Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen

Orientalist Westeros Fantasy Mirrors Real Life

Despite the fact that museum media and communications specialist, school board trustee and overtime dad Rajiv Rawat says “cultural phenomenon is much better appreciated through deep critical engagement rather than “fan boy” obsessions,” the recovering academic is, nonetheless, willing to comment on the issue of race and culture in the storyline of the popular TV series Game of Thrones where fantasy mirrors reality.

by Rajiv Rawat

Nathalie Emmanuel as Missandei
Nathalie Emmanuel as Missandei. Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

As a fan of Game of Thrones, stemming from early exposure to the fantasy literature genre, I’d still like to say I’m well versed in the Westerosi history, geography, and lore, however, I also have to acknowledge its shortcomings.

I’ve watched every season and I generally appreciate the show’s departure from the books, which most should admit have gotten bogged down in multiple plotlines and characters. The show has cleaned these up, although the choices of what to include and omit have been debatable.

The show has also had its misses. Fourth and fifth seasons, despite pivotal events, were particularly weak. Theon Greyjoy’s prolonged torture was unwatchable, as was the endless humiliation and grotesquerie by the irredeemably evil characters.

I also immediately appreciated Australian comedian Aamer Rahman’s recent observations in  Game of Thrones and Racist Fantasy on his social media blog Artthreat on Tumblr in which he discusses the show’s disturbing yet all too familiar racial dynamics (e.g., Dothraki as Klingons as Mongols as tribal savages). His cutting observations have only gotten more plausible with the butchering of the Dorne storyline.

Yet, the worst part of the Season 6 opener was that the already atrocious treatment of Dorne was topped by an even worse portrayal of the hot, spicy, and lethal Arab/Latina Sand Snakes.

At least Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig) said something before his murder that no other monarch in the Seven Kingdoms has yet to say, that he actually cared about his people.

Some good commentary on the issues relating to issues faced by the Dorne can be found in Hypable: ‘Game of Thrones’ is underserving Dorne and Westeros’ people of colour.

Why does this matter? For fantasy fans, the prolonged romance with largely eurocentric analogue cultures has created a genre sadly anemic in diversity and originality. For larger society, the impact of television representations of both race and politics reverberates and influences our own relations. Daenerys Targaryen’s imperial adventures in Essos are a case in point.

Whitewashed Narratives of Indigenous Lives

Her supernatural powers over dragons, gives her the same advantage afforded to Western powers and their air superiority. Her intervention and overthrow of complex societies, brings to mind orientalist fantasies of old, complete with 19th Century visuals of natives worshiping their white mother-saviour.

The fact that she is held up as a heroine by many in the social media-verse disturbs me greatly. It reveals an unexpected blindness to the history of these depictions.

On the other hand, there are gems of social critique in Game of Thrones as well as larger fantasy works, including Tolkien’s (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit). The case of the Children of the Forest, who were hunted to near extinction by human settlers, echoes our own civilization’s genocidal encounter with indigenous people.

Unfortunately, we have seen very little representation of these peoples in the television version of Game of Thrones. In The Lord of the Rings, the depictions have been worse, with indigenous humans such as the Easterlings, Variags, Haradrim, and Dunlendings found only in the armies of Sauron or Saruman.

These stories are the kind that parallel our own whitewashed narratives. Indeed, these fantasy worlds can do with some postcolonial studies of their own to unearth the stories and experiences of their otherworldly subalterns.

by Rajiv Rawat
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada

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