CONTENT NOTE: Some of the embedded links in this piece are NSFW.
by Shane Thomas
While not placing it in the pantheon of truly great television, I’ve been a fan of Game of Thrones since the show debuted in 2011. I normally like my drama pessimistic, with a hard edge, and even downright cruel on occasion. I like even more that a show in the fantasy realm cares as much about its tonal execution, as it does costumes and wacky names.
And yet, I’ve never been able to relax in the presence of the programme, never allowed myself to be fully swept up in the world of Westeros. The reason why? This is best encapsulated by the conclusion of Season 3 – which Sky were so helpful to remind us of during their promotion for the upcoming Season 4.
The character of Daenerys Targaryen is emblematic of Game of Thrones continuous problem with race. Beyond the emetic “white saviour“ scene to close Season 3, we are first introduced to her during a forced marriage to Khal Drogo of the Dothraki people (who are non-white). At the wedding, the Dothraki are painted as little more than savages, with the men literally killing each other to force themselves on the women; hypersexual and hyperviolent, two big racist boxes are ticked.
This state of affairs remains the norm if you are both a regular television viewer, and a person of colour (PoC). The dynamic is especially acute in the world of genre fiction. Because we all look at the television screen, and what stares back at us is a lens; a white lens. It’s why weak racial depictions remain a habitual problem.
Culture is the progeny of the world we live in, and for far too many writers, the world they live in is so saturated by the social construct of “whiteness” that they fail to see anything beyond that. Which – intentionally or otherwise – serves to position whiteness as the only point of view worth depicting.
With whiteness still ossified as a quotidian aspect of society, it manifests itself on screen not only through white casting, but white authorship.
Doctor Who is a show that has been deconstructed on this site before, both by myself and Shuheda Ahmed. One lesser quoted statistic, is that while the show has had only one woman pen an episode since its return in 2005 – which is embarrassing in itself – not a single PoC (man or woman) has had the chance to send The Doctor on an adventure.
And while being ignored is maddening, being reduced to racist stereotypes is equally so. To refer back to Deanerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, she seems to be on a “save the coloureds” tour of Westeros, with the character appearing to function as a civilising agent, taking the crude and uncouth, and bringing them under her refining, white aegis.
Much like a loft conversion on a suburban home, PoC are used as little more than accessories to be brought out to impress guests, or as an afterthought to deflect from criticism. My problem is less to do with equality, and more to do with equity. I’m not calling for white people to become the minority on television, but for PoC to have the latitude to be portrayed with the same richness and nuance as their white counterparts.
And the paradigm of “one is enough” has to stop. Giving Idris Elba a rounded character in Luther isn’t a panacea on its own. Not when we’re still waiting for PoC to get the opportunity to do what the likes of Miranda Hart, Abi Morgan and Jack Whitehall get to do.
In fact, singular casting doesn’t only evoke tokenism, but touches on something bell hooks wrote in her essay, Eating the Other:
“…ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”
Consuming popular culture can often become an exercise in sullied enjoyment. Gay US comedian, Guy Branum did an excellent job of elucidating on this, explaining why he refused to watch the cinema adaptation of Ender’s Game, using the metaphor of buying a delicious sandwich, “but on your order, the cook adds just a tiny little dollop of shit.“
And being served shit sandwiches is getting increasingly tiring. I’m sick of watching oppressed people be ignored, be marginalised, be exotified, and be othered in our culture. I don’t expect this to change immediately, and I don’t want special consideration. All I want is consideration.
 – Which is especially frustrating, as without the racism, Daenerys would be a genuinely marvellous character, and Emilia Clarke’s fine performance deserves better than being despoiled in this way.
 – The scene couldn’t have been more insulting if it was written by Rod Liddle.
 – Pia Glenn brilliantly lampoons this dynamic on her segment, “In an actress so talented and beautiful, she’d be A-list, if only she were white news…” on her show, Black Weekend Update.
A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).
- Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and the Multicultural Imagination (mediadiversified.org)
- Oh Come All Ye White Saviors (mediadiversified.org)
- All lead actors in The Gods of Egypt will be white dailylife.com.au
‘Game of Thrones Quiz: Test your knowledge