Is “Game of Thrones” too white?

Fantasy author Saladin Ahmed wrote an article for titled "Is “Game of Thrones” too white?" And let's just say that it has created quite a stir...

Here's an extract:

But now, as our beloved genre finds its way into “normal” people’s hearts and minds, fantasy fans are increasingly confronted with an inversion of this notion – a question that I, as an Arab-American fantasy fanatic, have been wrangling with for years: If the mainstream doesn’t get fantasy, just how well does epic fantasy, with its lily-white heroes, get the multicultural real world of 21st-century America? As some of the most popular works in the genre’s history – works that shed any pretension of being children’s fare – A Song of Ice and Fire and its wonderful TV spawn are particularly useful springboards for this question.

When it comes to inherited conventions regarding race in epic fantasy, “Game of Thrones” is, in a sense, standing on the shoulders of dwarfs. The Lord of the Rings is the most obvious predecessor to Martin’s work, and it’s not hard to find subtle rhetorical responses to Tolkien in his books. When Time magazine dubbed Martin “the American Tolkien,” it highlighted not only Martin’s rather astonishing genius in world-building and narrative scope, but also the ideological baggage that all of us writing in the genre have inherited from our shared progenitor


The HBO production – which has been so remarkable on so many fronts — has exacerbated this hard-R-rated cartoonishness, bringing out some of the novel’s more unfortunate tendencies. The show’s depiction of the Dothraki has been positively cringe-inducing. In the novels, Martin’s quasi-Mongol warrior culture is depicted in a problematically essentialist, but still complex fashion. But HBO has nudged Martin’s creation fully into racial caricature by casting a seemingly random variety of colored people, and apparently raiding productions of both “Hair” and “Braveheart” to clothe them.

Even so, by skillfully replicating the juxtapositions posed by Martin’s back-and-forth POV, the show has managed also to replicate his ultimate, rather un-Tolkienish subtext: There is nothing unique about the savage horde’s savagery. If Dothraki society is depicted as violently perverse, so is Westerosi (i.e., quasi-European) society, which bows to the whims of the Aryan-featured boy-monster King Joffrey, and which has knighted mass murderers and rapists like Ser Gregor Clegane, one of the most horrifying minor characters in all of fantasy. Every culture is savage in “Game of Thrones,” and that’s a very different view of the world than what Tolkien gave us


Of necessity, turning 1,000 pages of prose into a relatively few hours of screen time involves dropping, combining and retooling elements of a novel. “Game of Thrones” has already taken a few liberties with Martin’s books – cutting minor scenes, combining some characters and eliminating others, and (most notoriously) signposting plot points and character motivations through clumsy new “sexposition” scenes. It would be nice if, moving forward, the writers and producers chose as well to keep an eye on these sorts of promising moments of cultural variety and — dare I say it? — color in Westeros. But, given the contempt our culture currently holds for anything smacking of the much maligned (if chimerical) “political correctness,” I’m not holding my breath.


Ultimately, A Song of Ice and Fire, like the Lord of the Rings, is the work of a brilliant and conscientious writer who is nonetheless writing in his own time and place. The United States in 2012 is, far too often, and even with a black president, still a culture rich in racist stereotypes and xenophobic fear-mongering. Expecting a writer to remain entirely unstained by this is expecting a person to live underwater without getting wet. If we still find troubling racial assumptions and caricatures in fantasy – whether on the page, or on the big or small screen — this probably tells us more about our culture-wide problems than it does about a single writer’s, or a single show’s issues. A Song of Ice and Fire is indeed our American Lord of the Rings, and if Westeros has its race problems, they are simply a powerful reflection of America’s.

It's hard to argue with Saladin Ahmed's piece, though you'll find numerous trolls throwing mud his way in the comment section. It has gotten to the point where Ahmed had to come out and say that he isn't calling George R. R. Martin a racist, and that GRRM was in fact very encouraging toward Ahmed's Arab/Muslim-inspired fantasy debut.

You can read the full article here.

20 commentaires:

Hudson said...

hmmm I think it's too damned easy accusing people for where their geographical interests lies. and Yes clearly George RR Martin is interested in the Medieval pseudo English fantasy ilk so what?

Dmaarten said...

I think this is a case of "when you've got a hammer, everything looks like a nail." The experience of reading a book is 50% about what a reader brings to it. I'm pretty sure that feminism teacher I had in college would see Martin's work as wildly misogynistic. Not surprisingly, Saladin is focusing on the series from a racial perspective. Zonks! Wasn't he the guy that wrote fantasy from a novel racial/cultural perspective?! Gasp! Shrug! Indifference/burrito/nap!

Sounds like the Salon article says more about Saladin than G.R.R. Martin.

Hammer, meet nail. Tap. Tap. Tap tap tap...

Russ said...

So....Novelists take note! Be sure you include a few main characters that are ethnic/sexual/religious or handicapped minorities lest you be be accursed and your work banished to the ash heap of literature.

If including those characters doesn't fit into what YOU are trying to say with your novel....too bad.


Dealing with political correctness is tiresome enough in everyday life. When it bleeds over into art, it just plain sucks.

Xenophon said...

This is an old argument that gets rehashed from time to time.

Personally, I feel if you want to infuse some ethnicity into your work ,fine, but don't don't bow to public pressure and the barbs of political correctness to please a segment of your audience or increase sales.

Though I like Morgan Freeman, his presence In Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was unnecessary. The trend of the black sidekick continued in the Heath Ledger version of The Four Feathers ruining what was a classic movie just to make it appeal to a wider audience.

I explore racism in my works, but it is between casts of elves, and other races, (All of which are technically white, except maybe the goblin races.)there is no need to artificially include cultures that really don't fit into your version of the genre just to please detractors.

machinery said...

why is criticism on g.r.r.martin considered trolling ?
people have a right to be upset with him, i know i am.
when book 4 came, i said i wouldn't read it till the 5th book came out, and it stayed in my home untouched for 6 years.
i have a right to be upset about this.
and make my opinion heard and NOT be labeled a troll.
wth is this fanaticism for martin ?
(btw, it takes me 3-4 tries to post a comment with the comment moderation)

Cursed Armada said...

I think Saladin sounds a little lame in this article. I think Hudson made a good point by pointing out that Martin picked the medieval pseudo English setting for a reason. I mean people could accuse Saladin if he wrote a book with heavy Arab influences too. I can hear it now, "How come there aren't any European's fighting Djinn and battling sketchy Vizier's?" It's a stupid argument. What's even sillier is the fact that Martin eventually brings in characters of color to his story.

banotti said...

Bad publicity, Saladin, really bad. Do you read for fun or politics? I know for myself...

Ripper Madness said...

Annoying. This is why I pay zero attention to an author's ethnicity, political outlook, country of origin, or religious/non-religious persuasion unless they are trying too hard to hammer me over the head with it (OSC for example) - and when they do I turn my back and walk away.

Write a great novel and I'll read it. Those are the only words I need to read of yours. Most authors get in trouble once they open their mouthes to speak: I don't care if you are an eco-anarchist, militantly gay, or hate all white americans who love Sarah Palin, or if you think Barak Obama or Ronald Reagan is/was the Anti-Christ.

Shut up, write your damn books, and let me enjoy/love them.

I'm not defending GRRM by any means. I loved the first three nobels, when he supposedly cut the 4th book in half all the POV were from the characters I disliked the most and my only comment about DANCE OF DRAGONS is- that was 1000 pages of reading I'll never get back after waiting all these years inbetween books. What a waste.

Anyway. Keep up the great work Pat.

Juan Pazos said...

Ok, so everyone can write whatever the heck they want, everyone can read whatever the heck they want and everyone can have whatever opinion the heck they want about whatever the heck anybody else has written, so.... let both R R Martin and Saladin do their thing and feel free to say whatever it is you think about it.... As far as I am concerned, Martin is a great writer and I have enjoyed many of his tales and novels. But I can see that what Saladin says is not untrue. The fact is that so many fantasy books are based on medieval Europe it´s actually a little repetitive and suspicious... so different things are welcome, in my humble opinion.... like gay characters, women with agency or locations out of the way of the white male anglosaxon imperialist capitalist christian western northern world. Just an idea.

Anonymous said...

If he wants ethnicity just wait until they see the slaves in Astapor. I bet those will be ethnically more to his liking, although he may not like the role they play.

Anonymous said...

Saladin seems to ride on the coattails of his ethnicity. I think he should try to bring attention to his books based on the merits of the writing, not on the color of his skin or where he comes from. Because I don't care. I want fantasy fiction, not autobiography.

And no Game of Thrones is not too white. If he criticized a book for being "too black" he'd probably be in trouble. :P

Anonymous said...

I think the main point that Saladin is speaking to is the way non-white peoples are portrayed in the show and books rather than "there isn't enough non-whites" in the book/show.

I do agree with him that non whites tend to be portrayed as beastly savages with little individuality although there are notable exceptions in the books and shows.

To me it seemed as though in the article the author was giving Martin kudos for having a somewhat racially diverse cast of characters (more than is typical of the epic fantasy genre) although he would've preferred more. Its his opinion as a reader/viewer.

I thought the article was well articulated, thought provoking and completely inoffensive.

Anonymous said...

Who reads English written fantasy? Im guessing about 99% whites. So who should white authors cater to? Blacks?

I'm guessing that African or Indian or Mexican or whatever nationality writers, who write in their native language, feature characters of their own history and peoples. And if a white "anglo-saxon" decided they wanted to break into the African fantasy business, if there is one, and then wrote how African fantasy writers had "too many blacks" in their books, they would be met with ridicule, and rightly so.

Too many times the minority wants things catered to their desires, despite coming to the field knowing that it was created by whites, written by whites, read by whites. They liked it so much they chose to partake. And then they want to change it for a demographic that doesn't even like the medium. And too many times the majority is too politically correct to call bs.

Anonymous said...

I think the title is actually the problem, not Saladin's article.

He actually praises Martin for compare/contrasting "European" judgements of other cultures with savagery/injustice within Westeros.

There are issues with Dany being the savior of the minority cultures but Martin has twisted that trope as well by giving us a disastrous occupation.

It's still problematic and discomforting but Saladin does credit him for the efforts.

It's interesting, as always, to note the people who crawl out of the woodwork to tout their race politics even for a piece that criticizes the show for leaving out nuances Saladin actually praised Martin for including.


Anonymous said...

Oh my god. The comments to this post are exactly proving Saladin's point! And the majority are also blatantly ignorant and are embarrassing for all fantasy fans. What is with you people?

Thanks for excerpting the article and linking to it, Pat. I appreciate your willingness to draw attention to these sorts of socially relevant discussions.


Hudson said...

Yeah I am pretty ignorant.

Anonymous said...

Well white people really get angry when you accuse them of living in a culture that marginalizes minorities and depicts them is offensive ways. I guess the truth hurts? The point of the article isn't that there should be more diversity (which wouldn't really hurt anyways but I'm sure most of you enjoy rehashed european history over and over again) but when we do there almost always inferior or more savage than whites.

Anonymous said...

It's always great to hear whites use the "PC" card, which is clearly the new codeword for ni**er.
So much stupidity from frightened clowns in this thread it's boring.
And the constant white caterwauling about what's "appropriate" or not is beyond boring. It's abuse of brain cells.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I trust that if it's "PC run amok" for people of color to complain about the content and portrayls of non-whites in caucasian-written fare that we can now declare white people hopeless whiners for complaining about how whites are portratyed in rap music or black-oriented fare, right?
Because white people NEVER complain about that, right?

NelsonStJames said...

And these are the comments of people who read this genre. "Blacks don't read fantasy or Sf", so that why they aren't represented, or represented in more positive light? It's funny that for all the people saying that everything would be just great if we could all be colorblind and just "enjoy the entertainment" how quick they are to notice if a character "seems" out of place because of their peculiar abundance of melanin. C'mon folks you can't have it both ways, and your wearing your bigotry on your sleeves. Much fantasy is so loosely based on history the authors could pretty much have done anything they wanted. We can write Blue skin cat aliens, and totally made of races and cultures and yet the typical writer can't write a character of color that feels like a real human being and not a stereotype or sidekick? That's pretty sad. Sadder still is that the audience doesn't even see the ridiculousness in it.