The hilarious Aamer Rahman recently posted two pieces on race in Game of Thrones. In the first piece he articulates his take on the way the show deals with race, and in the second piece he responds to popular criticisms of his first piece.
From the first piece:
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 … lol)
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, animalistic sex rituals (anyone remember this tender moment on Star Trek: TNG – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hNMwxY4-Vk), 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.
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.