Game of Thrones and Disability Representation

Oh, Game of Thrones. What can we say? From 2011-2019, the intense HBO series inspired by George R. R. Martin’s bestselling series captured the hearts and attention while simultaneously shocking and disturbing millions of viewers worldwide.

I, of course, was one of those viewers. Upon first watching the show, I was instantly captivated by the rich, dark, medieval world of Westeros. I saw so much of myself in Dany and Sansa – sweet, scared little girls who grew into incredibly powerful women (of course, Dany’s end wasn’t so beautiful.) But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The shunning and discrimination of those with disabilities sadly remain a very real issue in this very day and age. We’re well into the 21st century, and very real barriers still exist for those with both “true” and “perceived” disabilities. Such individuals on a daily basis receive endless dehumanization, infantilization, and overwhelming underestimation. Most people thought to be “disabled” end up in low-level jobs – if lucky to land employment at all.

Again, getting ahead of myself! How does this tie into Game of Thrones? I’m glad you asked.

In Game of Thrones, there are two characters who could easily be pop culture ambassadors for disability rights: Tyrion Lannister and Bran Stark. Likely, you’ll know who they are. If you, however, were one of the very few people on Earth who didn’t watch Game of Thrones, let me explain.

Tyrion Lannister

Tyrion Lannister preparing for battle.

Tyrion Lannister is probably one of the most popular and well-loved characters in Game of Thrones. He’s sharp, witty, and he figures out things much quicker than most around him. Frankly, he’s brilliant, and I can see why he’s such a well-loved character. But what’s his defining trait?

Tyrion Lannister is a character with dwarfism, known as a “little person” or a “midget” (both derogatory terms in reality, of course.) His size, naturally, more or less causes him to be extremely underestimated at first. However, what Tyrion lacks in size, he makes up in wit and intellect.

A passage that’s coming back to me while writing this is when Tyrion could not go into battle because all of the armor was way too big for him. But he didn’t let that stop him. He donned a too-big helmet, with a nasty spike on top. Wearing the helmet, he snuck under the horse of an enemy…and jumped up, impaling the horse’s belly on the spike of his helmet. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so bear with me if I don’t get it quite right…but the savagely injured horse easily handicapped Tyrion’s enemy! (Sorry if there are any horse people reading this.)

The fact that Tyrion Lannister is one of, if not THE most popular, well-loved character in one of the most successful shows in the history of television tells a lot. Dinklage also stated in an interview where he was explaining why he accepted the role:

“I told them that I love turning people’s expectations on their heads. You overcome stereotypes when people least expect it. You do it quietly. You don’t do it through a bullhorn. And I feel like that’s what they were doing with Tyrion. In another show it would be focused on the people on the throne looking down on me.”

Peter Dinklage
Tyrion gives Bran saddle schematics so he can ride again.
Tyrion gives Bran saddle schematics so he can ride again.

Sadly, it’s not long ago that dwarfs were put in freak shows and they still face harmful type casting in the entertainment industry. The fact that this is one of the most successful shows ever to air and one of the most popular characters is someone with a noticeable “disability” shows how far we may be coming. And again, he’s a witty, intelligent character. In a show just a few decades ago, a character with dwarfism would likely be used as simple comic relief, a bumbling mascot, or simply a” tragic” character to feel sorry for.

Tyrion also goes on to assist the other most noticeably disabled character, Bran Stark. Thrown out of a window as a small child, Bran permanently lost the use of his legs. But did that stop him? No! Bran figured out ways that he could get around, including riding a horse specially trained for him (with a saddle designed by Tyrion), and of course, having the gentle giant Hodor carry him around. At ten years old, this “crippled” child was ruling Winterfell while the rest of his family was away, and quickly gained the respect of a good deal of the kingdom.

Bran Stark

Bran Stark on horseback.

Having visions from a three-eyed raven, Bran eventually realized that he was a “warg.” That means, his mind had the power to enter into the body of his dire wolf, Summer, as well as other animals, humans, and even trees. Wise and strong beyond his years, the paraplegic Bran Stark found a way of life that few can only dream of. His legs may not work…but the power of his will and mind sure makes up for it.

And I have to say, with the finale of this show, these two noticeably “disabled” characters both rose up to extremely high positions. Honestly, in many ways, this show could be one of the best things that have ever occurred for the “disabled” community.

I hope that, in its eight-year run, Game of Thrones helped show many ways that disabled people can, indeed, be an asset – and can even do things that those of whom we consider “abled” really would have difficulty with – and I very much believe that it did.

Now on to House of the Dragon!