We analyse many tropes in many of the books and series we’ve read and often cover the many ways we find a representation to be lacking. While erasure is something that haunts marginalised people in nearly everything we come across, there’s also no small number of representations that make us wish that we’d seen erasure instead.
So it’s actually rare that we see a representation where we’re actually impressed and pleasantly surprised. As important as it is for critique the poor portrayals when we see them, it’s also necessary to point to those that get it (at least somewhat) right and praise them for it
But even in these positive portrayals there are inevitably some problematic elements that we cannot ignore - and it would be remiss to ignore these problems - they don’t become non-problematic just because there is good stuff around them.
And so we come to looking at the way the Game of Thrones treats disability. The disabled are erased in so much of fiction and where they are allowed to exist, the portrayal is normally deeply flawed and extremely limited. The Game of Thrones is surprising in that it has several disabled characters and they fulfill some very diverse and different roles.
One of the most popular characters in The Game of Thrones is Tyrion Lannister who is played by Peter Dinklage. Tyrion is an absolutely compelling character and stands out not only because of the lines he is given to say, and the phenomenal acting Dinklage, but because he is a disabled character, in a largely able bodied show.
Normally when disabled characters are included they are shunted to the side and most certainly not central to the story line. From the moment Tyrion is introduced having sex with with multiple women, it was clear that his role would be far different from the norm. Disabled people are very seldom seen as sexual beings. Tyrion is not only sexual, it would be fair to describe him as hyper sexual. For Tyrion expressing his sexuality is part of how he declares his manhood, in a world that simple seeks to dismiss him because of his size.
Tyrion is never allowed to forget that he deemed a half man because of his size, despite his intelligence. His physical limitations do not stop his father from sending him to Kings Landing to become the hand of the king. The hand of the king is essentially an advisory role but Tywin intends for him to take over because he does not trust the cruel and petulant Joffrey to rule. This invests Tyrion character with power that is not based in rising above but in his natural strengths - his intelligence
For all of the progressive elements of Tyrion’s character, what is most troubling is his relationship with Shae. Tyrion is a very good customer at brothels and he actually treats the women that he has sex with, with a degree of respect. The problem of course is not his treatment of the prostitutes, but that the only time he has sex it is with prostitutes. Tyrion’s only sexual interactions with women have all been with prostitutes. The first woman that he had sex with was a prostitute, which his father arranged. He thought it was love, until he was told that her affections were paid for, and this is a sadness he continues to carry with him. When Tyrion is sent to Kings Landing, Tywin makes it clear that Shae is not welcome to go with him. Her response makes it unclear whether she is upset that she is being thought of as unworthy to be at Kings Landing, or the loss of income that Tyrion provides, or the thought of missing his companionship. It makes it seem as though his disability makes him unworthy of someone desiring to sleep with him, without a financial reward, or even loving him for the person that he is. For all his bravado, Tyrion is a lonely man. This is reductive and undermines some of the efforts of the writer to deviate from the typical construction of disability in the media. When dealing with a disabled character, it is important that ableism is not erased to maintain reality; however, the character in question needs to be able to experience the full spectrum of human emotion and for Tyrion that means love.
Our second disabled character is Bran. Bran becomes disabled in the series after he is thrown from window and paralysed from the waist down. For a long time after he is bedridden and the common belief of the household is that he is now very limited in what he can do and what he can manage. They are resigned to him being sedentary and the very idea of him being more seems strange and impossible to them. When they talk about Bran, from Arya to Catelyn to Robb to Ned, the topic is about what he cannot do - that is the theme around Bran, not just his disability - but his inability. Cersei and Jaime Lannister (albeit for motives of her own) even question if it is worth Bran living and whether death would be kinder (though Tyrion gloriously counters such sentiment).
But in comes Tyrion with the specially adapted saddle for Bran. With the right accommodations, Bran can ride again. With the right accommodations he can shoot an arrow again. He still takes his lessons with Maester Luwin, he still has an active mind that has to be trained and encouraged and educated. From that moment we take a new direction - it’s not about inability - it’s about all the things Bran can still do if appropriate accommodations are made.
It was a change from the constant pity with which he was viewed. It wasn’t about pity and what he couldn’t do - it’s about what he can do if appropriate accommodations are made allowing him to have his agency and his power back again. Which is something that’s very true in our lives as well - the disabled would navigate the world with much greater ease and far less limits if the world weren’t so completely designed around the needs of able bodied people with so little consideration for what the disabled need.
Another character of note is Varys who is a eunuch (he has been castrated). Now it is debatable on some level whether this is a disability - but he has had a major adjust to his body that has considerably changed both what he is considered able to do in his society and how he is treated. In fact, the whole cast’s attitude towards Varys is very much based on him being a eunuch. It’s clear, even when not vocally expressed, how little the other characters enjoy his company.
Varys himself points out how he is regarded - distasteful and untrusted by the court. He and Petyr Baelish can’t exchange 2 words without Baelish constantly goading him and attacking him about being a eunuch. Like Tyrion, everyone around Varys is quick to speak of him in contempt and derision.
Yet Varys has far greater depth than any of them - in the dungeons with Lord Stark he makes it clear he serves the Realm because “someone must.” With Robert being drunkenly indulgent, Petyr out for himself and his own games, Maester Pycelle in the Queen’s pocket, Ned overly concerned with his own honour, even Renly making a play for the throne and all the Lannisters being, well, Lannisters - who else is serving the Realm? Of all these councillors, he is the only public servant that actually serves. In the face of so much derision and contempt it is the capable and crafty Varys who, in the end, seems to be the only one to have both the brains and the morality to truly care for the nation he looks over.
Unfortunately, among these we do have a sour note - Hordor, only a bit part, he is developmentally disabled but also huge and strong. Unfortunately he is reduced to being little more than a beast of burden, especially for carrying Bran around.
It is rare that we have so much positive to say about the portrayals of marginalised people, though we do have issues, we have to give praise where it’s due. We also have to comment on one of the very few depictions of disabled people out there it’s such a great diversion from the constant erasure we’re all so sadly used to.