Aside from its intricate story telling, well-envisioned characters, and decapitations, my intrigue with Game of Thrones lies within its impact on popular culture. The Hollywood Reporter reported that Game of Thrones had a total of 13.6 million viewers (this includes DVR, on demand, HBO on the go etc.) during its third season. This is funny, because if we look at the constructs of this show, it is actually kind of horrible. Not in terms of quality, mind you, but rather in what the viewer experiences. We see people brutally tortured, gratuitous sex scenes, and watch the people we grow to care about get killed in graphic ways.
So my question is: why is it that a show this dark and gruesome has become wildly popular in a society that shuns such behavior? Most likely, it’s because the show is damn good. However, there are multiple ways we can unpack this question. So for funsies, lets look at this under a Freudian microscope.
“Freudian slip: when you say one thing, but you meant your mother.”
The short answer is, Freud might say that Game of Thrones is actually good for our psyche, as well as for the healthy functioning of our society. This postulation comes from three constructs of his theory: his structural model of the psyche, his dream theory, and a certain claim that he makes in his book, Civilization and Its Discontents. So with these parts, let’s create a lens to evaluate this pop culture phenomenon.
1. The Structural Model of the Psyche
“I am Daenerys Stormborn and I will take what is mine with fire and blood.”
Freud claims that the components of our personality consist of three things. First we have the Id, which is our biological and primal desires. This contains all our aggressive energy, selfishness, sex drive, etc. According to Freud, this is what we really are deep down inside. Then there is the Super Ego, which is developed through the morals and values we acquire through society. Lastly, we have the Ego. This is perhaps the most important aspect of our personality. The Ego is actively trying to find a way to satisfy what we really want from our Id, within the constraints of what society deems acceptable via the Super Ego. A healthy functioning Ego is one that is able to find a happy medium between the two. Basically, we are all violent and ugly perverts, that are trying to hide behind a pretty mask.
So what does all this have to do with Game of Thrones? Well, by indulging in this series, we are actually finding a socially acceptable way to satisfy our Id. We see a lot of lacerations, decapitations, and sex in this show. Sometimes in that exact order. Things that are usually regarded as taboo (at least in American culture) become socially acceptable when thrown into the context of art and literature to some extent. Sex and violence in popular shows have stirred much controversy amongst media critics, specifically those who say that violence and sex in the media are influential in deviant behavior. Freud might say that it is not exactly influential per say, but rather it is therapeutic. Why and how that is, could be explained through his theories on dream analysis and fantasy.
2. Dreams are the ‘royal road’ to the unconscious
“The strongest trees are rooted in the dark places of the earth. Darkness will be your cloak, your shield, your mother’s milk. Darkness will make you strong.”
Freud postulates that dreams are a product of the Id’s expression of internal conflict. These repressed emotions and memories are brought to awareness in distorted forms. In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, he claims that the Manifest Content (which is literally what we see in our dreams), is the result of our ego censoring the dream, trying to protect us from realizing our unconscious desires. In analyzing a dream for what it really means, we look at the Latent Content. Breaking down the metaphorical symbols in our dreams gives us the truth about our desires. For example, walking through a tunnel represents the desire to enter a vagina. Sorry to be so frank but that’s the majority of his dream theory. You know what else is part of his dream theory? MY MOM!
A complimentary theory to this, is his claim that day dreaming/fantasy is used as a defense mechanism to relieve some of the tension in our Id; experiencing fantasy is almost as good as experiencing reality. For example, fantasize that you are beating the absolute crap out of that person you don’t like. Through that fantasy, you have just had a mini-catharsis, and will less likely go out there and beat the absolute shit out of
Steve from work that person (damn you Freud and your banana peels!).
These theories put things in to an interesting context, in terms of how the psychology of the cinematic arts work. If the actors, directors, and writers do their job well, they establish a strong viewer-screen relationship. This leads to the viewer getting immersed in the world being displayed on screen. This puts the viewer in to a sort of dream state. Why is it that certain scenes in Game of Thrones make you cringe, or feel sorrow when we see the death of a character, even though this is all fantasy? Because, just like in your dreams, you are experiencing these things vicariously.This is how Game of Thrones helps us satisfy our violent perverted desires from the Id. It provides us with a sort of catharsis, thus freeing up some psychic energy we can invest in to other things.
Here’s my favorite part about this theory.
You might say to yourself, “Well, I don’t see my self torturing people… In fact, I feel shocked and uncomfortable when watching those torture and sex scenes! So clearly, my Id is not getting any satisfaction!”
To which Freud might respond, “Then ask yourself this, ‘why are you still watching this show?’ The truth is, you picture yourself as the one doing the torturing and having the sex. The mere fact that you are experiencing such a strong negative reaction, is proof that your ego is working to protect you from awakening these unconscious desires. Just like how your ego censors your dreams.”
Isn’t psychoanalysis just grand?
3. Civilization and Its Discontents
“Smoke, sweat, and shit. King’s Landing, in short. If you have a good nose you can smell the treachery too.”
Yeah yeah, Game of Thrones is like chicken soup for your soul. But how does that turn in to gumbo for society? (Sorry, I couldn’t think of anything clever. It’s like me blaming owls for how bad I am at making analogies). Well, in Freud’s book Civilization and Its Discontents, he claims that people rely on civilization to be happy, yet civilization itself is established through the suppression of natural human desires. Freud further states that:
“… It was discovered that a person becomes neurotic because he cannot tolerate the amount of frustration which society imposes on him in the service of its cultural ideals, and it was inferred from this that the abolition or reduction of those demands would result in a return to possibilities of happiness…” (Barash 119)
Our innate aggressiveness is integral to human nature, and civilization is the force that stifles this aggression. This might be what causes anxiety and neuroses amongst people, and in order resolve that, we should break free of society and its civil chains.
To indulge in Game of Thrones, is to indulge in our desires to reject civilization. This is established once Joffery took the throne. His tyrannical rule caused frustration and anger throughout all of Westeros, resulting in the nation being at war. It illustrates how we feel about a society oppressing our innate aggression. This is when human nature shows it’s true colors. Even the ‘good guys’ that want to act civilized, become blinded by their conquest for power and revenge. They will do anything to succeed at their goal, and as a result, swords are drawn, blood is shed, and awesomeness ensues.This is why we cheer on our protagonists. They break free our civil shackles, and do the things that we can only imagine our selves doing: going medieval on someone’s ass.
In conclusion, Freud would applaud Game of Thrones for relishing in our innate aggression, and providing us with a socially acceptable way to celebrate our Id. It gives us an outlet for all that yucky energy that is bubbling down in our unconscious. In a way, this show potentially prevents us from partaking in inappropriate endeavors. When a society can collectively enjoy and discus such a gloriously disgusting show, it distracts us from our frustration with our current civilization, and brings us together in harmony. Hell, it might even prevent anxiety and neurosis for that very reason!
Game of Thrones gets the Freud seal of approval, and is essential for your nutritious entertainment diet.
So fellow OOUies, are you excited about this coming season? How do you feel about the series over all? Whatever your thoughts, comment below and let One of Us know!
O’Connell, Michael. “TV Ratings: ‘Game of Thrones’ Finale Brings in 5.4 Million Viewers.” The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter, 10 June 2013. Web. 30 Jan.
Barash, David P. Ideas of Human Nature: From the Bhagavad Gita to Sociobiology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. Print.