The announcements coming out of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con were, as usual, a barrage of news about movies, TV—oh, and comics too.
One of the most exciting announcements was that in Season 5 of Game of Thrones, two of Oberyn Martell’s daughters will be played by Jessica Henwick and Keisha Castle-Hughes.
These two names jumped out from the long list of new cast members due to their ethnic backgrounds: Henwick is half Singaporean Chinese and half white English, and Castle-Hughes is half Maori and half white English-Australian.
Henwick’s credits include stage productions and various British TV shows including Spirit Warriors, whose cast seems to include every East Asian actor known to the BBC (which is still not a lot). Castle-Hughes has appeared in an eclectic mix of New Zealand and US TV and film, including The Almighty Johnsons, The Nativity Story, and the excellent Whale Rider.
Up to this point, Game of Thrones’ only Pacific Islander actor has been Jason Momoa. Although he brought a lot to a potentially thankless role, his character’s position as the leader of the warlike Dothraki did little to refute the perception of Pacific Islander men, or men from warm places with brown skin, as violent and primitive. By making his first sexual encounter with Dany non-consensual, the show at least partially relegates him to a common stereotype of men from ethnic minority backgrounds: the animalistic savage who sexually assaults white women. Additionally, since Khal Drogo doesn’t speak English, his character is perpetually foreign, and, in terms of the narrative, gets killed to allow his white spouse to take up his leadership position.
Henwick’s inclusion in the Game of Thrones cast is particularly interesting because I can’t remember the last time I saw an actor of East Asian descent in a fantasy genre TV show. As far as genre TV goes, Asian-ethnicity actors tend to show up in science fiction—such as Battlestar Galactica or Heroes—rather than fantasy.
When Asian characters do appear in fantasy shows, the shows are either set in the modern day, involve specifically Asian elements (such as Spirit Warriors, wherein children are transported to an “ancient Chinese spirit world”) or are animated (such as Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose characters aren’t Asian per se, but do have coloring and features resembling those of Asian people.)
However, fantasy with the standard trappings of a quasi-medieval setting, magic, and lots of people in robes are off-limits to Asian actors and (with the exception of Jason Momoa) Pacific Islander actors as well. The implication is that diversity is a new phenomenon rather than a long-standing principle; there’s no place for Asian/Pacific Islander people in our imaginings of the past.
Is the addition of Asian/Pacific Islander actors a step forward for Game of Thrones, or genre TV as a whole? Possibly. Oberyn’s daughters may be supporting characters, but they’re certainly memorable for readers of the book series. I recall a surprising amount of anticipation online regarding their introduction to the TV show. Casting Henwick and Castle-Hughes in these standout roles suggests a willingness to foreground actresses from often overlooked ethnic groups.
The fact that there are two Asian/Pacific Islander actresses whose characters are in the same setting and the same character grouping (the Martell-Sand family) is also significant. Often the inclusion of ethnic minority actors on TV adheres to a one-of-each policy; besides Lost and the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, when was the last time you saw two Asian/Pacific Islander actors in the same show?
Portraying Asian/Pacific Islander women in positions of power and strength also goes against the trend towards invisibility and fetishization that has so long been the norm for Asian/Pacific Islander women on screen. This casting may give actresses from these ethnic backgrounds more opportunities to shine and to not be limited to the roles of prostitute, crazy girlfriend, emotionless doctor, silent sexy foreigner, or white man’s trophy in this decade’s take on Dances with Wolves.
Then again, in the source material Oberyn’s daughters mostly stay in Dorne, which is described by the main characters as a place where people have strange customs that are not like theirs. And although Game of Thrones has a fair amount of actors and characters of color in its cast—even portraying previously white characters such as Xaro Xoan Daxos as PoCs—these characters are kept in foreign lands: Vaes Dothrak, Qarth, Yunkai, Meereen, Braavos, and now Dorne. The one PoC who actually lived in the parts of Westeros that we saw was Shae, played by the Turkish-ethnic Sibel Kekilli—who was (surprise) a prostitute.
So while I suspect this casting won’t be entirely progressive—confining these two characters to Dorne and casting two WoCs as the daughters of extremely sexually active parents doesn’t exactly combat the othering process it—will probably lead to the introduction of ways for Asian/Pacific Islander actresses to escape the exoticism trap. For instance, while Henwick and Castle-Hughes’ characters will likely have some otherness about them, they hopefully won’t seem like complete foreigners since they’ll be portrayed among their own people in Dorne. Also, I don’t remember much about the sex lives of Oberyn’s daughters in the books, but their assertiveness rules out the possibility of them being servile towards men, sexually or otherwise.
Overall, then, it is a step forward, but we won’t find out just how big that step is until next year.