Roundtable: Book Fans, Show Fans, Race, and Rape in Game of Thrones

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In one of our sprawling internal email debates, it came out that WWAC staffers represent a good cross section of Game of Thrones viewers and that feelings were had by many. We decided to bring that conversation into the light for you all here — some of us are passionate book fans, some of us casual fans of the show, but all of us have strong opinions about the series’ persistently problematic representations of race and female sexuality.

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1) Tell the truth. How many of you have read the books? How many of you have read part of a book? How many of you casually watch the show with friends and wikipedia’d the rest while tweeting to #demthrones?

Annie: I haven’t read any of the books. I guess I’m a bad nerd — I never heard of them until the show was about to start.

Claire: Call me when they adapt Robin Hobb. #fantasyflounce

Wendy: I read the book after watching the first season and was really impressed with the way the show held true to the book. I’m all caught up on the books since and loved the first four. They weren’t perfect and there are things I don’t like about them, but there was a lot I did like — in particular, the character arcs. Since each chapter is told from the PoV of a different character, you really get to know them and walk with them. Some, like the Lannister children, have gone through some really fantastic paths, for better or for worse. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come across in the show, or changes have been made, therefore some characters that I might care for in the books are quite loathsome in the show. The last book was lucky to get two stars from me because at that point, I realized that GRRM was just killing time and rambling on with plot and characters. It made me appreciate the show more because it really tightens things up and gets rid of the detritus. 

Carolina: #1 fan here. I read everything there is to be read, I participate in online forums, I often read analysis (Steven Atwell is my favorite), and I write a bit about it in my free time. I have watched the whole show because I’m such a fan of the books.

Lana: I read all the books and have seen each episode of the show, but I’m not involved in the tweetiness or comment threads at all. I’m a bigger fan of the books than the show — I don’t mind plotlines being changed (i.e. Arya and Tywin Lannister being best buds), and I don’t mind name changes (i.e. Asha/Arya Greyjoy), but I can’t stand the gratuitous rape and torture scenes added to the show.

Sarah: I’ve read the first three, and am on the fence about reading more. I love watching my friend’s faces when shit goes down, but now that they’ve been getting spoiled more beforehand, I go back and forth between wanting to be surprised myself and enjoying having all that other information. To be clear, I stopped reading them because I needed a break from reading about rape on every other page.

2) Can you tell the secondary and tertiary characters apart? Justify their existence.

Annie: Ehh, kind of? After the first episode aired, I realized the number of beardy old white guys was overwhelming, so I headed to the wikis to try to figure out who the various people are. I don’t care about spoilers, but I do care about knowing who is talking and how they know each other. I wish GRRM had decided that everyone in their world wore nametags all the time.

Wendy: In the show, sometimes, but rarely. There’s not enough time to have everyone on screen and certainly not enough time to tell their story, so they are easily forgotten. They are usually a bit more prominent in the book, but there are so many that sometimes they do get a bit confusing and require the use of the wiki.

Carolina: Yes, and I think they are very important (well, at least to me and the fandom). But I understand it is hard to differentiate them in the show.

Lana: Yes, I can tell them apart without issue, but I’m not sure that I would have been able to without reading the books first. Also, having prior knowledge of the minor characters makes it much more exciting to see them on screen, even briefly. And again, I’m not sure that I would have been as interested in their roles without first finishing the first five books.

Sarah: I’m with Lana. If I hadn’t read the books, I’d be so confused by who was who, who was related to who, who was sleeping with who, and why do all these men look alike?

3) j/k Some of my favourite characters are secondary and tertiary characters. My real question is, how do you feel about the addition of PoC to this part of the cast, while the leads remain white?

Annie: It’s supposed to be this huge, world-spanning story, so it doesn’t make sense for everybody to be white. I know the main focus is on a northern Europe analogue, but plenty of material is set elsewhere. Don’t any of the people in those places count? Almost all of the PoC characters so far have been NPCs, to borrow gaming terminology. When they introduced Xaro Xhoan Daxos (yep, I had to look that name up), was he the first black character they showed? The way I remember it, all we learned about him was that he is the Onion Knight’s pirate friend and he has a thing for white women. And in subsequent appearances, he’s been surrounded by white women with no names and no lines. That feels problematic to me.

If nothing else, having some variation would help the audience differentiate between people you might not even see for three or four episodes (or more!) and then they pop up and we’re expected to remember who that guy is and why he hates that other guy.

Carolina: Annie, don’t take me wrong, but you confused Xaro Xhoan Daxos with Salladhor Saan. It further proves the point the characters are hard to differentiate in the series… Also I’d like to note Xaro is said to be white (and homosexual) in the books, but with that exotic name and exotic looks (nose piercings etc.), from a far and exotic land, even some book readers forgot that and came to understand he was of color! Ew. 

Annie: Oh, for crying out loud. I inadvertently illustrated my own earlier point. XXD is the merchant in Qarth who tried to marry Daenerys. But I remembered that the name I wanted was alliterative! I am a casual fan at best. 

Wendy: I’m so meh about the European based fantasy stories now. I’m used to the unique, exotic PoC showing up among the white folk and being a subject of unique exoticness. Oftentimes, the characters are quite memorable for more than just the colour of their skin, but the writers can never get away from pointing out how different they are and that their difference is probably why you like them. GRRM actually has loads of PoCs in this series. A small few end up in King’s Landing, but most are across the way being exotic in their own exotic lands. And GRRM does a fine job of describing the colour of their skin with a veritable cornucopia of adjectives. Dusky, ebony, obsidian, onyx… Crayola would be proud.

With the introduction of Dorne in the fourth book, things change some, with more time spent on the other side of the world, and the Dornish characters actually taking a prominent role in the game of thrones. As much as I have come to love Pedro Pascal, I have to admit that I was disappointed to see him as Oberyn Martell, along with Indira Varma as Ellaria Sand. As happy as I was to see PoCs, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that people who come from a desert land managed not to get much of a tan. I guess that’s because they spend all their time being exotic and having lots of sex, if I’m to believe their portrayal in the show.

Cap: Game of Thrones, Oberyn Martell

In season 5, the show heads to Dorne. I’m certainly happy to see Alexander Siddig cast as Doran Martell, and at least Keisha Castle-Hughes seems to fit Obara Sand’s “swarthy” description from the book. But the PoCs that are, if the book’s plot is somewhat adhered to, set to become much more prominent, otherwise maintain that paleness that seems to be the comfort zone.

Carolina: Okay, here I’d like to make some things clear: 1) I love the books, but am very critical of them all the same; 2) yes, I think the TV show is much more racist than the books; but 3) that is in no way denying the books have a lot of problems.

In my current reread of the series, I’ve been paying special attention to race indicators. As is unfortunately expected, the leads’ skin color is rarely described (save Dany). It’s just that white is considered the default. But there is a (clearly stated) PoC here and there, some with important roles, some with a chapter point-of-view, but the show missed almost every opportunity to cast PoC actors in representative roles. Instead, they prefer to use PoC actors as tokens. Foreigners, pirates, exotics, sex-addicted, guards characters are turned to PoC in the show, while the books don’t follow this “logic.”

The Martells are probably the most relevant black characters. They. Are. Black. Also, just because they have more gender equality and therefore women can express their sexuality doesn’t mean they live in brothels. Lord Martell’s guard Areo Hotah, at the other hand, comes from Norvos. He is probably white. But in the TV show auditions, they specifically asked for a black actor. Why??? It’s not even like the best actor for the whole happened to be black. They wanted the loyal, strong and opinionless guard to be black. That’s disgusting.

Lana: While entertaining and gripping, there are many, many flaws in A Song of Ice and Fire, the depictions of women and PoC being the main weaknesses. The story would benefit, both in the book and in the show, by improving depictions of women and minorities.

Sarah: I will admit to being more on the ball with sexism than racism, and just reading the discussion here made me more aware of some issues. However, I do really like the interior life they hint at with Missandei, however much they could add to the idea that more PoC = just people that they’re overall lacking in the show. Aaaaaand that’s a super clumsy way to phrase it.

4) Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen etc etc Mother of Dragons. As fun as her storyline can be, it’s riddled with problematic elements: from stereotyping men of colour as brutes and rapists, to Daenerys’ role as white savior to slaves of colour, to the white dragon’s burden of staying to rule the territories she’s conquered. And it is depicted as a burden — she’d much rather be moving into Westeros. So what do you think of how they’ve handled her story? I’ve found the visuals — the crowd scenes — to be especially cringeworthy.

Annie: There’s definitely a heavy “noble savages” motif, even in the places that have comparatively advanced civilizations. And I wish they wouldn’t treat it like a surprise when one of the natives turns out to be clever, or loyal. Were we supposed to assume otherwise? It’s standard fare for this type of story, but it’s gross. THEY live in a world where they got stuck in medieval times for millennia, but WE live in 2014. I desperately want some of the characters to go out to explore the rest of their planet and stumble across a continent where the people are already having their industrial revolution because they weren’t held back by magic and dragons.

Wendy: There are certain elements that indicate that the folks on the other side of the ocean are quite advanced and much less “savage” (The Iron Bank of Braavos, Arya’s sword dancing tutor) and that the foolish people in the seven kingdoms actually owe much to them, literally and figuratively, but the story is still all about the white folk. Dany’s story is most telling of how PoCs are seen by GRRM.

Cap: Game of Thrones, DanyCarolina: Daenerys’ storyline is the worst, because the racism in it is not just a lack of representation, but a thematically important plot point. Again, what is bad in the book translates to the TV show as absurdly ridiculous. Why are all the slaves brownish, if there was no racial slavery ever in this world? Why do all of them love her?

I am sure Martin intended to be critical about Dany’s and, through her eye’s, the reader’s relation to the foreign. That’s a very important theme in the series, if not the most important (cough cough the Others cough cough). That’s why we have almost only Westerosi characters points-of-view (besides two unique chapters, and prologues and epilogues). The reader is supposed to ask herself why the characters think and act the way they do towards the other cultures, the unknown.

But the road to hell is filled with good intentions. It may have actually worked with some storylines, like the Night’s Watch’s ridiculous wars against the wildlings. But when we put a character considered racially superior in the mix (ie. Dany) plus the awful lack of PoC representation, it becomes a mess.

But I’d like to remind show-only fans to be analytical. I know the TV show presents the characters in an unambiguously good light, but in my opinion it shouldn’t be like this at all. Is Dany doing the right thing? Is she a hero, a villain, or just crazy? Actually, Dany’s lack of knowledge of the people she wants to help will be more and more a plot point, until the inevitable happens…

Annie: I don’t perceive a single character as unambiguously good. Maybe some of the very young children? I think we’re at least meant to question whether Daenerys is doing the right thing. Her over-confidence has come back to bite her a couple of times. She may see herself as the Great White Savior, but I’m not sure how well that will work out. At this point in the series, I’m not rooting for any particular character to win the throne. I hope Westeros gets the least terrible option among those capable of stabilizing the region and holding onto power. Yaaaaaaay.

5) Rape. Let’s talk about it. Does this need a question? Ok. Why does this show lean so much on rape to prove that bad men are bad? Why do Robert and Jaime, both guilty of spousal rape, get to be nuanced human characters, where elsewhere rape is an on/off switch into villainy? And relatedly, why can Tyrion “get away” with killing his lover, when Littlefinger killing Lysa makes him that much scarier?

Annie: The concept of consent doesn’t really exist there. If a woman is a man’s property, and they’re not intruding on another man’s territory, she’s fair game anytime. If she says no, and he agrees, that makes him a really nice guy! If marauders jump out and grab a woman they don’t have claim to, that’s what they would consider rape, because it devalues the woman and makes her unclean. Rape is an uncomfortably common element of the story, and I think they lean on it too heavily, but it does reinforce how completely awful that entire world is for ANY woman, whether she’s a slave or a queen. It helps make Cersei more sympathetic than she might be otherwise.

I didn’t think killing Lysa made Littlefinger scarier. It was perfectly in keeping with his character, and it was a relief when he finally did it. He’d seem stupid if he didn’t kill her at that point. It fit right in with his mostly pragmatic — and always self-serving — ways. Lysa was an unstable element in a position of power, so I was only a little less happy to see her go than I was Joffrey or Viserys. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but she’s also a fictional character.

It felt ickier to me when Tyrion killed Shae. I understood why he did it, especially in a moment of the highest possible emotion, but I think he’ll regret it later.

They all live in such an amoral world. It’s far easier to seek and wield power if you’re willing to do anything, no matter how awful. As GRRM established as fast as he could, being noble gets you as dead as Ned Stark.

Wendy: I am so mad at HBO for their handling of rape. Because two very specific scenes that involved consent were turned into rape by the writers very specifically choosing to remove the clear statements of consent, with no follow up to justify this. Just like the rest of the sex added to the show, it has all been gratuitous and not at all part of plot development. To me, it was telling that one of the few sex scenes they did not use in the first season was one of Ned and Catelyn having loving, husband and wife, conversation afterwards, sex. Who wants to see that when we can see boobs in your face doggy-style action instead?

No, I don’t particularly enjoy rape in storylines, but I am not opposed to it if it is truly understood by the writers, not overused as an easy plot device, and if the consequences are clear. This is where the show does the books a huge disservice for me.

Cap: Gane of Thrones, Tyrion and Shae

Tyrion has a long standing relationship with caring about whores that his father and sister have shat on. He loved and married one, which he’s spoken of in the show, I believe. As punishment, his father had her raped in front of him and forced him to rape her. His father has constantly warned him away from whores, but he fell in love with Shae. In the book, another whore he cares for is tortured by Cersei, thinking she’s the whore Tyrion actually loves. Tyrion tries to send Shae away to safety, first by request, then by bribery, and finally by pretending he doesn’t care for her. Unfortunately, because Shae only thinks of Shae, she probably viewed the latter as justification for her utter betrayal when she takes the stand and lies on Tywin’s behalf.

Peter Dinklage did such an amazing job of showing us just how much she broke him with her words. But to top off his despair, he then finds her in the bed of the father who has forever hated him and condemned him. Frankly, facing death for a murder he didn’t commit, with that much heartache and betrayal on his shoulders, I don’t think I would have thought of anything else but murder either. But I don’t see him “getting away” with it. I see both as deaths that will weigh heavily on Tyrion for years to come.

Petyr killing Lyssa? That is his character. He’s attempted to murder a child (effectively starting this war), betrayed Ned Stark into death, attempted to seduce Sansa, murdered Dontos. Why would killing Lyssa (the woman he manipulated into murdering her husband) suddenly make him seem scarier?

Carolina: I completely agree with Wendy.

There are two (three?) characters in the book who have a really healthy sexual life. Ned and Cat, but the show cut it because who wants to see “old” people having sex, right? And Asha/Yara Greyjoy, who isn’t much of a character in the show anyway.

Oh, and I don’t think Robert Baratheon gets away with spousal rape! Not at all! For me, it’s clear what an awful person he is. Is there someone who disagrees with that? Jaime, though, I’m sure he has his fans. But for me, he’s just an awful man who has done some not so awful stuff sometimes.

And let’s get to Tyrion: he is not a good guy! I mean, in the TV show he is, because they cut all the wrongs he committed and made him look like some kind of a hero. Besides boring, that makes things like killing Shae inexplicable. But, speaking of the TV show, I think the actress that plays Shae, Sibel Kekilli, is the one who gets closer to understanding Tyrion, even with the stupid lines they give her. When Tyrion gets in the room and looks at her, she knows it. He is a murderer. She can’t explain the situation, even though she has very logical reasons to be laying in that bed, because to him she is just an object and he doesn’t care. That’s why she grabs the knife. She knows it.

Tyrion is a great character in the books, not a great person. His grayness is masterfully played by Martin, as well as the consequences of his murdering Shae to his mental health.

Annie: Since I never read the books, I don’t have any “that’s not how it was in the book” issues. The show’s worldview feels consistent: it’s a cavalcade of unmitigated horror and death. I don’t think Robert Baratheon “got away” with anything. He was plenty bad, but there were people who were worse standing around to make him seem less bad by comparison. It’s a similar deal with Jaime, who kicks off the series by shoving a young child out a window. He’s a bad guy who eventually learns how to have some human feelings, even though he was raised in a family and environment where that kind of thing is strongly discouraged. “Not the worst person we’ve met” isn’t the same as “good guy.” Those characters seem more nuanced than others because we spend more time with them. If we suddenly followed one of the random marauders who attacked Sansa or Brienne, really got to know him, I’m sure we would see more of his humanity.

Sarah: Like I mentioned before, I stopped reading the books because of rape-fatigue. And I’m totally with Wendy about those two not-rape scenes being infuriating when so ham-handedly turned into rape scenes. It really affected how I saw both Drogo and Jamie, and I still haven’t gotten over it in that I’m just no longer rooting for Jamie. Every time he’s in a scene I cringe when he gets near Brienne, and just don’t care the rest of the time.

I suppose the show’s handling of Littlefinger and Lysa, as well as Tyrion and Shae, was presented in a pretty biased way. I felt Shae’s betrayal more in the book, and was more horrified at her death, while during the show I was just analytically admiring Peter Dinklage’s mad acting skills. Lysa is just such an unlikeable character that I don’t think it made Littlefinger scarier, it just made it clear that he is willing to get his hands dirty and not just plot in the background.

6) Martin has said that because Westeros is a British Isles analogue, people of colour are a non-starter. But! They do exist in the world. Somewhere else. Not here. Do you buy this response to criticism? (Ok, I know you don’t buy it, but work with me.)

Annie: I touched on this above, but: no. Come on! They have plenty of white folks in the more “foreign” locales, and boats can go in either direction. They had centuries upon centuries when the people of Westeros could go questing on dragonback. At minimum, they would have colonized the other places, just like our world. Even if those colonies eventually fell apart, plenty of people would have moved from one continent to the other in the meantime, and those trade routes wouldn’t evaporate.

Wendy: Touched on it above as well. It’s really not a valid excuse. There might not be lots, but it’s tiresome when it’s just one or two, there only for plot purposes and exotic creds. Not to mention that when we speak of PoCs in his world, it doesn’t really include Asian people at all.

Carolina: Bullshit. Obviously it is a fantasy world loosely based on Medieval Europe and not a historical work. But obviousness aside, let us explore a bit more the ways Martin makes a fool of himself:

The native people of Westeros have brown-colored skin. As far as I know, that doesn’t sound like Britain. Actually, the way he describes it, it reminds me a lot of America… Hm, interesting… So you can mix historical references! But only if you want to, of course.

He made up an entire new race from scratch: the Valyrians (for non-readers: Dany, the Targaryens, the Valaryons, people from Lys, the nobility from Volantis…). They are inspired by ancient Romans, but Martin got to make up physical features for them, however he wanted. So no historical references here, right? Still, they have ultra-pale white skin, blonde-silver hair and violet eyes. Okay, the violet eyes are awesome, keep them. But how are violet eyes more realistic than medieval PoCs?

So Martin, please, don’t defend the undefendable. What about “I’m sorry and I’ll try to do better?”

Sarah: Did not buy. That is all.

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Editor-In-Chief. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

4 Comments

  1. Interesting article, but I do have to nitpick your take on the Martells. I’d say that it’s quite clear that Westeros is based on medieval Europe, with various parts of it borrowing heavily from the many cultures, climates and countries of Europe (and we are quite a varied bunch here). That said, House Martell was, in my mind, very clearly a Spain/Italy analogue. Hot climate, dark hair, olive skin (that’s mentioned specifically in the books, and while olive skin is more of a stereotypical description than anything close to a fact, it’s definitely not “black”), orange gardens, the passionate people with a hot temper thing etc. They’re practically on-the-nose orange-eating, olive-skinned Don Juans. All literary archetypes/stereotypes of the description of Spaniards and people of Latin descent. And the desert thing? There’s a desert in Spain, so I wouldn’t think that would automatically give them an African origin…

    So I definitely don’t agree with a definite statement like “They. Are. Black.” Were there black people in medieval times Europe that Westeros is trying to analogue? Sure! And a lot of them, actually. But I don’t think Martells were ever portrayed as a “black” family in the books, is my point. It definitely would be nice to have more ‘POC’ characters, and I think there’s a lot of options to feature them in the show.

    • Agreed that Dorne is depicted as Spanish-based society (and I think they are going to be filming in Spain for season 5?). That’s how I interpreted them. While they were also depicted as a rather ‘free love’ kind of people, I was annoyed with the fact that almost every scene in the show initially had Oberyn surrounded by sex, as if that was *all* they were about.

    • I haven’t read the books so I can’t judge how they were portrayed there. However! Spain was for a long time ruled by Moors — so if Dorn is an analogue for Spain, that’s a great opportunity to make it a meeting ground ground for two cultures and a chance to have lots of new characters of colour.

  2. I said that, so let me explain.
    Dornish people are a multi-racial bunch, as noted by a racist Targ monarch who classified them in three “races”. So it might as well be as you say — that they are Spanish looking, and in medieval times, so of course, Moor looking.
    But Oberyn Martell, specifically, was described like this:
    “The princeling removed his helm. Beneath, his face was lined and saturnine, with thin arched brows above large eyes as black and shiny as pools of coal oil.”
    His face was “saturine”. Now, as someone pointed out before, we have to congratulate GRRM for having so many words for describing skin colors [irony]. But anyways, as far as I’m concerned, “saturine” does not have the ambiguity of olive skin. It refers to lead, and it means black. And that’s why I understand all Nymeros Martell are black.
    But, minuciae apart, I wouldn’t mind if he and his family were Moor looking, or whatever, if there is POC representation in the show as a hole. They could be white, if most of the other people were POCs, as far as I care for literal book interpretation. Just hire POC actors, and I won’t have to go searching my books for that one word (one!) that says he is black.