This month, the biggest TV show in the world returns for one final dragon-slaying, wall-toppling, throne-nabbing season. In the time since it last aired, memes have been shared, elaborate theories have been devised and revised, bets have been laid (Lyanna Mormont FTW) and cos-play outfits have been lovingly stitched. Yet there is one aspect that is yet to receive adequate attention: Game of Thrones – great show, but is it racist?
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.”
In 2017, all this became an official talking point when GoT’s co-creators, Benioff and Weiss, announced that their next project would be Confederate, an alternative history drama, in which the south won the American civil war and slavery never ended. The announcement was met with near-instantaneous social-media anger from activists including #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay, who described it as “slavery fan fiction”. The project has since been delayed indefinitely.
The backlash might not have been so severe, however, if Game of Thrones wasn’t already perceived to have a problem with diversity. A few weeks earlier, Star Wars actor John Boyega, a man with some personal experience of fandom-specific racism, brought the issue up in a GQ interview. “There are no black people on Game of Thrones,” he said. “I ain’t paying money to always see one type of person on-screen …Because you see different people from different backgrounds, different cultures, every day. Even if you’re a racist, you have to live with that.”
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.”
Since our society’s contemporary concerns include diversity and representation, it makes sense that Game of Thrones would be gradually moving in that direction. The cast list for HBO’s upcoming prequel includes three black British actors (Naomi Ackie, Sheila Atim, Ivanno Jeremiah) and some cite Daenerys’s season six soul-searching as evidence of the GoT writers’ engagement with a wider debate. Wearing, though, is unconvinced: “Often it amounts to little more than ‘crying while shooting’, where the critiques are fairly superficial and leave many deeper assumptions untouched.”
What if we do want to get at those deeper assumptions? Is it even possible? Thomas sees “the project of emancipating the dark fantastic” as her favourite genre’s greatest challenge. “Fantasy is created from the depths of a creative’s imagination … It is a very vulnerable thing to do and, thus, fantasy writers are protective of their creations. That’s understandable. But the act of ‘mythopoesis’ – making your own myths – is one that requires much thought. And still you may not see everything.” There’s a reason why some of George RR Martin’s fantasy successors (Keira Drake, Laurie Forest, Kosoko Jackson) have recently been subject to Confederate-esque online backlash from early readers regarding “racist” tropes in their work. “We can have the best of intentions, but unless we’re thinking deeply about the fantasy worlds that we build, we will re-inscribe the cartographies of the known world into our stories,” says Thomas.
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.”
And while Harriot acknowledges that more black and non-white cast members would be nice, he still feels represented in some ways. “I refer to the Starks as ‘our cousins’. [Jon Snow] wears the dopest cape or coats and is always willing to posse up. I feel like his theme song is [Atlanta crunk anthem] Knuck If You Buck and he will eventually open a barbershop on the west side of Westeros and live the rest of his life in peace. But most of all, I like him because, no matter what you threaten him with, he refuses to bend the knee.” (The Guardian)