With spoilers for: Game of Thrones, Seasons 1-3; Gladiator
Spoilers for Season 4 hidden; no book spoilers
A few months ago, I wrote a short piece on Jesse Pinkman and asked the question: are there any characters you hate because of their childlike nature? One commenter referred me to Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones – and, yeah, fair enough.
Joffrey’s basically Commodus without the murderous desire for love. Both are the cowardly sons of kings who never really cared for them; both have lives distorted by incest; both seize the throne dishonourably, killing the men who denied it from them.
He’s also, quite appropriately, one of the most despised characters in television history, which is intriguing when you consider how small his part is. (So far, he’s been in each season for less than half an hour – in fact, Season 4 has already given him the most screentime, despite the fact that he dies on the second episode.) So what is it about Joffrey that attracts so much hatred?
Well, firstly, unlike Jesse Pinkman or Ray from In Bruges, Joffrey’s childlike nature promises zero moral development. There’s a sense that years of being neglected by his father, spoiled by his mother and having Tywin Lannister as both his grandfathers has left him with an irreparable form of evil. As Bronn says, when it comes to Joffrey, there’s no cure for being a cunt.
Secondly, in a previous post I came up with four qualities that can lead us to love a villain. Not only does Joffrey lack all of these qualities, he has the opposite of each of them. He’s dishonest, stupid, cowardly and incompetent, both on the throne and on the battlefield.
There’s even an inversion of the genocide neglect trope, when Joffrey makes the common mistake of having his father-in-law beheaded before the big day. This contrasts perfectly with Robb Stark, who sends 2,000 men to their deaths but, because we’re never introduced to any of them – and because he’s doing it to save a character we like – we don’t really care. Fuck em lol.
However, there’s one factor which I think is most instrumental in our hatred of Joffrey.
You, sir, are a sore loser.
And you are an abysmal winner.
We may hate Joffrey for his incompetence, but there are several other characters we love for theirs – pretty much anyone from Flight of the Conchords being an example of this. So I’d suggest the real factor here is undeservingness. Take a look at any ‘Top 10 most hated’ list and you’ll find that most of them have much more wealth, popularity, respect than people feel they deserve. Genuine evil doesn’t really come into it.
And Joffrey’s entire demeanour is designed to exude dominance. Even ignoring the whole ‘king’ thing, he frequently exhibits alpha male body language. Sitting and standing, his arms and legs are splayed out, so they occupy as much space as possible:
His posture is completely straight, with his chest puffed out like a peacock. Similarly, he has a penchant for assertive hand gestures – pointing, and addressing the crowd with downward-facing palms:
He’s also not afraid of touching either:
In fact, for such an asexual character, he has a strangely lecherous manner – biting his lip, framing his crotchal area and repeatedly fondling his sword handle:
He’s almost always positioned above other characters too, looking down on them – sometimes in ways which don’t really make sense.
And, importantly, he epitomizes unearned empowerment so well that this air of dominance evaporates as soon as he’s placed in any form of danger.
Furthermore, he’s an abysmal winner in another sense. He can do whatever he pleases, but rather than using his powers for good, he spends his time forcing prostitutes to torture each other, terrorizing his fiancée and just generally making Caligula blush. He’s basically an abusive boss, but at a completely different level.
All this makes Joffrey such an effective focus for hate because he has what I call identifiable evil. We’ve all been the victims of nepotism at some point in our lives – or felt exploited by somebody in a higher position. And through Joffrey, George R. R. Martin combines these feelings and condenses them into one character, so that we can (hopefully) have the pleasure of seeing them destroyed
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So maybe this all seems a bit obvious – and, yeah, in the context of an analysis of Joffrey, maybe it is. However, these simple points are something that a lot of writers neglect. This is one gripe I have with the superhero genre; the general mentality seems to be that a superhero needs a supervillain – however, by making antagonists evil in an impressive, formidable way, they cease to represent the things we hate about humanity. And that’s the smart thing about Joffrey, as a character and plot device: he repeatedly manages to cook up a firestorm of conflict without demonstrating any level of personal capability.
If you liked this, you might also like:
Exposition Techniques in Game of Thrones – how does Game of Thrones get through so much exposition without a single flashback or voice-over?
Antagonists: When Vice Becomes a Virtue – a quick look at a different kind of villain – and why extreme evil can make a character likeable