The Current

Medieval era was more diverse — and less violent — than Game of Thrones would have you believe, says expert

Game of Thrones has finally come to an end, after eight seasons of political power struggles, epic battles and dragons. We look at the show's cultural impact, as well as its treatment of women and people of colour.

This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones

Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow, two of the central characters on Game of Thrones. The show has been criticized for its depiction of women and people of colour. (HBO)
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The medieval world was more diverse than modern depictions like Game of Thrones would have us believe, according to one expert.

Those modern takes "fall back on these stereotypes that women were subjugated, that people of colour did not exist, that white men ruled everything," said Kavita Mudan Finn, a medievalist scholar who also studies fan culture.

It would not be hard to re-imagine that world, she told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"If you can live in a world with dragons and zombies, why can't we live in a world where women get to do more and where people of colour get to do more?" she asked.

"That's what the actual medieval world looked like; it was more interesting and more diverse than Game of Thrones would have us believe."

Based on the books by George R. R. Martin, the TV show Game of Thrones follows the fates of the lords and ladies of Westeros, as several ruling families vie for power and control of the seven kingdoms. Despite the use of magic and dragons, many of the show's storylines — from feuding families to political intrigue — bear parallels to real-world historical events.

The final season, which ended Sunday, brought in an estimated average of 43 million viewers per episode. It has been heavily criticized by diehard fans, with an online petition called "Remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers" garnering 1.2 million signatures.

Over its eight seasons, the show also drew criticism for gratuitous violence, particularly around depictions of rape and the way it portrayed people of colour.

Sadaf Ahsan, a TV critic at the National Post, said the show had used rape as a plot device "much more than we needed it."

"That loses its shock and awe after the first couple of seasons," she told Chattopadhyay.

In the fifth season, fans were dismayed when the character Sansa Stark was forced to marry the sadistic Ramsay Bolton, who repeatedly raped her before she escaped.

"We saw Sansa explain her rape and abuse from Ramsay ... as the reason that she was able to ... become this great ruler now," Ahsan said.

"I think that's a little bit unfortunate. I think women can have other motivations but this show has made that quite limited."

Fans were dismayed over the rape of the character of Sansa Stark by Ramsay Bolton, the man she was forced to marry. (Helen Sloan/HBO via AP)

Ahsan noted that some people defend the show by saying this kind of violence was common in the Middle Ages, but Mudan Finn disagreed with that defence.

"What George R.R. Martin has done is taken certain events that happened over periods of decades, even centuries, and then squashed them together, so that it looks like these things happen over and over and over again," she said.

"For instance what [the character] Daenerys does in the penultimate episode of the final season — where she lays waste to an entire city — that did happen, but it did not happen often," she said.

"I think Game of Thrones tells us far more about what we think the medieval period looked like than anything that the medieval period actually looked like."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation. 


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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