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Game of Thrones, Racism, and White Saviors

By Taylor Marvin

Credit HBO.

Credit HBO.

Two weeks ago HBO broadcast the season finale of Game of Thrones’ third season. In the climactic final scene lead character Daenerys, after conquering the slave-trading city of Yunkai, is met by an adoring crowd of freed slaves who proclaim her “mother” and their savior. The season ends with a dramatic bird’s eye shot of the white-skinned Dany surrounded by a sea of darker-skinned supplicants, all reaching inward to touch, salute, and worship her.

Critics immediately attacked the scene’s staging as, at the least, racially uncomfortable, and accused its depiction of a light-skinned foreigner effortlessly freeing people of color from  similarly dark-skinned oppressors as perpetuating the tired white savior trope. George RR Martin responded to criticism of the scene, arguing that slavery in his books is not based on race and has much more in common with the Roman and Greek world, where debtors or prisoners of war were enslaved regardless of ethnicity. Indeed, Martin goes out of his way to avoid race in A Song of Ice and Fire altogether. Unlike in our world, skin tone in Martin’s follows no real geographical pattern, and the inhabitants of some of the most exotic and otherized locals in the series — Qarth and Asshai — are explicitly identified as some of the whitest in the series. Indeed, Martin is one of the few fantasy authors to write protagonists of color who tell their own stories through their own voices.

But it’s natural that images of a white savior surrounded by adoring people of color would draw more controversy on the screen than on the page, especially when — in contrast to how Martin wrote the scene in A Storm of Swords — Game of Thrones’ crowd of slaves appear uniformly darker than the white protagonists. In his response Martin attributed this to logistical necessities the show faces but his books do not. As the scene was shot in Morocco, local extras filling in as slaves were necessarily darker-skinned than the leads — unless the production is going to fly in hundreds of foreign extras (which would have its own very troubling connotations) crowd scenes are always going to reflect the local prevailing skin tone, which in Morocco is by no means uniform. This echoes Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which if I recall correctly cast many dark-skinned extras as Orcs simply as a way of including local New Zealand actors in Tolkien’s white-dominated narrative.

Again, these logistical limitations are reasonable, and George RR Martin is right to note that many instances of historical slavery lack a racial component. But Game of Thrones is produced and consumed in a cultural context where slavery is overwhelmingly identified with the subjugation of dark-skinned people by lighter-skinned people. “It’s not the most-racist thing you’re going to see on TV, most days,” commenter witlesschum writes of the scene on Sean T. Collins’ site. “But living in the 21st century US, I can’t see that scene without the racial implications pinging and taking me out of the narrative.” It doesn’t matter if slavery in the ancient world was race neutral, because Game of Thrones isn’t broadcast for an ancient audience. In our world slavery is not, and the show’s producers should have anticipated the controversy the scene would draw.

However, it’s unclear if the audience is intended to take Dany’ triumph as an endorsement of her victory, and the white savior narrative it embodies, at all. Whatever the merits of freeing slaves, Dany’s actions represent a top-down, violent attempt to reform a society she knows literally nothing about. In a word it’s imperialism, “liberal” qualifier nonetheless. While the now-freed slaves may hail Dany as their mother, “as joyful as that sequence was framed to be, a family conceived not in genuine compatibility or a shared vision of the world but in desperate need and a rush of affirmation contains great potential for harm,” Alyssa Rosenberg writes. At Rolling Stone Sean T. Collins questioned the writers’ endorsement even more strongly, noting that “Dany’s triumph outside the gates of Yunkai came with its fair share of visual and narrative warning signs that we’re not to take it at face value.”

[Begin spoilers for A Storm of Swords through A Dance with Dragons]

Dany’s moment outside of Yunkai may be a genuine victory, but later events make it clearly a hollow one. Dany’s subsequent attempt to rule the third city of Slaver’s Bay, Meereen, is a failure, undermined by an insurgency organized by the elites she violently overthrew and the economic importance of the slave trade she abolished. Her conquest and emancipation of Astapor led directly to the total destruction of the city, and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

In this sense Martin’s narrative is a bait-and-switch. Much like A Song of Ice and Fire evokes narratives of righteous young princes avenging their fathers before Robb’s betrayal and murder pulls the rug out from under our feet, A Dance With Dragons explicitly undermines the white savior narrative by suggesting that violent interventions to reform foreign societies are always more complicated than they appear, no matter how good their intentions. But this nuance may be lost in the television medium. Game of Thrones presents viewers with a climactic visual — literally climactic, as it’s the last shot of the season — that appears to endorse a white savior narrative and will only be subverted two seasons later; casual viewers may not get the message. This is partially a problem with translating a so-far 5,000 page plus book to television, and ultimately a narrative that subverts a trope is still an instance of that trope. Wired’s Laura Hudson is right to remark that “I’ve seen this trope so many times before that it feels emotionally flat and boring.” It won’t once Dany’s idealism begins falling apart around her, but it does now.

The simple truth is that images of white characters surrounded by grateful, otherized people of color are loaded ones in our civilization, and have been created far, far more often as part of narratives that endorse colonialism rather than critique it. These narratives should be subverted, but it is inherently difficult to do so.

As I’ve previously written, I don’t think A Song of Ice and Fire is orientalist or racist. While its depictions of societies modeled after the Mediterranean and Middle East ring more stereotypical than its main, Western Europe-inspired setting, this is partially a deliberate choice — Martin predominantly shows societies populated by people of color through the eyes of foreigners, who have good reason to see them as alien. It’s also impossible to paint A Song of Ice and Fire as an endorsement of European values. In A Dance With Dragons Martin repeatedly suggests that while Westeros’ culture abhors slavery its own serfdom is fundamentally no different. “Some slaveowners and their overseers were brutal and cruel,” Martin writes, through the eyes of Tyrion, “but the same was true of some Westerosi lords and their stewards and bailiffs.” In this context, Martin’s depiction of slavery is if anything a critique of orientalism, suggesting that Western-identified travelers ultimately find just as much barbarism at home as they do in the “Orient”.

Indeed, this critique is one of the most fascinating aspects of Dany’s character. Just as her denunciations of King Robert as a “usurper” ring false given that her own claim to power is an ancestor who took it by force, Dany abhors slavery yet seeks to return to a throne resting on the backs of serfs who are slaves in all but name. The fact that we’re talking about white saviors at all, and not Dany’s own entitled orientalism, tells me that Game of Thrones’ writers missed a step.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Daario Morgulis #

    liberals ran out of things to talk about, so they have to make up things to be offended by.

    January 20, 2014
  2. Maurice McDonald #

    Pretty much. It’s not the first show…video game…movie….or book to feature this kind of thing and it won’t be the last. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but some of the things I found in the book were appallng- like the culture of the Summer Isles.

    Then I saw that scen with Dany being floated above the heads of mindless dark people lke a savior and I think that is where I stopped watching the show. I think I watched a few more for Tyrion (because his plot-line is fraking awesome), but I couldn’t bring myself to ndure Dany’s plot line anymore. Especially when I realized that these dark peoples in ths dark land was being presided over by Dany and her all-white council.

    June 11, 2014
    • I thought the Summer Islanders would have been a very interesting opportunity to explore a fantasy maritime culture with African influences. Unfortunately, yes, their view of sex falls very much within the “sexually liberated noble savage” trope.

      Thanks for the comment!

      June 15, 2014
  3. ytandnotguilty #

    Guess what… Whites ended slavery in the USA. Whites pretty much ended slavery around the world. The only place it still exists is in pockets of AFRICA and the Middle East.

    July 6, 2014
    • Huhuh Wright #

      OK lets leave out the bit where whites were the most brutal, profiteering, evil, wicked protaganists of this barbarism. Shit you still kill blacks in the US for sport.

      December 16, 2014
    • Whites ended slavery in the USA. Whites pretty much ended slavery around the world.

      Slavery still exists in the US. It’s called “CONVICT LABOR” and it’s protected by the U.S. Constitution. Many businesses have profited form convict labor – which led to many minorities and working-class whites into being railroaded into prison – since the end of the U.S. Civil War. Learn your damn history.

      November 6, 2019
  4. WTF Cray Cray #

    Dany killed hundreds of thousands in Astapor? it never says that on the show or in the books. Do they just make this insanity up as they go along to justify this rethoric that freeing slaves is now bad. The author is actually worried about the economic effects on the poor slave masters? Last I checked most revolutions in history got pretty damn bloody. The US, the French, the Haitian, and the civil war. There were roughly 1000 slave masters in Astapor according to the books, and they died for commiting atrocity after atrocity. They murder children for sport, kill babies as a training exercise and mutilate, torture, rape and kidnap innocents for a living.

    Now the reason there have been wars over things like slavery or as the Africans call it Maafa or the Slave holocaust is because when you buture between 22 million and 100 million in 300 years it tends to piss people off. If you read the books you find out how disgustingly rich theslave Masters are, nobody actually needs an 800 foot pyramid as a home and the ox that pulls your cart does not need jeweled horns. It’s greed and the abuse power. To make a point to Dany they crucified 163 children. Why type of moron is worried about these butchers economic status? Are you fucking kidding me with this article. Freeing slaves is now bad, andstupid? Great Lincoln widely reguarded as one of the greatest leaders in history is now a moron. OMG did the south recover oh it did, even without slaves? Well phew. The Atlantic slave trade went on for a few hundred years, slavers bay has been going on for thousands of year. Read the fucking books if you are going to talk about this shit.

    Freeing slaves is now imperialism? WTF is wrong with this article? Sorry sometimes you have to fight cause you kow the slavers don’t want to stop being slavers. So let them continue there atrocities or fight. It’s a mddle ages culture I don’t think an angry letter from Dany wwould of got the job done when dealing with city states in a barbaric world who are run by slave masters. What did you think she could right a letter and the slave masters would be like “oh shit slavery is wrong, who knew?” What planet do you live on read a damn history book. Sure I love my country but we are still sorting things out after our revolution and our civil war. We have come a really long way, but shit didnt happen over not, and there was hell of a lot of blood involved. The revolution had some of the greatest minds in history working on a problem, and they still didn’t get all done or all right, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Abigail Adams, Washington, I mean good lord. Yeah just leave the slaves to keep dying, why should anyone have ideals or morality?

    It’s middle damn ages, it’s not going to be perfect, try keeping the story in context of the world it exists in. Yeah vilolence is bad but sometimes it happens. I know lets have a new holiday, hug a slaver, rapist and Pedo day, they just need love and that will fix it. Don’t stop, them though from doing what they are doing, it could create an economic problem, and clearly that matters more to this author than you know humanity.

    February 16, 2015

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