The good, the bad, and the ugly in Game of Thrones

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The characters on Game of Thrones are multidimensional and ever-changing, but what happens when we categorize them by… beauty and goodness? That’s the really odd challenge that The New York Times recently gave to its readers. It asked fans to set aside the fact that Game of Thrones subverts traditional definitions of “good” and “bad” at every turn, and ignore that the majority of the show’s performers, as required by their line of work, are pretty much all above average-looking. But trying to distill seven years of story into a hot-or-not contest had one intriguing side effect: it revealed how audiences correlate being good with being attractive.

Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones.

As of this writing, 92,216 people have eagerly voted on the poll, deciding that Daenerys is the best-looking character, while the Night King looks like something that crawled out of the sewers. Daenerys’ vicious, fire-breathing dragons burning and sacking cities must have only briefly crossed these people’s minds, as she only had a few points docked on the goodness scale. She’s not as “good” as Jon Snow, for instance, who primarily only kills the undead. (People also consider him pretty good-looking, too. Maybe the scene where he’s laying down butt naked helped him win points here.)

On the beauty axis, I was personally disappointed by Robb Stark’s score, with voters rating him below the likes of Jaime Lannister. I’m sure people have just forgotten what he looked like by now, because if we’re really going to rate the Game of Thrones gang by their looks, Robb Stark would have been a clear winner, even if he was a dead one.


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Beyond the poll’s surface-level silliness, however, it also appears to reveal some insights into how audiences correlate the ideas of “goodness” and beauty. Moral ambiguity seems to translate into mild ugliness, regardless of how the actor playing the role objectively looks. Both Theon Greyjoy and Bronn were rated on the “ugly” side, for example, despite the fact that the actors themselves are anything but. Littlefinger, played by the suave Aidan Gillen, merely eked over the “beautiful” baseline — no doubt losing points for being a child predator and sly manipulator.

The quality of his character appears to have had such an impact that fans voted Littlefinger almost as ugly as Ramsay Bolton and Joffrey Baratheon. Setting aside their horrific deeds, camera angles, costuming, and hair and makeup choices for the latter two characters always seemed designed to portray them as traditionally “unattractive.” Littlefinger, however, as always been a smooth behind-the-scenes manipulator, and it speaks to the strength of Gillan’s performance that the character is considered as repulsive as Ramsay and Joffrey. Then again, boredom or just plain apathy might be a factor in other cases. Poor Bran Stark, who had been stuck in a meandering storyline until recently becoming the creepy Three-Eyed Raven, was also rated as unattractive by New York Times readers.

Distilling the characters of Game of Thrones down to these two metrics doesn’t tell us much, to be honest. The vast majority of characters were rated both good and beautiful, and most of the exceptions were extreme cases like The Mountain that warranted an extreme reaction. This may be a series of novels built upon upending genre tropes and expectations, but when it comes to the TV show, audiences still want to like who they’re watching — and the more attractive they are, the better.

All of this lines up except for the biggest outlier on the board: Cersei Lannister. Lena Headey’s character was voted both extremely evil and extremely beautiful; a character that upended the usual correlation. But perhaps that speaks to why she’s become such a terrifying force, compelling not in spite of the fact that she massacred a whole sept full of people, but because of it. Bizarre and unpredictable characters like Cersei are what keep us watching and talking about Game of Thrones through every twist and turn. Understanding that paradoxical love-hate relationship is something that requires a lot more than just evaluating beauty and badness.

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