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The biggest Game of Thrones fans in the world are not what I thought they'd be

Fandom is growing up and reaching out

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If you squint, or set the frame of your camera correctly, the backdrop of Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center could also pass for King’s Landing, one of Game of Thrones' key settings. The interior of this resort is a knock-off Disney World, with tropical gardens and man-made rivers you can cruise down on flatboats. Encased in a spectacular glass dome 30 feet high, the atrium boasts 10,000 species of plants and a constant temperature of 71 degrees.

So, appropriately, Con of Thrones, the first-ever full-scale fan convention for HBO's Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, was held there last weekend. Melissa Anelli, the Con's co-organizer and CEO of Mischief Management (which also runs BroadwayCon and LeakyCon, the long-running Harry Potter fan convention), laughed when I suggested there was something just a little bit unsettling about this environment, without a doubt concocted to convince resort guests that they're outside, exploring and being active tourists, when in actuality they're traipsing a strategically crafted ecosystem of resort-owned restaurants, shops, and activities.

"We said they could do like a Hunger Games here and it would be really good, really creepy." (Naturally someone hosting a Game of Thrones convention visits a beautiful bizarro-world resort and sees a battleground.)

The ballrooms and meeting rooms used for the convention's dozens of events were pretty standard: icy and beige and filled with rows of reception hall chairs. Like a wedding at a country club, a fan convention in a series of "event spaces" necessarily flattens something special, strange, and specific into something chintzy. But this didn’t seem to bother anyone but me. Women in sleeveless gowns shivered through a 45-minute talk about how characters like Margaery Tyrell and Brienne of Tarth dress to exploit or defy gender roles and then raised their hands to share eager, eloquent analysis.

the self-centered, misogynist, white male nerd didn’t show up

You would be hard-pressed to pick out a single trend in the event's demographics. Guests were more diverse in age, race, and gender than any self-selected collection of human beings I've ever seen. The cult of the self-centered, misogynist, white male nerd persists in many milieus, but I found no evidence of it at Con of Thrones. That's not to say there weren't nerdy white boys around, but they weren't making their presence a focal point — nor did they protest the mere existence of progressive thought. Throughout the weekend, panels on race, gender, and sexuality in Westeros expanded from formal presentation into discussions in which women took the floor far more often than not. And the loudest cheer I heard all weekend was that first afternoon, during a silly skit about book characters who had been written out of the show: a volunteer dressed as the silent Lady Stoneheart corrected another character by holding up a sign that read "Jon didn't win the Battle of the Bastards," then replacing it with another that said "Sansa Stark did."

Anelli organized the event with Zack Luye, a writer for the popular Game of Thrones fan site Watchers on the Wall. When I spoke to them together inside an ornate tower on top of the atrium's pizza place, they said they'd sold nearly 4,000 tickets.

There were three choices for attendees: a $69 day pass, a $159 pass for all three days, or a $349 "Valyrian pass," which came with perks like priority seating at panels and a special Q&A session with all of the actors attending the Con. The first two at least were a steal.

Each day of the convention involved so many panels, discussions, group activities, performances, and meet and greets that any attendee could easily milk 12 full hours of experience out of their ticket price. Even as an "impartial" observer of the weekend, I often found myself worrying that I was going to be physically incapable of attending every event that sounded interesting, and though I came to Nashville expecting to ask how organizers decided which audience to prioritize — book or show — it quickly became obvious that the question was stupid. An example hour: from 4 to 4:50PM on Saturday, attendees could choose between a “Princess Panel” featuring Kerry Ingram (Shireen Baratheon) and Amy Richardson (the original Myrcella Baratheon); a discussion about fan fiction shipping hosted by various A Song of Ice and Fire bloggers; a conversation about the best “sidekicks” in Westeros; a meet and greet with sound designer Paula Fairfield; an autograph session with Kate Dickie (Lysa Arryn); or a lecture on the historical parallels between Westeros and the real Middle Ages. Every type of fan was accounted for, every hour.

And that’s on top of the experience of just walking around. In the span of 10 minutes the first afternoon, just standing in the middle of a hallway, I saw four men dressed as Jon Snow walk past a woman dressed as Jon Snow, who was wheeling a black suitcase. Taped to the plastic shell: a printer paper photo of Ghost the direwolf. A woman dressed as Daenerys Targaryen, with fake blood smeared on her chest and a chunk of red rubber in her hands (meant to be the horse heart the character eats in season 1), posed for a photo in front of a foam Iron Throne minutes before another Daenerys, holding a baby also dressed as a Daenerys, wandered across my path. I was nearly pushed down a flight of stairs by two teenage Margaery Tyrells, sprinting past me while one growled to the other, “Aren’t you fucking sick of people asking to take your photo?” She wasn’t talking about me. I assume she was talking about the fact that bemused hotel guests were stopping some of the more recognizable characters to take photos with their kids.

Nothing could be further from Westeros

The first night’s featured event was a concert in the main ballroom, kicked off by a deeply obnoxious Nashville duo called The Smoothrays, who introduced their first song, "Georgia," saying, "It's not about the state, it's about a girl we met there who really sucked."

But whenever the event threatened to go off the tracks, some weird cosmic force interceded to course-correct. The next band, The Manimals — a New York City party rock band self-described as a mix of David Bowie, Joan Jett, The New York Dolls, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Blondie (wow!) — performed a Game of Thrones concept album called Seven, while its lead singer, Haley Bowery, went through half a dozen costume changes, licked an electric guitar, downed two bottles of beer, and introed a song about the Night's Watch by wandering off stage muttering, "I'm gonna go take the black real quick."

Before a ballad about Jon Snow and his Wildling love interest Ygritte, she shouted, at no one in particular, "Soak me in some reverb like we're in a cave right now!" In general, the ballroom acoustics were terrible, but it didn't seem to matter to her or the group of young people she pulled up onstage for the final number, a tricked-out cover of the show's "The Bear and the Maiden Fair." A couple of the more timid teens who stayed behind on the floor filmed the dance party on iPhones and hugged their over-excited friends afterward, putting steadying arms on their backs before flipping through photo choices for Instagram. A Colorado punk band called Daenerys and The Targaryens were up next, and by then there was no chance the crowd would calm down before morning.

"It's the fairest thing. We should all get to be as open in public as we are around our families and friends.”

I’m a sucker for that stuff. Watching friends and strangers have a great time and relax into each other without fear of being labeled a weirdo or "too much," is kind of a huge relief. Particularly when other popular conventions have become so bloated and corporatized that they’re openly hostile to this kind of intimate, valuable experience.

Both Luye and Anelli called this out as the primary goal of the convention (besides breaking even, obviously). "I love looking around and seeing people making friendships that will help them enjoy their fandom more," Anelli said, referring to conventions she's organized in the past. "When they walk away feeling like they've really been allowed a space to be as passionate as they want to be... That's the best. That really is the best." Luye broke in there to add, "It's the fairest thing. We should all get to be as open in public as we are around our families and friends. I know it's a stretch, a convention can't do that for your entire life, but I've already had conversations this weekend that remind me of conversations I had back in 2007 about Harry Potter. Now they're about Game of Thrones and that's the first time that's happened."

Over the weekend I saw dozens of couples in which one person (usually a woman) was dressed in full, elaborate cosplay and the other was in plain clothes, smiling and along for the ride. Ironically, the tiny self-selected group at the Game of Thrones convention — gathered there to celebrate a crushingly cynical series of books in which thousands of people die in hundreds of ways, and love is such a joke that intimacy is the only thing the genius at the helm never got around to learning how to write even close to properly — modeled a much better and kinder idea of society than the one we actually live in. Luye says this was no accident. "I tried to build a team that was representative of the community, and keep in mind that what I would want or like wouldn't necessarily be what everyone would like. It was a long process of making sure that the con would be representative."

“The radical shit”

A Saturday morning panel about fan fiction featured Senia Hardwick and Cheryl Fazio-Hardwick, who met online and fell in love after collaborating on fan fiction revolving around the Bolton family. Senia, an MFA student at Queens College, explained how they started writing incest slash fiction about Roose and Ramsay: they were studying Susan Sontag's theories about pain, power, and imagery, and they came to fandom during a period of alcoholism and abuse. "Suffering is just suffering," they said, noting a disdain for the myth that pain is good for creativity. "But I was able to use fandom to make me want to stay alive."

The host (The Daily Dot's Michelle Jaworski) then brought up the fact that George R.R. Martin considers fan fiction to be copyright infringement and has referred to HBO's Game of Thrones as an officially licensed fan work. Hardwick quipped back, "He wrote A Song of Ice and Fire to respond to Shakespeare and The Odyssey or whatever. All literature is responding to other literature. And I'm not forcing anyone to embody anything. I'm not [David] Benioff and [Dan] Weiss saying to Sophie Turner ‘as soon as you're of age we're going to film a non-[consensual] scene with you.’ George is making money off that, but people tell me I'm gross and bad."

Watchers on the Wall's Bex nodded during this speech, adding at the end: "A world of our own, that's the real radical shit."

Martin set out to write a series that flouted every convention of fantasy writing, but the people who love it want even more than that. Another panelist, who goes by JoannaLannister on Tumblr, said that her fascination is what she calls "The Dead Ladies Club,” a nickname for  characters like Joanna Lannister, Lyanna Stark, and other women who Martin never bothered to flesh out. She keeps a meticulous spreadsheet of 100 years of Westerosi history, placing all of its events in order so that she can keep her fan fiction in sync with the official canon, and expressed frustration with the fact that Oberyn, Elia, and Doran Martell's mother is never named. "The unnamed princess of Dorne... I don't even have a name to put to her political policies." Roose Bolton's first wife isn't named either, and most of the characterization of Lyanna Stark is rudimentary, stereotypes about "willfulness" and beauty: "These women are just blank slates," she sighed.

Flawed as it may be, the fact that there is a “world” of Westeros is what has allowed these conversations to take place. Because Martin's books and their supplementary materials are so expansive, it's possible to discuss them as more of an alternate universe than a linear narrative. It’s not that fans are angry with Martin for his failings, or even ashamed to like something “problematic.” They’re just interested in repairing and refurbishing something that has really good bones.

An old fandom is growing up

Each pocket of fans I awkwardly bumped into was engaging with the event in a different way — some with an academic interest in what was essentially a literary conference, others for the opportunity to externalize their superfandom, a few to take in celebrity sightings (the biggest name was undoubtedly Iwan Rheon, season 6’s archvillain Ramsay Bolton, who got boy band-level praise at one panel) and some just to socialize.

Evan, a 20-something man from Lexington, Kentucky, who said he also goes to Star Wars conventions, Fright Fest (Six Flags’ annual marathon celebration of Halloween), and the local comic con in his city, said Con of Thrones felt much more like an academic conference than the other fan events he’s been to. He was there with his girlfriend, Harlie, who said she wasn't much of a Game of Thrones fan but loved that afternoon's talk about the show's sound design and language creation.

At Saturday night's "Ball on the Wall," more or less a prom in which half of the attendees were in department store formalwear and the other half was in cosplay, I teared up just walking around. Teenage girls sat in one corner by the bathrooms, eating french fries and taking selfies. Two women in their 30s, wearing Sansa and Daenerys wigs paired with jeans and t-shirts clinked Coronas. Amanda, a woman in her 50s who came to the con with four friends from the flight crew she works on, sipped an impressively fragrant glass of red wine while she told me, "Cons are a way of life now, not something an odd person does," then breezed out onto the patio with a grey-haired Jon Snow the size of a basketball player.

The dance itself was exceedingly cheesy in the way that goes so far past cool that it's almost good again. Volunteers passed out glow sticks, and as a belly-dancing troupe finished up a grand finale performance to Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)," a DJ cranked up The Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling." A 50-something man named Steven Stark (he swore it was his real name, and a coincidence), lingered at the edge of the party and told me he came to the convention from Dallas alone, drawn by the opportunity to see his favorite Game of Thrones podcasts recorded live. He was dressed as a Stark bannerman, with a huge direwolf banner lined in real rabbit fur and topped with a custom, 3D-printed wolf mask.

"If you respond to [Martin’s] books, you have to respect women. Or else why would you even care?"

When I ran into A Cast of Kings co-host Joanna Robinson at Saturday night's party, I asked her if she was surprised by how the weekend had gone. She said no, in part because she and Sue Miller, the editor-in-chief of Watchers on the Wall, had made it their mission to weight the in-house panels to combat any “bro-iness.” “And anyway,” she added, "if you respond to [Martin’s] books, you have to respect women. Or else why would you even care?" It’s a good point, even as it might be a little too much credit to the source material. Plenty of the attendees at the con were more than willing to interrogate it and express frustrations with its flaws.

HBO's adaptation of Martin's books was criticized early and often for making its female characters smaller and sillier than they were in the text, for integrating nudity into the scripts without cause, and for superfluous sexual violence. What some, including myself, may have forgotten was where exactly this criticism would have been the loudest. The fandom has swelled in size since HBO imagined Westeros for millions of viewers, but it’s also matured. Being in the limelight has done wonders for this group, which has been asked repeatedly to face up to its own failings, and the failings of the thing it loves.

A huge Reddit backchannel created years ago for discussion of the books also let hundreds of fans chime in and rip apart a controversial rape scene from season 5. Plenty of the Reddit posts about the scene have titles like “I don’t get it” and “What’s the problem?” which is an obnoxious explanatory burden to place on the women of the fandom, but still represents at least an inkling of interest, curiosity, and maybe care. As a story becomes culturally central, it takes on new responsibilities. Part of being a fan in a serious way is feeling as though you share in those.

It’s clear these fans do — or at least the ones who wanted to look at each other face to face. Con of Thrones plucked pieces from an imperfect fantasy world, dropped them into an artificial environment, sourced its attendees from the internet, connected them with an app, and it wasn’t a disaster. Without knowing the ending, you might guess all that was a recipe for confused, postmodern alienation, or worse, a re-creation of the sickening power structures of online forums and the nerd cultures we know best. Instead, it was a guide for building out an inclusive event and bringing an internet community safely into the real world.

Game of Thrones’ biggest fans had a fun, frivolous time dancing and dressing up and pulling apart some text last weekend. They also proved something important: A better version of “nerd” fandom isn’t just possible — it already exists.

Photography by Kaitlyn Tiffany / The Verge