Friday, June 21, 2013

Is "Game of Thrones" racist and sexist?

With the huge (and largely Piratebay-assisted) following that the HBO series Game of Thrones has gathered, has come increasing critique across the interwebz about its problems of representation. Namely, that it is racist, misogynist, and I've heard homophobic thrown out there as well. How justified are these criticisms?

The first distinction that has to be made is between the TV show, Game of Thrones, and the book series by George RR Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire, on which it is based. 5 books have been released, there are allegedly 2 more left to come, and the TV series has ended its 3rd season somewhere in the middle of the third book. I should state that I'm an avid fan of both show and book, so perhaps I take a biased view of these things, but so be it.

It's perhaps a cop-out for book fans like myself to respond to any criticism of the series by smugly stating, "You need to read the book, then you would understand". But it's simply a reality that show-only viewers have a more superficial understanding of what's going on in the GoT world than book readers, and it's common to read critiques from people whose interpretations are at odds with what is actually suggested by GRRM's writing. Many of those criticising the show are doing so from a somewhat limited perspective. They don't have access to characters' internal points of view as written by Martin, and they don't have access to the two and a half books worth of details that the show has not covered yet. Which is an important factor given that scenes and story lines can be interpreted in different ways.

But at the same time, the show needs to stand on its own merits as an artistic creation, not as merely a supplement to the books. So it is entirely valid to critique how certain issues are portrayed on the show without ever reading any of the books; when talking about certain kinds of people are represented, how it comes across is as important as how it might be intended to come across.


Many of the feminist criticisms of the story return to the theme that by portraying a fantasy world that is so rife with sexual violence and other forms of misogyny, ASOIAF and/or GoT is therefore misogynist itself. As one article puts it,
I also recognize that there’s a difference between displaying sexism because it’s the time period and condoning said sexism. But this IS a fantasy, not history, meaning the writers can imagine any world they wish to create. So why imagine a misogynistic one?

or from this article,
Well, yes, 14th century Europe wasn’t a lot of fun if you were a woman, but nor did it have, for example, dragons, or magical shape-changing witchy-woo assassins. Westeros does, because Westeros is a fantasy world. If the creator of a fantasy series can dream up an army of self-resurrecting zombie immortals he can damn well dream up equal marriage rights, and if he chooses not to do so then that choice is meaningful
The world Martin evokes in his books is a brutal one, in which the poor, weak and powerless are constantly vulnerable to the predations of those whose power comes from noble birth, or physical strength, or strength of numbers. It is these dynamics which drive the whole narrative. So in such a milieu, would "equal marriage rights" and 21st century progressive liberal values really be a good fit?

It is quite shocking to see Khal Drogo force himself on a sobbing teenage Daenerys after their wedding; many would find it just as shocking that they later fall in love. How could any woman ever fall in love with a man who rapes her? Yet, we are applying 21st century values here; in a great many cultures, women were considered chattel and had little power to make choices about how they exercised their sexuality. Still today in many parts of the world, women and children are married off against their will, and thus the concept of sexual consent as we know it goes out the window. Yet despite that, many such couples probably do come to love each other, even if it could be considered a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Of course, if what happened to Daenerys happened today in our society it would be an outrage and a crime, yet for much of human history it was just business as usual. (I should mention that in the books, their first sexual encounter is a bit more consensual, although it still wouldn't really pass muster in a contemporary court of law.)

The threat of rape frequently hangs over the heads of many of the other female characters too, while even those women in positions of relative power are merely treated as pawns, to be married off against their will to cement alliances. Sounds rough. But it's also one of the more accurate depictions of the the lot of women in medieval life that you will ever read in the fantasy genre. In any society engaged in war or civil war of the old-school sort (see the Balkan conflict, or civil struggles in Sudan, Liberia or Congo), women are raped in great numbers. Likewise with any society without strong rules of law. Women walking around dressed however they like and remaining mostly unmolested is something that is just not possible in most parts of the world. And even in the most advanced and ordered nations in the world, women still curtail some aspects of their behaviour because of the threat of sexual violence. So while some claim that GoT seems to celebrate sexual violence, I would argue that it's just being realistic about what goes on in lawless and war-torn places.

Yes, it's different to most other series and movies that you will see, which is why I think a lot of people find it so shocking. But that's because most other dramas and fantasies take place either in modern states, or stick to the more well-known cliches of medieval fantasy - noble knights of valour and so on.  The Lord of the Rings had a dichotomy between good humans, elves and dwarves, and evil orcs and goblins, but Martin's world has only humans (mostly). Yes, there are dragons and magic in his world, but compared to most medieval fantasies, those elements are very much in the background, at least at the start of the story. It's far closer to its HBO siblings The Sopranos or The Wire than it is to Merlin; it's a story about people and how they are shaped by power, violence, loyalty and self-interest. While some characters are clearly "good" and some clearly "evil", many don't adhere cleanly to either category. To quote Jorah Mormont in A Storm of Swords (book 3), “There is a savage beast in every man, and when you hand that man a sword or spear and send him forth to war, the beast stirs.” Protagonists inflicting violence upon each other is a staple of the genre, but few fantasy works offer an exploration of the violence inherent in human nature the way Martin does.

Feminists have been trying to tell us for years, quite rightly, about how oppressive and ever-present the spectre of male power and violence is towards women. I actually think Martin should be commended for reflecting this in his books, despite some feminists seeing the books or show as misogynist. To his credit, he creates numerous compelling female characters, some of whom struggle within the roles they are born into (Cersei, Catelyn, Sansa, Daenerys), and some who break out of the bonds society places on them (Brienne, Arya, Daenerys again). Around half the major (POV) characters are female, which is noteworthy in a genre that tends to be male-dominated. And as these are women and girls in a world beset by war and turmoil,   it would be unrealistic to avoid mentioning the threat of sexual violence.

Portraying a misogynist world entails depicting misogyny, but that does not equate to an endorsement of that perspective. And I fully get that for some people, that's just not going to make for pleasant viewing or reading, and thus I can't blame anyone if they decide it's not for them. As a male, perhaps my assessment of the existence of sexism is only worth so much; but I am yet to be convinced that anything in Martin's writing indicates or promotes an unhealthy view of women.

The show, however, is a different beast. The amount of nudity and sex on display is in my view excessive. I've had this argument with some other book-readers who say it is in keeping with the sort of world Martin has created, but I think they've pushed it too far. Martin's books are certainly not lacking for sexual content and bawdy language, but the writers of the TV show have seriously amped it up, perhaps in order to attract the lucrative "horny male" demographic. Which is why the SNL sketch poking fun at the nudity in the show is particularly hilarious.

I don't have a problem with sex and nudity when it's in context. But when the writers invent entirely new scenes (the ridiculous scene with Gendry and Melisandre sticks out for me), or modify scenes from the book, seemingly just to find an excuse to fit some exposed breasts into the shot, it's like they are channelling the teen sex comedies of the 80s.

Given the rich source material the show's creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have to work with, I think their penchant for portraying naked women is one of the drawbacks of what is otherwise a very good series; it's not like they need to use boobs and bums as a way to distract from a non-existent plot. As mentioned before, I don't have a problem with the show's portrayal of rape as a common phenomenon; but when this intersects with frequent rather pointless nudity, I can see why some people think it is eroticising sexual violence. The story lays bare the ugliness of patriarchy, but the visuals scream "Look! Check out the naked ladies!"
Trying to have it both ways doesn't work.


The GoT world centres on the continent of Westeros, which is based on western and northern Europe, particularly Britain. But the story arc of Daenerys Targaryen, a princess exiled in the Eastern continent of Essos, raises some issues about how the show represents non-white people. Essos is something like the Eurasian landmass; the Free Cities of its western coast seem reminiscent of Greece, while the  Southern coast (Qarth and Slaver's Bay) is similar to the Middle East in many ways. The Dothraki, whose warlord Drogo is gifted Daenerys as a wife, are clearly based on Central Asian pastoral peoples - the Huns, Turks and Mongols.

 Dany's story arc has a smell of four ugly racial tropes that are very common in popular culture.

1. Coloured people always viewed through white eyes: The story or storyline that is set in a non-white culture, yet it has to be told through the eyes of a white person, since the audience presumably can't relate to something that is only about non-whites. Examples are Cry Freedom (about the white friend of South African activist Steve Biko) or The Last King of Scotland (about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, yet the lead character is a fictional white doctor).

2. Barbarians and proud warrior races: The non-whites are defined as "barbaric" or "primitive", rather than regular people with a range of normal motivations and feelings (this is in too many movies to count), and often belong to a "warrior race" which prizes strength and fighting prowess as the only way to earn honour and respect. See the Klingons in Star Trek (who tend to be played by black actors) and the title aliens of the Predator movies. Even within that series there are humans from warrior races too; Predator and Predators respectively have a Native American guy and a Japanese guy who stop fleeing and stay back to take on the aliens in single combat with a bladed weapon. (Of course they die, but at least they were "honourable".)

3. Mighty whitey: Taking the white-centric story even further... the white person finds themselves amongst a strange exotic culture, yet learns their ways and eventually manages to become respected by them, often becoming their leader or most awesome warrior. Examples include The Last of the Mohicans, The PhantomAvatarDances with WolvesThe Last Samurai, and Tarzan.

4. White man's burden, or white saviour: In which white people, out of the goodness of their hearts, save non-white people from the terrible situation which they couldn't have got out of themselves. Examples are The Help, The BlindsideGran TorinoDangerous Minds, and the sitcom Different Strokes.

While you could argue that all tropes are at play here, I think it's also a little more complicated than that. To address those point by point:

1. Coloured people always viewed through white eyes: Danaerys is Westerosi, but has grown up around the Free Cities, and then her journey takes her further east into cultures she has never experienced before. All the cultures are presented as strange and exotic, and we never really get any insights on the inner life of these people, despite spending a lot of time around them. The focus is all about the white princess. They are permanently "Othered".
Except that the series is not really about them. Like it or not, the story is primarily about Westeros, and the people of Essos are very much a peripheral feature. This makes it different to Cry Freedom or The Last King of Scotland, which are films about black people, but told from a white viewpoint for no apparent reason.
The way Martin structures his narrative - each chapter presented from the point of view of one of the main characters - means that any other culture will seem strange, exotic and perhaps barbaric. The show to an extent has to reflect that. Daenerys is a young woman sold off against her will into a culture she knows nothing about that is very different from her own. To portray the Dothraki, Qartheen or the Ghiscari as being "just like regular folks" would not make sense in this context. In contrast to the Westerosi who speak the Common Tongue (aka English), most people on the show from Essos speak imaginary languages (Valyrian, Dothraki, Ghiscari), which again clearly defines them as different not only from the Westorosi characters, but from us, the viewers. But this is unavoidable, really, unless you want everyone in the show to speak made-up languages, which is just not feasible.

2. Barbarians and proud warrior races: The Dothraki are horse nomads who seem primarily occupied with fighting each other and plundering the settlements on the edges of their plain. They are referred to everyone else as barbarians and savages, and many of their customs celebrate violence and seem primitive by most standards. They like having sex beneath the open sky, only like doing it doggy-style, are quite frank about raping as one of the spoils of war, and consider it good entertainment when deadly brawls erupt at weddings.

Let's not forget: the people who are the obvious inspiration for the Dothraki (Huns, Turks, Mongols) made their mark on history through conquest. These are warrior cultures. Of course they weren't entirely that; throughout most of history, Central Asian nomads probably spent their time with rather un-warlike pursuits such as taking their livestock to graze, and making fermented horse milk beverages.  But these weren't what led to them conquering everything from China to Baghdad and Hungary. The nomads were brilliant at the art of war, and also employed tactics that were considered utterly foreign and frequently dishonourable by the "civilized" nations they fought against, and were renowned for their cruelty and terror. And unlike Europe of the time, the nomads lacked the stratification between warrior, peasant and artisan classes; most able-bodied men became soldiers in times of conflict, and thus the warrior ethos was more prevalent throughout their culture. It's also come to light recently that 1 in 200 men in the world have some genetic link to Genghis Khan and his family; let's assume this is more likely to have come through rape than Genghis being some kind of Casanova.

Martin does exaggerate these "savage" elements, to be sure, and the show does so even more - the line "There is no word for thank you in Dothraki" takes this too far as far as I'm concerned. But should a  fictional people based on some of the most feared and ruthless armies in history be treated as more well-rounded? I'm not sure, considering that they do not actually play a large role in the story. If not for their fierce war-making ways, they would have no place in the story at all since Daenerys' brother would have no need to offer her to them in exchange for an army. And at the end of the day GoT is not really about the Dothraki. If you want GoT to be about non-white people, of course you will be disappointed, but it doesn't claim to be that. Instead, go watch something like Sergei Bodrov's (admittedly impressive) 2007 movie Mongol, which portrays Genghis Khan as a great fighter, leader and romantic with no nasty side whatsoever. Martin writes from his own area of expertise - medieval Western Europe - and those outside that milieu are have only fringe roles to play. I think wanting to see a bigger and better-explored non-white presence in this story is a bit like wanting to see equal marriage rights and gender equality; that's just not what this world is meant to be about. It's like criticising The Sopranos because it didn't have any main characters who were Chinese. If you want to read that story, then maybe you need to go and write that story yourself.

Their portrayal as "savages" also depends on who they are being compared to. As mentioned previously, Westerosi society is portrayed as incredibly oppressive and cruel. To be sure, it professes nobler values, much as the West does today. Rape is regarded as a heinous crime... yet unguarded women are never safe. Slavery is considered an abomination... yet most of the nobility treat peasants like property anyway. The character of Sansa Stark seems to represent the readers' belief in the traditional fairytale fantasy notions of chivalry, charming princes and noble knights, until she is dealt a hefty dose of reality. Westeros has its own white "barbarians" too... the Iron Islanders, loosely based on the Vikings, do take slaves, and define their existence through their love of rape and pillage. They are actually worse than the Dothraki, since cities in Essos can mostly avoid Dothraki attacks by paying them in gold and slaves; the Ironborn's whole culture revolves around killing. And let's  not forget that in the same episode which introduces the Dothraki, we see Dany groped by her brother, and Jaimie Lannister push a child out of a window after being caught in the act of boning his sister. If the most shocking thing you get from that episode is how "primitive" the brown people look, maybe you are paying attention to the wrong things.

Also regarding the Dothraki; I've read some criticism that rather than being portrayed as a homogeneous population, they seem to be played by "miscellaneous brown people", which might encourage the view that all non-whites are basically the same? For example, while the book-Dothraki are described as having copper-coloured skin and almond-shaped eyes, Jason Momoa who plays Khal Drogo is Hawaiian, while the rest of the Dothraki look mostly like they are from the Middle East, while there are even a few people who are clearly of African origin in there as well.

What struck me initially as a lazy misstep is actually quite plausible on reflection. The Dothraki population absorbs a lot of slaves acquired from cities on the fringes of their domain, and many of those cities themselves acquire slaves from other regions. Even the Central Asian populations on whom the Dothraki are based were far from homogeneous. Given that the nomad way of life spanned such a huge swathe of the Eurasian continent, and was by definition likely to spread into new territories, the empires that arose incorporated a mix of East Asian, European and Southwest Asian phenotypes. A look at the people in modern Afghanistan or Xinjiang reveals this diversity. So while I don't know if it was by design or laziness, the casting of Dothraki as "miscellaneous brown people" is not as odd as it might initially seem. In any case, Jason Momoa as Drogo looks exactly as a Dothraki should, to my mind.

3. Mighty whitey: In some ways, Daenerys does fit this trope; as she travels through the foreign cultures of Essos, she acquires an army of non-white followers who revere her as the Mother of Dragons. But unlike Avatar or Dances with Wolves, she never really becomes accepted into any of the cultures she interacts with. She becomes khaleesi of the Dothraki, yet is abandoned and threatened with death after her husband dies. Indeed, everyone who doesn't become one of her followers seems out to kill her for the destruction she wreaks everywhere. Those who do follow her are mostly outcasts and freed slaves who don't have a lot of better options.

4. White man's burden, or white saviour: The final scene of season 3 did come off as clumsy - the lily-white Daenerys being hoisted above an adoring crowd of swarthy freed slaves. Real white saviour stuff; saving all those brown people from the other brown people, it was the sort of thing Americans who advocated invading Iraq and Afghanistan would be proud of. To me it was a major misstep, but again it brings us to a difference between show and book.

The books make clear that the slaves in Yunkai are drawn from all over the world, and are white, black and brown skinned (inspired by the slave trade of ancient Rome and the Middle East, which took slaves from anywhere they could). It doesn't look that way in the show. Logistically, one can understand why; most scenes in Essos are filmed in Morocco, thus the extras would be expected to have a fairly North African look. But even then, they seemed darker than I'd expect from Morocco, and it can't have been too hard for the directors to round up some white folks from the crew to diversify the crowd if they'd wanted to. At to that the drab brown clothing of the slaves, contrasting with Dany's pale skin and hair and blue outfit, it just doesn't look good.

Which makes me wonder if it was deliberate move by the producers, because for them to see that scene and not see what's wrong with it either means they are oddly deluded or they want it to be that way. Anyone who has been following the show knows that George RR Martin likes to subvert the traditional cliches of fantasy fiction, often setting up premises only to knock them down. The first season sets up a typical righteous hero, Eddard Stark, as the main character, until he is beheaded; a huge shock to the audience who presumed he would escape. Logically, we expect his son Robb to seek vengeance, which seems inevitable... until he meets a shocking end at the Red Wedding. So is it another case of the show's writers setting up a cliched premise (the white saviour) that we've all seen before, only to knock it down? *Mild spoiler alert*  For those who haven't read the books, things don't all go to planned after Dany liberates the slaves of Slaver's Bay. In fact, the Iraq and Afghanistan analogies are not far off. In many ways, it's an argument against well-meaning foreigners meddling in a country's affairs.

Another key point for me is that the "white man's burden" trope also relies on the white saviour being "good". No doubt Daenerys is one of the most popular characters, and she is seen by many followers as having the qualities of a just ruler that have been so lacking in Westeros. But is she a morally "good" character? Certainly, she tries to stop the Dothraki warriors from raping women, and becomes embroiled in the politics of Slaver's Bay due to her compassion for the masses of slaves. But at the same time, the trail of death and destruction she leaves behind is comparable to the legacy of Tywin Lannister (who is definitely not a "good" guy). Mirri Maz Duur understands the potential cost of Dany's ascendancy, and takes steps to prevent it; Dany burns her alive, proof that she can treat those who cross her with a ruthlessness that would do Tywin proud. And all this in order to satisfy her massive sense of entitlement (she constantly reminds everyone how she is blood of the dragon, and demands they respect her), in regaining the throne her father lost because he was an insane murderous tyrant. She no longer has any right to the throne (she's never even been to Westeros), if you consider that the Targaryens once took power by force and eventually had it taken from them by force. I think readers and viewers are smart enough to see that despite Daenerys' beauty and awesome girl-power appeal, she's someone who is motivated primarily by self-interest.

But whatever the intention, the show certainly peddles an image which is at very least racially uncomfortable, and not truly in keeping with what is suggested in the books. Reading them, I didn't get the feeling that there was some stark ethnic difference between Daenerys and the people she encounters in Essos. But fiction is like an ink-blot test in many ways; how we read it often says something about our own perspectives.

The deeply cynical view of human nature espoused by Game of Thrones is a hard one for a lot of people to handle, especially those who are used to more traditional fantasy. Humankind's capacity for cruelty in the quest to attain power is the central theme of the story, even if it may play out in different ways in different cultures or have varying degrees of openness. The raider-cultures (Ironborn and Dothraki) are fairly open about their penchant for sexual violence and slave-taking, while the urban/agricultural societies claim a higher set of values yet do not keep to them. To me, it's reminiscent of how we define the difference between our "Western" values and everyone else's. Our values are, at least in theory, more progressive and modern than we believe most of the world's to be, in the same way that the Islamic world, for example, sees its values as morally superior to the decadent West. But is either belief system any more than a thin veneer that masks all people's capacity for both nobility and brutality?

More like this...

Racial analyses of "Avatar"

"300" and racism

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Australian buses, where all the best racism occurs

Another one of these incidents.

("Learn some manners.... stick that up your mother's c**t." Oh the irony.)

And this one a month ago...

A lot of people will use these sorts of clips as proof of what a racist country Australia is. But I think it's important to view these things in context. Drunk or mentally unstable underclass types on buses are not really representative of mainstream Australia. Of course, that doesn't make it any easier to bear if you subjected to this kind of aggressive racist tirade. Is it fair to draw links between this sort of behaviour and broader systemic examples of racism? To an extent. But it's a complicated picture. 

What bugs me in these videos is the relative lack of bystander intervention. It's understandable to a certain extent that a lot of people don't want to draw the ire of someone who is in an aggressive mood and thus potentially dangerous. But it's the silence that these types of people interpret as agreement. It's notable that the first action taken by the driver in the first video is not to warn the woman who is spewing invective, but to ask the target of her rage to sit down. I'm not sure how they operate on Sydney buses, but I've never known standing up on a bus to be a significant societal transgression. Unless perhaps you are the wrong ethnicity.