With less than a week to go before the seventh season premiere, lots of folks are thinking about the wacky, dragon-infested land of Westeros. (Presumably to get their minds off of all of the apocalyptic stuff going on in the decidedly less fun but far more alarming real world.) One of these individuals is The Week columnist Matthew Walther, though he’s greeting the return of George R.R. Martin and HBO’s epic fantasy saga with something less than enthusiasm. After following the series for six seasons, he’s decided that Game of Thrones is not just a dopey show for developmentally-challenged dorkwads, but a spiritually harmful one, at that.
In a column posted today titled “Game of Thrones is bad — and bad for you,” Walther dismisses the series as “ultra-violent wizard porn — and boring ultra-violent wizard porn at that.” Only as recently as twenty years ago, “watching it would have gotten you shoved into a locker,” but today it attracts the brightest and most affluent sectors of society: “[S]ome 23 million viewers, most of them adults, seemingly well-socialized, emotionally well-adjusted tax-paying contributors to our GDP.”
But Game of Thrones isn’t the sole cause for concern. Rather, it’s symptomatic of “a downward nerd-driven death spiral” plaguing modern culture:
Outside of the art-house theaters of our major cities it is almost impossible to find more than one semi-decent film a month that is not an adaptation of some decades-old picture book franchise about men in rubber costumes punching each other. The average video game player is more than 30 years old. The only book that most Americans between the ages of 23 and 40 seem to have read whose title does not begin with some variation of “Harry Potter and the” is a fable about talking animals that they were assigned in middle school.
These sci-fi and fantasy-based movies and TV shows, along with wizard porn-themed books, video games, role-playing games, comics, and other trifles (POGs?) represent a profound threat to our nation’s moral and psychological health, Walther argues. Where once adults enjoyed serious film and literature about “the old stand-bys of morals, marriage, and money,” they now thrill to the “obscene” adventures of “a unidextrous dueling champ” and “a woman whose size makes her the frequent butt of bestiality-related jokes.”
The whole column is written in a vaguely hysterical style, and it’s a hoot to read. You can imagine Walter finishing each paragraph with a gleeful cackle: Take that, you gormless dweebs! It’s also deadly serious. Maybe the biggest surprise to some readers is that, all appearances to the contrary, Walther is not a raving octogenarian staring incredulously at his battered Trinitron, but a young man in his early thirties. He’s also a devout Catholic, so I’m guessing that he missed out on all the unsavory yet readily accessible entertainment I grew up with as an unsheltered teenager in the ‘80s and ‘90s: PG-rated movies with frontal nudity and F-bombs, horror paperbacks, trashy prime time soaps like Dynasty, “jiggle” TV like Three’s Company and Baywatch, the Jason/Michael/Freddy slasher trifecta, gangsta rap and heavy metal CDs, and gory 16-bit video games like Slaughterhouse. Those were all tremendously popular, and very few of them could be said to possess a moral vision of the kind Walther seeks in today’s popular culture. I don’t remember many kids my age getting into the collected works of Schubert or Daniel Derronda back in 1989.
No, what really bugs him is that the dominant forms of entertainment today seem to have been made by nerds, for nerds — not “normal” people, just overgrown adolescents with no sense of shame and actual teenagers who should know better. (What good is peer pressure if it doesn’t keep the geeks and mouth-breathers in line?) But what kinds of worldviews are these devoted fans getting from these entertainments? After all, as creators as diverse as Rod Serling, Frank Herbert, and Margaret Atwood have pointed out, it’s easier to present subversive ideas within the context of worldbuilding and other forms of nerderie than in realistic fiction, which doesn’t even feature dragons or rubber-suited men beating each other up. (Mostly.) Is Walther really put off by the gratuitous nudity and violence of GoT? Or is he more concerned with the show’s decidedly contrary views on the arbitrary nature of non-democratic rule, and the notion of religion as a means of social control, as opposed to divine law?
This seems to be a theme with a lot of conservative commentators lately. Consider this editorial by Lara Prendergast from the UK Spectator, “Harry Potter and the millennial mind”:
The ‘Potterverse’ is the millennial universe. It informs the way we see ourselves and the way we look at the world; our moral imagination. If you have ever wondered why young people are often so childish in their politics, why they want to divide the world between tolerant progressives and wicked reactionaries, it helps to understand that.
So basically, the argument here is that sci-fi and fantasy have turned a whole generation of young adults into snowflake pajama boys and girls who regard conservatives and traditionalists as the equivalent of the supervillains in their favorite genre franchises — your Voldemorts, Palpatines, Saurons, Thanoii, etc. Instead of turning to history or the Bible to find inspiring moral leaders (no violence or morally questionable behavior in those!), they’re looking to the examples of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Leia Organa, Steve Rogers, Steven Universe, and Diana of Themiscyra. And because these nerdverses are vast, with equally huge, reinforcing fandoms, it’s hard to imagine that they might ever find wisdom in Walther or Prendergast’s words. Heaven forfend!
Anyway, despite these entreaties, I think I can still enjoy my favorite Elf Show without dreading the fires of perdition. In the words of a great American broadcaster, TONIGHT WE FEAST ON BOAR!