Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things: Disability in Game of Thrones




illegitimate, disability, Game of Thrones, representation, audience, television, bloggers

How to Cite

Ellis, K. M. (2014). Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things: Disability in <em>Game of Thrones</em>. M/C Journal, 17(5).
Vol. 17 No. 5 (2014): illegitimate
Published 2014-10-25

Games of Thrones was awarded a Media Access Award in 2013 in recognition of its efforts in "promoting awareness of the disability experience, accessibility for people with disabilities, and the accurate depiction of characters with disabilities" (Winter Is Coming).  In addition to this award, the individual character Tryion Lannister has amassed somewhat of a cult following for his depiction of disability. As Sparky, a blogger for Fangs for the Fantasy comments:

Normally when disabled characters are included they are shunted to the side and most certainly not central to the story line. From the moment Tyrion is introduced having sex with multiple women, it was clear that his role would be far different from the norm. Disabled people are very seldom seen as sexual beings. Tyrion is not only sexual, it would be fair to describe him as hyper sexual. For Tyrion expressing his sexuality is part of how he declares his manhood, in a world that simple seeks to dismiss him because of his size.

According to Dan Harvey and Drew Nelles, Game Of Thrones is “fundamentally, a show about power: who has it, who doesn’t, the fickleness and impermanence of its favour” (Harvey and Nelles). They argue that following the murders of Ned, Robb, and Catelyn Stark, the show embraced more ambiguous heroes such as Tyrion and indicated who the audience should identify with by turning them into misfits – cripples, bastards and broken things. While the call for papers for this special issue identifies Jon Snow’s illegitimacy as potentially allowing him to redeem a “society that has become morally, if not openly, itself illegitimate”, several characters with disabilities occupy the same illegitimate status as Jon Snow. Game of Thrones includes a number of characters with disability, both lifelong impairments (Hodor, Tyrion, Shireen, Lysa, Seylse) and those acquired through injury, illness or misfortune (Bran, Jamie, the Hound, Theon/Reek, Aemon, Beric, Illyn Payne, Khal Drago). Some of these characters, particularly Tyrion, demonstrate the same potential to reject "political corruption and violence" while also critiquing broader practices of social disablement.

Isaac Stein argues that notions of legitimacy and illegitimacy impact on the social experience of disability. For Stein, impairments such as a broken thumb are socially legitimate and acceptable to acknowledge and compensate for while long term or permanent impairments (or disabilities) are feared and result in "confusion, uncertainty and social awkwardness" when encountered in an ableist society. Critical disability theorist Tobin Siebers describes this as the ideology of ability. He explains that a pervasive but contradictory ideology revolves around human ability which has resulted in people with disability being marginalised as less than human and excluded from society and indeed critical theory. Disability is socially constructed as an illegitimate identity and positioned as outside of boundaries of normality. As transgressive figures who exist outside socially created boundaries of normality and humanness, people with disabilities shore up these boundaries (see Davis; Garland-Thomson; Hall; McRuer; Kumari Campbell; Siebers; Mitchell and Snyder).  Siebers calls for disability studies to investigate the "social meanings, symbols and stigmas attached to disability identity" as part of a broader questioning of "enforced systems of exclusion and oppression" (Siebers 3). Tyrion Lannister enacts the same critique throughout Game of Thrones when he identifies as "bastard in [his] father’s eyes" and later claims to have been "on trial" his whole life "for being a dwarf".  Game of Thrones introduces a number of important disability critiques around the social meanings and stigmas that surround disability. Indeed, characters with disability hold central narrative positions, occupy the screen in close ups and are given a significant amount of on screen time. Critiques such as adapting the environment to suit an impaired body rather than attempting to cure or exclude that body occur often in Game of Thrones (notably through Bran and Jamie). These critiques have not gone unnoticed by disabled bloggers. This paper draws on these disability critiques within the Game of Thrones television text itself and amongst disability bloggers to approach the intersection between disability and illegitimacy from a critical disability and television studies perspective.

Disability and TV

Game of Thrones, the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels The Song of Ice and Fire, is set on the fictional continents of Essos and Westeros with the majority of action taking place on Westeros. As the seven kingdoms of Westeros engage in civil war for the iron throne, the exiled last lineal descendant of the overthrown dynasty amasses an enormous army of freed slaves in the hopes of reclaiming the throne. At the same time, following a decade of summer, an impending winter looms dangerously along with mythical threats from the north. Adapted for television by HBO it is a much lauded example of what Thomas Doherty describes as "arc TV" (Doherty) and what Dean DeFino refers to as the "HBO effect" (DeFino).

"Arc TV" is a new form of television which rejects old conventions such as narrative resolution and static characters. Shows such as Game of Thrones instead prefer "long arcs of character and plot development filmed in big-ticket productions" (anonmyous). Similarly, the "HBO effect" refers to the rejection of formulaic, safe television content designed to appeal to a mass market and the impact of this rejection on popular culture generally. Greg Metcalf (2) also recognises the impacts of this rejection in his book The DVD Novel. He argues that prior to the 1970s television characters were not permitted to evolve because,

You could not rely on viewers to watch every episode or to remember information from week to week, so storylines had to conclude in a single viewing. Everything had to be tied up and put back in the box. This created a dramatic limitation on writing. The main characters had to remain the same from episode to episode […] so viewers saw familiar people acting the same whenever they came back.

Theorists such as Doherty, DeFino and Metcalf argue that changes in the way we access television has fundamentally changed television (see also Sepinwall; Ellis and Goggin; Napoli; Gray). Digital modes of access such as DVRS, DVDs, tablet TVs and high quality cable has given greater cultural legitimacy to television. The ability to binge watch television and access comprehensive behind the scenes commentaries as well as the views of other fans through online wikis and forums has seen characters evolve and change in unprecedented ways. As Metcalf explains, television is no longer ephemeral, producers can expect audiences to build up extensive knowledge bases regarding narratives and individual characters and indeed watch an entire season within a short period of time. The success of television is no longer reliant on reinforcing the beliefs of a mass audience through the regurgitation of familiar characters behaving the same way week to week. This holds significant potential for the inclusion of characters with disability who are now able to venture outside discourses of tragedy and inspiration.  Consider, for example Jamie Lannister who began Game of Thrones a heartless character willing to murder a child to keep his sexual relationship with his sister secret. Once losing his hand he rescues Brienne of Tarth, an outsider character by virtue of her height and androgynous appearance, from a brutal gang rape. Similarly, the more screen time afforded to The Hound, the more sympathetic he becomes as we gradually learn the origins of his scars and fear of fire (Harvey and Nelles). Doherty also draws on examples of characters with disabilities, such as Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Homeland’s Carrie Mathison, in his explanation of arc TV which he likens to novels, serious plays and films in their embrace of back story and evolution. As Ellis and Goggin argue, these depictions hold great potential for a complex representation in which disability is explored in terms of both adjustment and as an ordinary part of life.

Traditionally, critiques of disability on television have concentrated on underrepresentation, negative stereotypes and inaccurate portrayals of normalisation (Müller, Klijn and Van Zoonen). Stereotypes have been of particular concern with theorists identifying both damaging stereotypes and so-called more legitimate ways of depicting disability (see Longmore; Barnes; Cumberbatch and Negrine; Darke; Harnett). For example, in his seminal book The Politics of Disablement Michael Oliver argued that people with disability were never presented as ordinary people with ordinary problems; they were always super-heroes, villains or tragic individuals. Applying this framework to Game of Thrones suggests an entirely negative representation. For example, when Bran acquires a spinal injury he also becomes a telepathic super-hero. Jamie Lannister who threw Bran from a castle in an attempt to protect his incestuous sectreis later punished with his own impairment when enemies amputate his arm. Tyrion himself ascribes to three stereotypes Longmore argues are fundamentally negative – criminality, adjustment and sexuality.

While these disabled characters in Game of Thrones may be super-heroes, villains or tragic individuals, the narrative frequently speaks to the broader notion of social disablement:

Since its earliest episodes, [Game of Thrones] has introduced us to a paralyzed boy with a supernatural gift, has endeared us to a Little Person defined not by his height but by his wit, and has regularly mined the lives of “cripples, bastards, and broken things” to celebrate their strengths and complexities. In fact, it is a fantastic credit … that Game of Thrones is not commonly thought of as a show that “deals with” disability — it is something even better: a show that embraces the reality that no one is easily definable. (David Radcliff cited in Winter Is Coming)

In Rebecca Mallet’s view, disability studies’ focus on stereotypes as opposed to how we read disability, has seen research into disability and television stagnate. Alison Wilde, suggests a framework for a more comprehensive analysis of depictions of disability that takes into account the potential for diversity:

rather than focussing upon stereotypes… the central question about better portrayals and the social engagement with disability issues, is about how to achieve cultural recognition on equal terms, to work towards cultural images where being depicted as good, evil, wise, ordinary, extra-ordinary or changeable, is as possible for people with impairments as it is for other people.

In addition to these academic theorists, TV reviews such as Alan Sepinwall note a shift in television production. Sepinwall identifies a number of television shows including, amongst others, The Sopranos, Lost, Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad as "game changers" in the television landscape because they targeted smaller and more diverse audiences. They took risks to challenge cultural assumptions about how we establish borders of normality and define ourselves. The Sopranos which challenged the notion of having a moral and likeable leading character is a case in point. Disability occurs frequently throughout The Sopranos as "just another fact of life" (LeBesco 55). According to LeBesco, The Sopranos reversed the ideology of ability by making disability more comforting and familiar (LeBesco 55), by making it legitimate. Game of Thrones which has "the most disabled characters of any television drama today—perhaps ever" (Harvey and Nelles) performs a similar function, as evidenced by important discussions occurring in online blogs and forums dedicated to both the show itself and the experience of disability.

Game of Thrones Disability and Blogger Insights

Sarah, a blogger with Chrohns Disease, argues that the representation of disabilities in Game of Thrones doesn’t “get talked about enough”. She offers a complex definition of disability which recognises its dependence on the way we construct the world through the built environment and prejudicial attitudes which result in inflexible procedures, practices and people. She identifies the ways disability is central to the narrative through characters such as Shireen, Hodor, Bran and Tyrion. Focusing in particular on Tyrion she describes three features of his characterisation which have important implications for disability on television,

It’s not often you get 1) a story about a disabled person, 2) that isn’t a cheesy, “uplifting” story meant to motivate able-bodied people into appreciating their own lives, who 3) gets to consistently point out how terribly society treats people like him.

Sarah’s critique illustrates Mallett and Wilde’s suggestions to “pay attention to the transgression of established boundaries” (Mallett 9) rather than listing negative stereotypes. Tyrion regularly transgresses established boundaries of existing cultural images of people of restricted growth (see Gerber) as That Stark boy comments:

I began to love the series because of Tyrion, I was just fucking tired of seeing dwarves as clowns in every goddamned show I watched – and hear everyone around me applauding – and when I saw that dwarf that was just as complex as any other character I knew this show was just as badass as they said. (That Stark boy comment on Winter Is Coming)

Tyrion who describes having a "tender spot in [his] heart for cripples and bastards and broken things" faces prejudice from the society in which he lives. He is constantly devalued by his father, Tywin, who resents him for his disability and his mother’s death in childbirth. Tywin describes wanting to carry Tyrion into the sea and "let the waves wash [him] away" variously calling him a "stunted fool", and "an ill-made, spiteful little creature full of envy, lust, and low cunning". Although Tywin constantly reminds Tyrion of his socially devalued qualities, Tyrion displays intellect, compassion, loyalty, bravery and wit. Significantly, his compassion extends to rival family the Starks.

When Bran loses the use of his legs, Tyrion evokes a social model argument that with the right environmental modifications and adaptive technology, people with disabilities should be able to participate equally: "With the right horse and saddle, even a cripple can ride". Although Bran does not want to identify as a cripple, Tyrion’s adapted saddle allows him to ride a horse. As Sparky argues:

the disabled would navigate the world with much greater ease and far less limits if the world weren’t so completely designed around the needs of able bodied people with so little consideration for what the disabled need.

Aside from the bastard Jon Snow who also occupies a liminal position, Tyrion is the only character who discusses Bran’s future in relation to what he can still do while others including Arya, Catelyn, Robb, and Ned focus on what he can’t with Cersei and Jamie suggesting it is cruel to even keep him alive (Sparky).

Bran’s impairment and the reactions of those around him offer a window into important philosophical matters such as mortality and personhood, the good life and the choices we make (Tedesco, 2012). As he lies comatose, Jamie encourages Bran’s father Ned Stark to end the boy’s suffering with a quick and merciful death rather than allow him to live on as a "cripple". As viewers we know Jamie’s motivations are not entirely related to ending Bran’s "torment" but are more concerned with keeping Jamie’s own secret – that he pushed Bran from the castle to prevent him from revealing Jamie and Cersei’s incestuous relationship and possible illegitimate children. For Tedesco, Bran’s impairment does not warrant euthanasia because it would not prevent him from living a good life and having meaningful relationships, though it would end his favourite hobby – climbing. 

However, it is not uncommon for the news media in particular to perpetuate a view that you are better dead than disabled (Haller). Consider Jamie’s position on killing Bran in light of his future disablement. When Jamie loses his hand he is no longer able to wield a sword and thus loses his job, social standing, and thing he most loves to do. With neither Bran or Jamie subject to the mercy deaths Jamie advocates they offer illustrations that question the popular refrain that you are better dead than disabled.

However, another Game of Thrones character Khal Drago’s mercy killing at the hands of his wife Daenerys Stormborn is potentially warranted for Tedesco on the basis of a difference between humanness and personhood. Australian philosopher Peter Singer rose to notoriety for advocating the death of disabled infants in his 1985 publication Should the Baby Live? He argued that parents be permitted to euthanize disabled babies up to 28 days after their birth (Kuhse 195).  Singer justified his argument on a separation of humans and persons. Tedesco uses the medical crises of Bran and Drago respectively to illustrate the difference between humanness and personhood. Whereas Bran would recover and go on to lead a good life, albeit with restrictions, is both human and person, Drago who has become uncommunicative with a blank stare has according to Tedesco and Singer’s arguments lost the qualities that make him a person, although he remains biologically human. Comparing the plights of Bran and Drago raises a number of tricky questions regarding humanity, legitimacy and the social context of disablement.

A number of disability advocates, notably Harriett McBryde Johnson took issue with Singer’s argument and challenged his assumptions around killing disabled infants suggesting instead that social disablement should be addressed; "We shouldn't offer assistance with suicide until we all have the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life." (Johnson). To return to Tywin’s social exclusion of Tyrion, it began in his infancy when Tywin would have preferred to kill Tyrion at birth as Singer recommends. However, disability activists caution against advocating to end the lives of people with impairments socially designated as illegitimate, such as Drago’s, asking who will be next (Drake)?

Tyrion’s advice to Jon Snow about living with the stigma of illegitimacy and how to deal with other people’s prejudice is a clear statement about disability rights and inclusion that although set in another time and place has resonance today. He says: “Let me give you some advice, bastard: Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armour, and it can never be used to hurt you.” Tyrion identifies with Jon Snow because “all dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes.”

Bloggers identify other aspects of Tyrion’s characterisation that subvert the typical representations of disability. In contrast to Longmore’s argument that all representations of disability are fundamentally negative stereotypes of criminality, adjustment and sexuality, disabled blogger Andrew Pulrang observes more progressive elements:

Tyrion's main attributes are his sense of humor, in contrast to everyone else's deadly seriousness, his sexual appetites, his love of drink, and, increasingly, his knowledge and knack for strategy. The interesting thing about his sexual exploits is that in the context of this fantasy world, he's not depicted as a pervert or predator, as people with disabilities sometimes are in fiction, but as a more or less straightforwardly hard-partying dude. People joke about it, but no differently than they would any other randy young man in Westeros. There's a kind of equality here, but when he actually starts to fall in love, we see Tyrion again slow to accept that love and real attachment can happen for him.

Tyrion’s (and by extension Peter Dinklage’s) status as the star of Game of Thrones was solidified in Season 4 when on trial for Joffrey’s murder, which he did not commit. He in essence accused the world of perpetuating prejudice against people with disabilities.

I wish to confess. I wish to confess! I saved you…I saved this city…all your worthless lives. I should’ve let Stannis kill you all. I’m guilty…guilty…is that what you want to hear? [Tywin: "You admit you poisoned the king?"] No. Of that I’m innocent. I’m guilty of a far more monstrous crime. I’m guilty of being a dwarf. [Tywin: "You are not on trial for being a dwarf."] Oh, yes, I am. I’ve been on trial my entire life. [Tywin: "Have you nothing to say in your defense?"] Nothing but this: I did not do it. I did not kill Joffrey but I wish that I had! Watching your vicious bastard die gave me more relief than a thousand lying whores! I wish I was the monster you think I am! I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you! I would gladly give my life to watch you all swallow it! I will not give my life for Joffrey’s murder, and I will get no justice here.

Tyrion "claims" disability in this scene. He claims both his impairment (that of being a "dwarf") and further, the social disablement he is constantly subjected to. Such an act according to Siebers as cited in Stein, "marks one as a target [and] exposes and resists the prejudices of society." Tyrion embraces this identity to become an ambiguous hero within Game of Thrones and amongst its audiences. The impassioned monologue prompted an equally impassioned Twitter response through the hashtage #FreeTyrion (Steiner). Significantly this twitter discussion was located in the broader online discussion of Game of Thrones and not disability specific blogging sites. It is unusual for characters with disabilities to hold leading roles on television (Cumberbatch and Negrine) and even more unusual for audiences to identify with disabled characters (Rodan, Ellis, and Lebeck). Even disabled audiences will identify with non-disabled television characters rather than their onscreen disabled counterparts (Wilde). Disability critiques are introduced in Game of Thrones through Tyrion who embraces his socially created illegitimacy in order to expose the way people who are in a position of difference are constantly judged and treated in discriminatory ways in spite of any contribution they make to their communities and society.

Are People with Disability Valued as Legitimate Television Audiences?

While Tyrion exposes the ways people with disabilities are marked as illegitimate members of the community and treated in discriminatory ways, the airing of Game of Thrones on Foxtel in Australia reveals the way people with disabilities particularly people with hearing impairments who require closed captions are not valued as audience members.  For example, following the screening of the first episode of Season 3, a Foxtel viewer posted to the Foxtel Facebook fanpage:


A Foxtel representative responded that they were unable to provide captions on the fast tracked screenings because "we do not have the time to be able to add these captions or the Digital Dolby surround sound into this screening. The following screening on at 8:30pm, which is only 7 hours after the screening in the US, will have both the closed captions and surround sound included" (Foxtel comment on Miles).

Television accessibility is emerging alongside representations of disability as a site of social disablement (Jaeger; Goggin and Newell; Ellis and Kent; Ellcessor). To draw again on the notion of illegitimacy as the process of social exclusion (see Grytten and Maseide), the lack of captioning on first run programming is an example of the ways people with disability are not regarded as an important audience (Ellcessor).

While critics of Foxtel’s business model argue that viewers are forced to subscribe to packages when they only wish to watch one show (LeMay), audiences with disabilities frustrated by the lack of accessibility are also taking issue with Foxtel’s claim that they are providing express services, when the service is in fact useless to them. To return to Miles, "I pay huge $ for my Foxtel subscription and I expect better service, as do the thousands of other subscribers who rely on subtitles to enjoy tv" (Miles).

In Australia, the provision of captions is mandated by the Broadcasting Services Act (1992) and the Disability Discrimination Act (1992). Recent changes to the BSA mandate that captioning must be available on 100% broadcast content between 6am and midnight on free to air television. However, subscription television, such as Foxtel, is subject to a more complicated set of rules with quotas relating to the genre of programming  (see Media Access Australia). Game of Thrones is celebrated as a leading example of the new cleverly scripted televisual environment illustrative of the culture formerly ascribed to cinema (Weissmann; Ellis and Goggin).  Another disappointed fan attempted to neutralise the ideology of ability by suggesting viewers without hearing impairments, just trying to keep up with all the names and locations, would also benefit from the provision of captions:

For hearing impaired people, a series like Game of Thrones is almost unwatchable without the captions.  I know people with full hearing that still turn the captions on because there are so many people and names. (Stombat)


Disability is a value judgement based on whose bodies are considered legitimate in particular spaces. Tyrion Lannister occupies a body that is marginalised in both the fictional fantasy realm in which he exists and today’s society. Yet both disabled and nondisabled bloggers recognise him as a compelling character changing the nature of disability representation.

Game of Thrones is an example the recent diversification of television content. This diversification has pioneered a new type of storytelling and led to an environment where television could be taken seriously (Sepinwall). Like a number of programmes featuring in this new televisual arena, Game of Thrones features characters with disability and develops them as complex people with strengths and weaknesses. As evidenced through discussion occurring on disability blogs considered throughout this article, audiences identify with Tyrion in particular, not despite his liminal or illegitimate status but because of it.

While characters with disabilities hold central narrative positions and enact disability critiques by claiming their illegitimate status in Game of Thrones, audience members with disability are still subject to "enforced systems of exclusion and oppression" (Siebers 3) via inaccessibility such as a lack of captions. This social exclusion again positions people with disability as illegitimate.


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Author Biography

Katie M Ellis, Curtin University

Dr Katie Ellis is a senior research fellow in the department of internet studies at Curtin University. Her research focuses on disability and digital and networked media.

Her books include Disabling Diversity (VDM Verlag, 2008), Disability and New Media (with Mike Kent; Routledge, 2011), Disability, Obesity and Ageing: Popular Media Identifications (with Debbie Rodan and Pia Lebeck; Ashgate, 2014), Disability and the Media (with Gerard Goggin; Palgrave, 2014) and Disability and Popular Culture: Focusing Passion, Creating Community, Expressing Defiance: (Ashgate, 2015)