July 23, 2015

Reactionary Religion in “Game of Thrones” season 5

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 1:35 am by chavalah

Brother Lancel (Eugene Siimon) and the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) as the face of the Faith Militant

Brother Lancel (Eugene Siimon) and the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) as the face of the Faith Militant

More than any other, I think, this is the scene that set the tone of the season for me. I kind of love everything about it, from the softness of Lancel’s (Eugene Simon) tone to the tentative music underneath him; it announces that the biggest threat to King’s Landing this year will not come from a loud trial or battle, but from the quiet earnestness of religious fanatics looking for a higher purpose.

It’s been a pretty iffy year for religion in Westeros. Melissandre’s visions as sent to her by the Red God backfired spectacularly. Our first introduction to any ceremony involving the old gods of the North involved the traitor, Roose Bolton, presiding over a horrific wedding. But the Faith of the Seven is going strong. In both the books and the tv show, the reason for this appears to be the poor peoples’ growing disgust with highborn debauchery and war mongering.

There are, however, some marked differences between the source material and the adaptation. Starting with Lancel; in the books, he is a weakened and quietly observant man far from the capital, and the Faith Militant organization isn’t so taken with patrolling the streets of King’s Landing for sinners. Instead, they mostly offer safe passage to pilgrims on the road traveling to holy sites. Of course their role is ramped up on the television show to cause drama with well-established elements, like Littlefinger’s brothels. It also drew comparisons, among some critics, to modern day real-life religious extremist movements like ISIS.

They also tweaked another storyline from the books–this time involving Ser Loras (Finn Jones) and his homosexuality. In the books, Cersei (Lena Headey) is ultimately able to get Margaery (Natalie Dormer) arrested on charges of sexual promiscuity. Though King Tommen is played by Dean Charles Chapman on the show, he’s canonically a much younger character, and the marriage has not been consummated. But since there was no getting around that in the show, they had to think up a new way for Cersei to attack House Tyrell.

Some fans are against the idea of Loras’s sexuality playing such a big role on tv; in the books he was devoted to Renly (Gethin Anthony) but claimed celibacy after he died. I’m ok with the idea of Loras taking on another lover for comfort, but the constant references to his and Renly’s promiscuity with multiple partners seems a bit shallow and stereotypical.

I would also argue that Loras being punished for his homosexuality isn’t much different than Cersei, in both mediums, being punished for her extramarital affairs as a woman. Both go against the tenants of the Faith, and both are threatening to Westerosi patriarchy, where heteronormative male behavior and dominance is held sacrosanct. Homophobia and sexism tend to go hand in hand, because gender and sexual identity is tied into who has privilege and power in a world like this one.

I appreciate that the emboldened Faith of the Seven this season hasn’t been a simplistic issue. In one scene near the middle of the season, the High Sparrow and the Queen of Thorns, as played by venerable and established actors Jonathan Pryce and Diana Rigg, have a bit of a spar. She points out, rightfully, that this fundamentalism offers convenient targets while real problems go unanswered. “You live among murderers, thieves and rapists, and yet you punish Loras for shagging some perfumed ponce, and Margaery for defending her brother.” And yet, for the common people, this priest who dresses in rags and devotes time to feeding the needy offers some desperately needed straight talk. “I’m telling you a simple truth,” he explains to her. “I serve the gods. The gods demand justice.” The rules are written down in a Westerosi version of the bible, and no amount of the usual self-interested double-dealing from the highborn class will change them.

Religion isn’t necessarily the enemy, but when it plays into patriarchal norms, it always leaves victims in its wake, like Cersei, who had her humanity stripped away from her because she took the wrong lover. Sansa’s rapes are not considered to be so by her society because she was married to her abuser. Unfortunately, this hateful attitude continues in our own time–and even among practitioners of my own religion. Around the time that “Game of Thrones” was completing it’s broadcast this year, Dr. Ruth went on record that the Talmud claims that men can’t control their carnal urges if women are naked in bed with them, and ergo can’t be held responsible for unwanted sexual contact thereafter. Luckily, we live in a society where other Jewish leaders will challenge unsubstantiated and sexist claims. The Faith Militant in fictional Westeros, as inspired by the real-life Protestant Reformation, might be doing a good job of easing some burdens that the rich put on the poor. But their quest for a simple, no-nonsense religion cripples their empathy for complex people who don’t fit their mold.

Like it or not, the world is a complicated place, be it fictional or reality. When religion is multidimensional and evolving, it can bring great meaning to our culture and society. Brother Lancel’s ushered-in and one-dimensional “justice” can only bring solace and purpose to a few people. The rest have just found a new obstacle.

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