The Dothraki are dark, with long hair they wear in dreadlocks or in matted braids. They sport very little clothing, bedeck themselves in blue paint, and, as depicted in the premiere episode, their weddings are riotous affairs full of thumping drums, ululations, orgiastic public sex, passionate throat-slitting, and fly-ridden baskets full of delicious, bloody animal hearts. A man in a turban presents the new khaleesi with an inlaid box full of hissing snakes. After their nuptials, the immense Khal Drogo takes Daenerys to a seaside cliff at twilight and then, against her muted pleas, takes her doggie-style.
They are, in short, barbarians of the most stereotypical, un-PC sort. As I watched, I kept thinking, “Are they still allowed to do that?”
I wasn’t the only viewer who found the depiction of the Dothraki uncomfortable, to say the least. Time’s TV critic James Poniewozik, noting that the Dothraki seem to be made up of a “grabbag of exotic/dark/savage signifiers,” wondered if it was “possible to be racist toward a race that does not actually exist.”
First, the author immediately notes that for every swarthy barbarian there is a depiction of another trope, the Evil Blonde Guy. Nina Shen Ragosti’s read the books. She knows that though initially you encounter a story which is framed in black-white Manichean terms that is the norm in the more juvenile sectors of epic fantasy, the development of the characters, and your perception of the world which they inhabit, quickly slouches toward many shades of gray.
The television show may be different, I don’t know. In any case, if you read the books I think you might seriously wonder what George R. R. Martin has against blondes! Not only is the family which is at the center of the web-of-evil-intent-and-action boldly blonde, but within the “good family” (the Starks) depth of character and nobility of purpose are usually aligned with the brunettes (petulant Sansa vs. persevering Arya, good-hearted but ultimately naive Rob vs. brooding but predestined Jon). The main caveat is that Martin is one who often sets up expectations which he turns upside down, so any coarse generalization may eventually land on the wrong side of the ledger.
There are several broader issues in the bigger picture in terms of the reaction of people to epic fantasy and speculative fiction. First, in a world where most people praise multiculturalism and diversity there seems to be a tendency to blanch and recoil when faced with genuine divergence of viewpoint and variance of behavior. In our own world many attempt to reframe differences of value as ultimately due to material conditions (e.g., intolerance is rooted in poverty, etc.). This misses the reality that despite our common humanity grounded in human universals which makes communication across the chasm of culture possible, there are also deep abiding incommensurable values even among extant societies! People recoil from a depiction of barbarism, but we have barbarism in our day! Sometimes I get a sense that the discomfort that people have with the depiction of barbarism in fiction is that it smashes the delusion that cultural diversity can be reduced to variety of dress, dish, and language. This was how cultural diversity was preserved in the former Soviet Union. One of the main criticisms of fantasy is that it is too often a simple and unsubtle morality play. The world of A Song of Ice and Fire in contrast has rich texture, but we need to be cautious about ruining our enjoyment by projecting our own contemporary preconceptions as we explore it. We need shift between enjoyment of the development of individuals with whom we identify, along with moments of epoche to take in the landscape without preconceptions.
Second, there are fantasy works which have veiled or unveiled anti-white sentiments you can find out there if you want to balance the scales. Ursula K. Le Guin has copped to this as one of her agenda’s in the Earthsea stories. It’s even more explicit in Judith Tarr’s Avaryan novels. Here’s a representative selection from Avaryan Resplendent:
Vanyi’s cheeks were burning. No doubt they blazed scarlet. It was all the color they ever had. Corpse-woman, people called her here, because she was as white as new milk, and they were all black or brown or ruddy bronze. Even the Asanians were, at worst, old ivory.
The are references to the “maggoty pallor” of people who seem equivalent to white Europeans in Tarr’s secondary world in A Fall of Princes. Judith Tarr herself is a white American from what I know, so I doubt she’s pushing a deeper agenda, but just changing the terms of her secondary world in a manner which makes it atypical for Western fantasy.
But the bigger issue is that authors can not help but inject their own perception of the world and biases into their works. Otherwise they’d be computers lacking real A.I. I’ve noted before that it’s pretty clear that Brandon Sanderson is a theist, or is speaking from a theist point of view, in his fiction. He has admitted as much. More precisely there seems to be a Mormon inflected aspect in his Mistborn series. Conversely, Ursula K. Le Guin’s atheism seems to have influenced the lack of theistic religion in Earthsea as anything but a deviation or abomination (in interviews she soft-pedaled the propagandistic nature of her execution of intent, but I think I’m being accurate).
There’s an easy way to even out the problem of Eurocentrism in fantasy fiction: more colored people should write. David Anthony Durham is a black fantasy writer. I don’t think his race influences his Acacia series too much. He does utilize the Evil Bonde Guy trope, but so do fantasy authors in general (see David Coe). One might suggest though that he gives a little more detailed description to the African equivalent populations in his secondary world than one might usually find in epic fantasy, which I found interesting even if it was marginal to the main story arc. Black science fiction writer Steven Barnes wrote an alternative history duology starting with Lion’s Blood which could, it is argued, be an Afrocentric “what-if.”
Much of fantasy literature draws from epic myths. J. R. R. Tolkien’s own work was an attempt to create an epic myth for the English people, because their own had been lost, unlike the Scandinavians or Irish (rather like the Kalevala). Most “high cultures” have an extensive epic myth tradition which can be mined, so authors who want a non-Northern European milieu have a lot they could work with. David Drake used a hybrid of Sumerian and medieval European motifs in Lord of the Isles.
Less criticism. More creation!