It’s Not Just the Most Recent Death. GoT Has Always Had a Race Problem


(Image: HBO/Crave)
(Image: HBO/Crave)

#Demthrones y’all, #demthrones. The most recent episode in the final season of Game of Thrones saw our faves celebrating their win over the undead in Winterfell. There were *a lot* of great moments, including Gendry Baratheon (who’s now Lord of Storm’s End) proposing to Arya Stark and Jaime Lannister and Ser Brienne of Tarth *finally* acting on their seasons-long sexual tension and doing the deed. But, in an episode that was arguably overshadowed by these types of fan service moments, the writers of GoT once again proved that in one thing, they remain consistent: they’re not so good at handling race.

Because one fan fave who didn’t get the ending they deserved (and TBH, we all wanted)? Missandei. Queen Daenerys’ BFF has been ride or die since day one, in both our hearts and the Dragon Queen’s. She has been Dany’s right hand woman since she was freed from slavery in season 2, and finally, in the last season, found love with Grey Worm, the leader of the Unsullied. Guys, they were hella cute and planning to run off to the beaches of Naath once this sh-t show that is the Seven Kingdoms was over! Alas, they’ll never make it.

In the final moments of the season’s fourth episode, Missandei—who was kidnapped by Euron Greyjoy and held hostage by Cersei—was executed in front of Tyrion, Dany, Grey Worm and the remaining Unsullied at the gates to King’s Landing.

While our girl went out like a true champ, remaining stoic and refusing to give in to Cersei’s bid for dramatic final words, her death left a lot of fans pissed off. And rightfully so, since she’s one of only a handful of characters of colour in the GoT universe. Fans called out the show and its creators for using POC as merely a plot device, and a general afterthought at that.

But this isn’t anything new for GoT. Missandei’s tragic death just happens to the latest in a season and series-long issue with POC. And TBH, we’re over it.

There have been a lot of issues this season

In a show that is largely predicated on bloodlines and racial purity, and airs in our current (v. politically charged and racially volatile) landscape, it’s ridiculous to think that we can separate Missandei’s Blackness from the way she died.

As some fans pointed out, yes, Missandei wasn’t the only character to die this season (RIP Lady Lyanna Mormont, Theon Greyjoy and Ser Jorah), but the way she died was incredibly upsetting. Unlike the aforementioned characters, who died fighting an undead giant, the Night King and an army of white walkers respectively, Missandei’s death was clearly nothing more than a plot point that needed to be (literally) executed in order to justify Dany’s inevitable descent into Mad Queen territory. And unlike the other (white people’s) deaths, she was given no autonomy in her demise; she didn’t go out fighting—as she should have and as we’d expect her character to—but instead died right where we found her: in chains.

Missandei’s death was tragic on its own, but what made it even more problematic was that it came on the heels of episode three, which saw a mass slaughter of the only other characters of colour in the series. The Dothraki and Unsullied were basically all killed in the Battle for Winterfell while defending everyone else (read: everyone white).

Many online called out these mass deaths as the perfect example of the way the show treats non-white characters: as one-dimensional tools meant only to serve and further the plots of its (very) white characters, who also, not-so-coincidentally, happen to be the show’s key players.

This idea of POC as a plot device makes even more sense when you take in to account that, up until their deaths (and even in death), the Unsullied and Dothraki were portrayed as a mass—and a mute and/or barbaric mass at that. Aside from Grey Worm, who has become Dany’s trusted soldier, no other POC was given any sort of individuality or humanity beyond their ability to fight. This seems even more ridiculous considering the fact that the Dothraki have literally been with Dany since season 1!!

But it’s not just this season

Throughout the series’s run, GoT has been accused of being both racist and misogynistic—and a look back at the past eight seasons would prove that yeah, that assessment checks out.

Since Dany emerged out of the fire and onto the scene in season 1, she has constantly been propped up by, and her character development furthered by, characters of colour. Most poignantly, these POC serve to further the narrative of Daenerys as a fair, just and thus “rightful” ruler.

Take her liberation of  slaves across the Narrow Sea. We’re (obvi) not here for slavery, but Dany’s path to the Iron Throne is colonial AF. As writer Ellen E Jones wrote for an April article in The Guardianwhen Dany first meets the Dothraki in season 1, they’re depicted as “a nomadic tribe of violent, rape-happy savages,” until, that is, the Western white-haired Queen comes in and civilizes them all. Dany doesn’t adhere to Dothraki customs until, and only when, the title of Khaleesi—and support that came with it—benefitted her. And by the time she makes her impassioned speech to the Dothraki about crossing the sea to take King’s Landing, it’s no longer even about freeing the enslaved, but rather using their brown bodies and brute force to take over what she sees as her rightful throne.

As many people have pointed out, like all white empires, Dany’s has been built on the back of POC. Like, literally. In the season 3 finale, Daenerys crowd-surfs on a wave of Black and brown bodies—slaves who, now liberated, lift her up and chant, “mhysa, mhysa” (or, “mother”). As international relations expert Dr. David Wearing told The Guardian: “[This episode] ends with the blond, white Daenerys being borne aloft in gratitude by a sea of faceless people of colour, at which point we’re scarcely in the realms of interpreting subtext.” It’s a white saviour plot to the max.

Even the characters of Grey Worm and Missandei, though more prominent and autonomous then the Unsullied and Dothraki, serve the explicit purpose of aiding Daenerys in her quest to the throne; their allegiance isn’t necessarily born out of actual faith, but rather an almost transactional allegiance. In much the same way Dany bought Gendry’s loyalty with a Lordship, so too has she bought the loyalty of Missandei, Grey Worm and all the Unsullied with their freedom.

And this treatment of POC is something that extends beyond Westeros to the show creators themselves. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners for the HBO drama, are two white men—and it shows.

From the portrayal of the Dothraki to barbaric, to the equally contentious and unfair depiction of the inhabitants of Dorne (as again, overtly sexual and lacking morals), to the show straight up failing the “DuVernay test,” an alternative to the Bechdel test that gauges whether racial minorities are depicted as complete characters, there is much left to be desired when it comes to representations of POC on screen.

And TBH, after eight seasons, they still haven’t learned. In 2017, HBO announced that the duo were undertaking a new project, titled Confederate. The proposed show imagined an alternative timeline in U.S. history where the Southern States succeeded from the union and slavery was legal. Which, what? In what world did two white men think that they needed to tell the story of slavery? And in what world do we need a show about what the world would look like if slavery was still legal? TBH, we know what horrible racism looks like in the 21st century—countless Black people are currently experiencing it IRL, they don’t need it on their TV screens too.

The show idea was hit with some serious backlash, including from writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay, who described it as “slavery fan fiction.” Thankfully, the show has been indefinitely postponed.

But Benioff and Weiss’s serious lack of self-reflection, and ability to discern *why* this would be a terrible idea, speaks volumes about their lack of self awareness and the role they place in representation on screen.

And, it goes *all* the way to the top

Beyond the TV series, the trope of an underdeveloped POC who exists solely to support an often mediocre white man or woman, exists literally everywhere. But nowhere more so than in the land of fantasy.

There have been many arguments made over the years for why people of colour don’t seemingly exist in fantasy worlds (see: Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter), with people often falling back on an understanding of history—and thus fantasy as an extension—as white.

George R. R. Martin, the author of the Song of Ice and Fire series that Game of Thrones is based on, said as much in a June 2014 post on his blog, writing, “[…] Westeros is the fantasy analogue of the British Isles in its world, so it is a long long way from the Asia analogue. There weren’t a lot of Asians in Yorkish England either.”

Which honestly, doesn’t make much sense. Non-white people *did* exist in medieval Europe. Maybe they weren’t (European) kings and knights, but they were most certainly there. Speaking about the harassment she endured for being cast as Bess of Hardwick (a white woman) in the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots, Asian-British actress Gemma Chan said: “…If we portray a pure white past, people start to believe that’s how it was, and that’s not how it was.”

In the same interview, Chan reflected on the need for representation, and the double standard present in Hollywood when it comes to who can play what characters—or races: “Why are actors of color, who have fewer opportunities anyway, only allowed to play their own race? And sometimes they’re not even allowed to play their own race,” Chan said. “In the past, the role would be given to a white actor who would tape up their eyes and do the role in yellowface. John Wayne played Genghis Khan. If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick.”

All sound facts. But honestly, this argument about historical relevance is somewhat inconsequential—or at least it should be— considering GoT is a fantasy show. IT’S ALL FAKE! There are legit dragons and an army of iced-up zombies. What does it say that show runners—and audiences—are willing to suspend disbelief enough to accept that these characters exist, but aren’t willing to do the same for you know, non-white people?

Maybe, the thing we should actually be burning down isn’t King’s Landing, but the show as a whole.


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