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Art by Leni Kauffman

Space the Nation: Joanna Robinson, queen of thrones

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May 28, 2019

If you follow Game of Thrones, you’ve likely come across the writing or the voice of Joanna Robinson. More to the point, if your parents/in-laws/boss can talk knowledgably about Thrones, it's probably because of her. Robinson specializes in translating the lore behind your various fantasy universes for those who weren't raised speaking "nerd."

A senior writer for Vanity Fair, she leads their online coverage of those franchises with astonishing prolixity and serves as the host of not one or two or three but five podcasts about entertainment. Two of the three that were about Thrones will transition into recaps of other cult favorites: Storm of Spoilers will be The Storm: A Lost Rewatch, and Vanity Fair’s Still Watching will turn its gimlet eye to Big Little Lies. Little Gold Men remains a podcast about awards season, and Decoding Westworld will return with that show’s Season 3. RIP Cast of Kings. She also writes cover stories for the magazine.

That’s quite a character arc for someone who was working for a bookstore and blogging about GoT part-time five years ago. I talked to her about the difference between Thrones in the Trump era versus Obama, whether the world could handle another show like it, and how she wields the great responsibility that comes from great power.

Buckle up for a tiny bit of inside baseball about how the entertainment media sausage gets made.

How did you manage to hitch your star to Game of Thrones?

When Season 1 debuted and I liked it, and thought, “Well, I should just read these books, because I love talking about adaptation.” Then I approached Dave Chen, who's my co-host for Cast of Kings, and said, “What if we do a podcast where I read the books and you didn't and I explain stuff to you?” And that’s been my beat, explaining things to people, people who don't want to read the source material. That's a huge and lucrative beat right now. All these comic books, all these books, all these sprawling series are being turned into things that people can digest and enjoy. But if you can supplement those properties with a deeper bench of knowledge, that's nice to be able to do. What's kind of frustrating for some of us who've been covering Game of Thrones for so long is that when someone comes up to me now and asks, “Why? Why did this happen?” For years I could say, "Because of this [in the books]." Now I don't know. I can make a guess.

What’s it like to share a personal passion with the rest of the world? I sometimes feel like people are invading my turf, these things that used to be for nerds are now something everyone can claim.

These huge properties are not just for nerds anymore, that's undeniably true. But there’s still a lot of white men or white people who view these properties as their thing. So, what's been interesting about the podcast that I've been involved in — or even SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS — is you have women talking about these properties where white men are not used to being challenged in their worldview.

Some people get angry and they quit the podcast, and some people write in and say, “Hey, I'm a white guy from the middle of the country and this never would have occurred to me and thank you for pointing this out to me,” or I had one woman came up to me at a convention and tell me that I taught her what feminism was. [laughs] And I was like, “I'm sorry, what?” But talking about this fantasy show allowed me an avenue to open someone up to something.

There’s a pretty lively debate over the degree to which fantasy or science fiction should be read through the lens of today’s politics. I’ve played the game of matching up fictional characters to contemporary issues or candidates — but I’m not sure how much we learn if we just see it as “Oh, clearly Daenerys is Hillary Clinton.”

I will just say I miss Game of Thrones in the Obama era. When Obama watched Game of Thrones, he was just a nerd and had probably read the books and loved it as a meditation on power. And then there’s Trump, who appropriates the show as a meme, basing it on something he doesn't understand at all.

And there is an argument to be made that pop culture should be ... well, not an escape, because I care about politics, and we should always think about social issues when we’re watching things. But at the same time, the counter-programming to these big properties is The Trump Show, and I am so tired of The Trump Show. And the comparisons can be really facile when you’re saying this one character represents this one real person.

However, when we want to talk about women and power or racial representation — I'm always up for those broader conversations, the less specific, broader conversations about social issues. If you think about the Missandei death, for instance, Nathalie Emmanuel gave this interview where she's said, “It didn't even like occur to me, even as a woman of color, that my death would have this impact on the people of color watching Game of Thrones, but of course it does because the representation was so scarce.” That's a good thing to talk about.

And the show not having people of color becomes really obvious when you look at how they're casting the prequel. That cast is very diverse. Some people might get upset about it in this even earlier fake medieval world, like, “Oh, It's impossible to have more black people.”

But if you're making up a universe, there’s no such thing as historical accuracy.

Yeah, it just didn't occur to Weiss and Benioff, who are two white dudes, and even if they’re liberal, they’re still two white dudes, and it just didn't occur to them to think that way. And all it takes is for one person to say, “What if we did it this way,” and that's it. That's all it takes.

As someone who has some say how these properties are covered, do you try to push for more diversity, or call attention to it when it’s not there?

If you look at the profiles I've done for, let's say Marvel movies, I did a profile on Letitia Wright for Black Panther. I did a profile on Lashana Lynch for Captain Marvel. I did a profile on Karen Gillan. My interest is always not the main lead and definitely not the white male straight lead. That’s just more interesting to me. I do see the effort that Marvel is making, step by step, one foot in front of the other, to make heroes that feel more reflective of the world we live in. That's interesting to me to help elevate. Now publicists know to bring me not the obvious choice. Because the obvious choice is covered, you know what I mean? And so they bring me someone else.

And there is a completely non-altruistic side: It's just more interesting to me to talk to those people. They just have more interesting things to say. Like Chris Evans. Love him to bits and pieces, one of my favorite humans on the planet, has given like nine billion interviews. What else does Chris Evans have to say about literally anything?

So, now that Game of Thrones is over, do you have space in your life for another property? Does America?

I'm just doubtful that our culture has space for another property like this. I just don't think that our culture operates on the same schedule anymore. Even with this Lost re-watch that we're doing, [we started] last week and already a bunch of people who follow us have watched half the season. I mean, slow down. We're doing it one episode a week and they're binge, binge, always binge, must binge. So people don't slowly watch things week by week anymore at all. And so that kind of conversation, that deep soaked-in-the-lore conversation, there doesn't feel like there's space for it.

There's plenty of book properties that I love that are being turned into shows: Kingkiller Chronicles, His Dark Materials, the Lord of the Rings show on Amazon ... I'm interested in all of that. But [if] every show is dropped in a binge, what good are the conversations that I like to have in that kind of release model?

Genre fiction is still mostly something I can use as an escape. It’s not my whole career. But if you’re covering this stuff full time, what’s your escape?

Right. These stories are something that I've loved my whole life, and now it's hard to find one of those where I get to turn my brain off and enjoy it. I'm always wondering, “Is there an angle on this? Can I repurpose this as content?” That's a very stressful way to live. So I try to pick shows that couldn't possibly have an application. I comfort-watch Frasier a lot because it feels like I don't have a take on it.

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