by Rod Thomas

DOWNTON ABBEY, GAME OF THRONES, THE WALKING DEAD and the Multicultural Imagination

Daenerys Targaryen As White Savior

Image provided by LiveJournal

There are three popular television shows that I, for the moment, refuse to watch. No one would deny the cultural power levied by George R.R. Martins A Game Of Thrones, Robert Kirkmans The Walking Dead, and PBS’s Downton Abbey. Anyone who is not aware of these shows must be living under a rock. In fact, at one of his final interviews, our church’s current youth pastor made it a point to let the congregation know how hip he was by informing us that he is reading Martin’s Game of Thrones series and well as watches the HBO series. I immediately threw several sideeyes his way because, with being familiar with fandom [read:white fandom] culture, I am ever cognizant of the fact that participating in the latest Euro-centric medieval fantasy craze is a marker of whiteness. Popular culture remains ever complicit in the whitewashing of historical memories. Whitewashing is the white supremacist practice by historians, culture creators, and the media whereby whites are viewed as the sole actors in history while People of Color and their histories are ignored and relegated to being the passive recipients of whites’ goodness. Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, and The Walking Dead are examples of how this whitewashing takes place.

By all counts, I should be one of the many USian Black Nerds on the Game Of Thrones bandwagon. I own most of the books on my Amazon Kindle, I was a big fan of the BBC’s Merlin (okay,I admit it, I was pretty obsessed), and fantasy stories in the middle ages have always had a certain place in my heart. To this day, one of the brightest childhood memories was my family and I going to see Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves starring Morgan Freeman and Kevin Costner. RH:PoT is pretty much how I judge fantasy shows and movies. A few years before the movies started to come out, I had finished C.S. Lewis The Chronicle of Narnia series. You’re also probably wondering about Lord Of The Rings, but my dirty geek secret is that I have never watched the movies or read any of the books even though I own the trilogy on my Kindle; in due time, I guess. The claim that many writers of medieval fantasy works make is that they work to be historically accurate, and want to remain faithful to the mythology and lore in European culture during the Middle Ages. While I would argue that cultural critics need to investigate more into why would a FANTASY author feel the need to be “historically accurate,” let’s level with these writers for a minute. If a writer want a to have some veracity with the historical context, then she should at least consider actual research done on the time period. Game of Thrones, our retellings of Robin Hood, different versions of King Arthur (most recently Showtime’s Camelot & BBC’s Merlin), and the Chronicles of Narnia are all grounded in an all white world of the Middle Ages. Is the goal truly to represent the culture of the time? Or is the goal of these writers to embark upon a world in which their audience can dream of escaping to? One of the powerful tools that social media can offer is that of free access to education and scholarship. The Social Justice side of Tumblr, for example, has among its members MedievalPOC, whose mission it is to

“showcase works of art from European history that feature People of Color. All too often, these works go unseen in museums, Art History classes, online galleries, and other venues because of retroactive whitewashing of Medieval Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia.

Although the focus is toward art dating from the fall of the Roman Empire until about 1650, it will also include Baroque and Early Modern pieces, as well as works from places other than Europe, Scandinavia and Asia. Ancient Greek, Egyptian and Celtic works featuring People of Color are also fair game.

My purpose in creating this blog is to address common misconceptions that People of Color did not exist in Europe before the Enlightenment, and to emphasize the cognitive dissonance in the way this is reflected in media produced today.”

For more, visit Medieval POC tumblr.

Through rigorous research, citations, and the provision of historical timelines, the data that Medieval POC shows proves that there was a presence of People of Color during the Middle Ages in Europe. Even in middle school/junior high for many USian students, we briefly spend maybe a minute or two on the Moors and Saladin before our teachers merrily return us to our White History lessons and about the dominance of Europe. We continue to be haunted by the question of why, why this “commitment” to historical accuracy in the fantasy genre? How seriously are these writers committed to historicity if the worlds they have created are filled with centaurs, noble sword-buckling mice, talking trees, Direwolves, and dragons.

Stories such as Game of Thrones and the Chronicles of Narnia are performances of racial fantasies. They are representations of a particular, exclusive worldview that is hierarchal in nature. Critics have expressed C.S. Lewis’ problematic portrayal of Hindus and Muslims in the form of the fictional “Caloramenes” who are the essential Oriental peoples who faithfully practice a religion, Tash worship, but who are in need of being civilized. C.S. Lewis was biased against what he called, lower cultures, as opposed to the higher, civilized Western European cultures. In fact, Lewis argued that a lower culture being held in esteem versus higher culture was much worse than World War itself. C.S. Lewis’ imperialist views concerning culture unfortunately also is displayed at the disturbing conclusion of his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, when Merlin is resurrected from the dead to aid the professor Ransom in instituting national white Christian hegemony across the United Kingdom.

www.indiewire.comActor: Gary Carr In a scene from Downton Abbey

Whitewashing as white supremacist praxis appears to us not only in the fantasy genre but also in so-called historical fiction. Downton Abbey is supposed to take place during and after the time of World War One, a tumultous time for the U.K. for certain. It has a reputation for being a social commentary on relations based on gender and socio-economic class. The cast is all white, but no need to fret, because now they have a token black now, and he is totally going to enrich these white Brits’ culture! The reasoning behind the lack of diversity for Downton Abbey was that, according to one of the show’s executive producers, Gareth Neame, in a New York Times interview,

“A few people have said, ‘Why isn’t there more diversity? … And the argument would be, we would depict it if were true and accurate. It’s a bit like saying, ‘I don’t approve of the class system, at all, that existed on the show.’ It did exist, and we should depict it in the way that existed. It doesn’t mean I approve of it. But Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920.”

So here again, we have a producer claiming that this fictional tv show wants a sense of realism, and wants to represent what the culture was like. What these producers won’t tell you is that in the United Kingdom, in the 1920’s, Parliament had to respond to the growing Black and Asian population. And way before that, interracial marriage, and whatever happened to those descendents of slaves who were in Britain? They just up and disappear?

Zora Neale Hurston, American author. Deutsch: ...
Zora Neale Hurston, American author. Deutsch: Zora Neale Hurston Español: Zora Neale Hurston (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lastly, of all the genres, you would think an apocalyptic fiction/horror story based on myths written and told by people of African descent would be racially inclusive. This world never has existed, and no one can claim to be “committed to historical accuracy.” Well, you would be wrong. In fact, never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to use what I learned in my Caribbean religions course in undergrad, but here I am. No one could predict the [whitewashed] zombie phenomena we have in today’s Western culture. The popularity of The Walking Dead and the popular “Zombie apocalypse” memes on the internet give me a pause, about what white washing does to People of Color. Not only are our histories and portions of our cultures are stolen, commentaries on resistance and colonialism (which some scholars think Haitian zombie stories potential were) have been transformed into anti-black, anti-working class propaganda (and misogynist on the television version to boot!) Comparatively speaking, it is just like the semester in high school my senior year in AP English where we had to read Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God through a white Christian gaze while never being aware of Hurston’s personal preference for Voodoo. Whitewashing literature means the erasure of black subjectivity.

The #POC4CulturalEnrichment hashtag, started by blogger and student Suey Park, was something that developed on a Saturday night and went early into Sunday morning and then that Sunday all day. It examined the ways in which white supremacy impacts our lives every day. Take a look:

storify5
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pocstorify3 pocstorify4

SEE MORE: [View the story “#POC4CulturalEnrichment: Storify Version” on Storify]

Rod Thomas is a writer and religious blogger based out of  Dallas/Fort Worth, TX, USA. He earned his Master of Divinity with a concentration in Black Church Studies, and obtained a Master of Theology in History and Theology as well. His thesis was on a Postcolonial Interpretation of Early Christian and Black liberation  theology.  In his spare time, Rod loves to keep up with politics, daydream about the possibilities of a nonviolent politics, read Science Fiction as well as watch Sci-Fi shows and movies, as well as engage in Critical Fandom studies.  You can find him on Twitter a@h00die_R and at his blog, PoliticalJesus

8 thoughts on “Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and the Multicultural Imagination

  1. Downton is just upper class nonsense, and Lewis is just textbook orientalism (though the Tash worshipers are technologically more advanced, Aslan and geography protect Narnia).

    However Martin’s world isn’t white. The small Britain+France expy that we start in is, but even within the Seven Kingdoms, Dorne is essentially Andalusia. The only kingdom never to be conquered by force is the non-white one.

    And while the Targeryans might be pale they’re not Caucasian. Caucasians don’t have purple eyes and silver hair.

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  2. I have no interest in GOT at all because incest just isn’t my thing. Tried reading the first book, can’t get into it.

    But there’s no excuse at all for whitewashing it. It’s a fantasy world. There’s no kind of excuse for it being all white. But, certainly, the same is really true of DT and Walking Dead, neither of which I watch. In fact, isn’t Walking Dead set in Georgia, which is about 30-odd percent Black, per the Census in 2010? It seems like about a third each of the survivors and “walkers” should be reflecting that. Unless PoC had a reduced chance of survival due to the racism of their neighbors — which would be legitimate storyline to explore, but that would be a thing to address. In fact, my understanding is that the comic on which the show is based is much more about people than zombies, so it might even have been a story there that the TV people just decided didn’t matter.

    And, yes, “Merlin” is a great show.

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  3. Thanks for continuing to raise these issues, Ron! As for your first commenter, southsidesocialist, I took more umbrage with the EP’s comments that Britain wasn’t a multicultural COUNTRY in 1920. He didn’t specify the show’s location, which is indeed a stately home. But as I mentioned and referenced in my post about this, there is plenty of info on the internet to highlight both Indian and Black people in high, authoritative positions dating centuries before the time period of DT.
    Also, why do people expect the show to be ‘historically accurate’ with racial casting but we overlook and are more ambivalent about the anachronistic writing? The show’s creators, writers, and EPs don’t get to have it both ways.

    http://vocalcontext.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/but-britain-was-not-a-multicultural-country-in-1920/

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  4. I don’t watch Downton because it’s not my kind of thing but my impression is that it focuses on the lives of an upper-class English family in a stately home, so I really wouldn’t expect there to be people of colour featured. If it was set in an urban centre and showed all classes in society, then I would expect more diverse characters and consequently a more diverse cast. I mean, how many people of colour are there in the British nobility even now, let alone 100 years ago?

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