‘Game of Thrones’ and Race — HBO Steps Forward and Back

I am remiss in not pointing y’all to Saladin Ahmed’s excellent essay on the problematic way George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire handles race and the ways in which HBO’s adaptation has exacerbated those problems. I thought this discussion of the Summer Islanders was particularly interesting:

Unfortunately, some of these depictions partake in some pretty familiar stereotypes about African sexuality. It will be interesting, for example, to see what the show does with Chataya, an associate of Tyrion’s from the Summer Isles, and an upscale brothel madam. Chataya blithely sends her own 16-year-old daughter into prostitution at her “pillow house.”…Again, an entire nonwhite culture is presented as holding skewed values. But this wince-inducing depiction is tempered by some interesting implied questions about sex and commerce and spirituality and culture and power. Here’s hoping there’s a hint of this in the show’s version of things as well.

Part of the challenge of adapting Martin’s novels for television has to do with honoring his skill in constructing jaw-droppingly epic sweeps of plot and setting from beautifully rendered small details. If there’s a saving grace for the racial imagery in A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s in some of these little glimpses and hints that appear throughout — skillful deployment of which on”Game of Thrones” could help make an already good show great.

Race is one of the few areas where I come up short with Game of Thrones — I feel like I can’t construct a good argument from the text for why the Dothraki, for example, are a powerful subversion of fantasy conventions the way I see the novels as a brilliant deconstruction of chivalric myth. And I do think the HBO adaptation has done a disservice to the Dothraki, in particular by giving us no sense of Vaes Dothrak, even as it appears on that map. We get nothing about the idols the Dothraki bring home from raids, and no sense of the matriarchy that rules this nomadic society’s capitol, and only, city. In the novels, part of Dany’s determination to strike out as head of her own khalsar is her determination not to be absorbed into the Dosh Khaleen, the society of widowed former kahleesi who rule in the city — the Dothraki, as it turns out, are somewhat matriarchal, but Dany doesn’t want to be condemned to widow’s purdah without a chance to reclaim the Iron Throne.


I’m moderately optimistic for this season. Without being spoilery, a number of characters of color who we’ll meet in subsequent episodes pop on-screen in a way that prose doesn’t allow for on the page. But nothing really changes the fact that this is a story about the struggle for control in a country that is a stand-in for the nations of the British Isles, and the non-white characters are facilitators or friends of the white protagonists. All of which makes me wish for great high fantasy set in countries that are analogues for African nations. If anyone has suggestions, pass ’em along.