HBO’s Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones’ Complex Relationship to Racism and Colonialism

For all of its popularity, Game of Thrones is a show that faces constant, justified criticism about its racism. It’s an essential issue to tackle, in part because it is also a show with a huge black following. Michael Harriot of Very Smart Brothas over on The Root regularly calls Game of Thrones the “blackest show on television” and his primer on the idea of blackness in the show is not to be missed.

For people outside critical conversations about race and pop culture, it can seem like it is hard to square these two different characterizations: how can a show which some critics of color see as representing their experience also be a show which regularly showcases racist writing and viewpoints? And beyond that, what are the duties of fantasy, both in its inception and in its adaptation, to people of color and issues of race, ethnicity, and color? I’m an extremely white-passing Latinx person who has never had to worry about people who look like me showing up in fantasy yarns, but I have found myself both deeply disturbed by Game of Thrones’ relationship to race and simultaneously desperate to exonerate it. It can be extremely difficult to reconcile one’s love of a show or a book from its politics—difficulties made even worse when those politics appear to be the unconscious by product of privilege. In trying to navigate these choppy waters, I find myself returning to an author whose writing I adore and whose politics I despise: H.P. Lovecraft.

I often teach a short story by early 20th-century New England horror writer H.P. Lovecraft entitled “The Rats In the Walls” (1924). If you don’t already, there are two things you need to know about Lovecraft. First, his particular brand of weird fiction and cosmic horror is the inspiration for many of the most important horror writers of the last hundred years. Second, he was a frothing, inveterate racist. The 1920s and 30s were a very racist time in American history, but even by those hideously low standards Lovecraft is a standout. His one-time spouse, Sonia Greene, once wrote, “Whenever we found ourselves in the racially mixed crowds which characterize New York, Howard would become livid with rage, […] He seemed almost to lose his mind.” 

While most of Lovecraft’s writing is full of racist language and an obsession with what he deems “miscegenation,” “The Rats in the Walls” is especially notable insofar as the protagonist of the short story owns a black cat named “N****r Man”—which many scholars are quick to point out is named after a cat that Lovecraft himself owned until 1904. Ironically, when I teach “The Rats in the Walls,” one of my main contentions is that the narrative serves as a striking, completely unintentional excoriation of systemic racism. Striking because Lovecraft’s clear sympathies lie entirely with a protagonist, Delapore, who, in addition to the horribly-named cat, laments the loss of his family’s estate during the Civil War and the income it generated through slavery. But, as the narrative progresses, Delapore is exposed as a descendant of inhuman shepherds of human livestock. When he turns cannibalistic and goes mad during the climax of the piece, it’s not hard to see “The Rats in the Walls” as a thorough condemnation of any system where the dehumanization of others serves as self-justification. It’s a story that makes the opposite point the writer would likely say it makes.

I bring up H.P. Lovecraft and “The Rats in the Walls” because discussion of the author and this particular story lays out an important point at the center of a lot of my thinking about Game of Thrones in this after-period where we look back on the show’s legacy: it is both as important as ever to call out racism when we see it in fiction, and simultaneously important to see what racist fiction can say about race. As we continue to reckon with our profoundly racist past and try to improve upon our profoundly racist present, a lot of our public discussion of racism seems to be stalled out between the absolutely valid but often unhelpful sentiments of “we should cancel racist fiction” and “it’s okay to like problematic things.”

I want to be clear that I am in no way saying that everyone should always go beyond either of those sentiments. It is okay to like problematic fiction so long as one doesn’t try to argue that it is not problematic. It is okay to refuse to watch racist media and to ask that others consider doing the same. In genres like fantasy which are dominated by white men, it’s important that we prioritize other voices. Genre fiction fans should absolutely read Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, Tomi Adeyemi, Samuel R. Delaney, and Marlon James, for a start. But, should one have the spoons to analyze racist fiction, it’s important to look at what we might take away from it when we temporarily set aside the desire to defend it or call it out.

I am, of course, far from the first person to call out the racism of Game of Thrones. The show has done as bad a job with its racist biases as it has its sexist ones. In this final season alone we got the fridging of Missandei , the vilification of Grey Worm, and a final speech by Daenerys to her “savage” Dothraki hordes and “faceless” Unsullied soldiers that simultaneously had Nazi overtones and, to quote a close friend, “serious Heart of Darkness vibes.” On a more subtle level, it’s been dismaying to see the only two main-cast characters of color portrayed as incredibly subservient zealots who fall in love with one another, and that those few white characters from the novels who were portrayed by actors of color in the show included a shifty pirate (Lucian Msamati’s Salladhor Saan), a largely silent and subservient retainer (DeObia Oparei’s Areo Hotah), and a treacherous merchant prince who, contrary to both Martin’s lore and the show’s own understanding of cultures, self-describes as “a savage from the Summer Isles”  (Nonso Anozie’s Xaro Xhoan Daxos). Then pair this with the cringe-worthy ending of season three where Daenerys is framed as an uncomplicated white-savior figure, hoisted aloft by adoring brown people literally calling her “mother”—well, “Mhysa.” So yes: Game of Thrones has been pretty racist both in its scripting and in its casting. There is not a lot to argue with there.

But this also raises some important questions about how we think about fantasy generally. Part of Ginia Bellafante’s infamously unkind New York Times review of the first episode of Game of Thrones hinged on the idea that fantasy genre tarnished any and all real world concerns that were fed through it, saying “When [HBO] ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology […] things start to feel cheap, and we feel as though we have been placed in the hands of cheaters.”  While I would usually refrain from turning to this particular piece (which elsewhere has some ableist drivel about the ignominy of depicting sex with a dwarf and boldly implies that no self-respecting woman could enjoy the show), I do think it highlights a common misread of the politics of the genre: namely that, because it is (often) set in a made-up world, it cannot and should not speak to real issues. Fantasy ought to, in other words, always be escapist.

Obviously, this is wrong. When Guillermo del Toro spoke at the Director’s Guild of America last year, he said that fantasy was “an inherently political genre.”  I would argue (as many have before me) that the ability to tell resonant stories in a world not your own is at the core of all fiction and that fantasy is simply more explicit than other permutations in owning up to that process. But Bellafante’s claim nags at us because it demands a deeper analysis of fantasy tropes and conventions in order to refute it.

Let’s start with the idea that Game of Thrones and the Song of Ice and Fire books upon which it is based come from a largely white tradition whose cultural baggage is bound up in the racism of J.R.R. Tolkien. Author and Arab-American fantasy fan Saladin Ahmed describes Tolkien’s legacy thus:

[…] there is some irreducible ugliness in his masterpiece that really can’t be convincingly redeemed. The men of the global East and global South (“black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues”) are monstrous and evil, naturally and culturally inclined to bow to Sauron, and to make war on the good men of the North and West. The bestial visages of orcs bear a striking resemblance to racist caricatures of African and Asian facial features. Above all, to be dark-skinned in Middle Earth is to be part of a savage horde – whether orcish or human – rather than to be a true individual.

Martin’s ASoIaF books, having been started some forty-two years after the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, cannot help but be more progressive in some respects. Gone is a lot of the explicitly racist language that Tolkien used. But, like a lot of fantasy, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is similarly focused on a white, Anglo-adjacent society set at a time reminiscent of the mid-to-late Middle Ages.

Furthermore, Martin’s world also has outsized spaces for whiteness that are more in-line with post-Colonial ethnic demographics than Medieval ones. He has described Westeros as being roughly the size of South America, which would make it much, much larger than the England for which it is a rough analog. Add to this the disproportionately large Western portion of Essos and the Valyrian peninsula and you have a world that is much more phenotypically white than the world during the Middle Ages. While this is not, in and of itself, racist, it does mean that the stories that will be told in that world are disproportionately white.

We also ought to discuss the peculiar way in which fantasy attempts to tackle racism: that is to say, by creating other races. Tolkien’s inclusion of Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Ents, and trolls in his template for the fantasy genre likely set the stage for subsequent authors to use different races (read: species) as an analog for ethnic and skin color-based tensions. ASoIaF is no stranger to that particular convention, using Giants, the Children of the Forest, the Others (what the television show calls “White Walkers”) and several Neanderthal-like human subspecies (such as the Hairy Men of Ib and the Brindled Men of Sothoryos) as non-human denizens with complicated relationships to humanity. But despite the presence of fantasy races in Martin’s narrative, they are consistently pushed towards the edge of the story. Giants and the Children are all but extinct—victims of the incursions of mankind. Ib and Sothoryos are too far from the central action of the plot to be anything but bits of worldbuilding around the edges of Martin’s plot. As a result, the majority of the racism in ASoIaF is between people of different ethnicities, and this presents a problem in the translation from the books to the show.

Martin’s inspiration for various ethnic groups and cultures is often rooted in history. It’s not hard to see the connection between the Dothraki and the Turkic and Mongol peoples of the Central Asian steppes. They are described in the books as phenotypically Central Asian with “copper skin” and “almond shaped eyes.”  This is where the potential for trouble comes into the casting process. On the one hand, because the Dothraki are inspired by a real world, non-white culture, it feels like a great opportunity for diversity in the casting process. On the other hand, casting actors of Central Asian descent to play Dothraki exclusively would end up, because of the massive underrepresentation of people of color in film and television, with those actors being the sole and essential representatives of people of color within the world. The show ended up compromising, probably to the detriment of their credibility, by casting a variety of actors of various backgrounds (including white actors) to play Dothraki extras and casting a number of non-white actors of a variety of ethnicities (overwhelmingly of Pacific Islander and Middle Eastern descent) to play Dothraki principal characters. The result is that the Dothraki on Game of Thrones, rather than being a phenotypically uniform group, look generally non-white with the majority being brown with dark hair. Pair this with the fact that we are introduced to the Dothraki as violent savages, eager to rape white women and plunder white society, and you get a strong implication that, on Game of Thrones, people of color are uniformly savage and uncouth.

This is not helped by the fact that other ethnic groups described by Martin are cast in similar ways to the Dothraki. The Ghiscari of Slaver’s Bay who, if we follow Martin’s loose patterning of his world after real-world history, are likely meant to be stand-ins for the ur-Empires of the fertile crescent, including Sumer, Babylon and, especially, Assyria, are described as having “skins of […] amber hue” and “bristly, red-black hair” (Storm 314). In Martin’s World of Ice and Fire, Maester Yandel asserts “The people native to [Naath] are a beautiful and gentle race, with round flat faces, dusky skin, and large, soft amber eyes, flecked with gold.”  The Dornishmen, who are a people descended from the First Men, Andals, and the Rhoynar of Essos, are given a rather replete breakdown of their ethnographic inspiration by Martin himself:

Wales was definitely an influence […] But there’s also some distinctly un-Welsh elements down there. […] you have a hot, dry country more like Spain or Palestine […] And you also have the flavor given the culture by the great Rhoynar influx led by Nymeria. I suppose the closest real life equivalent to that would be the Moorish influence in parts of Spain. So you could say Dorne is Wales mixed with Spain and Palestine with some entirely imaginary influences mixed in.

Yet, in the show, the Naathi (as represented by Missandei), Dornish characters like Oberyn Martell, Ellaria Sand, and Doran Martell, and characters of Ghiscari descent like Kraznys mo Nakloz, Hizdahr zo Loraq, and Yezzan zo Qaggaz are largely portrayed by black or Middle Eastern actors who are more or less phenotypically identical to the Dothraki. The end result is that the specific cultures of ASoIaF, some of which are violent and “savage,” some of which are peaceful and “civilized,” most of which are unable to be characterized so simplistically, are all flattened out into an amalgam of non-whiteness. Even though the show discusses different cultures, they are often visually identical in the absence of culturally specific costumes.

Normally this wouldn’t be a problem: the cultural visual-storytelling of Game of Thrones is pretty unparalleled on television and expecting to be able to sort people of various cultures purely by the ethnicity of the actor portraying them is problematic in and of itself. But in seasons three through six, half of the show’s run, Daenerys Targaryen is based in the cities of Slaver’s Bay where the majority of extras are enslaved peoples, stripped of culturally specific costumes, and meant to represent a huge number of cultures from around the world. The fact that brown-skinned people, mostly black and Middle Eastern, make up the majority of this group is especially troubling in light of what it says about the showrunners’ understanding of slavery in Martin’s world.

Slavery was not particularly pervasive as a cultural touchstone in the Medieval Europe that vaguely maps on to Westeros and Western Essos. Instead, Martin models the slavery of Valyria and Old Ghis on the slave trade of the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East. In this system, both indenture (bonded labor that includes a time- or debt-based endpoint) and chattel slavery (where the enslaved and their descendants are the complete property of their owners and no terms of freedom exist outside the whims of their masters) were notably not based on skin color (like the chattel slavery of colonial Europe and the United States).

Martin signals this non-colorist, multi-ethnic model of slavery very clearly in Daenerys’ first encounter with the slave markets of Astapor, where she sees, among the Unsullied, people of a myriad of ethnicities including “Dothraki and Lhazerene, […] Men of the Free Cities […] pale Qartheen, ebon-faced Summer Islanders, […] others whose origins she could not guess” (Storm 314). Tellingly, Martin even has Daenerys infer that “some had skins of the same amber hue as Kraznys mo Nakloz […] They sell even their own kind. It should not have surprised her. The Dothraki did the same” (314). Dany’s shock at the lack of sacrosanct treatment of other Ghiscari, signaled by the word “even,” is immediately countered by the admission that it is not at all shocking. Positioning the practice of selling people of one’s own ethnicity as surprising seems meant for the audience whose understanding of slavery is likely based entirely on the chattel slavery of the United States which relied on people of African descent and created numerous post-hoc arguments about phenotypically black people’s lack of humanity in order to justify the overwhelming cruelty of the system. In the ancient Mediterranean, as in Essos, slavers did not view slaves as sub-human or even particularly different from themselves.

But in that aforementioned white-savior moment, where Daenerys, played by the extremely pale Emilia Clarke in a white-blonde wig, is lifted up by a mass of brown-skinned former slaves calling her “mother,” the color-lines are very clear: white people are not slaves in Game of Thrones and brown people are. While there are moments which cut against this reading (Tyrion and Jorah are both sold into slavery by Malko, a black slaver played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), they are few and far between and greatly diminished in overall importance when the two main former slaves in Daenerys’ orbit, Missandei and Grey Worm, are both played by black actors. This is despite the fact that neither character in the books is described as such (Missandei is, as described above, Naathi, and Grey Worm is never physically described, save in terms of age).

So, by the time we get to the end of the series and that Heart of Darkness moment where the Dothraki and Unsullied are depicted as an army of savage and monstrous stereotypes of non-white peoples, the show has already set up a number of problematic dynamics. Its non-specific casting of people of color causes its racial politics to feel deeply unconsidered. Its views on slavery are regressively fed through the lens of American and European chattel slavery in ways that reinforce the white-saviorism of Daenerys. And a lack of people of color in the writers’ room means that Benioff and Weiss’ worst instincts tended to go unchecked and exacerbate the show’s racist politics. For example, in the penultimate episode, Daenerys says that all that is left of Missandei is her slave collar. Missandei gets reduced to a totem of her days as a slave which, given that she has been free for between five and six years, seems like an odd object for her to have kept, full stop. That’s pretty wildly racist given that the show has allowed her six seasons’ worth of costume changes and, presumably, she owns more than clothing.

So what lesson can we take away from Game of Thrones that isn’t merely a cautionary tale about the dangers of white privilege in the writer’s room and the need for more people of color writing fantasy and producing television? If we take the plot of Game of Thrones as an immutable fact and set aside the failures of the writers, the problems of casting fantasy cultures based on phenotypic descriptions, and, to an extent, the notion that a fantasy world has clear and direct analogs to real-world cultures, what does that plot have to say about race?

For my money, Game of Thrones is a searing indictment of colonialism. The colonial project is always an inherently racist one. Its white oppressors seek to either subjugate a population of color (as with British India) or simply eradicate and replace it with a white creole one (as with British North America and Australia). In addition to its core racism, it is also founded on the hubris that one people can effectively rule another with whom they have no cultural ties.

If Martin has been clear about one thing from the start, it has been that the Targaryen family, last surviving blood of old Valyria, has no cultural or genetic ties to anyone. In Maester Yandel’s concordance, Martin lays out that “The great beauty of Valyrians—with their hair of palest silver or gold and eyes in shades of purple not found amongst any other peoples of the world—is well known and often held up as proof that Valyrians are not entirely of the same blood as other men” (World of Ice and Fire 13). Furthermore, so much of Targaryen custom is foreign to not just Westeros but all humanity. Numerous characters remark upon the alien appearance of Dragonstone and the acceptability of polygamy and incest (both instituted to allow for minimal pollution of Valyrian genetics) in the Targaryen royal line as they are not truly human and therefore subject to human laws.

Both the novels and the television series are clear to point out the futility of ruling over Westeros as one unified kingdom. In fact, it has always been a matter of some curiosity to me that Martin uses the term “King” and “Kingdom” to refer to the occupant of the Iron Throne and their demesne when “Emperor” and “Empire” feel more fitting: they rule over seven kingdoms, each with a High Lord who was once a King. In the first season of the show, King Robert bemoans the lack of a Royal army under his direct command, wishing for “One army, a real army, united behind one leader with one purpose. […] Now we’ve got as many armies as there are men with gold in their purse. And everybody wants something different.”  There is no unified purpose in the Seven Kingdoms. Northmen identify as Northmen more than Westerosi. The same is true for Dornishmen, Ironborn, Westermen and the rest of the once-autonomous kingdoms. In trying to unite seven kingdoms into one, the Targaryens are, at their core, colonizers.

Daenerys especially has a colonist’s mindset. She has never set foot on the continent she believes to be her birthright. She is genetically Valyrian, raised in the cultural context of Essos and identifies, more often than not, as Dothraki saying as early as episode three that she is “not a queen [but] a khaleesi.” Within Martin’s world, the Dothraki are uninterested in ruling over a people not their own, but they are more than willing to engage in the colonial project of demanding tribute in resources and slaves from militarily inferior peoples. At the end of season two, she and her Dothraki loot the riches of Qarth, happy to murder Xaro Xhoan Daxos who may have been a traitor to his people but is the only authority figure with any semblance of a Qartheen outlook left. At the end of season six, she abdicates her position as Queen of Meereen, appointing Daario Naharis, perhaps the most unfit person in her court, to rule in her stead.

We can certainly see racist historical parallels to Daenerys’ behavior in everything from the Mexica demand for blood tribute from other Central Mexican peoples and the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, to the redrawing of sovereign borders by the British in the Middle East post-WWI and American-backed banana republics in Central America and the Pacific. But even more telling in our assessment of Daenerys as racist colonizer is the fact that her only followers are those who have been denied their own nations. The Unsullied are a people without a nation who, even if they are technically no longer enslaved, have no place to return to. When Grey Worm departs for Naath in the series finale, he does so out of love for and loyalty to Missandei, not because he has any semblance of cultural or political ties to the island nation. The Dothraki with whom Daenerys culturally identifies are also a people without a culture or homeland. In murdering the remaining Dothraki khals and abolishing the Dosh Khaleen, Daenerys has effectively destroyed the last vestiges of stable Dothraki culture. She colonized and radicalized them long before she came to Westeros.

In the end, Game of Thrones, stands both as a cringe-worthy and contemptible failure of white authors to understand how to effectively and respectfully tell a diverse story and as a powerfully scathing critique of the racism of colonizers. It fails to live up to the very real demands of responsible storytelling in an age of growing racism. At the same time, it succeeds in using the rules of Martin’s fantasy ethnography to tell a compelling story about the complicated nature of oppression and the dangers of believing you can rule a people not your own.

And maybe there is a glimmer of hope for the colonized at the very end of the tale. In naming Bran Stark Lord of the Six Kingdoms, many viewers saw a bizarre, truncated cop-out or a half-hearted pat on the back for the writers. But—whether or not it was the intent of the showrunners—the selection, not of Bran, but of the Three-Eyed Raven (which seems to be the identity he is more comfortable with) signals a space for the indigenous peoples of Westeros: the Children of the Forest. Driven to the brink of extinction by the First Men and the Andals, then finally eradicated by the Army of the Dead, the Children of the Forest fill a space in Martin’s narrative somewhere between Tolkien’s Elves and White conceptions of various North American First Nations peoples.

Texas-based educator and cautious Game of Thrones fan Desiree Morales has pointed that, beyond being a kind of fantasy analog for forgotten shamanistic peoples, the Children of the Forest also serve as otherworldly guides for the Starks and Northmen generally. In naming them “First Men” and in having them worship the same Old Gods that the Children of the Forest also revered, Martin gives a kind otherness to his protagonist kingdom. When one tells a story about colonialism, one automatically tells a story about otherness. The colonized must be other for the process of occupation and oppression to be palatable. The Starks are white people with otherness. As opposed to the baroque, many-gods-in-one parallel between the Faith of the Seven and Catholicism, and the monotheistic zealotry that makes the Lord of Light resonate with some Abrahamic extremist sects, the Old Gods are inspired by a shamanistic animism. With the centrality of their crypts, ancestor-worship is central to Stark/Northern identity in a way that it is not among the other Great Houses.

Furthermore, there is a vague, anti-Western philosophy to the Three-Eyed Raven’s style of rule. In being devoid of personal desire, there is space for sacrifice and interconnected responsibility. Morales points out that there is parallelism in that sacrifice and responsibility to the Lakota sun dance where grueling, personal bloodshed is symbolic of a dedication to the community rather than the self. In order to become the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran must suffer greatly. He sacrifices first his body, then his claim to Winterfell, and finally his individual identity in order to become an all-seeing bird witch. In the Three-Eyed Raven there is a catalogue of all Westerosi memory—not just that of human memory. Voices, not only of the oppressed, but of the extinct are given weight and consideration. Bran, as both Stark and vessel of the Children of the Forest, is as close to a symbol of indigenous values as Westeros has. In recognizing that and crowning Bran, the Lords of Westeros can be seen as rejecting the Western colonizer for the indigenous shaman.

For all of the show’s racism, then, it contains, much like the works of H.P. Lovecraft, a surprising critique of the very system it so often upholds.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. He is one half of the Lincoln & Welles podcast available on itunes or through your favorite podcatcher. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.



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