Flat White

Why it’s all too white in Westeros

22 April 2019

8:43 PM

22 April 2019

8:43 PM

The old leftie George R R Martin discovers that you can never be woke enough. Because the world of the Chronicles of Fire and Ice can hardly be criticised for lack of strong female characters, some have taken to asking: “great show, but is it racist?”

Yes, apparently there are just aren’t black people in “Game of Thrones”:

This much should have been obvious from way back when the very first episode aired in 2011. It was clear then that showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss envisioned their world as a white one. The majority of the action took place in Westeros, George RR Martin’s skewed spin on medieval Britain and the west, where the fair-haired, fair-skinned Lannisters engaged in a generations-long power struggle with the darker-haired, fair-skinned Starks. People of colour were not absent from the show but they were relegated to its cartographical margins. In the east, or Essos, the Dothraki people were depicted as a nomadic tribe of violent, rape-happy savages. That is until Westerosi princess Daenerys arrived, like Stacey Dooley on a Comic Relief jolly, and civilised them all.

By season five, Daenerys has bagged herself a black friend (ex-slave Missandei, played by former Hollyoaks actor Nathalie Emmanuel) and has taken her conquering/liberating mission to Slaver’s Bay where she is hailed as “mhysa” (mother) by the freed slaves. We have also been introduced to the Dornish, another dusky ethnic group from a distant land who are defined by hyper-sexualised and aggressive behaviour; you needn’t be a dedicated student of Edward Said to decipher the creeping orientalism in these plot lines. As Dr David Wearing, an international relations expert and Game of Thrones fan says, “One episode [season three’s Mhysa] ends with the blond, white Daenerys being borne aloft in gratitude by a sea of faceless people of colour, at which point we’re scarcely in the realms of interpreting subtext.”

If by this stage of reading this “Guardian” article you don’t have your face in your hands you are a better person than me.

In fairness, GoT does feature two or three black actors with speaking parts, but the public rebuttals of Boyega’s point went way beyond a simple fact-check. One Forbes piece argued that while diversity is important, calling out a franchise “based entirely on British history and mythology is completely counter-productive” and, ultimately, “to the detriment of the story”. Reaction below the line and on fan threads was mostly variations on a similar theme of historical accuracy and the challenge that black actors present to the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. Because, presumably, ice zombies and dragons are perfectly plausible, but fully rounded non-white characters would be a stretch too far?

Although fans with a shaky understanding of medieval Europe have often claimed otherwise, Game of Thrones is fantasy, not history. The shape of its world is limited only by the imaginations of its creators and – perhaps more so – its viewers. That is not to say it doesn’t draw on past traditions. “Tolkien and CS Lewis were two of the largest influencers of modern English-language fantasy,” says Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. “Both [Tolkien and Lewis] were born when the British Empire was at its height, and the cartographies of their imagination were influenced accordingly. Racism in storytelling was baked into the world they came of age in; speculative fiction is almost always commenting on the contemporary concerns of a society.”

So the Arab-like as well as sort-of-Central Asian horse-borne nomadic peoples are present in Martin’s universe, but we don’t like the way they are being portrayed. And there are no black people, though this might be a blessing, considering how the above two ethnicities have been portrayed. Shockingly, it needs to be noted that “Game of Thrones” also does not have any East Asian, Hindu or Amerindian characters. As the article argues, it’s a fantasy world full of magic and dragons, and not a historically accurate portrayal of medieval Britain, so having black characters shouldn’t be a problem.

Well, yes and no.

Firstly, we have not yet arrived at a point – though clearly were heading in that direction – where everything in life, including fiction, has to reflect the current census. For the record, “Game of Thrones” does have a dwarf, a paraplegic and an eunuch, so surely that wins some diversity bonus points.

Secondly, Westeros might be a fantasy world, but it’s not completely disconnected from our familiar reality. The action takes place mostly in the lands where it frequently snows. These are not the sorts of latitudes that would ordinarily be inhabited by black people. If you were to have a significant black district at Winterfell or King’s Landing, you would have to explain how exactly such ethnic minority has appeared in the Caucasian midst – was it a consequence of past slavery, an invasion or a peaceful migration (perhaps forced by climate change south of Westeros, where, according to a magician-king Algore, “the summer is coming”). Contra critics, it’s not a simple matter of merely dropping black characters randomly and without an explanation; unlike dragons and ice zombies, black people actually do exist in our world and have their own familiar historical, geographic and anthropological context.

Thirdly, if you’re not happy with the mythological universes on offer, get off your ass and create your own. “Black Panther” has showed there is a large market for that sort of entertainment. East Asia’s cinematic output is likewise rich in own fantasy stories – though curiously I don’t recall “The Guardian” complaining about the lack of white characters in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.

Maybe we wouldn’t want to completely detach GoT from our messy, postcolonial reality, even if it were possible. “The beautiful part about the show is that it is reflective of the real world,” says Michael Harriot, columnist for Afrocentric online magazine the Root and co-host of YouTube fan show Dem Thrones. “Daenerys is basically the embodiment of white privilege. She is inches away from becoming the powerful woman in the world simply because someone gave her some dragons at birth. As a black person, if this upset me, then I would also be upset with every historically accurate show about politics, war, society and culture.”

Harriot’s Thrones love has extended as far as outlining his alternative reading of the show as an all-encompassing analogy for white America circa the 2016 election: Daenerys is Hillary Clinton, the Lannisters are the Trumps, dragons are white privilege and the blue-eyed devil White Walkers are the “alt-right”. It’s as persuasive as it is funny. “I’m not a fan of colonialism and imperialism, but I must admit that it is entertaining. In the same way that I’m not a fan of being stabbed but I still enjoy watching a movie with a good sword fight.”

So there you go, Daenerys is basically the embodiment of white privilege, even if, when we first meet her, she has barely escaped death, lost everything, been exiled and then enslaved and subjected to repeated sexual assault. Than God for those dragons then, eh? Of course all the other characters competing for the Iron Throne somehow manage to get where they are without any flying and fire-breathing assistance, which presumably means their either not white or not privileged. Maybe Jon Snow is really black; he certainly only ever wears black.

Anyway, that’s enough of speculation. Excuse me now, as I have to attend to my dragon of white privilege.

Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk, where this piece also appears.

Illustration: HBO.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

 


Show comments
Close