Game of Thrones with its dragons, demon-babies, and white walkers, are positively works of fiction. The series is the product of George R.R. Martin’s imagination (with Game of Thrones taking lead from the saga, A Song of Ice and Fire). Literally anything is possible in this fantastical world. So why, in this fictional setting, is there such a degree of racial othering in the story?
Indeed, avid fans often dismiss the criticisms of these troubling aspects of Game of Thrones, because ‘it’s just a show’. The implication of this common response is that because the series is set in a fictional universe, it is beyond criticism on issues such as gender and race. This ignores the relationship between fictional representations and real life. It is important to acknowledge that stories reproduce stereotypes and misconceptions already prevalent in society, and further normalise these problematic attitudes. This is especially true of Game of Thrones, arguably the most popular show on TV today.
The category of ‘fiction’ therefore doesn’t rule out the influence of current discourses of race on the series. One of the most striking examples of this is the characterisation of the Dothraki. They are a warmongering people, who rape women at weddings and murder without restraint. These characteristics aren’t limited to ‘evil’ individuals as they are in Westeros, but are instead understood as inherent to their one-dimensional culture. Their perspective is never provided – they are not humanised characters. Rather, the Dothraki are the savage Other, common to the fantasy genre in general. Notably, the Dothraki are brown.
Another significant aspect of the portrayal of the Dothraki is their ‘groupthink’ culture, demonstrated from the outset of Daenerys Targaryen’s interactions with Dothraki characters. Her handmaids, for instance, chant ‘it is known’ and display an incapacity for individual thought – they are literally confined to that of their society. Daenerys, meanwhile, is fully capable of questioning accepted truths. This sort of characterisation denies individual agency to Dothraki characters, and emphasises their ignorance.
George R.R. Martin has cited the Mongols as the main inspiration for his conceptualisation of the Dothraki. This is very telling – the popular understanding of Genghis Khan and the Mongols as the definition of savagery is misinformed at best, and racist at worst. It ignores vital aspects of medieval Mongolian culture, particularly in regards to the position of women. Under Khan’s rule, women could own property, divorce at will, and hold positions of military and political authority. His daughters, not sons, inherited and maintained his empire. There is certainly more to the history of the Mongols than the dominant narrative of unsophisticated brutality, yet this stereotype persists because it affirms Western notions of civilisation.
Even the Dornishmen of Westeros are not immune to orientalist interpretations in Game of Thrones. While the novels describe the Dornish as varying in skin colour between dark, olive, and fair depending on geographical location, the show has essentially whitewashed this society. Both the main representative of Dorne (Oberyn Martell) and his posse are disproportionately fair. Yet they are still dressed in what can only be described as ‘eastern’ attire, including turbans and keffiyah-like headdresses. In addition, almost every scene of Oberyn’s so far has been set in a brothel or with naked women in the background. This strikes of exoticism and oversexualisation, with connotations of ‘Arabian harems’ – a very popular depiction of the Middle East. Oberyn has essentially been reduced to the stereotypical fiery Arab with an uncontrollable sexual appetite, while every other aspect of his personality has been lost upon the showrunners. This orientalism is reinforced by Tyrion Lannister’s claim that Dornish girls are ‘the strangest thing [he’s] ever eaten’. Inaccurate imagery of the Other is maintained, whilst the actors portraying this culture are almost exclusively white.
These stories are not created or consumed in a vacuum. The author and producers of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones have clearly incorporated racialised tropes in this fantasy universe. These representations of the Other matter because the assumptions behind them are regularly applied to people of colour in reality, and popular culture only serves to reinforce this.