by Latoya Peterson
There comes a time, in every fan’s life, when you know you’re going to just shut up and take the blue pill.
For me, this normally comes up with new fantasy series. I am well aware of the dynamics of the fantasy world, and that most of the best authors generally create worlds in a certain mold: vaguely Middle Ages, super segregated European society archetypes and norms in play. The good are generally white and fair haired, the bad are at least dark haired, if not dark skinned. This is the major basis for most mainstream fantasy series (and even newer genres like urban fantasy follow this mold.) This is due to the sci-fi and fantasy world’s twist on Andrea Rubenstein’s video game based concept of the the usual amount of racism:
It starts with a primarily white universe*. If you really look at the worlds that the majority of games, even today, are set in, you’ll most likely notice a pattern: protagonists, antagonists, and random NPCs will tend to be white more often than not. You can read more about this trend, which is not confined to video games, in the post Why is the Universe full of White people? over at Angry Black Woman Blog.
The usual amount of racism doesn’t stop with the relative invisiblity of non-white characters, though. It extends to the concept that every non-white character that exists does so in a marked (versus the unmarked white) state. The marking of a character can be through comments drawing attention to the character’s race and/or through the use of clear racial stereotypes.
And, we fen of color know that generally, if we want to dip a toe in new worlds, they are going to be filled to bursting with white folks. As Angry Black Woman wrote a few years back:
12 colonies or planets filled with humans. So far I have seen exactly 2 black people (one was killed 42 minutes after he showed up on the screen), one Asian person (who isn’t even human, she’s a Cylon in disguise), one Latino person (whose son, for some crazy reason, is played by a white dude), and that’s it. The rest of the people are all white. White people everywhere. This is stupid. If you have billions of humans on 12 planets I refuse to believe that only the white people would survive. Statistics say so. Unless there weren’t many black people on the colonies to begin with. […]
White, heterosexual men have the luxury of being able to turn to 99% of the channels beamed into their TVs and see themselves portrayed in a manner that makes them comfortable and happy. Most white women, do, too. Minorities of most any stripe do not have that luxury. This is especially true of ethnic minorities. Why do we ‘bean count’? Because we can. That’s not flippancy, that’s a fact. I can look at my TV and count the number of black people I see because there are so few of them and they tend to stand out in the sea of whiteness.
When we bring up this line of reasoning, rabid fans trot out foolish justifications. My personal favorite: “Black people weren’t everywhere.”
Shakespeare wrote Othello, The Moor of Venice in the fucking 1600s. Why the hell are people still using that tired ass excuse for writers who were around for the end of segregation? Octavia Butler once said in an interview that you can confront supposedly progressive science fiction writers with their all white worlds, and many of them will be forced to admit something is wrong, just by simple logic and common sense. Yet, this madness keeps happening, even once the issue is pointed out.
Anyway, Game of Thrones is on HBO. I’ve been a fan of the series ever since a friend of mine and I swapped fantasy novels one afternoon at my apartment – he gave me A Game of Thrones, the first in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and I gave him Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. I devoured the series, even though it isn’t my normal cup of tea, and ran straight into Martin’s bout of writer’s block. A Feast for Crows dropped in November of 2005, a few weeks after I had caught up with the other three. And after that was over, it’s been half a decade since I’ve immersed myself in that world. (How long has it been? We stopped doing the book exchange before my friend even thought about having a baby – the kid is now three. I hadn’t even heard of Mixed Media Watch then, I think it was still on Xenga. I stopped checking Martin’s blog for updates back in 2008. And Jacqueline Carey has concluded three story arcs across three generations across Terre D’Ange, Ch’in, and all points in between.)
Still, I was excited enough for the series. I had already resigned myself to whatever background noise style racism was going to be in the series, having read all the books. Swallowed my bluepill, prepared to head happily into Westero with a minimum of drama. Was it too much to ask that I would be able to enjoy the show in peace? Could I just keep my bottle of Jameson at the ready for the inevitable “Winter is Coming” reference, make my little rules for the drinking game (imps, nipples, incest are already marked), and figure out if the adaptation measures up to the books?
Nope. Instead, I got racism in my fandom (thanks to Drago and the Dothraki), and sexism from the mainstream media.
*Sigh.* Where do we even begin?
(Also, beyond this point, there are MASSIVE BOOK AND SHOW SPOILERS. You have been warned.)
Let’s start with the racefail. I’ve been flinching all week as reviewers and fans throw around the term “barbarian” like it’s going out of style. The Dothraki can be interpreted a few different ways, but are described in the book as having copper skin and almond-shaped eyes. They are described by the language creators as “a cross between the Mongols and some of the Native American tribes.”
Even the actor playing him, Jason Momoa, describes Drogo as ” a savage beast.”
And they did place heavy emphasis on othering the Dothraki. In the book, Khal Drago can speak the Common Tongue, which allows him to communicate with Daenerys (also known as Dany) which leads to them establishing trust. (If memory serves, he also pretends not to know Common Tongue, in order to eavesdrop on the unsuspecting.) In this version, he doesn’t. The creators felt like it added more “authenticity” to strip Drogo of the Common Tongue and have him only converse in Dothraki – but I’m not so sure. Why wouldn’t Drogo, leader of a nomadic tribe, have picked up a few more languages in the course of his travels? There is much made of the idea that the Dothraki don’t have a word for thank you – but a society that has no use for the languages of others, even as they allow white folks who have learned a bit of Dothraki into their circles? Highly suspect. Still, it’s all part and parcel to that “savage barbarian” coding.
I’m left with a lingering question – who is supposed to be a savage here? The producers of the show gave the Dothraki all the markers of the other – less clothing, no real concern about murder, unclean food preparation. And yet, I didn’t walk away from the books with that impression. Now, mind, all the plot points have played out for me (so half the time, when they’re introducing someone in the series, I’m thinking: yeah, whatever, that mofo is dead by book two, anyway) so I may be forgetting the beginning details of Daenerys’ relationship with Drogo. Still, from her creepy, traditionally inclined toward incest, “don’t make me unleash the dragon” toolbag of a brother, being sold to Khal Drogo was the beginning of her life upgrade. Instead of being her brother’s whipping girl, her arranged marriage worked out well, with her eventually loving the guy enough to call him “her sun and stars.” Drogo kills the d-bag brother, and when he dies she relies on his memory to carry on to her new destiny – reclaiming the throne in Westeros.
So I’m at a bit of a loss as to how exactly the Dothroki got stuck with the barbarian title. It only makes sense in a void that does not include the regular activities in Westeros. Jamie Lannister’s blond kingslaying knight doesn’t get that, even though he’s also fucking his twin sister and decided it would be a great idea to chuck a nine year old out of a castle window. One of the new chapters shows a demented king flaying people’s toes and fingers and then leaving them to eat the mutilated digits or go insane with pain. Tyrion (under familial duress and false information, admittedly) destroys his first wife by participating in a gangbang designed to humiliate her publicly. And don’t get me started on Cersei Lannister.
Can you even make it through a chapter without some serial killer-esque madness going down? Every time I read this series, this song gets stuck in my head:
I mean, really – how are we defining barbarian, anyway? Scary and sociopathic dark haired people? Because let’s stop fronting – all the fair haired, scary, and sociopathic people in the GRRM stories are fucked up too – so in the context of Westeros, I don’t think the term barbarian holds any weight. There is no “civilized” society to compare the Dothraki to!
This whole “barbarians” thing reminds me of one of my favorite historical bastardizations:
Before we depart from Drogo-land, I did want to point out one other logical fallacy. Over at io9, Charlie Jane Anders brought up potential stickiness with the depiction of the Dothraki, saying:
the ambiguously brown Dothraki horse lords may feel like too much of a “noble savage” stereotype to some viewers, and you may be hearing a lot about people’s discomfort with the Dothraki scenes in weeks to come.
So, right on time, cue the commenter employing the fallacious flip:
[…] p.s. For those people fretful that brown Dothraki will be poorly portrayed because they are brown, I can assure you that there have been plenty of awful societies here on Earth that were owned and operated by brown people. Brown people, just like white people, can and will be pretty awful some times. (Edit comment)
Right. And brown people, just like white people, can be awesome and heroic, but that never seems to happen for us. Perhaps one could claim ignorance about all ancient civilizations that don’t revolve around Europe (which is a tough sell, but considering what I learned in school, I’ll bite). But then that doesn’t explain the whitening of the handful of universes that aren’t completely white by creator design (oh, hai Earthsea!)
There’s a reason why Racebending had shirts made up with this logo:
And still, people act like they don’t understand why we are so pissed. Back in the day, we had legalized segregation keeping brown faces off movie and television screens. Now, those laws have officially ended, but we can always count on other fans to keep segregation alive and well.
Moving on to gender.
So then, right before the debut of A Game of Thrones, Ginia Bellafante, writing for the New York Times, decided to get super sexist on fandom, and explain in her review that GoT tacked a bunch of sex on to the series to entice female viewers who wouldn’t touch fantasy with a ten foot pole:
“Game of Thrones” is a cast-of-at-least-many-hundreds production, with sweeping “Braveheart” shots of warrior hordes. Keeping track of the principals alone feels as though it requires the focused memory of someone who can play bridge at a Warren Buffett level of adeptness. In a sense the series, which will span 10 episodes, ought to come with a warning like, “If you can’t count cards, please return to reruns of ‘Sex and the City.’ ” […]
The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.
So much fail in a few short paragraphs.
One – who said SATC fans can’t be GoT fans? I am not the only person alive that got enjoyment out of both, for different reasons. I don’t expect Carrie Bradshaw and crew to suddenly roll out on an epic quest (remember how big of a deal it was for them to go to Brooklyn?). And I don’t expect anyone but Sansa to start worrying about landing the hottest boy and the cutest dress in the realm while they are in the middle of a bloody, multihouse battle for the throne. Apples and oranges, really. Also, since when is SATC the benchmark for women’s entertainment? I have a great many friends who watched SATC – now we talk about Burn Notice and Sons of Anarchy.
Three – What kind of whack ass book clubs does she belong to? The book club I’m in has read Freedom, In Defense of Food, Eating Animals, The Pilot’s Wife, and now we are on The Mother Tongue, which is a book for language nerds. I’m planning to propose an essay collection for the next one, since I still haven’t read Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind or Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously. All these things are based on whatever we think is interesting reading. My friend who started the book club reads less genre than we used to, but since we bonded over Edward Rutherford’s London back in middle school, I doubt she’d have an issue with Game of Thrones. (In fact, I found it infinitely less painful than
suffering though reading Freedom.) Sounds like Bellafante needs to expand her social circle.
Four – Boy-shaving scenes aside, most of this sex isn’t the sexy kind. It’s the rape, domination, incest kind. Some people may get off on that, but when GRRM employs sex scenes and rape scenes, they normally illustrate power dynamics between characters, more than any actual desire between players. Ain’t no seduction round here.
Five – Please don’t pearl clutch on behalf of women everywhere. Quite a few of us are fine with gory and grim portraits of humanity.
GRRM has the best response, as he must have been perplexed at the “Boy Fiction” label:
I am not going to get into it myself, except to say (1) if I am writing “boy fiction,” who are all those boys with breasts who keep turning up by the hundreds at my signings and readings?
and (2) thank you, geek girls! I love you all.
Amy Ratcliffe, over on Tor, also debunked that idea, and added:
All this said, it is a review and Ms. Bellafante is entitled to her opinion (though I don’t think it’s much of a review—as Daniel Fienberg points out, it doesn’t mention a single actor, character or plot point). The purpose of reviews is for stating opinions. She didn’t like the show, so what? But reviews are not for making sweeping generalizations about women. Generalizations that also happen to be incorrect. I understand that she may not personally know any geek girls. That doesn’t mean we don’t exist. One giant brush cannot paint all women the same color. It’s presumptuous for anyone to think they can do so.
Some folks have pointed out some of the gendered dynamics to the review and to the responses at large, especially the knee-jerk dismissals that popped up around female focused fandom and the way in which male focused outlets described the show (“Beheadings, Barbarians and Boobies?” Keep it classy, IGN…)
All of these issues speak to two larger issues – the idea that fandom is for men, and broader ideas of what is gender appropriate.
But most of the folks reading here are living, breathing, argument slayers (i.e. statistically, the average reader of Racialicious is a woman of color interested in social issues and pop culture with a heavy interest in general geekery) so I’ll just say to hell with it.
As a brown girl gone geeky, I’m used to being invisible in plain sight. (One of these days, I will have to share the story of arguing down some white dude who decided to question my geek cred while I was talking about Dune.) And you know what? Sometimes, it’s a relief. I made an informed choice to sink into GRRM’s Westeros, with all it’s race and gender issues. Issues aside, I still think it’s an amazing series, and I can’t wait for A Dance with Dragons to finally drop in June.
Now if I could just get all these other people to stop fucking up my bluepill buzz, I’d be set.