Monday, May 23, 2011

"Game of Thrones" Generates Even MORE Controversy (this time, it's racial)

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy of blastr.com.

As HBO's Game of Thrones continues to get better and better, it also continues to generate controversy. The latest complaint (coming after Ginia Bellafante's argument that Game of Thrones is just for boys and allegations that the show was glorifying rape) is that the show's portrayal of the nomadic Dothraki is racially problematic. (Warning: SPOILERS ahead for those who have not yet seen Episode 6.) According to Maureen Ryan's recap of "A Golden Crown," the Dothraki scenes "contain a lot of people of color, and they also contain a lot of gratuitous nudity, and it all makes for a problematic aesthetic and message." Ryan goes on to say, "there was absolutely no need for that many dancing women in Viserys' death scene to be topless."

Ryan's argument sounds, at least to me, very similar to arguments that are often leveled at the Haradrim, the Southrons and the Easterlings in Lord of the Rings. (For a fairly comprehensive overview of the subject, check out the discussion at TolkienGateway.net.) These faceless antagonists are generally described as either "swarthy" or "dark-skinned," and the problem was only exacerbated by the film versions, in which the Haradrim and Easterlings had a distinctly African and Middle Eastern appearance, respectively. The film's portrayal in particular caused many groups to cry foul, accusing Tolkien and director Peter Jackson of dividing the good and evil forces along racial lines.

To me, the portrayal of the Dothraki is considerably less problematic than the portrayal of the Haradrim and the Easterlings in Tolkien. Even though Tolkien repeatedly stated that he didn't want his books to be read as an allegory, people have spent the years since the trilogy's publication reading it as an allegory of everything from the Cold War to World War I. The faceless quality of the forces of evil invites comparisons to propaganda painting "enemy" groups as nothing more than an inhuman, faceless multitude, and Tolkien's stark good vs. evil dichotomy leaves little room for sympathy. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, has already portrayed the Dothraki as a much more sympathetic group than, say, the Lannisters (with the exception of Tyrion). I was certainly rooting for Khal Drogo when he poured a pot of molten gold on Viserys' head, despite the brutality of the act. Of course, that could have been because Viserys is, with the exception of Joffrey and the creepily still breast-feeding Robert Arryn, the most unlikeable character in the show.

To me, the two scenes that heavily focused on the Dothraki in this episode - Viserys' death scene, and the earlier scene in which Daenerys eats a horse's heart - were intended to highlight the differences between Daenerys and Viserys by showing their reaction to the seemingly strange Dothraki customs. Viserys is, as always, appalled by the Dothraki rituals because he is convinced that he is better than these people, that as the heir to the house of Targaryen he is entitled to their loyalty and servility. Daenerys, on the other hand, has spent the series coming into her own as a woman, a Khaleesi, and now a Targaryen, and her acceptance by the Dothraki is a result of the way she has embraced their culture, eating horse hearts and topless women and all. Indeed, I generally feel that the Dothraki come off much better than many of their counterparts across the Narrow Sea, and Daenerys understands that.

I also take issue with Ryan's insistence that the bare-breasted women in the Dothraki court are reflecting badly on the Dothraki in racial terms, making them look more primitive than the Northerners. First of all, it's not like there's a shortage of breasts and vaginas on display in King's Landing; we've already seen both King Robert and Littlefinger cavorting with multiple prostitutes at once, and in the next episode (which is available a week early on the HBOGo App, and which I would strongly suggest watching if you have the chance) we are treated to a non-Dothraki display of girl-on-girl action that far surpasses the scene between Daenerys and Doreah in the second episode.

Second, I wouldn't argue that its necessarily incorrect to show a group of culturally different people who have different attitudes about bare breasts and sex. There are many groups of people who exist or have existed in our world who have completely different conceptions of what is taboo or not; I wrote my undergraduate thesis about an oral epic from the Siberian Republic of Tuva which features descriptions of breasts and genitalia, and is commonly told in front of young children. The Dothraki are not the people of Westeros - if you read the series as an allegory of medieval Europe, they're comparable to the Mongols, who hail from the same region as modern Tuva - and it wouldn't be surprising if their attitudes toward sex were more along the lines of Tuvan attitudes, rather than European ones.

Third, despite the fact that Game of Thrones can be read as an allegory of medieval Europe, and is based at least in part on the historical War of the Roses, it is important to remember that it is a fantasy series. This isn't England and Africa, this is Westeros and Dothrak, and as such is distanced from any sort of racial statement about the actual world. Yes, the Dothraki can be read as a counterpart to the Mongols, but they can also be read purely on their own terms as nomadic horse lords who have a chance of taking over the Seven Kingdoms. After all, it's not like the people of Westeros are anything resembling Christian - there are two major religions in Westeros, distinguished by whether the adherent prays to the old gods or the new, and neither of them resembles Christianity. This makes any sort of allegorical reading, particularly in terms of race and primitive/advanced cultures, problematic.

Of course, some of you probably agree with me, and you have every right to. Sound off in the comments, and let me know if you think that Game of Thrones has a race problem.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with this! I was like: The Dothraki are what we would call "of color" so they should be played by people "of color". (It'd be more problematic if white people were playing them!)

    Also, the Dothraki totally have their own customs, and those customs, from nudity to violence to whatever, aren't /lesser/ than those of Westeros. Like you said, and like I proclaimed to the world on Facebook, I love the Dothraki.

    Maybe part of the problem comes from the language difference, but I really appreciate them sticking to Dothraki and subtitles. It helps show Dany's initial isolation, and eventual acceptance. Like when she clearly knows what the Khal is going to do to Viserys, and Viserys doesn't, because he never bothered to learn the language. (So glad he is gone.)

    That said, I would love Khal Drogo to become less of a figure and more of a person, and his scene with Dany, as she was eating the heart, went a long way towards that. I loved how you could see the growing connection between them. He wanted her to succeed, and was so genuinely happy when she did. (Which goes back to the rape issues and the strange choice by the showrunners to have Dany NOT initially consent on her wedding night in the show as she allegedly does in the books).

    I love the Dothraki, and different is not /lesser/, so I don't really see a race problem, at least with how GoT is handling it.

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