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

The long-awaited eighth season of Game of Thrones begins on Monday 15 April. 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 from the HBO series Game of Thrones. Ned Stark from the HBO series Game of Thrones.
Ned start prepares for an execution. Beheading is still used in Saudi Arabia. Photo credit: HBO / Sky Atlantic

Despite several executions, Westeros pales in comparison with the 690 executions Amnesty International reported worldwide in 2018 – a figure which excludes the thousands of executions believed to have been carried out in China.

Methods of execution around the world include lethal injection and hanging, while beheading still happens in Saudi Arabia.

Read Amnesty International’s 2018 Death Penalty report here.

2. TORTURE

Most examples of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment on Game of Thrones could have been inspired by real life. In 2019, Amnesty International has documented various torture practices reminiscent of the Theon Greyjoy torture scenes throughout season two: beatings and rape (Libya), forced singing (Venezuela), or electric shocks on the genitalia of children (Egypt). Just this month, cruel and inhuman punishments such as death by stoning for same-sex sexual acts and amputation for robbery came into effect in Brunei Darussalam.

The Boltons from the HBO series Game of Thrones The Boltons from the HBO series Game of Thrones
Flaying people alive is a family tradition of the Boltons. In Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi has been living under sentence of flogging since 2014. Photo credit: HBO / Sky Atlantic

Amnesty International has reported on torture and other ill-treatment in most of the world’s countries, from beatings and rape to the use of dogs to intimidate victims.

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

3. 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.

Joffrey and Sansa from the HBO series game of thrones Joffrey and Sansa from the HBO series game of thrones
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

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.

Women’s rights fare little better in the real world. An Amnesty report on the Dominican Republic in March revealed that police routinely use rape and commit other forms of torture to punish female sex workers. In Iran, pro-government vigilantes attacked women for standing up against forced hijab laws.

We do not know the true scale of forced marriage, but GirlsNotBrides says 650 million women alive today were married before turning 18. One country where forced marriage continues is Burkina Faso. In October 2018, Amnesty International revealed that more than half of girls in the country marry before their 18th birthday. The same report found that 48 girls had suffered medical complications following female genital mutilation in just one month alone.

But women and girls in Westeros and around the world are fighting back. The #MeToo movement has made ripples far beyond LA. In February, Amnesty highlighted the story of three Nepalese women taking a stand against sexual violence in the country.

4. SURVEILLANCE

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

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

Today’s spies don’t have “little birds”, but they do have programmes for mass surveillance of online and mobile communications.

A planned Google project that would support censorship in China – code-named ‘Dragonfly’ – would also enable the Chinese government to spy on Google’s users. Google publicly backed away from the Dragonfly project in December 2018, but it has still not been officially ditched.

An Amnesty International report on the surveillance of human rights defenders in Pakistan revealed that civil society is under attack by a malicious digital campaign. Activists were targeted with extremely personalised messages that, when opened, would either attempt to infect their devices with malware, or direct them to fake Google or Facebook login pages designed to steal their passwords.

5. CHEMICAL WEAPONS 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 from the HBO series Game of Thrones Greyworm from the HBO series Game of Thrones
Greyworm, leader of child soldier army called the “Unsullied” Photo credit: HBO / Sky Atlantic

Amnesty International did not document the use of dragons in 2019 but it did document repeated war crimes.

New evidence of chemical weapons use emerged last year. The Syrian government’s use of internationally banned chemical weapons was laid bare once again when a chlorine gas attack on the town of Saraqeb left 11 people in need of emergency treatment, according to testimony gathered by Amnesty International.