Was "Bran the Broken" an ableist title, or did it challenge prejudices toward disabled people?
Spoiler warning: The following contains spoilers from the Game of Thrones series finale.
Like many Game of Thrones fans, I’ve been hot and cold about the final season. Still, I tuned in Sunday night to the series finale, excited to see the fate of my favorite Westeros residents. When the time came to pick a new ruler for the war-ravaged empire, I was #TeamSansa all the way—so you can imagine my surprise when another Stark was nominated.
Appearing before the council of Lords and Ladies in chains, it’s up to Tyrion Lannister to nominate someone worthy. Arguably the smartest man in Westeros, he made a decent case for Bran Stark—aka the Three-Eyed Raven—to take the throne. His argument recycled a previous conversation he’d had with his departed friend, Lord Varys, about the uniting power of stories. As Tyrion declares, who has a more epic story than Bran the Broken?
At this point, I had to pause mid-watch. Bran the Broken? There’s A LOT to unpack with that nickname. The alliteration is a nice touch, but what about Bran the Brave, Bran the Wise, Bran the Knowing? This young man has spent the majority of Game of Thrones without the use of his legs, and in that time, he has traveled beyond the Wall, become the Three-Eyed Raven, faced the Night King, and been named king! Yet the word prescribed to him is “broken?”
Allow me to explain my astonishment.
There is a stigma that people with disabilities—especially those who become disabled after being born abled—are stuck with. We are considered broken, wrong, or less than what we “should” be. This is where lots of ableist thinking and language comes from.
It might seem like a case of semantics, but how we talk about disability and disabled people matters.
Something as seemingly innocuous as saying someone is “confined” to their wheelchair or that one is “suffering” from their disability has negative connotations. This mentality insinuates that disabled people live a lesser life. Calling someone “broken” after becoming disabled implies they are no longer complete; that an abled body is the requirement for personhood.
My question is this: Was the nickname an unconscious and unwitting piece of ableism on the part of the showrunners? Or did they mean “broken” in a totally different light?
Tyrion—someone who has experienced the prejudice that comes from being labeled as different—gave Bran this name, but the stigma associated with Tyrion and his stature is a tool that he uses to his advantage. He himself points out the labels that others have given him: “The Imp,” “The Dwarf,” “The Demon Monkey.” All of these demeaning names have been pushed onto him because of his size.
Throughout Game of Thrones, others looked at Tyrion and underestimated his potential, and that got him out of many tricky situations—playing up these assumptions when it actually benefited him to be dismissed. Incorrect assumptions about his ability allowed him to survive bloodshed time and time again. Knowing this, should we assume that Tyrion’s intention in calling Bran “broken” is meant to subvert the word? Should we infer that it’s meant to be a wink at the similarity between the new king and the last Lannister?
Unfortunately, we are never given a definitive answer. To me, without that specific context, “Bran the Broken” feels like an ableist, unnecessary title.
If there had been explicit talk of Bran’s strength of character, then using the name “Broken” to subvert its definition would have worked well. If his ability to thrive during the most unforgiving time in Westeros history had been explored more, then “Broken” would have felt purposefully ironic. The title would have declared that Bran, a disabled person, became one of the most complete characters in the saga.
Instead of embracing this narrative, “Bran the Broken” has become a joke that plays into prejudices toward disabled people. As soon as Bran was named king, the memes started flowing on social media. In these memes, one thing is redundantly made clear: Disabled contributions to society are not seen or valued.
Yes, Bran did not raise a sword nor did he fly on a dragon. His contributions were less visible, less pronounced, but no less needed. And they could only be performed by the Three-Eyed Raven.
He spied on the enemies to the North. He strategically dealt information—holding back about Jaime and the tower and telling the truth to the Starks about Jon’s lineage. It can even be argued that Bran helped restore Theon’s honor by giving him a cause to fight for. Most importantly, he allowed things to play out as they were supposed to. During the series finale, Jon expressed remorse to his brother for not being there when he was needed. In response, Bran told Jon that he was exactly where he was supposed to be at the time—a lesson he learned through Hodor’s sacrifice.
No matter who you would have preferred to see win the throne, to undermine Bran’s role is ableist. It’s the same sort of discrimination that real disabled people deal with on the regular. We may not always receive such obvious nicknames like “Bran the Broken,” but labels like “handicapable” and “differently abled” are given to us against our will and the disregard of our autonomy. It’s unfortunately one thing that Westeros and our own society have in common.