Reaction Shots and Reader Response at the Purple Wedding

Image of Joffrey Baratheon on Game of Thrones, choking, with text overlaid: 'Those shoes, with that dress?'

Image Credit: Cyndicyanide

[Note: Spoilers below the cut.]

As a Game of Thrones fan, I was pretty excited to watch this last week’s episode. It’d been a while since I’d watched, and the wedding of Joffrey Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell gathered together many of the show’s beloved characters. More importantly, it also meant the end of the show’s most-hated character, Joffrey, whose poisoning ended the episode. What intrigues me today, however, is the fan reaction to his death, recorded in GIFs, fan art, and videos. What does it mean to celebrate Joffrey’s death? What value does the reaction video have for audiences? and how does visual communication change the idea of reader-response?

Readers have long found ways to record their reactions to texts, whether in letters to friends or in the books themselves. Marginalia, as described by H. J. Jackson in her book Marginalia, reflects the visual structures of the book itself: “A tour of the annotated book from front to back, whether we consider conventional use or idiosyncratic variations, reveals that our customs and expectations, constant over time, are based on the conventional format of the book itself. In more ways than one, marginalia mirror the texts they supplement" (41). Thus, as footnotes go at the page's bottom, so does supplemental marginalia. For example, a recent reader found the following marginalia in a 1528 manuscript:

Picture of a medieval manuscript where written in the bottom margin is 'O d fuckin Abbot'

Image Credit: Superlinguo, via io9

Whether or not the reader was commenting on the abbot’s sexual practices or expressing disgust at the text, the reader leaving the marginalia communicates his reaction to others long after his death. During my own dissertation research at Harvard’s Houghton Library, I found some interesting marginalia in this copy of the 1765 edition of the satirical poet Charles Churchill’s Works:

Picture of page from Charles Churchill's Works

Image Credit: Rachel Schneider / Houghton Library

As one reader responds indignantly to Churchill’s “An Epistle to William Hogarth,” another mocks and subverts that reaction. We readers following them can not only enjoy the text but their mutual exchange. Readers today need not limit their reactions to the page’s margin, however, but can spread them over places like Twitter and YouTube, where websites like Buzzfeed and io9 curate them for other fans to read and enjoy:

Image Credit: Screenshot from io9

These responders use humor to comment on the show, responding not just to the details of one scene but the whole episode and series at large. Also, their writing participates and relies on other internet memes to be intelligible, as when Ol’ Qwerty Bastard adapt the Kanye West meme to apply to Game of Thrones. Just as book-readers use marginal comments in a similar fashion to print commentary, these reaction tweets are written for an Internet-literate audience and partake of its themes.

Jaime Lannister pushing through a crowd while text below says 'Fuck yeah pie'

Image Credit: brienneoftarth

H/T: Brianna Hyslop

Likewise, GIFs and LOLCAT-like images are created to comment on the character and react to him based on the popular perception. For example, if one Tweeter compares the spoiled King Joffrey to the popstar Justin Bieber, one fan makes a Tumblr remixing images of both to write the comparison visually. Another fan comments on Joffrey’s cruelty by presenting Out-of-Context Joffrey, taking a line used to mock his uncle Tyrion and presenting it as a self-affirming bromide. These visuals don’t create new readings, but instead rely on an understood reading of Joffrey as terrible to make a joke. We can imagine Joffrey’s biological father Jaime running thus towards his dying son, but towards the wedding pie. Other fans will reblog GIFs of Joffrey dying alongside celebratory GIFs to represent their reactions.

Tweet from fake twitter account for George R.R. Martin, that says, 'You're welcome.'

Image Credit: Screenshot from Twitter

Still others record their reactions on video rather than through remediated pictures or text. The reaction video is a genre which shows people watching some sort of media event (from Auburn’s surprising kick return against Alabama or the 2 Girls 1 Cup video) and responding to it. Fans of Game of Thrones have recorded their reactions to major events like the Red Wedding, in which several members of the Stark family are killed by Lannister agents, and this week’s Purple Wedding. Some of the reactions are NSFW, so at least put on your headphones first:

The viewers’ visible excitement contrasts oddly with the Joffrey’s audible choking and his mother’s raging grief, but these videos provide solidarity between the audience within and without the screen. There is a tension in some of the videos about how aware the person in the video is of being filmed: sometimes the video’s subject acknowledges the camera, sometimes they just react. We as an audience can also be cognizant of the person doing the filming, who understands what’s coming and wants to record it. Whereas marginalia is a semi-private act—one person reading alone and recording that reading—these reactions are performed for their viewing companions and the room and the wider YouTube audience. A whole bar breaking into applause at the critical moment shares solidarity in their reaction, and the viewer joins them in their joy. Yet the viewers’ enthusiasm—like the man who responds to Oleanna Tyrell saying “Help the poor boy!” with “No!”—seems not to be in doubt, as he stares at the TV and not the camera filming him. There’s a sense in which we are engaging with individuals in an unguarded moment, framed so by the knowing person holding the camera. The emotional exposure creates intimacy, even if it is highly mediated.

Picture of Jack Gleeson standing in front of a screen, on which Joffrey Baratheon (played by Gleeson) is shown dead, blood streaming from his nose

Image Credit: The Independent

I’d like to consider here how these videos also replicate the common film technique of the reaction shot, where within a movie the camera will scan other characters within the scene to see what they make of what’s happening. The Purple Wedding itself features many reactions, like Joffrey and the actors responding to Tyrion’s speech, or the people reacting to Joffrey’s death itself. The goal of a reaction shot is to reveal or obscure something about the character, depending whether or not their reaction appears onscreen. In a show where subterfuge and outright scheming are required—“when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die”—no characters are allowed to react visibly with strong emotion. Only Cersei does so. That very tension may be why the reaction videos are so popular—they supply the place of what must be hidden, what cannot be expressed in Westeros. The film medium thus produces both reactions, and the means for viewers to react.


so interesting

I really like how you compare more private and contained marginalia to the more public, GIF/Twitter/Youtube reaction videos of today. I hadn't considered these are more modern/contemporary forms of reader response before - will definitely consider these points when teaching my lit class next semester!

Recent comments