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Why the ending of Game of Thrones elevated the worst of fan culture

Game of Thrones turned Bran Stark into a tired geek power fantasy — at its own expense.

Game of Thrones finale Bran Stark
The face of a man who’s definitely a Hanzo main.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Game of Thronesending left many fans disappointed with what they viewed as lazy or misguided storytelling, or sloppy writing that abandoned many of the show’s longstanding plot threads.

Among the most hotly debated, even confusing choices the show made was the issue of who would finally rule what was left of Westeros. After the dust cleared, the answer was ... Bran Stark.

It’s true that Bran is an interesting choice, in that he isn’t a hyper-masculine character; unlike other contenders for the throne, like Jon or even Tyrion, he’s never fought in a battle. His abilities are entirely mental and intellectual rather than physical, as he’s lost the use of his legs. He’s portrayed as a “soft” counterpoint to Game of Thrones’ other, much more rugged heroes.

But to many fans and critics, including me, Bran winning the game of thrones hardly seemed like a step forward for Westeros; instead, it felt shortsighted and regressive. Part of the frustration stems from something beyond the world of Game of Thrones: By being named king, Bran Stark is cemented as a perfect analogue for a certain type of protector of geek culture; specifically, fans (often male) who are rigidly deferent to the original lore of a story, often alienating other (typically marginalized) fans who support a more flexible approach.

Within our real-world context, Bran’s ascension to rulership feels like a myopic, self-aggrandizing celebration of curatorial fandom, or the specific way in which many fans worship canon — in this case, Game of Thrones’ source material, the Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R.R. Martin. Ending the show with Bran in charge of Westeros codifies a male-dominated version of geek culture that reflects mainstream perceptions about fandom and aligns generally with the show’s frequent misogyny.

Moreover, it’s a choice that’s ultimately bigger than Bran: Whether it was intentional or not, when Game of Thrones made room for a reading of Bran as a stand-in for male geekdom, it unwittingly revealed how flawed this type of fandom is. And the flaws within this oppressive, holier-than-thou type of fandom can also help explain just why Game of Thrones was such a disappointment to many in its final two seasons.

Curatorial fandom and transformative fandom are two halves of a whole

“Curatorial fandom” is a general term for the area of geek culture that emphasizes amassing as much canonical knowledge as possible, no matter how minute. The concept was first formally articulated by a Livejournal user, obsession_inc, in 2009, as “affirmational fandom,” and then further expanded on and redefined by Reddit user LordByronic in 2015 as “curative fandom.” The curatorial fan passionately commits details about their favorite story to memory and uses those details to fuel their understanding of the narrative. Curatorial fandom worships and upholds the source text above all else, rather than deconstructing it or challenging its canonical authority.

The other side of fandom is “transformative fandom.” If curatorial fandom is about enshrining an authorial version of canon, transformative fandom is about changing it. Transformative fandom is centered on fanworks, like fanfiction, fan art, or fan critique, all of which use the source text as the jumping-off point for original interpretations. The idea of “transformative fandom” is a core concept of fanworks-based fandom because transformativity is part of the legal framework that protects fanfiction (i.e. it’s a “transformative work”). Transformative fandom often arises out of biases built into the canons themselves, and fans’ need for a place to confront and respond to stories that neglected to include their identities or experiences.

Academics have long associated curatorial and transformative fandoms with a general fandom gender divide, finding that curatorial fandom appeals more to men and transformative fandom appeals more to women. Men and women are socially conditioned to read different types of stories and think about them differently, according to much research, and that conditioning shapes how we respond to our favorite stories. The curatorial approach to fandom is generally thought to appeal more readily to men, who read texts and “defer to the author’s authority, focusing on mastering information and solving any narrative puzzles the text might present.” The common negative stereotype that attaches to this type of fan portrays them as the quintessential male fandom gatekeeper, who accuses other fans, often women, of being “fake,” à la the fabled “fake geek girl,” if they don’t know some minor story detail.

Conversely, because women are conditioned to read texts that are culturally devalued, they often learn to read texts transformationally, valuing multiple interpretations and resistant readings of the things they love. Thus, transformative fandom is primarily the bastion of white women, queer, and genderqueer fans, although there are many fans of color as well — all people who have traditionally been barred from curatorial fandom due to things like the aforementioned gatekeeping.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a curatorial fan; in fact, many fans fall between both tentpoles, or are transformative fans in one fandom and curatorial fans in another. Where things get sticky is when curatorial fandom is portrayed as the only way of participating in fan culture, and when that level of encyclopedic knowledge is hailed as somehow akin to ascending to “true” fan status. For a well-known fictional example of curatorial fandom represented in just this way, look at Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. The 2011 novel and subsequent 2018 feature film adaptation are both notorious for their valorization of curatorial ’80s nostalgia.)

Transformative fans are very aware that they are fringe fans who don’t do fandom the “right” way, i.e., the curatorial way. That is, they recognize that their way of participating in fandom is diametrically opposed to curatorial fandom. But most curatorial fans don’t even know there is another way of being in fandom; their notion of fandom is the only kind that exists. When we look at the way fandom is presented in the mainstream, it’s curatorial fandom that has traditionally been best represented, whether through big events like Comic-Con or through explorations of fandom phenomena like “Brony” culture.

Meanwhile, transformative fandom is frequently denigrated, its members often regarded as mystifying oddities by mainstream media as well as other fans and the general public. (Just recall the widespread bafflement and salaciousness around the media’s coverage of Fifty Shades of Grey and its fanfiction origins.) Fanfiction in particular is largely viewed in mainstream culture as a source of comedy and a repository for porn, rather than something to be taken seriously. And while Tumblr, where transformative fandom has found its most visible home, has quietly fueled mainstream pop culture for a decade by funneling memes and fandom terms into common cultural parlance, it’s also been written off as a silly platform for teens.

If you’re involved in curatorial fandom, you may not see what difference any of this makes. But the divide impacts many fans on the other side of the line, who constantly must defend the legitimacy of how they interact with their fandom. When they aren’t having to defend the legal and moral legitimacy of the fanworks they create, transformative fans are often seen as aggressive for trying to talk back to, and hold creators accountable for, certain stories’ problematic elements — including queerbaiting, fridging, and erasure.

In her 2009 essay on curatorial versus transformative fandom, obsession_inc describes transformative fans as “most definitely, the non-sanctioned fans.” Meanwhile, curatorial fandom is frequently lauded and validated by both creators and mainstream media for trusting storytellers to get their own stories right. It’s a frustrating hierarchy that only underscores the fact that geek culture isn’t a hierarchy: The two sides of fandom balance one another equally.

So what does all this have to do with Bran Stark? Well, if modern fandom is a multifaceted whole made up of curatorial fans and transformative fans who balance one another, and Bran represents modern fandom, you’d expect him to embody both curatorial and transformative fandom. But he doesn’t.

Bran Stark embodies curatorial fandom — including its worst aspects

It must be said: Bran embodies the stereotype of a fannish geek who spends his entire day sitting surfing the internet. After Game of Thrones’ series finale, I wrote semi-snarkily that Bran is the “Westerosi equivalent of an internet addict who spends all his time reading Wikipedia and playing video games”; but seriously, he’s easily viewed as an analogue for the curatorial male Game of Thrones fan who believes knowing tons of trivia represents his dedication to the series. Bran is a human database of facts and knowledge that he acquired from “reading” the history/canon presented to him through his nebulous abilities as the Three-Eyed Raven. Not only that, but his first official act as king was to essentially go gaming in search of Drogon the dragon, while Tyrion and the small council were left to run the kingdom. These characteristics and behaviors make Bran easy to read as an avatar for curatorial fandom.

Like the (generally) male geeks who think their worship of the canon gives them a say in who holds the power in their culture, as well as what kind of stories are told in that culture, Bran is rewarded by a communal narrative that validates his sense of entitlement. In Game of Thrones’ final episode, Tyrion declares that stories have power, and then he anoints Bran as not only having the best story of them all but consequently holding the most power. This is a not-so-subtle suggestion that the “best” kind of Game of Thrones fan is the one who’s spent hours on Reddit soaking up trivia, or, to go back even further, the dedicated Song of Ice and Fire fan who has spent more than two decades at this point playing the game by close-reading the canon, often developing theories from these close reads that ultimately proved correct.

But, of course, that’s not the only way to engage with a story, nor should it be. Emphasizing an encyclopedic knowledge of canon silences the many fans who engage with the source texts they love by focusing on what those source texts left out to begin with. Remember, the draw of transformative fandom is often in exploring what the text omits. Obviously, a creator can’t possibly anticipate everything that every reader would like them to include in their story. But when a knowledge of what’s already in the text is upheld as the best thing for a good fan to focus on, it creates less motivation for fans to think about what’s not in the text, and how exploring those elements might make the whole story better.

Bran’s knowledge of Westerosi history is a perfect case in point, because he doesn’t just “know” history; his special connection to the Children of the Forest has given him the ability to physically see history as it played out, so he’s always got a running replay in his mind. You’d think that would make him virtually all-knowing, but in fact, it gives him a limited view of history that leaves out many historical stories and perspectives. After all, his knowledge only extends as far as events that happened near specific weirwood trees. Seriously.

The problem is that for the past 5,000 years or so, weirwood trees have existed mainly in the northern part of the kingdom, so all the history Bran has access to is, pretty literally, the history that “the North remembers.” Despite this, he’s validated by his community, via Tyrion’s speech and the council’s approval, as the one who holds the keys to all of Westeros’s past and future, which justifies his ascension to the throne.

So Bran gets to be the gatekeeper of power and the sole interpreter of knowledge for his culture, without having his authority over that story questioned. And while he deserves full marks for having trained hard to become a human library, we’ll never have a total grasp on what stories have been left out.

What’s more, by not acknowledging those limitations, Game of Thrones tells us that Bran’s store of knowledge is fine, and that he needs no corrective lens. Similarly, Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss seem to have their feet firmly planted in curatorial fandom, without possessing any deeper interest in or understanding of transformative fandom or why it might matter, both in terms of how the show is constructed and why fans care about it to begin with. And that disinterest in transforming the narrative they’re working with is part of why Game of Thrones’ storyline collapsed in season eight.

A transformative fandom approach to Game of Thrones’ home stretch could have kept it from falling apart

Remember how I said above that this new Game of Thrones power dynamic is all ultimately bigger than Bran? The choice to put Bran in charge doesn’t only reflect, however inadvertently, the elevation of one form of fandom over another; it also reflects the kind of shortsighted perspective you can wind up with when a solely curatorial approach, or for that matter a solely transformative approach, is your only way of being involved in a fandom. And that tells us a lot about where the series went in its final two seasons.

All of the criticisms made about Game of Thrones’ final season — that it deemphasized character, that it abandoned narrative threads and stopped deconstructing tropes, that it mistreated women and characters of color — are issues that transformative fandom is built on addressing and correcting. And many of those criticisms have been made with a frequent reminder that having women and writers of color in the writers’ room could have solved many of these problems.

That’s because creators who come from marginalized groups are the ones who are usually thinking most deeply about what’s being left out of the story. Why? Because, to be blunt, the story usually leaves them out. Marginalized fans can often bear the burden of speaking up for their groups, but transformative fandom gives them an eager audience that dares to shake up established lore through gender- and race-swapping, among other storytelling approaches.

As such, many transformative fanworks are character-driven; far more than engaging with world-building and expanding plot possibilities, transformative fans tend to be drawn to explorations of characters and their relationships with each other. When plots render beloved characters unrecognizable, or do badly by them in a way they don’t think is justified, fans will frequently write “fix-it fic” to right the perceived wrong.

Benioff and Weiss’s prescriptive approach to storytelling is exactly what transformative fandom runs counter to, and it plays into the specific problem that plagued the show throughout its final season: the conflict between natural character progressions and the bulleted checklist of plot points that Benioff and Weiss seemingly felt obligated to deliver. Instead of relying on the inherently transformative emphasis on characterization and deconstructing fantasy tropes that made Game of Thrones’ earlier seasons compelling, Benioff and Weiss fell back on plot and spectacle and callbacks, even when it meant characters contradicted themselves or acted in highly inconsistent ways. The effect was that they wound up regurgitating George R.R. Martin’s plot directions without any deeper thought for what it would do to the characters.

That’s the irony of the finale’s claim that “stories have power.” In fact, Game of Thrones’ final season illustrates that a story utterly fails to have any power when all it’s doing is worshipfully preserving a preexisting one — in this case, the Song of Ice and Fire novels and their ostensible ending as dictated by Martin, which we may never get to see. Without showrunners who balanced reverence for the written story with a desire to be true to their characters’ unique evolutions on the show, it was hard for Game of Thrones to fully shake its roots in the end. That’s even mirrored in the show: Bran’s and Tyrion’s attempt to start a “new” political system really just ended up enshrining the old political system, with a few tweaks.

It’s easy to see how this ending, with Bran on the throne, the geek inheriting the earth, could represent a fantasy of ascension for other nerds like him. But ultimately, all it’s done is illustrate why curatorial fandom, left on its own, will never be as satisfying as a fandom that allows everyone access to the same story, and lets new stories have just as much value as the old ones.

How disappointing that this show that wanted to break the wheel couldn’t even break through its own shortsighted vision of which stories are worth telling.

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