Friday, August 23, 2013

HBO Game of Thrones: Race and Representation in Fantasy and Sci-Fi

This post was originally supposed to run four to five weeks prior but other events happened and a little thing called paid work reared its ugly head. So it's quite different than the first draft. We've noticed that there seems to be a consistent level of modest interest in the Game of Thrones posts we've done so hopefully this may spark some discussion. It's a long wait until next April when the wolfpack gets its revenge..or not (cue evil laughter).
In case you missed it the character Oberyn Martell aka The Red Viper was recently cast for Season Four of HBO's Game of Thrones. It's difficult to discuss this without too many spoilers but I'll do my best. As always if you've read the books or know exactly what this character does, please keep it to yourself. Let's just say that Oberyn is a fan favorite. He's a Dornish noble who has a serious grudge to settle with the Lannisters. Oberyn Martell has relatives of various complexions. Martin has written in A Storm of Swords that Dorne itself is home to people with differing skin tones and features.                                                                       
The salty Dornishmen were lithe and dark, with smooth olive skin and long black hair streaming in the wind. The sandy Dornishmen were even darker, their faces burned brown by the hot Dornish sun. They wound long bright scarfs around their helms to ward off sunstroke. The stony Dornishmen were biggest and fairest, sons of the Andals and the First Men, brown-haired or blond, with faces that freckled or burned in the sun instead of browning.
This description of the different Dornish phenotypes gave some readers hope that a definitively non-white actor, likely Middle Eastern or North African or perhaps even South Asian or African-American or of other African descent might get a chance to play some Dornish roles and more specifically the role of Oberyn Martell, who is simply put, a bada$$.

But the HBO Game of Thrones producers cast Chilean actor Pedro Pascal to play Oberyn Martell aka "The Red Viper". As you may have noticed Mr. Pascal is relatively light skinned. Some might even call him white. Other writers already had some concerns about Martin's handling of race. When the news of the Martell casting broke a certain faction of Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire fans hit the proverbial roof and were not exactly mollified by Martin's statements on the matter.

So let's talk about the internet controversy about Oberyn. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I commented on my blog. You can find a more studied response there. I made a couple of comments as to what people said about that. I always pictured Oberyn Martell in my head as a — what I call a Mediterranean type. I know people attacked me for that by saying "He's ignorant, he doesn't know that Africa is on the Mediterranean." No, I know Africa is on the Mediterranean. But in common parlance, when you say Mediterranean. you are thinking Greek, Italian, Spanish. When you are thinking Moroccan or Tunisian that’s North African. That’s the way people talk about that. I always pictured the Martells and the salty Dornishman as Mediterraneans, so the casting I think is perfectly appropriate with what I wrote in the books.
I do sympathize. I mean, I understand. Some people have written me some very heartfelt letters, and I've tried to respond to them, about how they wanted to see someone who looked like them in the books, and how they were [disappointed]. They had pictures of the Martells looking like them, and they were disappointed. I understand that, but it still wasn't my intent to make... Even the terminology here is such a land mine. I don't even know what words to use here "black" or "African." I used African at one point, sort of like African American. [But] if you use "African," you are guilty for saying all Africans are the same. I don't know.
I am drawing from history, even though it's fantasy. I've read a lot of history, The War of the Roses, The Hundred Years War. The World back then was very diverse. Culturally it was perhaps more diverse than our world, but travel was very difficult back then. So even though there might have been many different races and ethnicities and peoples, they didn't necessarily mix a great deal. I'm drawing largely on medieval England, medieval Scotland, some extent medieval France. There was an occasional person of color, but certainly not in any great numbers.

This is a TV show based on Martin's fantasy series. Martin said Pascal is close to his concept of Oberyn Martell. Martin has pointed out before art is not a democracy. He alone creates and describes his characters in his books. Benioff and Weiss get to interpret them for their television adaptation. Those are the rules. If you don't like it, go home. Or better yet, create your own best selling stories, have a coke and a smile and shut the f*** up. Pretty simple, right?

Well, yes and no.

Reading the books I never really thought that Oberyn Martell (one depiction to the left) looked much like Isaac Hayes if only because Martin tends to get incredibly, predictably and occasionally offensively specific when describing a black character. His black characters are super dark skinned. IIRC none of them so far have had any POV chapters. And the other characters who do have POV chapters can't go three pages without commenting on how different a black character is. In the book Martin is somewhat coy about how Oberyn Martell looks other than saying he's relatively dark compared to the more northerly Westerosi. Oberyn Martell has relatives of differing complexions. More importantly in the book Martin gives a description of Prince Oberyn from Tyrion's POV that makes it clear that although Oberyn is "dark", he is also clearly within the middle spectrum of Dornish complexions.
The princeling removed his helm. Beneath, his face was lined and saturine, with thin arched brows above large eyes as black and shiny as pools of coal oil. Only a few streaks of silver marred the lustrous black hair that receded down his brow in a widow’s peak as sharply pointed as his noise. A salty Dornishmen for certain. 
But because in America at least, "white" can range from someone as pale and light eyed as Tilda Swinton to someone as dark and dark eyed as Caterina Murino, you would think that the HBO producers might realize that "black" can also include people as light as Wentworth Miller or Jennifer Beals. Both Miller and Beals could easily fit the book's description of two out of the three Dornish types described while someone like Michael Ealy could believably fit into one of the three. Heck, from pure acting ability as well as eye candy for the ladies, Idris Elba could have played Oberyn Martell. He's certainly got the bada$$ intensity for the part. It wouldn't be that much of a stretch and would go a long way towards making the series even more popular among some demographics that might give it a side eye. Oberyn Martell is supposed to be someone that ladies like. A lot. Although Isaac Hayes didn't automatically come to mind for Oberyn Martell or the Dornish people, the musicians of Tinariwen certainly did. But maybe that was just me. 

The issue here is that people want to, need to, desire to engage in stories that involve people who look like them. Maybe not all the time, but definitely some of the time. I think a big part of the reason that a hack like Tyler Perry has been so successful with a large segment of the black community is that he shows black people on screen. It's just that simple. Usually at this point some people of good will and even a few of perhaps not such good will, will question why does race need to be brought into everything? That is the stories being told in A Song of Ice and Fire/A Game of Thrones are indeed universal so why does it matter if most of the characters and so far all of the important characters are Caucasian? Can't we just enjoy the show and books and not worry about real life race issues? I mean it's not like GRRM, Benioff or Weiss are racists like HP Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard. Can't people just stop nitpicking? I mean really come on now!!!
That's a legitimate question, even if it is often used to peremptorily dismiss problematic casting issues. I'll address it by pointing to the long history of whitewashing non-white fictional and even real life characters for Hollywood movies. This was most ridiculous when applied to the EarthSea trilogy by legendary fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin. LeGuin, who is white, deliberately wrote her books as a corrective to the widespread presumption of default whiteness. In her trilogy, almost all of the protagonists are non-white. But in the film adaptation, this was changed to the reverse, over LeGuin's objections. Whether it's a question of racist Hollywood producers or amoral businessmen/women making sober judgments about what will sell, the fact remains that the predominantly white market seems most comfortable with watching protagonists that look like them, even if the source material must be changed to reflect this. So people claiming that there must be 100% fidelity to source material don't seem to object when the material is changed to their presumed benefit, as it was in the "brown and black people worship their white savior Daenerys" finale. The slaves in the book are literally from every race in the world. But in the TV show no one seemed to notice that making the slaves all people with high levels of melanin might have some unfortunate implications. You almost wonder where people might have gotten the idea of changing source material to fit their own ideas of what is good.

The Oberyn Martell character was and Dorne still is a good opportunity to bring some legitimate (not that different from the book) diversity to the Game of Thrones cast. So while it was nice to hear that the British-Indian actress (and babeIndira Varna will be playing Ellaria Sand, Oberyn's paramour, I still have to ding the show for missing the opportunity to make a leading House and many of its leaders people of color. 


To quote frequent commenter Webb
Boardwalk Empire on HBO is going to feature a whole story line about HARLEM this season and Black Gangsters Galore!!!
Unlike Game of Thrones...where the only black character of significance last season was named "worm" and really a eunuch with about five lines of dialogue--and then call that diversity?!?!?
Another blogger went in on GRRM here for what they saw as his contradictory statements regarding Dorne. It's a great read and I don't have too much more to add to it. Webb raises a good point though I would note that in the books that Grey Worm, Salladhor Saan and Xaro Xhoan Daxos weren't black. The black characters who have so far been dropped from the TV adaptation were arguably either MORE offensive than Grey Worm or they were relatively minor figures. But the show may have inadvertently(?) created more problems by depicting black men as eunuchs, pirates and greedy merchants. This changes in book five.

The bottom line is that I think that GRRM has the right to create his own fictional world as he sees fit. You have the right to enjoy it or not. I think that GRRM and HBO could have done some things better. I think that people who want to see different or more inclusive images must support the people trying to create those images. That is one reason that I contributed to Barnes-Due crowdsourcing of their film Danger Word.

What do you think?

Is this controversy much ado about nothing?

Are you able to enjoy stories featuring people who don't look like you?

Will the Starks ever get revenge?

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