Some Thoughts on Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is over. Eight seasons of incredible production quality, excellent acting, and depth of story have finally come to an end. According to sources, an incredible 19.3 million viewers tuned in for the last episode of the final season.¹ Game of Thrones holds its own as one of the most-watched TV shows alongside sitcoms like Big Bang Theory and Roseanne or dramas like Manifest, The Good Doctor, and NCIS.² What makes Game of Thrones’ position as one of the most-viewed shows all the more shocking is that, unlike the other shows on this list, Game of Thrones is extremely gratuitous.

Christians and Game of Thrones
Over the past eight years, Game of Thrones has set a new standard for graphic content considered acceptable in a TV show. The show has become famous particularly for its graphic sexual scenes in many episodes—incest, rape, brothels, full frontal nudity, sex scenes of all types, and more are readily and gratuitously depicted.

This is a severe blight on a show that is otherwise interesting and well made. Christians are divided on whether or not Game of Thrones is acceptable to watch. Many would argue that the depth of story and the quality of production outweighs the explicit sexual content that viewers have to sit through. Some say that the sexual scenes are an artistic choice that the producers should be free to make. In other words, there should be no restriction on an artist’s imagination. Others contend that Game of Thrones is acceptable because it is not unlike the Old Testament books of I and II Samuel with their saga of kings, sexual exploitation, and violence. Finally, some argue that though they definitely wish the sexual content wasn’t included, in the end it doesn’t really affect them very much.

Of course, Christians have long been divided on what is acceptable and appropriate to view in movies and TV. These perspectives range from downright legalism to those who have almost no restrictions or boundaries on what they watch. And there are downfalls on both sides. Those who are against watching Game of Thrones might be tempted to harshly judge those who do watch it; while those who do watch Game of Thrones, might be tempted to mock as prudish, closed-minded, and culturally irrelevant those who have reservations.

All of this raises the always controversial question about Christian freedom. What are we allowed to do? There are plenty of articles that will argue for or against Game of Thrones using arguments for holiness or Christian freedom. These are important conversations, and to be honest, I am by no means unbiased in these debates. However, instead of telling you what you should do, I would simply like to offer a few reflections on sexual content in media and some of the reasons Christians use in defense of Game of Thrones.

Use and Abuse
Christian movie reviews usually criticize on three fronts: violence, language, and sex/nudity. Often, we count the number of bad words or sex scenes, or we gage levels of violence to determine whether or not we will watch something. I say nothing against this here; however, we need to draw a distinction between the three categories. I would argue that violence and language are in a different class than sex/nudity in films. When a character kills another character on screen, we all know that this isn’t really happening. Actors do not actually kill or harm one another, obviously. Similarly, when profanity is used in a movie, it is not truly meant with malicious intent against a real person.

On the other hand, when someone is naked on screen, they are really naked. There is no getting around that. Of course, with digital technology, actors who have qualms about being naked on screen can use a body double. The actor’s head will be pasted onto another person’s body. So, the actor may not be really naked, but it’s still someone’s naked body.

Now think about that. A person’s body is being used for a nude scene. We will never see the face of this body double. They serve no other function in the scene but to have their body exploited by an audience of millions. As for those who are naked for real, they are allowing their own bodies to be used. This type of nudity is practically no different from looking at pornography. I don’t think most people watch Game of Thrones for the sex scenes, but there can be no denying that these scenes are intended to arouse us by using a human body.

Nakedness and sex between a married couple is a deep expression of intimacy, and according to Scripture, it is a very good thing. Christians arguing that we should wear clothes and save sex for marriage are far from being prudish. Such restrictions are actually for our protection. Sex and nudity post-Fall were never meant to be separated from self-sacrificial love and commitment to another person. Pornography allows a person to bypass true love and commitment only to gratify one’s desire. What is happening on Game of Thrones is not much different from this.

This is about more than people getting naked or pretending to have sex on screen. It is that we are using other people to satisfy a desire completely outside of its proper context. To say that the entertainment value outweighs morality is to think little of the people who are being “used” in this way. These are our fellow image-bearers we are talking about, not commodities. Should this sexual exploitation be acceptable merely because it is artistically done?

Of course, many would say, “Hey, I close my eyes during those parts, I don’t watch them.” I imagine that many people watching Game of Thrones are in that position. But again, we’ve got to remember that other people are watching it and that humans are being exploited, even if we ourselves aren’t watching those scenes. Finally, it does not matter that these actors are willingly acting in these scenes. Just because they are willing to be in sexually explicit scenes, does that make it acceptable for us to watch?

“It Doesn’t Really Affect Me”
What about the charge that “it doesn’t really affect us”? Consider: have you ever noticed a change in your attitude when you were reading a particularly depressing book? Or have you ever felt dirty after watching something that had a lot of graphic content? Most of us have had this experience. To say that viewing graphic or immoral content has little or no effect on us seems to me to be unbelievable.

We do not live in a vacuum, as a result, we naturally tend to absorb the ideas and attitudes that permeate our personal circles and the wider culture. Our culture is fascinated with sexual expression. Our advertisements, media, entertainment, and literature are saturated with sexual content. Christians are not immune. We are sexual beings, and as such, we are all susceptible to temptation and sin in this area. To say that we are unaffected by the things around us is to deny this fundamental aspect of our human nature.

This is one of the reasons we are instructed to read Scripture, stay in constant communication with God through prayer, and to live in community with other believers. The goal is not to shut the world out, but to have our thoughts and behavior aligned with God’s vision of things—a vision for sexuality that may seem restrictive, but is ultimately intended for flourishing. In contrast, the “unrestricted” nature of Game of Thrones isn’t freeing, but dehumanizing.

We should grieve for the men and women who are used (albeit, willingly) on Game of Thrones and other shows and movies. We should never become numb to the fact that it is a real person being exploited. I am by no means suggesting that it is one step from Game of Thrones to actually abusing other people in real life. Nor am I suggesting that watching sexual content is necessarily on the same level with actually committing such acts.

However, we should not imagine that we are somehow immune to temptation. Jesus warned that it isn’t just our outward actions that matter, but also our inward thoughts and motivations. We are not off the hook just because we haven’t actually exploited someone else’s body in real life. Do we lust? Do we enjoy something used outside of God’s intended purpose? Then we are guilty.

Final Thoughts
In a piece such as this, a few words should be said about dealing with the sexual content that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. Some might argue, “Well, I have already seen such things; I’ll always have those images in my mind and there is no point in trying to change now. Since I’ve already seen stuff, what is a little more, especially since Game of Thrones has excellent production value and quality story?” But if we have become numb to sex and nudity in movies, the answer is not to just keep watching it, but to stop, turn around, and get back on the right road. We may deal with the effects for a long time, but this doesn’t justify us in continuing down this path. We wouldn’t use such reasoning for anything else. A convicted murderer would not say, “Well, I’ve already killed somebody, so I might as well keep doing it.”

I am far from suggesting that it is easy to turn around. We will need help and it may take time, but God has the power to renew and to transform. And God’s people can help, too. We need the church community to help us break the power of sin.

One final word I would say about comparing Game of Thrones to the biblical books of I and II Samuel. To be sure, there is a great deal of sexual darkness in these, and other, biblical books. However, it is very different to tell someone what happened, as opposed to describing it in detail or relishing it. There are definitely some graphic scenes in Scripture, but I would argue that most of the time, we are simply told what happened and we are told for a specific purpose. Such is emphatically not the case in Game of Thrones. Nudity and sex are regularly portrayed and lingered over. This is simply unnecessary.

I have tried to raise a few considerations about some of the reasons people use to defend Game of Thrones. I do not suppose that I have covered every base, or even answered these objections as thoroughly as is possible. In the end, this isn’t really an argument as much as it is something to think about and reflect on. Furthermore, I have said here nothing about the gratuitous violence or any other objectionable content in Game of Thrones. There is much more to be discussed along these fronts as well.

Whatever you decide to do, remember that it is real people who are being exploited in the show and pray for them. Remember that we are all subject to temptation, and that we must constantly be in close communion with God and other believers if we are to keep our hearts pure and to become who we are made to be.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.