Brow Beat

Is “Game of Thrones” Racist?

Is HBO’s Game ofThrones racist?

I ask this in all seriousness, because I’ve been grapplingwith the question ever since I blitzed through five episodes of the show thisSunday, in preparation for my guest spot on this week’s Culture Gabfest . Ishould note here given the fracas that ensued from my colleague Troy Patterson’s review that I am genuinely afan of George R. R. Martin’s books , and of “quasi-medieval, dragon-riddenfantasy crap” in general. But oh, the Dothraki. Three days later, they continueto short-circuit my critical faculties.

One of the series’ plotlines centers on Daenerys, a young,silver-haired royal-in-exile (and yes, she has ” violet eyes “) whose slimy brother yearnsto recapture the family’s throne .Hoping to get an invading army in exchange, the brother sells his sister inmarriage to a powerful Dothraki khal ,or clan leader.

The Dothraki are dark, with long hair they wear indreadlocks or in matted braids. They sport very little clothing, bedeckthemselves in blue paint, and, as depicted in the premiere episode, theirweddings are riotous affairs full of thumping drums, ululations, orgiastic publicsex, passionate throat-slitting, and fly-ridden baskets full of delicious, bloodyanimal hearts. A man in a turban presents the new khaleesi with an inlaid box full of hissing snakes. After theirnuptials, the immense Khal Drogo takes Daenerys to a seaside cliff at twilightand then, against her muted pleas, takes her doggie-style.

They are, in short, barbarians of the most stereotypical, un-PCsort. As I watched, I kept thinking, “Are they still allowed to do that?”

I wasn’t the only viewer who found the depiction of theDothraki uncomfortable , tosay theleast . Time ‘s TV critic JamesPoniewozik, noting that the Dothraki seem to be made up of a “grabbag ofexotic/dark/savage signifiers,” wondered if it was “possible to be racist toward a race that does not actually exist.”

Like Poniewozik, I wondered if my uneasiness was misplaced. Manyreaders will note rightly that the “barbarian savage” trope is complicated in Game of Thrones . After all, one of themain themes of the series is that every culture in this vast, complex, war torn world is brutal at its core. You couldcreate a very effective drinking game based on the number of times a throatgets lustily slashed on this show. The very first episode ends [ spoiler alert ] with a “civilized” blondknight pushing a little kid out of a window when he’s caught doing it (doggie-style,incidentally) with his equally blond sister, the queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Andit’s worth pointing out that the person who first calls the Dothraki “savages,”and then consistently insists on that label, is Daenerys’s brother Viserys possiblythe one character in the series with no moral shading whatsoever. He is acraven, evil douchebag.

Fantasy stories like Gameof Thrones are as much about world-building as they are about plot hencethe show’s gorgeous opening sequence, where castles and towers sprout up from anillustrated map. In a narrative like this, you need cultures that read as “different”from one another to create a believably diverse world. After all, it wouldn’tmake much sense if you went “across the narrow sea” from Westeros and found abunch of white people who acted just like the people back in the SevenKingdoms. And while the series is very much about how individuals are shaped bytheir culture, Game of Thrones doesn’tfall into the kind of racial essentializing that books like its forebear, Lord of the Rings , have been accused of.There are plenty of noble and upright Dothraki, if not particularly nice ones(or particularly individualized ones).

Maybe it’s telling that my initial reaction to the weddingscene in Game of Thrones was not tostorm off in an offended huff, but to laugh. It just seemed so hokey anduninspired, so un-self-conscious about the fact that it was drawing on such clichédtropes that “grabbag” of outmoded signifiers Poniewozik mentioned.

The Dothraki have always been a hodgepodge creation: GeorgeR.R. Martin haswritten , “I have tried to mix and match ethnic and cultural traits increating my imaginary fantasy peoples, so there are no direct one-for-one correspodences[ sic ]. The Dothraki, for example, arebased in part on the Mongols, the Alans, and the Huns, but their skin coloringis Amerindian.”

Would it be better if the Dothraki had a specific antecedentin our world? Or if they were portrayed by actors from a more uniform racialgroup, rather than by “miscellaneous brown people” which, as Adam Serwer argues ,”reinforces” the problematic ‘noble savage’ stereotype”?

I go back and forth on those questions. But it does seem sadto me that, even in a fantasy world with the freedom to untether itself completelyfrom our own, the “exotic other” has to look so boringly familiar.

Photograph of Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo and Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen by Helen Sloan. 

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