant throughout the show. Rape, incest, sex orgies, and prostitution, as well as “tamer” sexual scenarios are depicted. Many of these situations are not merely alluded to, but vividly played out on screen, leaving very little to the imagination. Full-frontal nudity in a sexual context occurs frequently.
Game of Thrones has been accused in some circles of being pornographic. The fact that the show features not just graphic sex scenes, but non-consensual sexual situations makes this thought all the more disturbing. In the most-hyped of these scenes, although penetration occurs off-screen, viewers watch as a resisting woman (Emilia Clarke) is disrobed by a man leading up to his rape of her. Although the scene does not involve full-frontal nudity, the audience certainly sees enough of her unclothed upper body to get the picture. Clarke’s sex appeal is undeniably capitalized on many times throughout the show as she appears, nude, in later, more explicit sex scenes. Although I would hope that the audience would not be “getting into” this kind of sexual violence, I am not naive enough to be optimistic.
I think the question that needs to be asked is not “how much is shown or not shown?” but, is the objective any different than pornography? The show’s creators don’t seem to have many qualms in admitting that the sexual content is designed to cater to people who are watching for what Erickson would call “the wrong reasons”. Neil Marshall, the show’s director, shared an anecdote about an unnamed producer encouraging him to go ahead and put full-frontal nudity in a particular scene:
Look, I represent the pervert side of the audience. Ok? Everybody else is the serious drama side. I represent the perv side of the audience, and I want full frontal nudity in this scene. So you go ahead and do it.
While Game of Thrones may have some legitimate dramatic and artistic appeal, it’s probably safe to say that the producers are not above exploiting the appetites of the so-called “perv side of the audience” to get people to tune in — and that is something that we should think about seriously before we brush aside accusations that the show’s sexual content is pornographic, whether Christian viewers choose to see it that way or not.
We Don’t Have to Pretend That Evil Doesn’t Exist — But How We View It Matters
Erickson’s generous appraisal of the show’s moral value went thus:
I think the show, at its core, is a good reminder that this world is fleeting, evil exists, and real redemption cannot come from man.
This is an argument I have heard elsewhere too — that there is value to content like Game of Thrones because it highlights depravity and the helpless condition of sinful man.
Rape, prostitution, incest, murder, and torture are all realities in a fallen, sinful world. I don’t think we need to faint every time there’s any mention of them in a story. After all, the Bible itself is full of violence and illicit sex. In fact, like Game of Thrones, it even has incest and rape (in the same story, no less). And for Christians, it is indeed crucial that we understand that depravity cannot be escaped from by hiding our eyes from it: it is something that comes from within, not some foreign matter that we can stay uninfected from by avoiding it.
But how our entertainment portrays sin should have some bearing on our choice whether or not to consume and condone it. Currently, my husband and I are watching a show that is filled with blood, gore, and even some nudity and sex. It’s not Game of Thrones; it’s a documentary on the Vietnam War. In it we see footage of dead and dying men, rotting corpses, and brutal killings. It deals with themes of rampant (sometimes coerced) prostitution, drug abuse, and torture.
But there are ways to present this type of content in order to sober, not excite, the viewer. The footage and images in the documentary are raw and stark. This is not “for your viewing pleasure.” It is real — much more real, unfortunately, than anything on Game of Thrones. Another more mainstream example is the scene in the 2012 Les Miserables in which the factory-girl-turned-prostitute Fantine, finding herself out of a job and with no means to provide for her young daughter, subjects herself to an act of prostitution for the first time. Although certainly not “family-friendly”, I do not consider this scene to be pornographic because the camera does not ogle the literally starving Fantine, and nothing about is intended to sexually stimulate. It is a tragic, heartbreaking part of the character’s story.
In contrast, Game of Thrones, with its incessant, more-than-gratuitous barrage of over-produced luridness, does not aim to appall us, but to appeal to us with depravity.
Underestimating the Sinner in All of Us
Even Erickson’s caution that the show “isn’t for everyone” implies that the temptations it presents somehow only apply to a small minority of people with really weird appetites, and that for the rest of us “normal” people (assuming we can handle the sight of a little blood), it should be fine. Erickson stated that people who are or have been “obsessed with pornography” should probably not watch Game of Thrones. I’m not sure how he would define “obsessed with pornography”, but I do know that pornography is not a small problem in our society, affecting a few of its members here and there, but a broad epidemic that the church is by no means exempt from. Roughly 2/3 of the American male population views pornography once a month or more (and those are just the ones who would answer honestly on a poll — I suspect the real number is much greater), with self-identifying Christian men almost matching the national average. What this tells me is that a majority of Christian men are engaging with porn on a regular basis against their own convictions.
Lest we think this is strictly a male problem, let’s not forget that 50 Shades of Grey, a BDSM kink-fest loosely held together by a lousy excuse for a story, was a New York Times bestseller, its movie adaptation a blockbuster hit, and women composed its main audience. I’m fairly certain most of them weren’t reading/watching it to gain a deeper appreciation of mankind’s helpless condition and need for redemption.
And yet when it comes to a show that regularly features nudity and explicit (and often degrading) sexual scenarios, we act like there is some reason to think that Christians, who of all people should understand the power of original sin, are going to be magically immune to its temptations. Why do we continue to pretend like we have no appetite for “that sort of thing”, in the face of overwhelming evidence that, in fact, we do?
There may be people who are above being tempted by Game of Thrones’ more lurid elements, but my suspicion is that this is a small minority (and one to which I certainly do not belong). By giving a broad endorsement of the show, downplaying its problems and seeing its dubious merits through rose-colored glasses, Christian viewers run the risk of encouraging weaker members of the church towards aggressive temptation that is neither helpful nor necessary, and also expose themselves to the incredulity of a non-Christian world which has a hard time buying that they are really tuning into a show notorious for its over-the-top sexual and violent content for the edification of their souls.
Do we really need Game of Thrones to help us understand the human condition as much as we need to resist its air-brushed, high-production presentation of sin?
I don’t pass on Thrones because I have a pornography addiction (I don’t), or because I can’t stand the sight of blood (I can and do when the occasion calls for it), or because I think it will send me or any other Christian to hell (it won’t). I pass on Game of Thrones because, behind that fascinating story and opulent production, it is a show intentionally engineered to appeal to every kind of lurking sin within me that I want to put to death.