WCBE

'Game Of Thrones' Finds Fans Among Disability Rights Activists, Too

Jul 10, 2017
Originally published on July 10, 2017 6:35 pm

One of the main characters on HBO's hit series, Game of Thrones, is paralyzed. Another has lost his right hand. We've met an important character with a severe skin disorder and another with an intellectual disability.

And Peter Dinklage, the actor who comes first in the credits, is a little person. So is Rebecca Cokley, executive director of the National Council on Disability. She's a fan of the show — in part because it's given average-sized viewers a new set of references for people who look like her.

Dinklage's character, Tyrion Lannister, is complicated, powerful and very sexy.

Cokley loved the original Game of Thrones books by author George R. R. Martin. But she did worry that it would be harder to witness certain scenes on the screen than on the page. In one episode, for example, an evil king humiliates Tyrion by staging a vulgar play with a cast made up exclusively of little people.

"When I read that in the book, I had never seen my own experience in life reflected so accurately, so vividly, so viscerally," Cokley remembers.

Right after the episode including that scene aired, some of Cokely's friends who don't have disabilities called her — to make sure she was OK.

"They were like: 'Wow, is that really what it's like?'And I was like, 'Yeah,' " she recalls. "There are days when that's what it's like. People see me and get down on their knees and mock how I walk. Or they follow me around the store and take pictures of me."

David Perry is another writer and activist for disability rights, and a Game of Thrones fan; he also happens to hold a doctorate in medieval history. Perry calls the series "medieval-ish." In a show set before modern medicine, he says, it makes sense to see people with disabilities. "Every human society is, of course, packed with disabled people."

While plenty of Game of Thrones characters have disabilities, Perry says the show still falls into some traps. Take the young princess scarred by a fictional severe skin disease — "greyscale." Perry says the character's disability primarily serves to pump up the pathos.

"It isn't really about her," he points out. "Right? It's all — this poor, physically disfigured girl who's so good and pure and smart. Oh no, she's going to be killed; now we have to be really upset. That is the kind of writing I kind of hate."

Perry also takes issue with how quickly a fictional swordsman — Jaime Lannister — who loses one hand learns to fight with the other. Then there's Bran Stark. Early in the series the character becomes paralyzed, and spends much of the first season being carried by Hodor, the character with intellectual disabilities. Both have mystical powers — an old cliché in disability representation (think of The Green Mile or The Boy Who Could Fly.) Some activists are concerned that this season, Bran will be magically cured.

"Will Bran learn to fly? Will he learn to shape-shift?" Perry asks. "Is he going to be able to change his body so he's not paralyzed anymore?"

Granted, Game of Thrones is a fantasy, Perry says. But that sort of transformation isn't what most wheelchair users are looking for.

"You don't want to learn to fly," he says dryly. "You want a ramp built into your castle."

Still, Perry admires how the series explores such a wide range of characters with different sorts of bodies and minds. Cokley admires that too; she's especially effusive about the books' author, George R. R. Martin.

"He obviously hangs out with a rabble-rousing group of disabled people," she says. "I know it. I sense it."

This fantasy universe is far more realistic than lots of other television shows, Cokley says, when it comes to representing people with disabilities on screen.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You don't see many people with disabilities on television unless you're watching a certain popular HBO show that starts its seventh season on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI'S "GAME OF THRONES THEME")

SHAPIRO: "Game Of Thrones" is filled with characters who have special abilities and disabilities. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: One main character is paralyzed. Another is an amputee.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

PETER DINKLAGE: (As Tyrion Lannister) Your new hand is nicer than the old one.

ULABY: One for a while lost her sight.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

FAYE MARSAY: (As The Waif) Stand and fight, blind girl.

ULABY: We've met characters with skin diseases, with intellectual disabilities.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

KRISTIAN NAIRN: (As Hodor) Hodor, Hodor.

ISAAC HEMPSTEAD WRIGHT: (As Bran Stark) Hodor, calm down.

NAIRN: (As Hodor) Hodor.

ULABY: Then there's a character so important to the story, the actor who plays him comes first in the credits - Tyrion Lannister.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

DINKLAGE: (As Tyrion Lannister) I am guilty of being a dwarf.

CHARLES DANCE: (As Tywin Lannister) You are not on trial for being a dwarf.

DINKLAGE: (As Tyrion Lannister) Oh, yes I am. I've been on trial for that my entire life.

ULABY: Disability rights activist Rebecca Cokley is also a little person. She says "Game Of Thrones" has been a total game-changer in how non-disabled people talk to her about popular culture.

REBECCA COKLEY: Hey, hey, "Game Of Thrones". And I'm like, yeah, "Game Of Thrones" - not so great on women all the time - but yeah, little people, woo-hoo. We're not elving (ph), right on.

ULABY: "Game Of Thrones," says Cokley, has given average-sized viewers a new set of references for people who look like her. Tyrion Lannister is complicated and sexy. Cokley loved the books by George R.R. Martin, but she did worry that seeing certain scenes might be painful, like a cruel public joke played on Tyrion Lannister by an evil king.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

ULABY: He humiliates him by staging a vulgar play with an all-dwarf cast.

COKLEY: When I read that in the book, I had never seen my own experience in life reflected so accurately, so vividly, so viscerally.

ULABY: After that episode, Rebecca Cokley says her non-disabled friends called her to make sure she was OK.

COKLEY: They were like, wow, is that really what it's like? And I was like, yeah. There are days that that's what it's like. People see me and get down on their knees and mock how I walk.

DAVID PERRY: Every human society is of course packed with disabled people. We know this.

ULABY: David Perry is also a disability activist and "Game Of Thrones" fan with a Ph.D. in medieval history. He says it makes sense to see a lot of people with disabilities in a show set before modern medicine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

HANNAH MURRAY: (As Gilly) What happened to your face?

KERRY INGRAM: (As Shireen Baratheon) Grayscale.

ULABY: But "Game Of Thrones" still falls into some traps, says Perry, like with a princess who has grayscale, a disease a little like leprosy. Her disability pumps up the pathos.

PERRY: It isn't really about her, right? It's about aw, this poor, physically disfigured girl who was so good and pure and smart. Oh, no, she's going to be killed. Now we have to be really upset. That is the kind of writing that I kind of hate.

ULABY: And Perry takes issue with how quickly a swordsman who loses his hand learns to fight with the other one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

ULABY: Then there's the paralyzed character whose disability gave him mystical powers. Some activists are concerned that this season he'll be magically cured.

PERRY: There's a lot of talk. Will Bran learn to fly? Will he learn to shapeshift? Is he going to be able to change his body so he's not paralyzed anymore?

ULABY: Even given that "Game Of Thrones" is a full-on fantasy, that's not your goal as a wheelchair user, says Perry.

PERRY: You don't want to learn to fly. You want a ramp built into your castle.

ULABY: Still, Perry admires how "Game Of Thrones" explores such a range of characters with different bodies and minds, how they get shut down, how they persevere.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

DONALD SUMPTER: (As Maester Luwin) The boy has lost the use of his legs.

DINKLAGE: (As Tyrion Lannister) What of it? With the right horse and saddle, even a cripple can ride.

WRIGHT: (As Bran Stark) I'm not a cripple.

DINKLAGE: (As Tyrion Lannister) Then I'm not a dwarf.

RICHARD MADDEN: (As Robb Stark) Why do you want to help him?

DINKLAGE: (As Tyrion Lannister) I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards and broken things.

ULABY: And this is why disability activist Rebecca Cokley is a fan of "Game Of Thrones" author George R.R. Martin.

COKLEY: He obviously hangs out with a rabble-rousing group of disabled people. I know it. I sense it.

ULABY: And, Cokley says, Martin's fantasy universe is far more realistic than lots of other shows when it comes to disability on television. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI'S "GAME OF THRONES THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.