Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things: Disability in Game of Thrones

[Warning! This post contains spoilers from Game of Thrones, season 4.]


So, much like everyone else in the world, I’m obsessed with Game of Thrones. I’ve read all the books, I’ve read all of the conspiracy theories (and I believe at least half of them), and I watch the show every week. I love Game of Thrones, and I’m assuming you do too.

One thing about Game of Thrones that I don’t think gets talked about enough is the representation of disabilities in Westeros. There’s so much that I think goes unnoticed by able-bodied people (or if it not unnoticed, at least not thought about critically). I’m going to operate on a broad definition of “disability” in this post, because there are some things in Westeros that wouldn’t be considered disabilities in our world, but they are considered disabilities in a world where there are no cars or electricity or modern medicine.

Kerry Ingram as Shireen BaratheonFor example, there’s Shireen, the daughter of Stannis Baratheon, who has a disease called Greyscale that has left her permanently disfigured. (Since the book reports that people have died from Greyscale, I consider it a chronic illness/disability.) On several occasions, people use this to insult her or her father, completely ignoring the fact that she’s a child who has done nothing to deserve this level of torment. The Lannisters respond to Stannis’ (truthful) claims that Cersei’s children are the product of incest by suggesting that Shireen’s true father is Patchface, the court jester/fool. Other people suggest that she’s “unclean” and should be killed (or would have been killed, had she not been born to royalty). Yet Shireen is a bad-ass little girl! She spends months teaching Davos how to read (the show makes it appear to happen in a very short amount of time, which I get, because showing someone learning how to read can get boring pretty fast). She stands up to Melisandre and is, according to the guys on the Boars, Gore, and Swords podcast, “a tiny skeptic, a tiny Rebecca Watson” (in the 4×02 podcast). Shireen is great, and I’m glad the show has included (and expanded!) her storyline, rather than cutting her out entirely, like many other characters have been.

There’s also Hodor, who people sometimes like to laugh at, but who I think is a genuinely good guy. Hodor doesn’t have to carry Bran around at all times. He could obviously overpower any of the people in the group and just leave them behind. I believe he sticks with Bran because he cares about him. It’s not like Winterfell is so huge that they never would have interacted before Bran got pushed off the tower. One very upsetting aspect of Hodor’s storyline, though, is that Bran wargs into Hodor without his consent. Whether it’s justified or not is up for debate, but at one point, Bran wargs into Hodor and uses Hodor’s body to kill a man. When Bran leaves Hodor, you see Hodor look very upset and scared at the blood on his hands. Hodor isn’t violent, and Bran using Hodor’s body to fight is troubling…but, like everything in the Game of Thrones series, there really is no “right” answer for how to deal with it.

Of course, Bran is also disabled, but I honestly think his storyline is the most boring in the entire series. Cersei suggests in season one that it would be more merciful to kill Bran than to let him live as a cripple. Obviously, she was saying this as a way to silence a witness to her and Jaime’s relationship, but her suggestion wasn’t completely out of line with things that people in both Westeros and our world think.

The most visible disabled person in Game of Thrones, though, is definitely Tyrion. Peter Dinklage has done a great job as Tyrion, and he’s clearly a fan favorite. Now, before you say “but being a dwarf isn’t a disability,” I’d like to note that Little People of America’s FAQ states that:

Opinions vary within the dwarf community about whether or not this term applies to us. Certainly many short-statured people could be considered disabled as a result of conditions, mainly orthopedic, related to their type of dwarfism. In addition, access issues and problems exist even for healthy LPs. Consider, for example, the simple fact that most achondroplastic adults cannot reach an automated teller machine. LPA is working to make common activities easily reachable by people with dwarfism – including gas pumps, pay phones, and ATM’s. Dwarfism is a recognized condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

And while I think Peter Dinklage is a fantastic, fantastic actor, he makes Tyrion a lot more put-together and attractive than Book-Tyrion. According to the description of Tyrion in the first book:

He was a dwarf, half his brother’s height, struggling to keep pace on stunted legs. His head was too large for his body, with a brute’s squashed-in face beneath a swollen shelf of brow. One green eye and one black one peered out from under a lank fall of hair so blond it seemed white.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion LannisterThere are numerous references in the books about how Tyrion’s legs are twisted, which causes him quite a bit of pain, especially while walking or riding a horse. During the Battle of the Blackwater, Tyrion’s nose is cut off (which, of course, also creates more pain for him). While other characters often criticize how much he drinks, I think he’s self medicating, because other than Milk of the Poppy, painkillers don’t really exist yet. Not to mention the pain of living in a society where you are constantly judged for being different or disabled (which many of us here can relate to).

In Tyrion’s trial in the show, he gave one of the most compelling speeches I’ve ever seen on television:

I wish to confess. I wish to confess! I saved you…I saved this city…all your worthless lives. I should’ve let Stannis kill you all. I’m guilty…guilty…is that what you want to hear? [Tywin: “You admit you poisoned the king?”] No. Of that I’m innocent. I’m guilty of a far more monstrous crime. I’m guilty of being a dwarf. [Tywin: “You are not on trial for being a dwarf.”] Oh, yes, I am. I’ve been on trial my entire life. [Tywin: “Have you nothing to say in your defense?”] Nothing but this: I did not do it. I did not kill Joffrey but I wish that I had! Watching your vicious bastard die gave me more relief than a thousand lying whores! I wish I was the monster you think I am! I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you! I would gladly give my life to watch you all swallow it! I will not give my life for Joffrey’s murder, and I will get no justice here.

This was Tyrion’s only chance to tell the world what he thinks of them for how they’ve treated him his entire life, and I’m glad he took it. It’s not often you get 1) a story about a disabled person, 2) that isn’t a cheesy, “uplifting” story meant to motivate able-bodied people into appreciating their own lives, who 3) gets to consistently point out how terribly society treats people like him.

While Game of Thrones is definitely not perfect (especially on the whole “adding unnecessary sexual violence repeatedly” thing), but I’m glad they’ve included so many characters with disabilities as real characters, not just Inspiring Cripples.


[Please, no spoilers for books four and five in the comments.]

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Sarah is a feminist, atheist vegan with Crohn’s Disease, and she won’t shut up about any of those things. You really need to follow her on Twitter (and probably Google+, just to be safe).

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