Fans with Feels: Game of Thrones as Soap Opera
By Kristen WarnerMay 18, 2019
A Letter to the Most Unrealized Fandom Currently Showing Out On Twitter
There’s this moment that happened in the academic subfield called fan studies that I believe speaks to the moment we are participating in online. They call it “third wave fandom” — or what I loosely call “fandom is for everybody” — and it gently collates people who really enjoy things into Fans. The rationale for this move lies in a practical strategy for eliminating the stigma of what it means to be a fan: hysterical, obsessive, pathological, Othered. By making everyone who strongly likes anything a “fan,” third wave fandom creates a catch-all where aficionados of taste cultures (read: high brow affiliates) like opera and literature rub elbows with fans of Supernatural and WWE and BTS and The Young and The Restless. Fandom for everybody covers all of us, theoretically. But, of course, that is not the case. The Others traditionally associated with fandom are white cis men, and later white women. The real Others, that is, black and brown bodies, are rarely considered as fans unless they wedge themselves in, and still are disallowed from being seen as participating in the enterprise
Even that realization though, while compelling, is not enough to subdue the feeling of needing to blanket inoculate all of us with the “fandom is for everybody” vaccine. We still have not transcended the idea that fans are not just strongly attached to their objects but that they love their objects. That they are obsessed over their objects. That they labor over producing all the words and visuals regarding their objects both within their communities but, when necessary, outside of those communities as well. They write letters (in the olden days, like, maybe even five years ago), they sign petitions (like now), they attend fan cons and moots, they pontificate about the minutiae of all the things in what my generation of fandom coined “Fan wank.” In media fandoms, they know the characters sometimes better than the official producers of the texts and hold those producers accountable when they get things wrong.
They do this because love emerges in these moments as nurture and concern. They do this because love is a feeling that when motivated enough translates to actions. They do this because feels. And, that, is why fandom for everyone is the new desired wave of the moment. “Feels” undoes the legitimation of fandom because, like so many facets of popular culture that are disavowed, it is gendered feminine. That earlier list of characteristics about hysterical and obsessed fandoms are not acceptable traits if one is discussing sports, for example, or ... Game of Thrones.
In the arena of cultural studies, there is some consensus around the idea that pop culture texts are the spaces where ideas and beliefs can be contested. Texts targeted to individuals who identify as women do that, plus, as feminist media scholar Tania Modleski argues, they “allay fears and anxieties, clear up confusions, and provide outlets for women’s repressed rage at their subordination.” These texts include romance novels, women’s melodrama (so-called “weepies”) and, the, daytime and primetime soap. It is the daytime soap I want to stretch out on for a moment because of its particular characteristics. Modleski offers a succinct description: “Most of everyone’s time is spent experiencing and discussing personal and domestic crises ... Frequent themes include evil women, great sacrifices, marrying for money/respectability, and deceptions about paternity.” These traits are ubiquitous with regard to the genre but uncannily find themselves in a variety of televisual format. That said, the core characteristics that I think are far less considered are the ways that, according to Horace Newcomb, they combine intimacy and continuity. The familiarity with the characters combines with the realization that, as viewers, we can sit with them for a decade plus and watch them make decisions that reverberate over time, emerging as redemptive growth or regression of character, invoking audience involvement and community. Soap operas specialize in teaching viewers how to take up multiple characters’ perspectives even with the knowledge that the more we identify with these characters, the less power we have in negotiating how one person’s success will come at the expense of another’s joy.
This powerlessness brings me to the point of this essay, because I have been slowly bringing two strands of seemingly unrelated ideas together: the (perceived non-) gendered and raced place of fandom and the daytime soap opera. In fact, daytime soap opera fans have a lot to teach fans of certain series that smuggle classic soap conventions into quality primetime fantasy drama, with dragons. Yes, I want to talk about the soapiness of Game of Thrones. But I only want to do this as a way of pointing out to those Unsullied fans who didn’t realize they were fans until the series seemed to fail them this season that they are actually in good company. The powerlessness and the modes of reclaiming power that this fandom seeks is quite familiar in daytime soap and every other media fandom. The difference is that in the case of the latter, the fandom is presumed to be for women, and thus the navigation of powerlessness is treated as shrieking teens unable to manage their emotions because too much is happening and none of it feels “right.” Whereas Game of Thrones’s presumed male, or at the very least, presumed “quality series literate” audience seems to imagine itself navigating its powerlessness in the face of the series’ end as rational and thoughtful.
That would be a great misreading if what I see on Twitter is any indication. The hysteria — about the series’ decline post-George R. R. Martin’s writings, about the shift in character direction and motivation, about the vast amounts of money put toward production resulting in “too dark” visuals and anachronistic (is that even the word?) coffee cups visible in settings that do not match the scene — continued to build until it peaked in last week’s episode when the writers, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, opted to literally invoke the fan phrase “kill it with fire.” My project here is not to support or dispute those claims of writerly neglect; rather, my task here is to reveal to (some of) you who you really are: Soap. Opera. Fans.
It’s okay! I know that, as many have said, long before me, that genre leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of “quality” viewers. Quoting Modleski: “The surest way to damn a film, a television program, or even a situation in real life is to invoke an analogy to soap operas.” She is not wrong. There is something about the seeming simplicity and “triteness” of the genre that feels basic in comparison to more narratively complex tales. And, that is absolutely true. But a funny thing happened when GoT premiered the first two episodes of its final season. The characters spent those episodes reconciling with their family members in preparation for what could be their final moments alive; they sat around domestic-like hearths drinking and sharing stories and ... singing. There was (unseen) sex! And, don’t get me started on all the lingering close ups on each character’s face as they stared into the middle distance or at each other. Choices were made to couple two characters and then to break one’s heart when that coupling fell apart resulting in a great melodramatic breakdown of a woman whose complexity expanded even more in that moment.
What became clear, through every livetweet, and every recap/reflection/”meta” review of each of the episodes was how much “feels” played into the responses and reactions. Calls for better writing (even though it was too late), for the deception of feeling like they were conned into believing this was a “good” show and for retribution for the character assassinations D&D made each week indicate how passionate this unrealized fan base had become. The powerlessness of being at the mercy of this series is, however, a familiar tale. Since the 19th century, audiences attempted with varying degrees of success to alter the narrative course of their love objects. That trend continues in in the daytime soap opera (and the primetime soap as well) where committed fans offer suggestions about plot and characterization to the producers and writers, offer warnings to characters about their future demises, pull quotes from the actors that support their dissatisfaction or joy, or chastise characters (or writers) for bad behavior.
But, again, because the genre that understands how to navigate this powerlessness is gendered feminine, when these soapy moments occur in GoT, it is disavowed and dismissed as “OOC” ... ahem, out of character, ahem. I think focusing on the soapy feminine characteristics of GoT can allow fans to circumvent the helplessness and actually locate new pleasures if only they would be willing. Take, for example, the end. Part of what makes soap opera work is the ever expandable middle act. In both that genre and in GoT, there are inexhaustible enigmas and situations that can never be answered to complete satisfaction. But we can glean from soaps that it is not just the “journey” to the end that matters but the anticipation of the end as these characters travail. But mostly what they can teach us about endings — which to you unrealized fans, is critical to remember — is that soaps cannot really end. Even when they try. Even when they are cancelled. Even when the co-creators pull the plug because Disney came calling.
There is a story that Madeleine Edmondson and David Rounds describe in The Complete Soap Opera Book about how a radio serial forced off the air tried to wrap up its story. According to them, it was an impossible task because most of the storyline had to be thrown out save for one key element that propelled them toward an “end.” I like Modleski’s point about why the ending was impossible: “It would have been impossible to resolve the contradiction between the imperatives of melodrama — the good must be rewarded and the wicked punished — and the latent message of soap operas — everyone cannot be happy at the same time, no matter how deserving they are.” That means that the circumstance that GoT has found itself in — way too much story and no clear way to resolve anywhere near the majority of it — is not unusual, not even for the unrealized fan.
In the end, whatever labor this show begets of you as a fan to partake in, be it using your AAVE to make identifications with these characters if you are in Black Twitter, or crafting memes, or signing petitions, or writing manifestoes and odes to your faves, you are fans with feels. Realizing that and not abandoning or disavowing those disappointed and dismayed emotions is part of the fan experience. This is your fandom, but you have fan-adjacent cousins nearby who can help teach you how to say goodbye. They are often, but certainly not always, women, and they enjoy soapy melodrama, but the offer still stands.
Kristen Warner is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama. Her book, The Cultural Politics of Colorblind Casting, was released in June 2015. Kristen blogs at Dear Black Woman (https://kaydubya.wordpress.com).
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