I am a huge fantasy fan. I have watched all three Lord of the Rings movies back to back with accompanying meals (yes, even elevensies). I am religiously gobbling up fantasy content such as the Rings of Power, Sandman, and, yes, even the new Game of Thrones spinoff, The House of The Dragon (see my take on the latter here).
People love George R.R. Martin's writing because of its alleged realism (and yes, I recognize that historians have knocked it for everything from its misunderstanding of the feudal system to orientalism). I have enjoyed these two shows, but their fixation with kings and queens has always made me uncomfortable, and not because of some historical nitpick about how Geoffrey's tyranny could be more realistic.
I am conflicted about these shows because I understand that from a class perspective, I am closer to a serf than the nobles who take front and center in the race for the Iron Throne (you probably are too). Rich people didn’t give a damn about us in the past, or the dream-like vision of the past these shows seek to depict, and they don't give a damn about us now.
Yet we watch them obsessively, both fictionally and in the real world, which says something about our empathy for the working class and the rich people who abuse them.
A Royal Obsession
Like in the real world, the nobles in Westeros don't give one fuck about the peasants they rule over. This point is made explicitly in the finale of Game of Thrones, where Maester Samwell Tarly brings up the fact that maybe a democracy would be better than a hereditary monarchy, and all the nobles laugh in his face. This scene tells us that the idea of ordinary people having any say in governance is laughable for these characters. They compare peasants to dogs and horses.
This disregard for the common people in this series hits home in the first season of the sequel, where the character Rhaenys Targaryen uses her dragon to briefly interrupt the coronation scene of Aegon II Targaryen. The dragon explodes through the floor of the Dragonpit, killing dozens of unnamed peasants in the process. She moves to the head of the proceedings to char the newly crowned king with dragon fire, and his mother, Alicent Hightower, throws herself in front of them. This action causes Rhaenys to spare the lives of all the nobles there—putting their lives above those peasants she just crushed underneath her dragon’s feet.
And again, this is not surprising because nobles are depicted as more important—not just in the logic of this universe (of course, everyday people matter less in a feudal monarchy), but in who these shows decide to center narratively. Ordinary people are not the focus of these properties—the few people to care about disrupting this system are villanized (RIP Daenerys) or killed without much fanfare.
This is, first and foremost, a show about petty nobles feuding over petty things as they disregard the lives they consider beneath them, and we love it. The House of the Dragons pilot was reportedly one of the largest premieres in the network's history, and Game of Thrones was an international viewing sensation. It's not simply these shows either, but a reflection of a more significant trend. Watch the exploits of nobles in The Crown, Young Royals, Bridgerton, Reign, The Tudors, and many, many more. That's also not to forget that Disney, one of the biggest media companies in the world, has made its career selling princess narratives to young children.
We could see this reflected in real life too. Millions of people tuned in to watch the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II — a person who represented a system that exploited countries all around the world in ways just as cruel as Rhaenys crushing peasants beneath her dragon's feet. This is the woman who, among many other things, awarded officers involved in the Bloody Sunday massacre, facilitated the expulsion of citizens from the Chagos Archipelago, and, all in all, represented the head of an imperialist empire that murdered and displaced countless people around the globe. Queen Elizabeth II was and has never been "one of the good guys," yet millions adored her and watched on till even after her end.
In general, we are willing to disregard both our social standing (most of us are not royalty, after all) as well as the cruelty royals have inflicted on members of our class so that we can empathize with them on our screens. It's puzzling, and if I were to wager a guess, this displaced empathy says something fundamental about how many of us see ourselves. To paraphrase a quote that is itself a rehash of a John Steinbeck article: "…the poor in America see themselves not as an exploited working-class but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." This meme has always rung true to me, but I would go one step further and say that many Americans see themselves not as temporarily embarrassed rich people but as future Kings and Queens in the making.
Our culture is obsessed with replicating the habits of royals. Many of the deeply ingrained traditions we have come from the nobility. Fashion trends like high heels and white wedding dresses were inspired by royals, with the latter popularized by the wedding of Queen Victoria. She forwent her traditional coronation robes when marrying Prince Albert on Feb. 10, 1840, and the Western press ate it up, causing many people to want to emulate what quickly became the standard for wedding apparel.
You can look at other things, too, like the emergence of Western restaurants. Though others had popped up outside the West hundreds of years earlier, in Europe, we can trace our history to Paris, France. The word comes from restaurer, meaning to "restore or refresh." Soup vendors advertised themselves as what we would think of today as health-food shops selling bouillon, a "restorative broth" meant to have “delicate” ingredients so consumers could replicate the eating habits of the aristocracy. There were a lot of reasons restaurants caught on (the flexibility of time and choice being a big one), but this emulation of the wealthy and not eating like a commoner was a massive part of the initial appeal.
Even our concept of modern property law comes from wanting to mimic royalty. An approximation of the famous saying "a man's house is his castle" was first popularized (though not first spoken) by Sir Edward Coke in an English ruling that limited a Sheriff's ability to enter a landowner's home. The logic was that property owners had certain rights that prevented people and even the state from entering their homes without permission. Coke went so far as to say that property owners were permitted to kill thieves and round up friends and neighbors to use "defensive" violence against intruders. Metaphorically, this logic was similar to the medieval concept of how a king might rally his bannermen to protect his lands. And as we can see with modern “Stand Your Ground” laws in America, it's a sentiment that has never really died.
Rich monarchs do something, and then rather than push against that standard, we common people try to replicate it, or more accurately, we consume it. The rich use economies of scale to sell us a cheap emulation of the lifestyle enjoyed by monarchs of old: we can wear our hair and clothes as the wealthy do, get waited on in restaurants so we can experience what it's like to be serviced, if only for an hour or two; buy our little castles and pretend that we control more than we do; and grasp at a lifestyle that is unobtainable in all but imitation.
Again, this applies to the media we vicariously live through. Most of us may not have mansions or servants, but we can gawk at the splendor of royalty and the rich on TV. There is a particular perverse pleasure in watching the rich have everything and giving them our empathy, imagining, however briefly, that we are not peasants but royalty like them.
A noble conclusion
This obsession with empathizing with monarchs and other members of nobility reflects a perverted sense of values in our culture. This is not to say that we must disregard the fantasy or medieval setting in media altogether, nor should we demonize authors’ merely responding to market trends. Still, we do need more class consciousness in our stories.
Most of us are primed to want to be royalty — defenders of our own imagined little fiefdoms — but as I briefly alluded to, most royals were awful. We shouldn't want to emulate that. Their wealth was the product of war and exploitation, and if we are honest with ourselves, that's how it still works among the upper echelons of our society. People get crushed under the feet of their oppressors (or, in the case of Westeros, the feet of their lord's dragon), and we shouldn't lose sight of where we are in that dynamic.
We must stop placing royalty at the center because, my friend, we are not in that position, never will be, and should never want to be. We are not Daenerys. Not Arya. Not Sansa. We are not princesses or princes. In this story, we call life; most of us are closer to a peasant being crushed than to a future king or queen in the making. And once most of us internalize this fact, our ability to stomach the glamorizations of the rich and powerful will probably wane.
We don't need to see the same story again and again about how “hard” it is to be on the top. I want to see the bottom. I want narratives focusing on peasants and commoners alongside nobles, showing how the latter's decisions negatively impact the former (so no, Downton Abbey doesn't count). I want to watch farmers having to relocate after another pointless war that a selfish monarch has started. I want tales of peasant revolts. I want epics focused on wealthy aristocrats trying to union-bust our protagonist's factory.
Once we start seeing these stories enter the mainstream, I hope that more will realize how unhealthy and antiquated our obsession with royalty has become. We don't have to say goodbye to Westeros, but a change in perspective is sorely needed, and maybe a little breaking of the wheel too.
About the Creator
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.