Is "Game of Thrones" racist? Not even wrong….

By Razib Khan | April 21, 2011 1:53 pm

One of the aspects of fiction is that it serves as a Rorschach test. Over at Slate Nina Shen Rastogi has a post up, Is “Game of Thrones” Racist?:

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!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
MORE ABOUT: Culture, Fantasy, Fiction, Racism
  • Wil

    Razib,

    You are old enough to know your own mind, and you are obviously intelligent. Your feeling squeamish about cartoon characters, and not being able to identify a reason for feeling that way, is one of the sure indicators of politically correct brainwashing. Your question, “Are they still allowed to do that?” is another dead giveaway.

    An irrational fear of something, or an irrational love of something, is one of the well-known indicators of external psychological conditioning. Techniques can be used to lessen somebody’s fear of spiders or heights, for example. Similar techniques can be used to make somebody love or crave something, for no visible or rational reason.

    Modern liberals use these techniques (often unknowingly), literally on a seven day a week basis. Certain people, things or ideas are defined as “bad” or “evil”, without any reasoning or evidence given what-so-ever. Like in high school, where the “cool kids” are supposed to look and talk a certain way, and the “dorks” are supposed to look and talk another way. And when the dorks eventually copy the cool kids, the cool kids immediately change, so as to redefine what is cool and set themselves apart from the dorks once again. Their real motivation is to maintain their self image of superiority over the dorks.

    The truth about race is that all races feel more comfortable with their own kind. As far as hating or tolerating other races, that is dependent on each individual’s parents, tastes, and personal experiences. Modern liberals continuously use racial guilt as a powerful weapon against whites, in order to degrade and diminish them. This “softens them up” so that power, money, and rights can be more easily taken from them.

    Another way that race is frequently used as a weapon, is the irrational and dishonest damning of an individual because some other person (currently alive or long ago dead), with the same skin color did something bad. Unfortunately, this kind of group-think also applies to nationality and religion, all over the world. A scientist would disregard the skin color, nationality and religion of each individual, and look only at that person’s words and deeds. Or as MLK put it, “the content of his character”.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #1, you are quoting someone who i am quoting who is quoting someone. are you lazy or just a dumbass? either way, don’t comment again if you can’t be bothered to read or are just plain dumb (you obviously didn’t read anything beyond the quotation, since you’d immediately know that you misunderstood the formatting if you actually bothered to read what i wrote!).

  • Juan

    I read the Black Company series back in high school. That used the geography of India and mythology of Hinduism for inspiration. At the time I had OD’d on Tolkien and D&D-flavored fantasy so it was an interesting departure. Of course, I knew nothing about India or Hinduism, so I have no idea how effectively Cook used that source material.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    so I have no idea how effectively Cook used that source material.

    if u enjoyed it, he used it effectively, right?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    also, #1, i was feeling bad in that i thought perhaps you just don’t understand blockquote because you’re not tech savvy. but i looked you up, if you’re 34 or something u have no excuse.

  • Wil

    Razib,

    You are correct in that I am not sure about block quotes. I will look into it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    wil, it’s fine (though frankly weird if u read blogs) to be unaware of block quotes. my angry response is due to the obvious inference that you didn’t read most of the post. <b if you read the whole post you would have backed up and wondered why i'm contradicting myself. also, did you bother to the read the title even?

  • Scott

    I kind of thought that about Game of Thrones when I was reading it. Then I realized that all the groups of people in the book were pretty ruthless and bloodthirsty when it came to power and gold.

  • Bill

    “The truth about race is that all races feel more comfortable with their own kind.”

    I have to call bullshit on that one.

    You’re speaking for yourself here and assuming that it applies to everyone. Maybe you feel more comfortable with what you define as your own race. Don’t project that onto all people.

    “Modern liberals use these techniques (often unknowingly), literally on a seven day a week basis. Certain people, things or ideas are defined as “bad” or “evil”, without any reasoning or evidence given what-so-ever.”

    Such as? Which ideas specifically are defined as “bad” or “evil” irrationally and with no reasoning or evidence?

    “Modern liberals continuously use racial guilt as a powerful weapon against whites, in order to degrade and diminish them. This “softens them up” so that power, money, and rights can be more easily taken from them.”

    Right, so whites are now the victims of a conspiracy to guilt them out of their wealth and power? You’re on about the liberal boogeyman brainwashing everyone, but it seems that you’ve sipped a bit of the other team’s Kool-Aid.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    bill and everyone. can we just drop this line for now? as evidenced by wil’s cursory reading of my post he wanted to talk about this issue and took his opportunity. but i’d rather talk about a game of thrones more specifically.

    thanks.

  • http://blackmanjm.blog.com Jalisa Blackman

    I tried (and couldn’t) think of a more clever way to say this, but I really thought it important to share anyway: I absolutely agree with your parting sentiment.

    First, let me say I haven’t read George R. R. Martin’s series (though, I’ve recently been encouraged and am now feeling the need to), but I did watch the Game of Thrones premiere. I enjoyed it and I didn’t once think of racism, though my fiancé and I did comment on race, as we typically do when watching anything Fantasy–this could be due to the fact that we discuss race and the implications of it a lot; probably because he’s white and I’m black and we think about it. Whatever.

    The point is, yes, more people of color should write . I am. I want to. I encourage it. I’d love it. I don’t think it makes sense to get mad at people for writing with their own ideals and tastes and preferences. But I used to get mad, when I was younger and I didn’t see myself in the things I read and I wanted to. But now I do the same thing, as far as writing what I know, what I like, what I understand and see.

    And now I have a couple authors to look up. I really appreciate this article. Thanks.

  • Ben

    OT: In over a decade of reading blogs, this is the first time I’ve encountered a reader unfamiliar with block quotes, which can also be found in dead-tree media, by the way…

  • Sean T.

    Your post got me pondering what “epic myths” exist for non-European cultures. Some of them are obvious, like China and Journey to the West. Some of them are trickier, but I suppose even in a young culture like America’s we have one in the world of Oz (It’s a full fantasy storyline complete with interwoven subplots and a mapped out fantasy world.)

    It’s actually pretty interesting and I wonder if there’s any culture you couldn’t apply that to. It does seem that most if not every has at least one big fantastic work of fiction that serves as a cultural backdrop.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    OT: In over a decade of reading blogs, this is the first time I’ve encountered a reader unfamiliar with block quotes, which can also be found in dead-tree media, by the way…

    blockquoting can be rendered weird in RSS. i just don’t think he read the whole thing, so he got confused. as i said, he’s not old or foreign, so it can’t be overall lack of familiarity with the internet. quite often people have something they REALLY want to say, and they jump the gun and start saying what they want to say no matter the details of what they’re addressing. i do not encourage this, i’ve been reading comments for nearly 10 years on my weblogs now and i can spot this pattern from a mile away. i think it’s hilarious when readers just comment off titles though. nice opportunity for a verbal beat-down.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    sean, the epic of gilgamesh is basically quest fantasy. so is the odyssey. the ramayana and mahabharata obviously are epic, and the interlude in the bhagavad gita is even reflective enough to add a non-conan aspect of psychological introspection.

  • Realist

    If you don’t like it, don’t read or watch it. The end.

  • http://lovelettersinhell.blogspot.com Amanda

    First, I want to take the opportunity to push Octavia Butler’s sci fi books and short stories. They’re pretty awesome.

    As to Game of Thrones– I don’t think the books are “racist”, but I can see why people who aren’t familiar with them are going to be put off by the tv show. The baddies are blondes, but all we know of the Dothraki culture so far from the pilot is that the only people of color in the entire world behave in a barbaric way, take killing at weddings lightly, and having a violent sexual dance. Plus, unlike the books, the pilot seems to imply that Drogo rapes Dani. Barbarism in our own day doesn’t excuse dressing the barbarism in Game of Thrones up in ethnic wrappings.

    Also, saying more colored people should write is easy– but who is going to publish those books? Often, books with colored main characters are published, depictions of white people end up on the cover anyway!

  • Dragon Horse

    Razib:

    The description of the people in “Thrones” I thought sound like “Celts” or Picts (if they were actually Celts). I specifically got the impression they were like a “Black Irish” type folk. :-) That’s my take, and I’m a person of color. I do see what you were getting at though.

    It seems that light hair and skin denotes a female and a child as something pure and worthy of protection. Light hair for an adult man is something generally negative.

    Being too dark is generally negative. Too dark could make you a wizard, a vampire, a barbarian. In very modern times, especially sci-fi the dark character, often a black or someone who is obviously black underneath make up is often the noble character who sacrifices all for people he just met. LOL

    Slightly dark (tall dark and handsome, but relatively light, basically a Welsh, Black Irish, French look) makes you likely to be the noble hero. It is seen as masculine, but not in a barbaric way.

    Even within whites, if you view movies and books, the bad guy is often a blond Nordic looking guy, but one who is obviously evil or effeminate in demeanor. The bad guy can also be more Slavic looking or even Mediterranean looking (often this type are also vampires, or the anti-Christ. Personally I felt if an anti-Christ existed he would look like Brad Pitt, not Robert DeNiro LOL Who would trust Robert DeNiro??). In American movies these types tend to have notable accents (German, Slavic, Spanish).

    At least this has been my take on these things.

    So for men: A little dark is good, too light is bad, too dark is generally bad or means you will die quick.

    for women: Light is always good, dark hair and light eyes is usually a sign of evil witchery.

    for children: light is always good.

  • leviticus

    I can’t speak to the movies, not having seen them, but in the books, as you well know, the barbarism gets spread around pretty thick. Everybody is barbaric in a Dark Ages kind of way, Sandor Clegane getting the William the Conqueror Award for thuggery.

    From still shots, it seems the movie folks cast the Dothraki as a vaguely Rasta looking bunch. Honestly, what’s with the dreds? Why is the coco-skinned, mixed, but vaguely African-American the default look these days for “exotic” peoples? Brought to you by the same people who cast Rosario Dawson as a Bactrian princess, the Eloi in the Time Machine 2002, and a selection of B rated Hispanic actors to be the lead actors in Nomad . It’s not inclusive, it’s silly, and vaguely insulting and perhaps says something about the dearth of non-European, but also non Latin or African diaspora, actors and extras. The great irony, however, being that the two actors used most often to play various ethnicities, Yul Brenner and Ben Kingsley- well two guys, Kingsley actually has acting skill, Brenner never did-aren’t from either group.

    Wouldn’t it have made more sense to cast Asians as Martin was taking his cue from Eurasian steppe peoples like the Huns? East and Central Asians not scary or sexy looking enough? That might be the key here. And if so, there might be stereotyping at work.

  • Sean T.

    @Razib

    Gilgamesh occurred to me. Though I’m very unfamiliar with the various Indian quest fantasies you mentioned. Thanks for that; I’m tempted to look a bit into them now.

    Do you agree with that interpretation of Oz? For that matter, I’m starting to wonder if a lot of Wild West fiction might fit a little bit into that mold. Is the storytelling model white hats, black hats and Native Americans really all that different from the model for brave knights, evil sorcerers and elves?

  • Dragon Horse

    One more thing, in the new Camelot Series, which I have been watching (but will likely stop) King Arthur is being played by a blond haired blue eyed. I found this shocking, because frankly it is abnormal. Guinevere is also being played by a blond pale woman. First, it is unusual to have two blond people in a romantic situation in any films, second the chief hero is rarely blond. So far all the bad guys have been “darker” and Mordred (Arthur’s evil half sister) is being played by Eva Green, typical dark haired, very fair skinned, light eyed WITCH. :-)

    A British (English) friend of mine joked that Arthur was Welsh so he should be a brunette or a “carrot-top” with a mustache. haha

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    The great irony, however, being that the two actors used most often to play various ethnicities, Yul Brenner and Ben Kingsley- well two guys, Kingsley actually has acting skill, Brenner never did-aren’t from either group.

    ben kingsely was born krishna banji fwiw. he’s a half-brown. yuel brenner’s ethnicity is confused.

    His father, Boris Julievich Bryner, was a mining engineer whose father, Jules Bryner, was Swiss and whose mother, Natalya Iosifevna Kurkutova, was a native of Irkutsk and was partly of Buryat Mongol ancestry.[5]

    His mother, Marousia Dimitrievna (née Blagovidova), came from the intelligentsia and studied to be an actress and singer; she was the granddaughter of a doctor who had converted from Judaism to the Russian Orthodox Church.[5]

    He was also a Romani on his mother’s side, and in 1977, he was named Honorary President of the International Romani Union, an office that he kept until his death

    also,
    Wouldn’t it have made more sense to cast Asians as Martin was taking his cue from Eurasian steppe peoples like the Huns? East and Central Asians not scary or sexy looking enough? That might be the key here. And if so, there might be stereotyping at work.

    well, the huns themselves may not have been that asiatic. at least by the time attila and his ilk showed up especially due to lots of intermarriage with the goths.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    A British (English) friend of mine joked that Arthur was Welsh so he should be a brunette or a “carrot-top” with a mustache. haha

    yeah, i think this is right. don’t know the original folkways, but the arthurian fantasies i’ve read play on this stereotype a lot. that the britons are a “dark folk” like the welsh. in contrast the saxons are portrayed as nordic barbarians.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Do you agree with that interpretation of Oz? For that matter, I’m starting to wonder if a lot of Wild West fiction might fit a little bit into that mold. Is the storytelling model white hats, black hats and Native Americans really all that different from the model for brave knights, evil sorcerers and elves?

    right. i think there are universal archetypes which derive from standard cognitive furniture. westerns, epic fantasy, and space opera, all are twists on the similar theme.

  • Jake Voorhees

    I’ve yet to see the pilot for the new series, but I’m quite a fan of the books, having read each one of them at least four or five times, and I have to say that in so far as the different races of the world, George R.R. Martin does an excellent job of portraying them as “exotic” or “different” rather than “barbaric.” Each chapter in the book is headed with the name of the character whose story it follows and whose viewpoint it espouses, so when the novel does treat the races or other characters in a negative fashion, it goes much more towards characterization than it does an espousing of traditional tropes and stereotypes.

    Insofar as the hair color goes, I believe that association of character traits with hair color was probably more of an accident of the world-building rather than a conscious decision on the part of Martin. Westeros, the country where much of the action of the books takes place, is a land of numerous races, each with fairly distinctive ethnic features. The Starks are dark-haired only because they are descended from a race of First Men, whereas the Lannisters come from a different race located in the south of the continent. The Sansa vs. Arya, Robb vs. Jon dichotomy also relates to the dynamics within the family. The mother, Cat, is from another family to the south, and favors Sansa and Robb, with mention that they’ve inherited many of her physical features and personality traits. Time and again, she’ll internally monologue about Robb’s “Tully-ness” as opposed to “Stark-ness.”

    And I wouldn’t be deceived by the pilot. Martin is a master of subverting expectations, especially in later books when he starts switching to the perspective of characters that were viewed as villainous in the Stark-heavy “Game of Thrones,” and even the most heinous characters of the world start to receive some reader sympathy once their histories, goals, and thought-processes are understood. The books also cover a goodly period of time, with the characters undergoing pretty intense changes and maturation.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    The description of the people in “Thrones” I thought sound like “Celts” or Picts (if they were actually Celts). I specifically got the impression they were like a “Black Irish” type folk. That’s my take, and I’m a person of color. I do see what you were getting at though.

    in the main continent of westeros there are three primary peoples. the first men, the andals, the dornishmen. the dornish have a mediterranean. the andals are germanic i would think. and the first men are i think vaguely celtic, especially due to their animistic/cthonic deities. but martin warns against being too literal in any mapping between our world and that of asoif. he really is making up the world as he goes along ;-)

  • Jake Voorhees

    I should mention, too, that within the book, the racism of “medieval-esque” peoples is treated very well. The Westerosi tend to have contempt for the “barbaric” Dothraki, who tend to have contempt for the “barbaric” Westerosi, and everyone has contempt for people from As’shai and Qartheen, &tc, &tc. HBO creates relatively impressive and in-depth series compared to the quality of the average show, at times verging on the Shakespearean (a la “Deadwood”), but when you’re limited to a weekly block of time an hour long, you’re going to have to take some shortcuts that the books are able to forego. (I believe “The Game of Thrones” falls just short of being as long in the first volume as the three books of “The Lord of the Rings” combined, and the other books, “Clash of Kings,” “Storm of Swords,” and “Feast of Crows” are each longer than Tolkien’s work.)

    (Apologies for the wordiness of my replies, especially if you’ve read the books, Razib. I read “Nina Shen Ragosti’s read the books.” and I took that to mean that you hadn’t, though re-reading your post, I might be wrong. Fanboyism + English undergrad = disaster incoming.)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    As to Game of Thrones– I don’t think the books are “racist”, but I can see why people who aren’t familiar with them are going to be put off by the tv show

    that’s an issue. i’m addressing people who seem to confuse the shows with the books. i haven’t, and might not, watch the show, but the books have a lot of thick context. i don’t know what to say if people want to get outraged by the show. perhaps the criticism of the show should make it so that asoif gets diverged into two brands, visual and lit.

    Barbarism in our own day doesn’t excuse dressing the barbarism in Game of Thrones up in ethnic wrappings.

    so what, we get multiracial ethnicities? this isn’t science fiction. in the pre-modern world groups fought based on ethnicity and religion, they dehumanized and otherized. i don’t really know what people want here. this is the dark ages. i mean you could do what le guin did, and just have all the evil being white except for a few tokens. i guess no one would complain. having all the evil groups be asian or africanesque is a consistent issue. but the solution is to get people to write a more varied stuff, not make it all vanilla.

    Also, saying more colored people should write is easy– but who is going to publish those books? Often, books with colored main characters are published, depictions of white people end up on the cover anyway!

    1) you can avoid the system and self-publish. the fact is that most stuff people write doesn’t get published. most fantasy authors have written LOTS of never published work before they get their first break. perhaps someone could start a colored fantasy imprint?

    2) the part of the covers is true, but does it matter that much? isn’t the key what’s between the covers? is that even a point worth making? i’d thought of it an dismissed it as triviality.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i’ve read them :-)

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    “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. [...] Judith Tarr herself is a white American from what I know, so I doubt she’s pushing a deeper agenda”
    Isn’t Ursula Le Guin a white Canadian? From what I hear though, she’s atypically political.

    agnostic is writing that pastoralism is necessary for Cambell’s hero quest.

  • Aaron

    Wow. a great blog about genomics, sociobiology, etc…and I find it via a link from westeros.org. I like it. I felt a need to comment on Shen Rastogi’s piece too, but I like your forum much better than the original article’s. What I found weird was the equivalence she makes between GoT potentially being ‘racist’ and her complaints about the Dothraki’s screen portrayal being (in her opinion) a stale collection of tropes and archetypes from recent tv and movie depictions of non-european tribal societies. I mean, she’s clearly bothered and disappointed by the aesthetics of the Dothraki depiction, but it’s only in the rather hyper-specific context of how authentic or original or iconic it is among its brethren in Conan movies or sword and sandal epics or whatever. I just think she’s making a rampant category error when the intensity of her aesthetic nausea gets so strong that she names it ‘racist?’ b/c it’s tangentially to do with some non-white people.

    Determining the racist quotient of art should hopefully be a bit of an intellectual affair–not entirely dictated by one’s immediate visceral response to stories and images.

  • Paula Helm Murray

    Um,. Dragon Horse, Mordred was Arthur’s bastard son. From his sister, Morgan LeFey (a fairy or feè or witch in the traditional sense).

    Part of this interpretation of Mr Martin’s work also includes feelings about whitewashing or severe blaming of behavior of people who lived in way different situations/times than we do in our PC, totally afraid of saying anything not PC way of living now. There are a lot of people now that would freaking faint dead away if they tried to walk on the street in freaking 1900 because of the smell of BO and people wearing the same clothes daily. And then someone would open their mouths and complain about how x/racial folk is taking away their business. Any further back is just impossible because life was so different. We do not spend most of our days in basic survival, our lives are ones of luxury (even the lives of poor people) compared to someone in 1900. I’m not even going to start on disease and etc. because that is a whole ‘nother can o’worms. We live in a highly privileged age, especially in the United States.

    I used to do SCA stuff and got really really tired of people who would tell me, “I really, really want to be alive back then, when it was all real.” They were often the people who were really really prissy about stuff like bathrooms and etc. The idea of dropping trou by the side of the road and taking a dump would have made them faint dead away. Plus everyone in the SCA assumes they are gentry at the very least. Which is really false. I probably would have died in childhood because I had a couple of really bad bouts with infection, until after WWII antibiotics were not really existent in the real world.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    ppl, stay on GoT or fantasy fiction in general. i’m not going to publish comments which are “pure politics” plays from now on unless it is extremely informative and lucid (political comments almost never are; most people are bullshitting or repeating).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    amanda, to be clear, i’m curious to hear more of this:
    Barbarism in our own day doesn’t excuse dressing the barbarism in Game of Thrones up in ethnic wrappings.

    i.e., how does barbarism in a fantasy context not get ethnicized? the word *barbarian* after all does connote the other.

  • Ian

    I’ve just started reading Game of Thrones (based on your earlier recommendations), and haven’t yet gotten to the wedding. But I’m far enough along that the revelation wasn’t a surprise. Still, I’ve thought a lot about ethnicising the “other” in fantasy, ever since I read Tolkien’s descriptions of the “men of Far Harad”…a description that felt like “gollywog” racial image which disappointed me not so much because it felt racist but rather because it was such a one-dimensional caricature in a book that tends to have so much depth to its ethnicities.

    To begin with, people who look different, who dress differently, who speak different languages are going to be seen as somewhere along the scale from “exotic” to “barbaric”. In fantasy it’s normal to dress the “exotic” in harem pants and give them a curved blade. Yes, it plays upon stereotypes; sometimes these are intentional (worlds modelled on our own), while other times they are simply useful tropes.

    As far as skin colour goes – it’s actually a pretty major challenge for a writer. If you avoid differences in skin colour, you’re being racist by excluding all non-whites from your fantasy world. If you go with something that approximates real-world patterns of skin colour, your “barbarians” are likely to be brown. Why? Because your principle characters will probably be based on white Europeans…not because you’re a racist, but because you’re doing what writers are always advised to do – write about what you know.

    If you don’t want to borrow from the real world, you have two choices. One is to just switch things around randomly – put dark-skinned, blond-haired people in the Arctic, pair green eyes with “bronze” skin, things like that. Do that, and you run the risk of it being a distraction. Or you can read this blog for a few years, get a sense of how modern humans ended up being distributed the way they are, guess at the actual evolutionary drivers behind “slanted” eyes or straight hair, use a GCM to see what the climate of the world you created would actually be like, figure out where agriculture arose and how that would have driven the spread of Neolithic farmers in your world…and use that eco-cultural-evolutionary model to determine what your main characters and your barbarians look like…

  • Ian

    I really think you could write great fantasy based off the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. I also think you could do great stuff based on Warring Kingdoms China. The bible, of course, also has some great material in it – when I read the books of Kings and Chronicles I felt like the authors had stolen half their ideas from the histories of Gondor and Arnor in LoTR.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    If you don’t want to borrow from the real world, you have two choices. One is to just switch things around randomly – put dark-skinned, blond-haired people in the Arctic, pair green eyes with “bronze” skin, things like that. Do that, and you run the risk of it being a distraction. Or you can read this blog for a few years, get a sense of how modern humans ended up being distributed the way they are, guess at the actual evolutionary drivers behind “slanted” eyes or straight hair, use a GCM to see what the climate of the world you created would actually be like, figure out where agriculture arose and how that would have driven the spread of Neolithic farmers in your world…and use that eco-cultural-evolutionary model to determine what your main characters and your barbarians look like…

    1) this sounds like the hal clement strategy for fantasy world building. the main reason this doesn’t happen i think is that fantasy by and large eschews attempts to verisimilitude in the natural sciences. on the other hand, many fantasists are rather punctilious in the anthropological and mytho-poetic dimensions. does the existence of dark skinned people with blonde hair distract that much? it’s relatively common. both le guin and tarr have it, but it pops up in other places.

    2) it is really hard having a contingent and coherent world. the easiest strategy is to mix & match our reality, letting real history do a lot of the work for you. martin, and kate elliott in her recent early dark age series, did just that. sometimes the influences are subtle and unexpected. martin explicitly points to the alans as a model for the dothraki. the alans had a role in the 5th century in the west roman empire. they were the dominant people in a three way confederation with the vandals and suevi. in any case, after a defeat by the visigoths the alans as a people asked the vandal king to be their king. the vandal kings in north africa referred to themselves as “Rex Wandalorum et Alanorum”, king of the Vandals and Alans. note that the targaryens styled themselves “King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men.” each people in turn and distinctively.

  • Pingback: Daily Dough #42 « smoke me a kipper; I'll be back for breakfast

  • Dragon Horse

    PauL:

    Yes you are right. Mordred is not even concieved yet in the Camelot series, it is Morgan Le Fey, but he name is Morgan Pendragon in the tv show after their father’s Utter’s surname.

  • dufu

    Based on your recommendation a few weeks ago, I started reading the series. Right now I’m halfway through the second book. And so far I’m enjoying it; it’s definitely a cut above the usual fantasy silliness.

    It seems to me that successful fantasy writers have to map their characters and cultures onto tropes recognizable from human history and mythology. Otherwise, I think it would be much harder to emotionally invest readers in the story. The best contrast I can think of is China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels. Although there’s a quite a bit of “industrialized white people are evil” tropes, by and large the world depicted is mostly alien. And it’s the world itself that drew me in, not so much the characters. Wondering what the next utterly bizarre piece of that world Mieville would dream up was what pulled me in. I wonder what more “expreienced” fantasy readers think of them.

    And by the way, how the hell in Song of Fire and Ice can they tell how many years old somebody is when the seasons don’t last any definite length of time?

  • Ian

    does the existence of dark skinned people with blonde hair distract that much? it’s relatively common

    Probably projection. I find it distracting. Surely everyone in the world thinks the same way I do :)

  • Kimmy

    Ian,
    Plenty of fantasy writers do a good job of fantastic hard science world building. Check out Kulthea’s schedule of tides (it’s got three moons, mind) if you don’t believe me. Niven too, in his “the magic goes away” stuff.

    dufu,
    simple: you’ve got climate patterns, like the Little Ice Age or La Nina, imposed on a more standard “summer fall winter spring” system. Yet to be seen if “global winter” is actually catastrophic…

  • PD Shaw

    As a Robert E. Howard fan, I think his contributions to the foundation of fantasy are too often overlooked. On this particular topic, his thinking is pretty clear. Howard was of Scots, Irish, French extract, with a dark hair and complexion. Almost all of his heroes had the same background and look. And in inhabiting their worldview, he quite easily assumed some degree of animosity to Vikings or light-haired stand-ins for them (as well as Romans and their stand-ins).

    Howard really wanted to write historical fiction; his fantasy settings were a compromise to the needs of making a living in the pulps. He didn’t have the luxury of putting out a book every few years after carefully researching all of the necessary background. To just casually change a character’s race or ethnic background would have disconnected them from history and made them an abstraction.

    I didn’t realize LeGuin’s Earthsea characters weren’t white for several years. Blame that on the cover of the ppb or my own race, but also she’s writing an entirely different type of fantasy, where the character’s background culture is not that pertinent.

  • Steve

    Dufu, the long seasons are probably caused by the axis of the planet. There are tidal locked planets in our galaxy that would have seasons like that even though they would have similar lengths of years to our Earth. I believe there’s one in the Gliese 581 system.

    Even Venus is almost tidal locked so it rarely rotates, but it still has fixed years because years are determined by your orbit around the star. Therefore the people in Westeros could easily create a calender based on the positions of stars and their Sun.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    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

    Well, since the Archipelagoans are most like Native Americans, and many of their cultures were shamanistic or weakly polytheistic…

    Atheism does not imply non-religiousity, after all. Le Guin is rather famously a philosophic Taoist.

  • Marissa Lee

    There are a number of authors who are people of color and write fantasy fiction, but may not get a chance to be published because the book industry is less welcoming to authors of color and stories about characters of color. Even the author in the example you used, David Anthony Durham, experienced discrimination. In his article on colorblindness on his blog, he writes that booksellers had to be persuaded to shelve his book in the Fantasy section of the store.

    http://www.davidanthonydurham.com/blog/2007/08/on-being-color-blind-reader.html

    Having a more diverse range of authors is a start, but that also doesn’t take away from the responsibility of all writers–including white writers–to be cognizant of how they portray characters of color in their stories.

  • http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/ Brian Schmidt

    Tolkien was obviously inspired by epic myths, but I hadn’t heard he intended his fantasy universe to be the epic myth of the English. Any more info available about that?

  • Jimmy

    Dufu: it’s a normal calendar cycle. The “winter” is war, and “summer” is peace. Please don’t make the explanation any harder than it has to be, with planet axis tilt.

  • Jimmy

    Tolkien was inspired by his childhood (shire), having fought during one of the world wars (can’t remember which off the top of my head), and his post war experience having come home. National Geographic presents: has a number of videos on Tolkien.

  • leviticus

    I think Marissa raises a good point, reiterating Razib’s point about the need for more points of view. I would only counter Marissa, however, by saying that “people of color” is a pretty big category and involves many different groups.

    Simply being non-white isn’t enough to result in a genuinely different narrative structure and aesthetic sensibility. Durham, I am assuming, is a Westerner, although not white. He is still a product of Western civilization, although with a distinct experience. Whites and many non-Western groups have kindred mythologies (Abrahamic and Indo-European). Moreover, because of acculturation and economic considerations, Westerners of non-Western ancestry will still find their writing styles influenced, if not dominated, by Western sensibilities. Rebelling against this is futile. Writing in opposition to a hegemonic system isn’t being truly alternative, it is a reactive act, already limiting the writer to pre-set boundaries.

    I had a longish message, which I lost, but here is some:

    Creating a historically plausible world, not based on pre-existing historical and cultural schema, isn’t economically feasible. To create such a world would require narrative space that contemporary readers aren’t willing to give and, more importantly, publishers won’t print.

    Cormac McCarthy, a little too laconic for my taste, had this to say on long books:

    “the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like The Brothers Karamazov or Moby Dick, go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.”

    To answer Razib, on Kingsley and Brenner, I wasn’t clear, apologies. I see them as Old World outliers in a casting role largely dominated by New World talent. Although with Kingsley, as I said, he is an actor, he isn’t just the go-to brown guy. Brenner failed outside of the adventure genre. Watching him play Jason Compson in the Long Hot Summer, for example, was painful.

    On the Huns’ appearance, point taken; indeed, the Huns were already mixed before they encountered the Goths, with Iranian and Finno-Ugrian elements.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Simply being non-white isn’t enough to result in a genuinely different narrative structure and aesthetic sensibility

    i agree.

  • ackbark

    Wow, Yul Brynner sounds like a Dothraki!

    In fact variations on Yul Brynner is pretty much exactly how I pictured them.

    When Dany is in Astapor and Mereen she encounters an ethnic group who seem carefully made to be unlike anything on earth, kind of fattish people with black hair with red elements.

    And by the way, how the hell in Song of Fire and Ice can they tell how many years old somebody is when the seasons don’t last any definite length of time?

    My impression has been that within the exceptionally long seasonal eras in A Song of Fire and Ice there are lesser warmings and coolings analogous to seasons within the seasons.

    And having read all the way to the bottom of this thread I have entirely forgotten whatever it was I’d meant to say.

    Oh, yes: on blond = evil,

    not all the Lannisters are really evil, there was that fellow in A Feast of Crows who was made Warden of the West, just as all the Targaryans aren’t.

    And Brienne of Tarth, who was left hanging rather too literally, isn’t evil.
    (but was she blond? I thought she was.)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    brienne is blonde.

  • Konkvistador

    “Do that, and you run the risk of it being a distraction. Or you can read this blog for a few years, get a sense of how modern humans ended up being distributed the way they are, guess at the actual evolutionary drivers behind “slanted” eyes or straight hair, use a GCM to see what the climate of the world you created would actually be like, figure out where agriculture arose and how that would have driven the spread of Neolithic farmers in your world…and use that eco-cultural-evolutionary model to determine what your main characters and your barbarians look like…”

    Do all that work just to get called racist anyway?

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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