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Posts tagged ‘Game of Thrones’

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.

Street Harassment, Empathy, and Fighting Misogyny with Stories

398px-Brienne_of_Tarth_HBOBy Taylor Marvin

If you’re a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire and have an hour to spare, you could do a lot worse than listening to Sean T. Collins and Stefan Sasse’s excellent Boiled Leather Audio Hour. In their discussion Collins and Sasse raise an interesting connection, linking the routine sexual harassment inflicted on the character Brienne to contemporary street harassment. This is very perceptive, and raises some interesting questions about the power of media to challenge sexism.

First, some cavets. I am male, and have never been sexually harassed. I also have never directly observed street harassment, or at least any that I can recall, and I don’t pretend to understand what it feels like to be harassed. That said, street harassment is absolutely wrong, and is horribly widespread. Part of street harassment’s ubiquity is undoubtably due to our society’s tolerance for wider rape culture that treats women as sexual object without agency. But it’s also due to a profound lack of empathy on the part of harassers, as the vast majority of street harassers seem to genuinely believe that they aren’t doing anything wrong. I don’t think it’s a mischaracterization to say that street harassers think their catcalls and harassment should be perceived as flattering, not the demeaning threat that it absolutely is. Of course, this perception is something approaching willful blindness, because it requires ignoring the objectification, power imbalance, and implicit rape threat inherent in catcalls.

It may be optimistic to assume that street harassment would decline if more harassers empathized with their victims. But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of stories to challenge perspectives. In A Song of Ice and Fire George RR Martin depicts, often through the eyes of female characters, a world where sexual violence and misogyny are ubiquitous. Brienne is a sympathetic character whose bravery and martial skill are endearing, and whose devotion to knightly chivalry is arguably greater than anyone else in the series, male or female. Through Brienne’s eyes the reader experiences an approximation of the psychological damage caused by constant sexual harassment and a society where rape is accepted.

These themes extend throughout the series. Female (and some male) characters are constantly aware of the threat of rape. Institutional misogyny excludes women from civil society. Characters that deviate from their predetermined social roles are often punished by sexual violence. [A Dance With Dragons spoiler] When a female ruler is deposed she is sexually humiliated in a way inconceivable for male leaders [End spoilers]. Perceptive readers can’t help but draw the valid link between the sexism and violence of Westerosi society and the misogyny and rape culture of our own. This is not a flattering comparison. Hopefully it encourages, among potential enablers of rape culture, an awareness of just how corrosive its effects are.

Stories that challenge their audience’s perspective are an enormously powerful tool for building empathy and breaking prejudices — including misogyny. I can’t help but think that if more widely-viewed shows depicted harassment from the perspective of female characters, men would be less likely to engage in it. Of course, these stories are rarely depicted in popular media, a rarity that probably has something to do with the underrepresentation of women in TV writers’ rooms (via The Mary Sue). Hopefully this changes soon, because these stories are important.

Torturing Enemies, Not People

By Taylor Marvin

Yes, this is another one of those posts.

Alyssa Rosenberg discusses the depiction of torture in last Sunday’s episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones:

“Joffrey and Harrenhal’s interrogators are torturing people not out of fits of temper, and not because they think there’s information for them to get out of the people they’re targeting. Joffrey doesn’t have questions that he wants to ask Ros and Daisy. The Harrenhal interrogators ask the same set of questions to every person they talk to, no matter where that person comes from or their likelihood of knowing any relevant information. These people are torturing their victims because they enjoy doing so. These scenes are all about giving us information about the torturers, to draw a line between the characters who behave like human beings and those who exist and act beyond the laws that govern the rest of us.”

I’m not sure if I agree with this characterization. In the book A Clash of Kings, the source material for Game of Thrones season two, the Tickler — the torturer nicknamed by nine year old narrator Arya Stark for how he ‘tickles’ his victims — is depicted as a sociopath who enjoys his work. As I perceived it, Sunday’s show went a different direction with the scene. Here the Tickler’s only half interested in his victims; as Rosenberg notes, he asks all captives the same questions even if it’s obvious they don’t know the answers, and he’s just as focused on eating his pear as their screams. Torturing is just a job, and’s as routine as any job can be. The Tickler and the other Lannister soldiers don’t have enough of an emotional investment in their victims to really be said to “enjoy” torturing them, because they don’t see Gendry and the other smallfolk they murder as people at all.

16th century depiction of torture. Via Wikimedia.

16th century depiction of torture. Via Wikimedia.

The binary mindset of us vs. them is a necessity of medieval warfare. By the late pre-gunpowder period fortification technology had advanced to their point that capturing a defended castle required a long siege often more expensive to mount than it was worth. With frequent sieges prohibitively costly, wide scale devastation of the undefended countryside was an effective tool to coerce a fortified opponent into battle or, preferably, capitulation. Contrary to romanticized perception of medieval warfare as knightly combat, atrocities against the peasant populations were widespread, and when garrisons that declined to surrender were captured they were slaughtered to disincentivize future costly resistance. This type of normalized brutality requires viewing the target population as less than human. Game of Thrones doesn’t draw the line between characters who behave like human beings and sociopaths — casual brutality is unquestioned by nearly everyone, and that what makes it so harrowing.

Link to video via Sullivan.

Prophecy in A Song of Ice and Fire

By Taylor Marvin

Note: This post is entirely about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and has nothing to do with IR or economics or any of the other ‘real’ stuff I generally write about. That said, I think that enough people are fans of the series for readers to get something out of it. Spoilers up to A Feast for Crows; spoilers for A Dance with Dragons are marked.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about prophecy in A Song of Ice and Fire. Specifically, Sean Collins has a great overview of the series’ complicated presentation of prophecy and the supernatural in general:

“But the difference between our world and Martin’s, of course, is that in Martin’s world, magic actually works. Some form of the supernatural is repeatedly intervening on behalf of the worshipers of R’hllor. An army of snow demons is raising a larger army of zombies. And speaking most directly to the question of prophecy, multiple characters have actually seen the future. Now, they’re not always able to ascertain exactly what they’ve seen, and we’ve now gotten first-hand evidence that Melisandre fudges her interpretation of her visions to fit her preexisting ideas. But even so, they have, in fact, seen the future — it’s not just a random assemblage of vague bullshit they spit out, knowing that it’s sufficiently ambiguous that eventually something will fit the bill. I don’t see any reason why prophecy should work any differently.”

That’s the problem with prophecy in ASoIaF: prophecies can be broken, and they stem from unreliable sources. We know of at least one that definitively did not come true: the prophecy that Dany and Khal Drogo’s stillborn son would “mount the world”. But this shouldn’t be surprising — Rhaego’s conquests were foretold by a prisoner that had every reason to tell her Dothraki captors what they wanted to hear.

So not only can prophecy’s fail to come true, the quality of their prophets is variable. We haven’t ever seen any evidence that the religious system of the Dothraki has any practical supernatural impact the real world, unlike that of the Red God which we’ve repeatedly seen sometimes is actually magic. So for that reason, we have good reason to suspect that prophecies made by Melisandre and other followers of R’hllor are more reliable than those of the Dothraki, whose religious doesn’t seem to be any more supernaturally powerful than, say, the Seven — that is, not at all.

[Mild A Dance With Dragons spoilers]

This makes the prophecy I’m most interested in — Dany’s — that much more puzzling. Even after five books we still don’t have any more reliable information on the Warlocks of Qarth who originally cast the prophecy that’s come to define Dany. Those words — “three treasons you will know… once for blood and once for gold and once for love” — are increasingly her leitmotif, her “winter is coming” or “a Lannister always pays his debts.” The Dany of A Game of Thrones was a wholly different person, and her original motif, the inherently dynamic and forward looking “if I look back I am lost” is fundamentally alien to the paranoid, inward-looking and increasingly static Dany of A Dance With Dragons. Prophecies in ASoIaF are unreliable, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important, because they shape characters in a very real way.

So, what do we know about this prophecy, arguably the most important in the series? Though it was made in the Qartheen Warlock’s House of the Undying, we don’t know if the Warlocks were actually responsible for it: it’s repeatedly hinted that the Warlocks’ contemporary supernatural power is far diminished from its former potency. While we do see some evidence of continued supernatural forces in Qarth — most notably, phantom tortoises — this isn’t clear evidence that we should trust the prophecy. Unlike Melisandre’s works (though again, the reliability of our narration is doubtful) it’s possible that the magical constructions of the Qartheen are relics of the past, unable to inform us about the ‘contemporary’ world.

However, let’s assume that the prophecy is trustworthy. What’s most interesting about it is that it’s so ambiguous — just like Melisandre’s visions of the future, it’s easy to twist a prediction as ambiguous as “three treasons” to fit almost any eventuality. What’s most interesting is that the prophecy never actually specifies whether Dany is the victim or the perpetrator of these betrayals. This is wondrously clever because it mirror’s Dany’s fatal character flaw: just as she is repeatedly unwilling to consider the very real possibility that the Targaryens and the madness inherent in their blood could have been bad for Westeros, the idea that she is personally capable of destruction rather than victimhood is alien to her. Dany destroys the institution if slavery in southern Esseros without considering that even patently unjust institutions can have value; that not all social destruction is creative. Though she’s repeatedly confronted with the evidence that her conquests were a catastrophe for the peoples of Slaver’s Bay, Dany refuses to recognize the realities that would destroy her internal worldview, a self-narrative which places her own morality, righteousness, and absolute right to the throne at its center. In her short life Dany’s been repeatedly stripped of everything she loves, except for this — in a world that doesn’t allow her to keep her relationships, this destiny is the only thing she can keep safe. Allowing anything to challenge her own ideal of her righteousness would demolish the only thing she’s been allowed to carry with her.

Dany is acutely aware of the prophecy, and attempt to explain it in terms of her own victimhood. Though Dany remains confused about how to fit the actual betrayals she has suffered into the already ambiguous framework of the prophecy, she most commonly imagines Mirrim Maz Duur as the “once for blood” and Ser Jorah’s as the “once for love.” However, this explanation doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Mirrim Maz Duur made little effort to conceal her obvious grievances against the Dothraki, and calling her actions ‘treason’ is difficult to justify. Ser Jorah’s betrayal is even more difficult. The exile knight didn’t betray Daenerys for gold, but instead in the hope of returning to his homeland. Claiming that Ser Jorah betrayed Daenerys for love makes less sense, though could possibly work if we understand ‘love’ to encompass Ser Jorah’s longing for Westeros. Dany is on some level aware of these logical problems, but she refuses to draw the obvious conclusion — she, not the world around her, is the betrayer.

Intriguingly, Dany’s own actions convincingly fit into the prophecy’s framework of treason. Let’s start with the “once for gold.” It’s hard to say Dany’s acceptance of her brother’s killing fall outside the definition of treason. Though it’s arguable that Dany was powerless to prevent Visery’s death, she likely could have made it less gruesome: we know that Dothraki society allows for strangulation within Vaes Dothrak, a death certainly more merciful than a crown of molten gold. However, Dany didn’t attempt to influence Khal Drogo away from executing Visery in the most graphic (and poetic) way possible. On some level this is attributable to Daenerys’ justifiable hatred towards her abusive older brother. But it’s also because she didn’t want to risk he position of increasing influence in Dothraki society by showing any mercy to her errant brother, mercy the Dothraki would view with disdain. Dany had already began thinking about leading Khal Drogo’s forces across the narrow sea and into Westeros. While it’s possible that she could have made Viserys’ necessary death easier, Daenerys wasn’t prepared to risk her army. Fittingly, this indifference can be seen as the “once for gold.”

[Mild A Dance With Dragons spoilers]

The next treason — “once for love’ — also fits into this framework. For much of A Dance With Dragons Daenerys keeps her dragons locked up in Meereen. She has a good reason for doing so — the dragons are getting big enough that they begin hunting humans. Her increasingly uncontrollable dragons place her in an impossible position: either she locks up the dragons, or they will continue killing children. Her decision is especially interesting because Dany repeatedly and explicitly refers to both her dragons and the people who flock to her as “my children”. Either way she’s forced to betray her own children. Daenerys’ love for her followers and the underclass of Meereen forces her to betray her dragons, the source of all her power. This is the treason for love.

[Major A Dance With Dragons spoilers]

The last treason — the “once for blood” — almost certainly hasn’t happened yet. It’s possible that Visery’s death fits this description, but this is a stretch; Dany arguably allowed Viserys to die horribly out of a desire for ‘blood’ — war in Westeros — but this doesn’t seem likely. It’s a safer bet that one aspect of the prophecy hasn’t been fulfilled yet. After all, we still have 2,000 pages of ASoIaF, and it doesn’t make much sense from a narrative perspective for Dany to commit all of the prophecy’s predicted treason without realizing it. What I think is more likely is a climactic realization by Dany that she isn’t perfect, and that in becoming an instrument of destruction she’s hurt real people. This would fit nicely into the books’ themes. I’ve always though one of ASoIaF’s most interesting themes is the illegitimacy of power through  anything but violence. Dany always talks about her ‘right’ to the throne. However, in a world governed by violence rights are transient. Daenerys has no more right to the Iron Throne than Robert, Cersei, or any of the other pretenders — just because her ancestors conquered Westeros 300 years before the Baratheons doesn’t make the Targaryens any more legitimate than the Andals, First Men, or anyone else. Power flows from the barrel of a gun. Only when Dany conquers Westeros does she have the ‘right’ to rule anything.

A Dance With Dragons sets the stage for this realization. By the book’s close Aegon Targaryn is in direct competition with Dany for the throne. It’s possible that he’s a pretender engineered by Varys and Illyrio as a backup in case their primary instrument of a Targaryen restoration — the unreliable Viserys — didn’t work out. However, Aegon’s legitimacy doesn’t really matter. If he wins the throne it’s his, not Dany’s. It’s possible that this conflict will be resolved through a Daenerys/Aegon (aunt and nephew…) marriage, but again this seems unlikely: Dany’s awful marital experiences, paranoia and deep belief that the Iron Throne is her’s and her’s alone make it unlikely that she will consent to share power with a nephew she’s never known existed. This sets up for a potentially fatal conflict between Daenerys and Aegon, one that could end with his death. This would be one of the most climactic “treasons for blood” imaginable, and one suited for the realization that Dany is as much of a monster as her enemies. For a series that dwells on themes of destructive self-deception, this would be a fitting development for a character we’ve been encouraged to like. George R.R. Martin delights in destroying fantasy tropes. Jon’s failures as Lord Commander have shown that command is no guarantee of righteousness or even legitimacy. It would be poetically just for Daenerys — the fire to Jon’s ice — to experience same realization, and suffer for it.

What do you think?