Apologies for this very wordy response, but hey, since you asked lol. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this lately - I suppose this answer is helping me articulate why I am not a GoT fan (and why I think it’s important).
That being said, while it is tempting to presume that one’s critique of herd-like media consumption is critique for the sake of critique - the perpetual “hipster” or “rebel” myth - for me I ground my panning of GoT under two categories: subjective aesthetic preference, and GoT as a cultural phenomenon.
Subjective aesthetic preference
1) I recently read an article that proposed the following thesis: GoT proves that Americans are capable of engaging complex ideas, contrary to popular opinion. Of course the popular opinion being that Americans struggle to grasp complex ideas, a result of social/digital media addiction.
I do agree with the author’s assessment - yes, Americans can follow complex narratives (just look at the proliferation of complex conspiracy theories on the web). However, this assessment seems to equate complexity with aesthetic quality, and for me that is not a given. After all, a random assortment of numbers or images is complex - but is it art? To some, yes, to others, no.
Corporate media conglomerates, however, seem to operate under the assumption that complexity automatically implies aesthetic value (or to the executives and investors, financial value). Yet in my opinion, while I do enjoy engaging complex ideas on the screen, I’d rather see complex ideas developed in a more streamlined fashion, thus facilitating a nuanced yet thorough interaction with the ideas. For me this holds greater aesthetic value.
In a similar vein I think The Matrix franchise exemplifies a squandered opportunity to develop a rather relevant idea, a chance it lost under the auspice of complexity. The Wachowskis centered The Matrix on a 1981 non-fiction treatise by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard entitled Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard contended that the Western consumption of television media had in a sense placed most Westerners in a simulated reality, or a hyper-reality as he called it. In other words, what Westerners came to value and the grid by which they interpreted the world was largely a product of tendentious media presentations of the world.
However, instead of consistently following Baudrillard’s train of thought, the Wachowskis created an ooh ahh high-tech potpourri of philosophies on screen, in my opinion, and for me they lost Baudrillard’s important message (Baudrillard agreed they had “misread” him “at best”).
And maybe this is why as far as literature I gravitate more towards Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Although I consider Tolkien to have produced great literature, with Dostoyevsky I find a simpler plot focused on one primary character, which for me provides a more condusive space to develop themes I prefer such as the complexity of the self (as Bakhtin observed, within one Dostoyevsky character/implied author one finds multiple voices).
2) At the risk really oversimplifying things, the overall allure of GoT (and its complexity) seems to center on three B’s: Boobs, Brawn and Bombshells (in the sense of plot twists). Perhaps trying to replicate weekly M. Knight Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense mother of plot twists, the three B’s of GoT, in my opinion, stay at the level of pathos, or emotional response, with less room for logos (cerebral response).
While on the surface the twists and turns of GoT seems to invite cerebral engagement, the tricks of the trade, in my opinion, trigger concrete emotive responses more than abstract or critical engagement. The death of a favorite character produces an emotionally charged reaction that has us coming back for more of that shocked feeling - but does it invite us to raise more critical questions, or do we move on to the next plot twist in search of our dopamine fix?
Now I find nothing wrong with pathos, and I realize pathos and logos are not such distinct categories. But as a personal aesthetic preference, I’d rather see more interaction between logos and pathos than GoT offers.
3) But what is wrong with a pathos-centered narrative that uses the three B’s as plot tropes? What’s wrong with good old fashioned escapism? Nothing per se, but for me the setting of the content is what I find problematic as well.
Granted, with a viewership in the millions there are likely millions of different responses to the series. But for me I cannot escape the connotations with Medieval Europe as setting, and for me it is presented as an uncritical connection.
What exactly is the point of these three B’s in this setting? Is it vicarious participation/ endorsement? Is it an indictment of the West? Is it neutral? To hear my friends discuss it I would conclude it comes across as endorsement. But so what?
Well for me when I view media productions that evoke historical epochs (yes, I realize GoT is fantasy, but still), I like to view them with a critical eye. For instance, in school I majored in the New Testament and classical Greek language and culture. Yet I was trained to do so critically, and thus I was not a fan of movies such as The Passion of the Christ, Troy or 300, which in my opinion did not provide adequate space for critical engagement. It was just “in your face,” accept it as it is.
And on an even more personal level, I am trying to re-imagine things like human sexuality and conflict resolution in my own life, not as a retreat into Puritanism or political correctness, but rather as a healthier mode of being. And so I find GoT merely reenforces values that I am either trying to abandon or recreate into something better, and the series does not help me develop values in a fresh direction, because that avenue of thinking does not seem available. Of course that could reflect my own shortcomings, but overall it's probably me just getting older and changing my priorities.
GoT as a Cultural Phenomenon
I suppose the most interesting aspect for me is GoT as a cultural phenomenon, particularly in the United States where I live.
1) I’ll concede one point in favor of GoT - culturally it has provided discourse that forge social bonds among strangers, solidify bonds between friends and offer a “neutral” ground of common language in an otherwise tribalized culture. On the flip side if one did not watch GoT, one could feel excluded as friends and strangers discussed the series, sometimes for hours at a time.
2) Perhaps as a cultural phenomenon what concerns me about GoT is that it fits a pattern of social/digital media hegemony in our lives, and as a result of this dominant presence the line between “real” and “fake,” “fact” and “fiction” may be more blurred than they already were. And perhaps this is where Baudrillard, of all people, comes into play again.
In conversation with Baudrillard I find the recent analysis of Siva Vaidhyanathan in his work Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy (2018) germane to this discussion. Vaidhyanathan, a University of Virginia professor of media, describes how Facebook algorithms (much like Google’s) carefully select the type of information we see based on emotional responses we make on social media (pathos again). The algorithms thus figure out “who we are” and so confine us to enclaves that reinforce our beliefs and keeps us in contact with those who think like us.
Putting Vaidhyanathan in conversation with Baudrillard, I’m wondering if our addiction to our devices, and thus social/digital media, has condemned us to our own hyper-realities where we interpret our world through algorithm-driven “realities.” Perhaps this may elucidate the tribal political and cultural divides we face, where the other side seems completely out of touch with “reality.”
And what does GoT have to do with this? Like I said, maybe GoT fits into this pattern of hyper-realities. Of course this is an anecdotal observation on my part, but I’ve noticed when my friends discuss GoT, they will not only discuss it for a lengthy period, but for that moment of dialogue they behave as if GoT was actually real.
I was working a night-shift one evening, and my two co-workers - both GoT fans - spent half of the eight hour shift dissecting and theorizing GoT, which of course attests to the show’s complexity. But from the contours of their conversation, one would have thought that they really thought GoT was real, and that their theorizing could somehow impact the following week’s episode, even more so than yelling at the screen during a sporting event.
Another friend of mine - two months after the series has ended - still drives around in his jeep with a very large GoT flag attached to his vehicle. Sure, it’s innocent fun. But I’ve never seen anyone drive around with a Grey’s Anatomy flag or a Seinfeld flag; those shows were never that much a part of people’s lives. Oh and this same friend is prone to believing some of the most outlandish conspiracy theories I have ever encountered.
I’m wondering if the dopamine-driven, pathos-laced GoT - perhaps like gaming darlings such as World of Warcraft - has invited viewers so much into their worlds that “real” and “fake” have become more opaque. As someone on this thread mentioned earlier, there is an objectification (and thus dehumanization) of human bodies on GoT. If the series fits into a larger pattern of hyper-real media-produced dehumanization, then perhaps we may find it more difficult to cope with our external world, and our external real world interaction with strangers and neighbors may become more complex.
I do not say all of this as “oughts” or “shoulds.” I don’t think GoT should be banned, and I don’t try to dissuade my friends from watching it. It’s just a thing in of itself, it has its own life - perhaps exceeding the producers' dreams. This is all personal opinion and preference, and as I do with just about everything in life, I’ve probably read way too much into it. Or did I? ;)