What a Game of Thrones protest petition says about modern popular culture
You can count me among the legions of viewers who found themselves disappointed with Game of Thrones this past weekend. It wasn't so much the violence or the evil depicted, as the abrupt, cheap-feeling reversal. In response, I did what any good, 21st-century cultural critic does: I took to Twitter to whine and cuss about it, along with about half of my timeline.
It is part and parcel of what it means to consume entertainment and art in the 2010s. The interactive, participatory nature of the Web has turned pop culture into an event, and moments like Game of Thrones' denouement are among the few remaining collective popular experiences we have.
But if the reactive nature of online culture is one aspect of the fun, it also has a tendency to take on a life of its own. The latest example: there is now an angry Change.org petition titled "Remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers." As of writing, it has 588,000 signatures.
Such fan rage has become normal in the last decade. It emerged out of more traditionally “nerdy” corners of the Web, particularly video games, a field which has since become notorious for fans harassing creators. And somewhere in between the sense of democratic participation and petulant, angry dissatisfaction is the lingering sense that the Web may be doing something terrible to art — at once commodifying it and stultifying it.
It's not that the ability of fans to make their voices heard is unequivocally a bad thing. In many cases it has allowed previously marginalized voices to make themselves heard. Girls creator Lena Dunham, for example, reacted to vociferous criticism of her show by trying to diversify its cast and its concerns. There is also the more straightforward fact that fans can let creators know things they have overlooked, from plot holes in Star Wars to unfair design in video games.
What's more, criticism is essential to art. Film as a medium developed in conjunction with film criticism, and it is hard to find an author these days who is not also a literary critic. There is a healthy dynamic between entertainment and its interpretation that, at its best, can be mutually productive.
But what is happening online these days seems far from best. Instead, when hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition demanding that a TV show be changed to suit their whims, it repositions art and entertainment as things meant to satisfy, even to coddle. It is, in short, a model of art that turns it into a commodity: I give you my money or my attention, and in return you give me what I want.
Beyond the obvious entitlement though, it leads to art that will forever produce the lukewarm, the comforting, and the “normal.” Contrast the current critical backlash to Game of Thrones — in large part a byproduct of the show's willingness to take risks and upend genre expectations earlier in its run — with the runaway success of Marvel's Avengers franchise. The Avengers has so completely dominated the mediascape because it has stayed so safe, cultivating and rewarding fandom, while being utterly bereft of novelty or insight into anything beyond a hero narrative that has been repeated ad nauseam.
It is also that kind of safety that is part of the trend of sequels and remakes that plagues Hollywood: because movies are now so expensive to make and market, it’s much easier for known properties to garner the investment to be created.
We are thus left with a feedback loop in which, on one end, there is enormous financial pressure on creators to create something not just palatable, but appealing to the most people possible, and on the other side, fan bases who demand the most obvious, predictable, plot-based packages, all neatly wrapped up and inoffensive.
It would be naïve to think that popular art should be as challenging, unorthodox, or simply difficult as the avant-garde or highbrow. There is, in and of itself, nothing wrong with, say, Thor: Ragnarok, which is to my mind the perfect film to watch on a lazy weekend night.
Rather, as part of the increasing tendency to approach art through the lens of satisfying a viewer's expectations rather than a creator's vision, phenomena like the Game of Thrones petition are bound up in a series of processes stultifying popular culture. There is in this mess a sense of everyone being owed something — investors are owed profits, viewers are owed cozy resolutions — but in which no one actually wants to pay, whether attention, or the respect to just let art be art.
Of course, one part of this dynamic is recap culture, the emergent online phenomenon in which TV shows are endlessly analyzed after they air. Among the very best Game of Thrones recaps is found on the Los Angeles Review of Books website where, in response to the most recent episode, writer Aaron Bady had this to say:
The problem, ultimately, is not that Daenerys is a mad queen; there is no such thing. It's a redundant phrase. Power corrupts and absolute power — dragon power, destiny power, fantasy power — most of all. To be a king or queen is to win the game, and to win the game, everyone else has to lose, and die
It is a challenging, uncomfortable idea, and an interesting rethink of the reaction to the penultimate episode: that it always had to happen like this because what the show revealed is that there is no such thing as power wielded well. It isn't satisfying or easy, but perhaps that is the point: we might object and scream about what art shows us, but in sitting with it and thinking about our own discomfort, we allow art to do exactly what it is meant to.