Tasha: So let’s be frank about this: we started having a version of this conversation a week ago when Julia said she was super into the Night King on Game of Thrones. We talked about her writing a piece about villain-lust, coming in part out of a Tumblr and pop culture outlet trend toward drooling over characters like Venom and thirsting after thicc daddy Thanos. And then this Mashable piece about the Night King hit, full of references to Night Bae and “Ice me, Night Daddy” and “temperature play.”
So, okay. I get it. Bad boys have always been kind of hot. Since the dawn of time, critics have been writing about how villains are more compelling than heroes. Marilyn Hacker’s classic poem “She Bitches About Boys” sums it up beautifully: “Girls love a sick child or a healthy animal. / A man who’s both itches them like an incubus.”
But the Night King? Really? A non-verbal walking corpse that wants to lay waste to the realms of men, and also, by the way, was just super killed? Why is that sexy? More significantly, what’s behind the rise of loud lust in women-centric online spaces, built around unsexy things like a giant purple grape-faced space monster? Is this just about young women today owning their sexuality while aiming it at entirely safe (i.e., fictional, dead) targets? Is there more going on here?
Liz: Whatever, I’m shallow. I like my men alive and not made out of ice or whatever. (Seriously, it’s a good thing he’s frozen. Can you imagine the smell? All that guy does is hang out with corpses.) From where I’m standing, it looks like people striking poses: “I’m just sooooo goth that a live dude can’t cut it.”
Tasha: I agree that it’s performative, but I think it’s also comic. In a way, blowing it up to this outsized level is a way of both owning your attractions and trivializing them. “I think the Night King is attractive, and I’m fantasizing about him a little” might feel too real. “Spear me, ice daddy!” is big, performative thirst where you can hide behind the humor if it looks like someone might take you too seriously and come with a critique.
Adi: I mean, if you have no chance of hooking up with anybody from Game of Thrones, it’s also just more interesting to lust after the undead ice guy than the useless and boring (albeit technically also undead?) actual male lead.
Liz: Let me be clear: Jon Snow is indefensible as a character. And, again, undead. But like, show a little creativity! Why not stan for, I don’t know, Hot Pie?
Tasha: Here’s where I admit I just googled “Hot Pie can get it” to see whether the internet has gone there. I found a charming ode to him as a character. But frankly, he’s much more of the kind of dude who immerses himself in making wolf-bread while muttering to his friends about how hot assassin women like Arya only go for assholes like the Night King, and are too shallow to see the value of the Nice Guy right in front of them.
Adi: I think it’s useful to look at the Night King against the larger tradition of monster romance. Game designer and writer Merritt K asked some monster romance fans why they liked the genre a while back, and while some answers seem interchangeable with standard “bad boy” tropes, others are pretty fascinating. There’s one person who describes how “a beast can represent a masculine force without toxic masculinity,” which is something that seems pretty apt for Game of Thrones. The Night King wants to snuff out life in the known world, yes, but he’s engaged in a lot less gross misogyny than even some of the male heroes!
Tasha: Well, I guess, in the sense that his violence is non-gendered and egalitarian. But what about him doesn’t say “toxic masculinity”? He doesn’t have an outlet for his emotions except aggression, and he takes his feelings out on other people violently and without self-awareness, remorse, or empathy. That’s the core of toxic masculinity right there!
Adi: To be fair, if you captured me and turned me into a horrible magic weapon against the human race, I would probably also react poorly.
Julia: This is like when people fell head over heels for Thanos, not just because he’s a thicc boy, but for a while, people on Reddit and Tumblr were into his ideologies. They saw him as this brave soldier ready to do whatever it takes (“What did it cost?” “Everything.”) to solve some of the universe’s biggest crises. That’s not why I like Thicc Thanos or the Night King. Unfortunately, I think the answer to why people are attracted to villains, living or undead, humanoid or monstrous, is rather boring. It’s power. Thanos, the Night King, hell, even Scar in The Lion King just ooze this undeniable power. Just revisit the scene when Scar whispers, “Long live the king” to Mufasa before throwing him off the cliff, and try to suppress the goosebumps.
Tasha: Okay, but where’s the power in the Night King? His origin story is “I got tied to a tree and murdered,” and as of right now, he got his freezy ass handed to him by a wee girl with a dagger, and he’s dead. Yeah, in between those things he commanded a vast Army of the Dead and took down a dragon single-handedly and all that, but you expressed an interest in him after he got Arya’d. Isn’t it too late for Night King thirst?
Julia: Whoa, whoa — let’s be clear: the Night King has always been intriguing as a potential TV Show Boyfriend. We just didn’t get to spend enough time with him. “The Long Night” gave us the closure we needed to confirm that, yes, he’s TV Boyfriend material. That bone structure! That smirk! Everything about Coldemort screams that he’s hiding a side of him I — and the rest of Tumblr — want to explore. Maybe it’s my time spent with fan fiction and shipping literal demons and monsters with human counterparts, but there’s something safe about crushing on the worst guy around. It’s not logical, believe me. I have spent many a therapy session exploring this, but it’s Beauty and the Beast syndrome. Tame the monster, see the man who no one else can. I was into it as a teen, and that’s carried through my various fandoms today!
Adi: If we accept the premise that the Night King is hot and the worst guy around, what does the fantasy relationship there look like? Monster and villain fandom sometimes seems to blur the line between liking a character who’s done bad things but could be rehabilitated by love, intentionally reveling in a kind of BDSM power dynamic, and outright romanticizing an abusive relationship. The latter is a pretty common criticism of DC Comics Joker fandom, for instance.
Liz: It’s a power fantasy, right? And it’s premised on something we see elsewhere in the culture — “being redeemed by love” as a narrative isn’t just Beauty and the Beast. It’s also the basic premise of the reality show The Osbournes. You are weak, but you are also so strong that the biggest bad is controlled by you.
Tasha: I’m assuming none of this is about an actual physical relationship — not with Thanos, who’s ruthlessly devoted to a cause and not interested in getting it on, not with the Night King, who similarly has a job to do instead of a girlfriend to do, and not with Scar, who is a cartoon lion. (Unless the fantasy involves also being a cartoon lion. Or a cartoon hyena, if you’re nasty.) This is one of the reasons I think of this as such a gendered phenomenon — so much of young, online-active female fandom, especially in the non-gender-binary and queer spaces, seems to be about safe lust objects, about exploring sexuality without having to engage in actual physical contact. I’ve read theories (and personal explanations from fan-fic writers) that that’s part of what’s behind the “women shipping all male characters as hot for each other” phenomenon. A lady writing about two dudes boning down is observing and enjoying the act, without needing to engage herself. Expressing the horn for someone who’s impossibly inaccessible feels like the same thing.
Adi: In my anecdotal experience, human villain characters like the Joker and Kylo Ren do get paired with reader self-inserts fairly often in fan fiction, though. Compared to other fan-fic romance, it feels sort of like an evolution of stereotypical bodice-ripper romance novel dynamics. Which I guess is progress because at least it doesn’t suggest that your average man is a horrible monster who needs taming! Only the ones who murder a lot of people in the name of muddled philosophical convictions.
Liz: What Julia, Adi, and Tasha have laid out are reasons why a person might be interested in monster porn themselves. Which, like, I guess they really do make all kinds. The part that still strikes me as weird is the performance of publicly declaring one’s fealty to shipping the monster, sometimes at length in entertainment publications. Who are you performing for when you write a take for, let’s say, Mashable about how sexy you find the Night King, and why are you making this performance?
Julia: It’s been years since I’ve read a self-insert fan-fic, and I’ve never really been drawn to those stories. I’m someone who ships Kylo Ren and Rey, even though that pairing is extremely problematic. At the same time, I ship wildly different pairings, queer and otherwise, within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Harry Potter, and, of course, Game of Thrones. It’s not a performative stance I’m taking, even though I can crack jokes about it on Tumblr and Twitter. Many of them are problematic on the surface, but I think that’s also a big part of the appeal: I can explore a type of relationship, romantic or purely sexual, within a realm of undeniable fantasy.
The Night King is someone I can easily obsess over because his role in the show makes him an easy sort of fixation for the type of relationship I can fantasize about. There’s something about the Night King — or Thanos or Scar — that supports a type of erotic fetishization a character like Jon Snow can’t. That’s why so many of us are attracted to undeniably horrid characters: it’s the exact opposite of what we’d actually want in a partnership. And what is fiction, if not a way to explore the very disturbing fantasies we refuse to act on in our own day-to-day realities?