Aamer Rahman has recently caused quite a stir among Game of Thrones fandom with his Tumblr post about the HBO show’s very problematic representation of race, most notably that hideous last episode of season three. Rahman’s original Tumblr post and his response to the massive backlash from fans has been reposted below, with Rahman’s permission. Spoilers throughout.
RACEFAIL: GAME OF TROPES PART 1
I’m late to Game of Thrones — but I caught up. And I couldn’t help photoshopping this picture of Khal Drogo as a Klingon. Anyone sad enough to be familiar with both GOT and Star Trek knows exactly what I’m talking about.
The Klingons are the Dothraki of Star Trek— the scary, warmongering Other from the Heart of Darkness out in deep space. The great thing about imaginary black and brown people is that white sci-fi/ fantasy writers can project their repressed oriental fetishes onto a blank canvas without taking responsibility – “WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT’S RACIST, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS KLINGONS OR DOTHRAKI! How can we be racist towards people WHO DON’T EVEN EXIST??” Funny how it’s always real black and brown people who have to play the role of the imaginary ‘non-existent’ warrior/tribal/primitive/race. (With the exception of the original Star Trek, which had white actors in blackface as Klingons.)
You can dress it up as fantasy, but we know who you’re talking about.
GOT wasted no time in establishing the Dothraki as a horde of raping, warring animals who have no word for ‘thank you’ and enjoy public sex games and deaths at a wedding. The codes are never original: love of war and pillaging, and animalistic sex rituals (anyone remember this tender moment on Star Trek: TNG?).
Plus some ‘noble savage’ warrior code that glorifies conquest, authoritarian social order, growling, pumped up men and hyper-sexual women, beards, braids, boobs blah, blah blah. The Dothraki are a grab bag of every native/ savage/ other signifier you can think of.
But this isn’t just about imagery and brown people looking bad on TV – the Dothraki storyline is just a stepping stone for Dany’s overall storyline which is more deeply racist – essentially, a liberal white woman who goes around saving and civilising brown people. The subtext of Dany’s story is a cultural war where Dany’s enlightened values triumph over lesser ones, where whiteness is both a conquering and civilising force.
It begins with taming the savage Drogo who rapes her “like a hound takes a bitch,” on their wedding night (and every night after that) – until she teaches him the tenderness of looking him in the eyes when they sleep together. Then, the reforming of Dothraki customs: Dany prevents the rape of female prisoners and even gets Drogo to back her against the wishes of his riders. Finally, she establishes herself as a leader when she gives birth to her dragons (at this point the brown people literally prostrate themselves to her).
Barbarian cultures who don’t know how to treat women bowing in the face of superior technology and military arsenal (Dragons are basically the advanced fighter jets of the GOT universe) – does this feel familiar? She then goes from city to city freeing slaves who dutifully join her quest. Dany’s story is, at its heart, a neocon wet dream. She is Laura Bush, advocating for the invasion of Iraq under the pretext of saving its women who are desperate to live a life like hers.
I feel like we are supposed to root for Dany because she is becoming a strong woman; originally meek and abused by her brother, she outsmarts men at their own game. We are supposed to forget that she is fighting for nothing more than her own sense of entitlement to the throne, like some upper-class brat who loses her family’s fortune and eventually manages to become CEO of her own corporation. Somehow all the grateful brown people she liberates are happy to march behind her for the sake of an imperial project that they have no stake in. Oh – like every good white liberal, she manages to pick up a Black Best Friend (Missandei) along the way:
The Season 3 finale took things to the next level; after liberating another city of slaves, Dany waits to see whether she will be greeted as a liberator or conqueror. (the writers try to get off the hook by acknowledging that she is aware of the difference). In fact, she gets a better deal – they claim her as their ‘Mother.’ She ends up crowdsurfing over the brown people like some kind of Tagaryan Bono with all of the smug satisfaction of a gap-year backpacker that has just built an orphanage in a village somewhere.
Anyway. It’s just a TV show, right?
“ARE YOU CALLING ME A RACIST?” – GAME OF TROPES PART 2
Wow. Apparently Daenerys Stormborn’s other title is Mother of Fandoms, since angry nerds across the world are telling me to STFU like I just insulted their mum. Here’s a Top 10 list of the things angry GoT fans have said to me about my first post, and my responses:
1. YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOKS!
You’re right. I have other stuff to do.
2. BUT IT’S DIFFERENT IN THE BOOKS!
Good. I watched the TV show and my comments are about the TV show.
3. BUT IT DOESN’T WORK OUT FOR DANY, YOU’LL SEE!! THEY’RE SUBVERTING THE TROPE!!
It doesn’t matter if it works out for Dany or not. This is not about whether she ultimately wins or loses (we know this show loves setting people up for a downfall) – it’s about the foreign cultures she encounters and her relationship to them.
If she learns a harsh lesson about how she can’t win by liberating people it doesn’t change the fact that the show clearly presents a central West and a foreign, exotic East with savage practices like slavery – clearly outlawed in Westeros. Once again, the Other serves as a convenient prop piece for the journey and development of a white character, and we read and approve/disprove of their culture and practices through her eyes.
Failing to liberate/ unite/ save/ the Other in the East might be a harsh lesson in realism for Dany, but will not undo the fundamental dichotomy presented in GOT – a West that is roughly grounded in a culture and history we recognise, versus the savage, exotic Prince of Persia/ Aladdin fantasy theme park of the East.
Plot developments like that might question whether it’s possible to tame ‘savage’ and ‘dangerous’ cultures – but not why people should be presented as ‘savage’ or ‘backwards’ in the first place – why there are such ‘civilised’ vs ‘uncivilised’ worlds in this universe to begin with. Just like the material failure to ‘liberate’ Iraq and Afghanistan in the face of a growing ‘insurgency’ have not proven to the West that its notions of cultural supremacy are fundamentally flawed and racist from the outset.
Below: (1) Ain’t no party like a Dothraki wedding, AMIRITE? (2) some good old-fashioned arm-swinging, fire-dancing (3) NOM NOM NOM! Finger lickin’ good – personally, I prefer my stallion hearts medium rare (4) “I WILL RAPE THEIR WOMEN!” What’s not to love about this dude? Such a romantic.
4. WHY DON’T YOU TALK ABOUT SEXISM? GAME OF THRONES IS SUPER MISOGYNIST!
Really? The show where women get sold and hired and raped all the time? And when people aren’t being raped, people are trying to rape them or threatening to rape them or talking about how they will probably be raped? This show has more rape references per episode than an average season of Law and Order: SVU. Pretty sure people have mentioned that already. Still, GoT’s approach to gender figures into its premises about race.
Despite the show basically celebrating rape through its casual, graphic fetishism, GoT attempts to construct a certain moral code around its characters’ attitudes towards sexual violence. Dany’s evil brother touches her. Joffrey, a villain, brutalises prostitutes, publicly has Sansa sexually humiliated, and threatens to rape her. Tyrion demonstrates his nobility when he rescues Sansa from Joffrey, outright refuses his father’s orders to rape Sansa for the sake of an heir, and falls in love with Shae despite her being a prostitute and off limits to someone of his standing. Brienne takes her revenge on three Stark soldiers who admit to raping a girl, and even Jaime Lannister gets a redemption story when he saves Brienne from getting raped by Locke and his men, at the cost of losing his hand.
Khal Drogo, on the other hand, casually rapes his wife on their wedding night and makes an epic speech pacing around a fire where he proudly claims that he will rape the women of Westeros while his troops cheer him on. Rape is simply presented as an inherent, celebrated element of Dothraki culture.
5. IF YOU GO LOOKING FOR RACISM, YOU WILL FIND IT.
I have never gone looking for racism, racism finds me and slaps me in the face. HOW DOES IT ALWAYS KNOW WHERE TO FIND ME?
6. ARE YOU CALLING ME RACIST FOR LIKING GAME OF THRONES?
I have no idea whether you are racist or not. But your violent reaction to me calling out some pretty obvious points about imaginary people on a FANTASY TV SHOW makes me wonder.
7. IN GAME OF THRONES, ALL CULTURES ARE SAVAGE AND EVERYONE’S A BARBARIAN.
It’s true, in GoT almost all cultures go to war, everyone fights and people from all cultures are shown doing unsavoury things. But not all barbarians are created equal. Only certain cultures demand that a woman eat a raw stallion heart in front of people wailing in a made up language. Only certain cultures allow and exist entirely on slave trading and slave-based economies. Only certain cultures have violent sex orgies at their weddings, and only certain cultures sell armies of castrated brown warrior-eunuchs (the Unsullied). And none of these things happen to be in Eurocentric Westeros.
8. WHAT ABOUT THE WILDLINGS? AREN’T THEY ALSO PORTRAYED AS BARBARIC?
The Wildlings are interesting. Throughout the show we hear about them being everything from savages to bestiality loving cannibals, but when we finally meet them they turn out to be, well…regular white people in matching furry parkas.
White culture exists as a spectrum in the GOT universe; the Lannisters are the rich, entitled, aristocratic upper-class toffs, the Starks are the honest, hard-working aspiratonal middle class, and the Wildlings (and Hilltribes) are the working class. The whole Jon Snow/ Ygritte storyline is as Disney as GoT gets with its nobleman-in-love-with-the-common-girl dynamic. At one point they agree that they even come from the same ancestors, and question why they are fighting at all.
White people in GoT have an array of competing desires, internal conflict, and interesting moral issues to grapple with. They come from different classes and backgrounds which inform their view of the world, creating believable relationships and interactions between characters. You know, like real people.
9. IT’S JUST FANTASY!!
Fantasy reflects your subconscious desires.
10. ARE YOU CALLING ME RACIST?