Work in Progress
Two distinct questions are actually raised by such concerns:
- 1 - Has the TV series - produced by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss - presented issues of race and ethnicity in a manner significantly different from how they were handled in the source material, or were they simply making a faithful adaptation?
- 2 - How did the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, written by George R.R. Martin, address issues of race and ethnicity, regardless of how the TV series handled their adaptation?
The Dothraki as "savages"
In April 2012, however, fantasy author Saladin Ahmed wrote a reaction piece in Salon which was widely circulated through news sites, titled "Is Game of Thrones too white"? In his measured response, Ahmed observed that one of Martin's central points with the novel series was to shine a light of realistic criticism on the High Fantasy literary genre. Such Fantasy works were heavily influenced by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and Martin was a great admirer of The Lord of the Rings, however he also felt that the genre as a whole had too closely embraced Tolkien's sometimes simplistic moral system in which there is one clearly defined "good" side of the heroes, and a clearly defined "bad" side of monsters.
Instead of having noble kings and knights, for example, in Martin's works the King Robert Baratheon is a drunken whore-monger trapped in a loveless arranged marriage who has been known to hit his wife. Similarly, Ahmed observed, Martin wanted to show that the allegedly "civilized" knights and lords of Western Europe (which the bulk of Fantasy literature draws inspiration from) in truth committed just as much "savagery" as any "barbarian horde" - the chaos and atrocities of civil wars such as the War of the Roses in England (on which the narrative is loosely based).
In both the first novel and first TV season, the Dothraki are presented as war-like race of conquerors who raid surrounding peoples and whose warriors rape civilian women in wartime. The major twist, however, is that while Tywin Lannister is an arrogant aristocrat in Westeros who looks down on the Dothraki as "savages", the Lannisters themselves have done everything the Dothraki did. As the War of the Five Kings tears Westeros apart, Lannister armies raid, pillage, and rape civilian towns of the smallfolk in the countryside, just as much as the Dothraki do. It is also described how, at the end of Robert's Rebellion, Tywin personally led his army in the Sack of King's Landing, in which his Lannister army brutally rampaged throughout the city (Jorah later remarks that more women were raped during the sack than could be counted). Tywin's son Tyrion Lannister also recounts the horrific incident in which his father punished him for daring to marry a commoner girl named Tysha by having his guards gang-rape the girl while forcing Tyrion to watch.
Therefore, Tywin is presented as actually no less "savage" than the Dothraki, and in many ways worse because of his hypocrisy about it. When Khal Drogo's riders attack a village of the Lhazareen, his wife Daenerys Targaryen complains that his warriors are raping the local women they have taken captive: Drogo is not flippant, but at first just honestly admits that warfare has always included such brutality, and he has no illusions about it (though ultimately he relents after much protesting from Daenerys and he orders his men to spare the women). Ahmed concluded that Season 1 of the TV series handled the Dothraki basically how the first novel had done.
Tywin's "savagery" in Season 1 doesn't even take into account the savagery of his grandson Joffrey Baratheon, a Caligula-like sociopath, after he becomes king near the end of Season 1. In both the books and novels, Joffrey is an utter sadist who tortures others for minor slights both real and imagined, and needlessly has Ned Stark beheaded simply due to his own bloodlust, plunging Westeros into war. Joffrey also gleefully has the captive young girl Sansa Stark stripped and beaten in front of the entire royal court by his own Kingsguard - who are supposed to be the most honorable knights in the realm. Sandor Clegane even refuses to be made a knight, pointing out the hypocrisy that his older brother Ser Gregor Clegane was knighted, but is a brutal monster of a man, killing children, raping women, and torturing peasants to death on campaign.
Ahmed closed with the analysis that:
- "By skillfully replicating the juxtapositions posed by Martin’s back-and-forth POV, the show has managed also to replicate his ultimate, rather un-Tolkienish subtext: There is nothing unique about the savage horde's savagery. If Dothraki society is depicted as violently perverse, so is Westerosi (i.e., quasi-European) society, which bows to the whims of the Aryan-featured boy-monster King Joffrey, and which has knighted mass murderers and rapists like Ser Gregor Clegane, one of the most horrifying minor characters in all of fantasy. Every culture is savage in Game of Thrones, and that’s a very different view of the world than what Tolkien gave us."
Daenerys as the "White Messiah"
There were several criticisms regarding the closing scene of the Season 3 finale "Mhysa", in which the white-haired and pale-skinned Daenerys Targaryen liberates the slaves of Yunkai, and is then carried on their shoulders in a moment of triumph. The criticisms alleged that because most of the extras who played the slaves were non-white, this invoked the old trope of Daenerys as some kind of "White Messiah".
The TV series, for its part, seemed to just want to give a moment of hope and levity after the massacre of many major characters at the Red Wedding which began in the previous episode (and continued into the same episode, with the Freys triumphantly parading Robb Stark's horrifically mutilated corpse around their castle). Martin did give the explanation that the large crowd of slaves at Yunkai in Season 3 was predominantly non-white simply due to the logistics of extras casting: they were filming in Morocco at the time, and thus many of the extras simply weren't white.
Whatever the case, in the following Season 4, the showrunners seemed to have taken these concerns to heart, and made it a point to show both the slave-masters and slaves in the region as more racially diverse. When Daenerys reaches Meereen, several of the prominently appearing slaves with speaking lines are played by white actors, while the "Great Masters" of Meereen are similarly portrayed by a mixture of white and non-white actors.
Moreover, when Daenerys's forces capture Meereen, the original outline for the season was that Daenerys alone would be responsible for inspiring a general slave revolt within the city. The commentary tracks directly confirm, however, that Benioff and Weiss themselves felt it would be more appropriate for the non-white former slave-soldier Grey Worm to sneak into the city with a group of his men (in episode 4.4 "Oathkeeper"), to give swords to the city's slaves and lead them into revolt with an inspiring speech. Indeed, the Grey Worm/Missandei scene at the beginning of episode 4.4 was actually the first time in the TV show's history that a scene occurred between two black characters in which no white characters appeared at all. The way the novels are structured, Daenerys is the only POV narrator in her Essos storyline, so by definition she as a white character is present in every scene - the TV show had the freedom to move beyond the confines of that POV format to show the non-white characters around her having their own thoughts and agency separate from her.
Some reviewers, upon seeing the problems with sectarian violence Daenerys encountered ruling over Meereen by the end of Season 4, retroactively concluded that if Daenerys was being built up as some sort of savior in the Season 3 finale, it was merely "building her up to knock her down" - much as Robb Stark was built up as a great war hero only to be killed and his army destroyed in a massacre two seasons later. In the novel series, Daenerys's campaign in Slaver's Bay stretches across the third novel - which due to length issues had to be divided between Season 3 and Season 4. Thus, a reader of the third book would see Daenerys's rise as a messianic savior of sorts, then see her attempts fall apart as the reality of local politics sets in, all during the course of one piece of work. Spreading out her narrative from the third book across two seasons meant that viewers only got to see "the other shoe drop" in a second piece of work released a year later.
Several reviewers felt that seeing Daenerys's fall by late Season 4 (and into Season 5) retroactively improved the scene from the Season 3 finale as a result - citing that the narrative was just unfortunately delayed into the next season. A few reviewers, however, while fully believing that the production team intended nothing racist by the Season 3 finale scene and fully accepting that it was meant to "pay off" with Daenerys's failure by late Season 4, still felt insulted by the Season 3 finale, and that the production team should have planned it out more carefully.
Ultimately, it does appear that on a general level the production team at least intended Daenerys's messiah-like rise in Season 3 to contrast with her fall in Seasons 4 and 5, and weren't actively supporting some kind of "White Messiah" stereotype. Indeed, Martin himself was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and said that while he drew no specific parallels, Daenerys's activities in Slaver's Bay were in a way his criticism of the folly of foreign adventurism. Moreover, the showrunners took these criticisms of the Season 3 finale to heart, and are on record as making a concerned effort with Daenerys's storyline from Season 4 onwards to show non-white characters in a much more active role with their own agency.
The TV series has at times cast actors as characters who are of different race/ethnicity from how the characters were described in the novels.
There was considerable debate when Pedro Pascal was cast as Oberyn Martell about whether he looked like how the role was described, with some describing him as a white-passing Latino - Pascal's parents moved to the United States from Chile and he did grow up speaking Spanish at home. At least some of the reason behind this debate is that Oberyn was the first prominent Dornish character to appear in the TV series, and Dorne - the southernmost of the Seven Kingdoms - is described in the novels as ethnically distinct from the rest of Westeros, being descended from the Rhoynar people. George R.R. Martin himself spoke with approval about Pascal's casting, and said that he mentally pictured the Dornishmen as "Mediterranean" in appearance - though this, in turn, led to debates among critics about what exactly "Mediterranean" means, Martin has also repeatedly stated that Dorne is inspired by Medieval Islamic Spain (instead of being a pure fantasy construct with no real-life analogues). Ultimately Pascal was widely praised for his performance as Oberyn.
Overall, the TV series has not presented issues of race and ethnicity in a manner significantly different from the source material.
From a moral perspective, characters and races in the narrative that are non-Northern European in appearance (the Dothraki, Slaver's Bay, the Dornishmen, etc.) are not presented as particularly better or worse than other peoples. The narrative presents a very realistic twist on the Fantasy genre, in which politics and wars are brutal and violent - in every race or culture.
From a perspective of representation - physically having non-white/Northern European characters on-screen - the TV series is also not particularly better or worse than its source material. Many background non-white characters were cut (i.e. Summer Islander characters like Chatayaya that live in King's Landing itself, or Strong Belwas), but at the same time dozens upon dozens of white characters were cut from the TV series simply due to time limitations. A few characters were actually changed to be non-white, such as Salladhor Saan and Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Benioff and Weiss themselves even made it a point to give non-white characters such as Grey Worm and Missandei increased screentime relative to the novels, specifically because they wanted to use existing non-white characters more prominently.
On the other hand, the same criticism about representation can be made about the TV series that has been made about the novels: fundamentally, the two main families of characters - the Starks and Lannisters - are both white. Of the dozen or so Great Houses in Westeros, only House Martell of Dorne is presented as non-white/non-Northern European (being inspired by Medieval Islamic Spain). This is a criticism of the novels, however, and the TV series simply made a faithful adaptation of its source material. In many ways it is also a criticism that could be made of most contemporary television productions and movies in general, relatively few of which have predominantly non-white casts.