Game of Thrones vs real life: 5 ways fact is worse than fiction

Guest blog by Anna Neistat, Senior Director for Research, Amnesty International

The long-awaited fifth season of Game of Thrones begins on Sunday 12 April. Filmed in Northern Ireland (and elsewhere) and broadcast in 170 countries, the show shocks viewers and generates controversy with graphic violence, especially against women.

Yet many aspects of real life around the world today are worse than the mythical Game of Thrones world of Westeros. [spoiler alert: reveals plot lines up to the end of season 2!]

  1. EXECUTIONS

Game of Thrones begins with Northern Lord, Ned Stark, executing a deserter. Since no character is safe in the show, he is then beheaded by the despotic King Joffrey seven episodes later.

Ned Stark prepares for an execution. Beheading is still used in Saudi Arabia. Photo credit: HBO / Sky Atlantic

Ned Stark prepares for an execution. Beheading is still used in Saudi Arabia. Photo: HBO / Sky Atlantic

Despite several executions, Westeros pales in comparison with the 2,466 death sentences Amnesty International reported worldwide in 2014, up 28% on 2013.

This sharp rise is driven largely by Egypt and Nigeria, though the greatest number of executions happen in China. Methods of execution around the world include lethal injection and hanging, while beheading still happens in Saudi Arabia.

  1. TORTURE

Most examples of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment on Game of Thrones could have been inspired by real life. In 2014 Amnesty International documented various torture practices reminiscent of the Theon Greyjoy torture scenes throughout season two: the removal of nails (in Nigeria),mock executions (Mexico), or stripping victims naked and tying and pulling their genitalia with a string (The Philippines).

Flaying people alive is a family tradition of the Boltons. In Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi was flogged for insulting Islam this January. Photo: HBO / Sky Atlantic

Flaying people alive is a family tradition of the Boltons. In Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi was flogged for insulting Islam this January. Photo: HBO / Sky Atlantic

In 2014 Amnesty warned of a global crisis of torture. It has reported on torture and other ill-treatment in 141 countries over the past five years, from beatings and rape to the use of dogs to intimidate victims.

The show’s torture scenes may have touched a nerve. 44% of people still fear they would be at risk of torture if taken into custody in their country, according to an Amnesty survey.

Find out more about Amnesty’s Stop Torture campaign here.

  1. FORCED MARRIAGE and other forms of VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

Game of Thrones is criticised for its depiction of women and sexual violence. Women are raped, forced into sexual slavery or subjected to other gender-based violence.

Several of the main protagonists find themselves sold or forced into marriage. In the very first episode, Daenerys Targaryen’s brother forces her into marriage to further his own ambitions.

The women in Game of Thrones rarely have a choice who they marry, a situation all too common for women and girls in the real world. Photo credit: HBO / Sky Atlantic

The women in Game of Thrones rarely have a choice who they marry, a situation all too common for women and girls in the real world. Photo: HBO / Sky Atlantic

Women’s rights fare little better in the real world. Violence against women continues to be a feature of violent conflicts, but not limited to them. In Algeria and Tunisia, legislation allows a man accused of rape to avoid prosecution by marrying the girl he raped – if she is under 18.

We do not know the true scale of forced marriage, but GirlsNotBrides says 700 million women alive today were married before turning 18. One country where forced marriage continues is Somalia, although the precise extent is unknown. In March, Amnesty published chilling testimonies of Somalian women and girls with disabilities forced to marry older and/or abusive men:

“I was 13 years old. My family decided to give me to this man, I refused and ran away. My family sent strong men after me. They caught me, tied my arms and legs and threw me in a room with the man. He beat me since the beginning.”

But women and girls in Westeros and around the world are fighting back. Last week Amnesty highlighted Afghanistan’s women human rights defenders, who bravely continue their work in the face of threats, attacks and murder.

Read more about Amnesty’s women’s human rights campaign here.

  1. SURVEILLANCE

No character can say anything on King’s Landing without being overheard by spies in the pay of political manipulators “Little Finger” or Varys, whose “little birds” tell him the “strangest stories”.

With characters like Littlefinger and their informants everywhere, there are few secrets in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO / Sky Atlantic

With characters like Littlefinger and their informants everywhere, there are few secrets in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO / Sky Atlantic

Today’s spies don’t have “little birds”, but they do have programs for mass surveillance of online and mobile communications like Dreamy Smurf, which UK intelligence agency GCHQ uses to activate mobile phones that are switched off and use them as listening devices. If government powers to collect billions of internet records a month go unchecked, the internet will have less privacy than King’s Landing.

Check out Amnesty’s #UnfollowMe anti-surveillance campaign here.

  1. CHEMICAL WEAPONS, CHILD SOLDIERS AND OTHER WAR CRIMES

The medieval world of Game of Thrones is a brutal warzone with attacks on civilians, chemical “wild fire” and slave armies made of abducted children, not to mention dragons…

Greyworm, leader of child soldier army called the “Unsullied” Photo: HBO / Sky Atlantic

Greyworm, leader of child soldier army called the “Unsullied” Photo: HBO / Sky Atlantic

2014 was a catastrophic year for civilians in war zones, according to Amnesty International’s 2014 annual report. The report did not document the use of dragons but did highlight violations of the laws of war in at least 18 countries.

New evidence of chemical weapons use emerged last month. Eye witnesses in Syria told Amnesty they have been subjected to chlorine gas attacks causing the horrific death of an entire family, including three young children.

Don’t let real life compete with Game of Thrones for horror, violence and cruelty. Get involved and stand up for human rights across the world.

A version of this blog was originally published on Huffington Post

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  • Sergiogiorgio

    Far, far too much time on your hands. You do realise it’s fiction, GOT, I mean and not “life”.

  • Ernekid

    Game of Thrones is closely based on 15th century Europe in terms of social structure, economy and politics. George RR Martin used The England of the War of the Roses as basis for his writing. We’ve moved beyond 15th Feudalism where executions, torture and rape were normal aspects of life. Don’t pretend otherwise

  • notimetoshine

    I would have thought 17th century Germany a better analogy

  • steaming

    Strangely enough, George RR Martin says that it’s 14th Century France.

  • Korhomme

    Anyone who’s worked at the ‘front line’ will recognise that ‘real life’ can be so much more awful than can ever be imagined in fiction.

  • Seriously? and then there is Amnesty support for CAGE. Where does that fit?

  • notimetoshine

    Makes sense I suppose, because they aren’t states fighting each other. Just the constant fighting and constantly changing alliances reminded me of the wars of religion

  • kalista63

    From Gulliver’s Travels to Charles Dickens, to Geroge Orwell and beyond, fiction and politics are not mutually exclusive.

  • Abucs

    People can imagine 15th century Europe any which way they like. I suspect there is politics involved in presenting it as cruel and barbaric as the makers of the series can imagine.
    What is happening now in the world is a different kettle of fish. I have to say some seem to be wanting very much to look down on an imagined evil Europe while at the same time making excuses and strenuously looking the other way when real cruelty emerges outside of Europe today.