By: Michael Latch
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan like me, you have no doubt noticed the lack of diversity in its casting and if you haven’t, I urge you to just do a quick google image search of “Game of Thrones Characters.” I think it will take you a while to find a person of color. The lack of diversity in the show is very blatant to me and is the sole reason I haven’t fully embraced the show as one of the greatest of all time. It truly pains me to think about this glaring misstep in an otherwise fantastic show, but in 2018 it can’t just be swept under the rug.
Now more than ever, diversity in film and television is being pushed to the forefront and shows or movies that don’t feature an inclusive cast are more likely to be called out for it, Game of Thrones being no exception. Star Wars actor, John Boyega called out Game of Thrones in a tweet last year for not casting people of color saying, “There are no black people on Game of Thrones…You see different people from different backgrounds, different cultures, every day. Even if you’re a racist, you have to live with that. We can ruffle up some feathers.” Boyega points out what many fans of the show are thinking in the back of their minds and brings up fair points about the show as well as the entertainment industry in general. Game of Thrones has an abysmally low number of POC in the show, out of the approximately 50 main characters (i.e. has a speaking role and appears in multiple episodes), 5 are people of color.
Let me start off by saying I’m not claiming that there are no POC (people of color) in Game of Thrones, because there are. The issue is that the POC in the show are few and far between and lack any sort of emotional depth that a white character in the show has in spades. Not only do they lack character development, but I would argue every POC character in the show is in one way or another based off one of three flagrant racial stereotypes: the slave, the terrorist, or the barbarian.
Take for example, Missandei (no last name), one of the only recurring POC characters with a speaking role in show. She is the herald and right-hand woman to Daenerys Targaryen, one of the shows leading characters. Missandei’s entire story arc revolves around her being sold into slavery as a child, freed by Daenerys, then voluntarily serving her as an act of eternal gratitude. In the seasons that followed her first appearance, Missandei has no actual importance to the plot other than to be Daenerys’s translator with foreign diplomats and is really only there to be a lady in waiting for Daenerys. This backstory lacks any kind of depth and revolves solely around her being a servant, either voluntarily or non-voluntarily.
Missandei’s only other dimension in her otherwise flat narrative is to be a love interest to one of only other POC in the show Greyworm (no last name). Greyworm is the general of the Unsullied, an army of slaves. He is freed by Daenerys and, like Missandei, voluntarily serves her as an act of gratitude for freeing him from slavery. The two show romantic interest for each other in the latter half of the show and bond over their shared past as slaves.
Honestly, I find this pseudo-indentured servant narrative that both Missandei and Greyworm share lazy from a character-writing stand point and frankly a little racist that the only background that George R.R. Martin could come up with for these two is that they were slaves. These characters both have no real goals or motivations of their own and serve no real purpose to the show other than to feed into Daenerys’s blatant white savior complex.
Besides the slave narrative, another category that Game of Thrones POC characters fall into is the foreign terrorist archetype, and no one better exemplifies this than the House of Martell from the southern country of Dorne. I would describe the Martell family as somewhat racially ambiguous, however it is made very clear that they are supposed to represent some sort of exotic foreigner, most blatantly demonstrated by the house’s more liberal views towards sex and sexuality. Oberyn Martell, who is prince to the Martell bloodline, even has multiple lovers (both male and female) at once, a practice that which, by Westerosi standards, is quite taboo. This cultural difference establishes a distaste for the Dornish among the people of Westeros, especially those of the ruling house of Lannister. It is also made clear that this dislike is mutually reciprocated between the Martells and the Lannisters.
The overarching storyline for the House of Martell is that, in an attempt to feign unity and truce between the two houses, the Martells offer to marry off one of their sons to Myrcella Lannister, the youngest daughter to the queen of Westeros, Cersei Lannister. However, their true intention is to poison Myrcella in an act of revenge for war crimes that the Lannister’s committed against the Martells many years prior. This terroristic attack against the Lannister’s caused Cersei to lash out and kill every single member of the Martell bloodline, essentially wiping them entirely from the map.
The Martell’s clearly had goals and ambitions, making their storyline a step above Missandei’s and Greyworm’s completely one-dimensional narratives. However, they’re purpose to the plot is to be blood-lusting, foreign terrorists and nothing more. They serve to only reinforce the strength of the Lannister house, as they manage to essentially eradicate the entire Martell bloodline in the course of just two seasons.
The final category that Game of Thrones POC characters fall into is the barbarian, the best example of this being the Dothraki. Living in the eastern country of Essos, the Dothraki are a nomadic tribe of warriors. They are another example of racial ambiguity in the show, though it is clear they are non-white and have a completely different set of cultural ideologies from the people of mainland Westeros. The shows production team even went as far as creating a new language for the Dothraki people, further establishing them as foreign.
The scenes involving the Dothraki people often depict them as savages pillaging small town and raping women. In fact, the Dothraki’s sole motivation in the show typically seems to surround pillaging and raping women, or occasionally worshipping their god, who is a horse. They have no real agenda, seek no higher purpose, and only strive to be the strongest in their tribe; all of which are typical traits of barbarians. The Dothraki people are the only example in all of Game of Thrones where a group of POC are seen as in a group, and not as token a person of color in a scene. The fact that the only time in the entire show that group of POC is seen together is when they are depicted as savage barbarians raises some serious red flags for me.
Many have claimed, including the author of the series, George R. R. Martin, that the shows lack of inclusivity is not a matter of prejudice, but a matter of historical accuracy. The author claims that the fictional country of Westeros in which much of the show takes place in, is modeled after the medieval British Isles, and its neighboring countries (The Summer Isles, The Iron Islands, Essos, etc.) are modeled after medieval Eurasia. Martin states that this is the reason the show lacks racial diversity in many of the character, solely to remain true to the demographics during a similar time period the show is set in. Frankly, to this argument I call serious BS.
At the end of the day, casting a diverse group of people to reflect the world we live in, should not be a hassle or a burden on show producers. I’m honestly so tired of excuse of typecasting to justify not wanting to cast POC in shows that are clearly not actual period pieces. The excuse that Game of Thrones is based off medieval British Isles and therefore has to feature a white cast is not only inaccurate to history but insinuates that the show is meant to be a completely accurate portrayal of the time period, which it is clearly not. In a fictional world that features magic, dragons, and the undead, why is it so unbelievable to have POC in that same world being featured as something other than a subordinate to a white character in one way or another?