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On Race and Gender: A Response to Certain Accusations

There are a couple of complaints I have seen made on Twitter and on various forums regarding the first episode that, quite frankly, baffle me. This may be something of a minefield considering the topics, but I tried sitting on my hands and it didn’t work.

First, the portrayal of the Dothraki has been called racist.

Its a serious complaint and merits a serious response. To begin with, I do think it is really awkward to make such a complaint at the start of a show based on the first book in a long series. The books come to reveal, and I believe the show will also do so, that our first impressions of many things and many characters are far from the truth. Yes, Daenerys is frightened by the “savage” Dothraki and Viserys is disgusted by them. We need to see that, especially Daenerys’s fear. They are “the other” to her, utterly unfamiliar, and she is a scared young girl who just wants to go home. They had to be radically different from her so that she, in the end, can come to see that they really aren’t.

I suppose some will argue that GRRM could have forestalled this issue by perhaps making the Westerosi, or at least the Targaryens, darker-skinned or less Caucasian in appearance and letting the Dothraki be pale-skinned and fair-haired. Sure, I suppose he could have done so. But to do so just to be politically correct would not serve the story. I do not want to read fantasy stories where issues of race (or gender) from the real world are allowed to dictate what can or can’t be done. I do not mean that fantasy should be disconnected from reality or that it cannot comment on it—I think it is an excellent medium for doing so—but I do not feel it has an obligation to portray things differently and to be revisionist in regards to real world issues just because it can. Yes, you could write a medieval-inspired fantasy set in a world that seems pretty Europe-inspired and make the inhabitants black. But you shouldn’t have to do this.

GRRM has good and bad people among the Dothraki, good and bad people among the Westerosi…and most people are, as people tend to be, somewhere in-between, with a capacity for good and evil deeds. Cultures may have their positive and negative sides to, on both sides of the narrow sea.

Then, we have had complaints about “all the rapes”.

There is no indication in the books that the women dancing at the Dothraki wedding are being raped. They appear to be part of the khalasar rather than slaves and for all we know dancing at a khal’s wedding and maybe getting pregnant from a prominent warrior is something desired by Dothraki women. That is pure speculation but so is the assumption that they are being raped. In the show, it’s even clearer that it’s not rape—the women are cheering the men as they fight, and two of them are all over the victorious warrior afterwards. And, a small detail, but slaves often wear collars in the novels, and it’s the same on the show: you can spot several collared slaves in the crowd, but the dancing woman have no such collars. These are free women who are willing participants.

When it comes to Daenerys, yes, the scene with Drogo has been made less consensual than in the books. I will not, however, in any way agree that the scene as written in the books constitutes rape. I certainly do not believe Daenerys comes away from that feeling as if she has been raped. In the end, she probably does not have a choice, but Drogo makes the effort to let her feel as if she does. He does not want to frighten her, he treats her like one might treat a skittish horse, touching her until she relaxes. The sex that follows after the wedding night is still very hard for her (not the least, it seems, because she is otherwise not a part of Drogo’s life), but so is her whole life with the khalasar. When she starts thinking she might even kill herself, it is her whole life that she finds unbearable.

But, lets return to the portrayal of that scene on the show. To begin with, it was apparently played much closer to the books in the pilot script that was said to have leaked, but the writers seem to have felt that Daenerys’s story arc needed to be simplified. In the books, the wedding night makes it seem for a moment as if things will be alright, but her next chapter still shows the reality of her issues with her whole situation. Given the time constraints, I suspect they felt it could not be effectively conveyed. Daenerys’s arc is certainly one that has suffered somewhat from losing her internal monologues.

So, we are left with a scene where Drogo does not make any particular efforts to calm and reassure his new wife (in the end, perhaps more of a loss for his character than hers) and where one could argue that Daenerys is too intimidated to resist beyond one attempt at covering herself up. But, and this is the crucial point for me, we’re still in a society where the mindset drilled into women is that they can be married off for political reasons and that they should be prepared to do their duty once wed. That is a fact that simply cannot be ignored because it changes how someone reacts, mentally and emotionally, in this sort of scenario. Which is why I do not believe that even in the show, Daenerys will feel as if she has been raped. She will feel as if she has done an unpleasant duty and it will feel like a very difficult burden, but will she feel ashamed or will she feel that there is any stigma attached to what happened to her? No, except for perhaps feeling ashamed that she is not strong enough. That is certainly how it comes across in the books: she is glad that Drogo cannot see her cry.

One could argue, I suppose, that a woman can be raped without considering it rape, especially when it is something that happens within a marriage. But I think that it is dangerous to apply such an argument to pre-modern societies; we might have to consider the bulk of all marriages throughout history where wives submitted to their husbands as vehicles for marital rape. I don’t think such an application of the modern, more informed view of women’s rights to pre-modern times is wise or appropriate. Perhaps one could draw comparisons to homosexuality in Classical Greece; it is very dangerous to apply modern definitions of homosexuality to culturally encouraged homosexual behaviour.

In the end, what solutions are people who make these complaints looking for? Should fantasy, in particular fantasy inspired by history, not be written without radical revisions of race and gender issues that are appropriate to the setting? If you want to write about a nomadic culture who is less “advanced” than your primary culture and which is inspired by several non-Caucasian nomadic cultures of the real world, do you have to make its members light-skinned just because? And should bad things like clear-cut rapes or marital “submission” not happen? Or should characters in these sorts of settings have a modern viewpoint on these issues? Is it impossible for fantasy to not be seen as racist or anti-feminist unless it includes enlightened characters with modern viewpoints on such matters?

I really hope not.

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