Game Of Thrones Is Returning And I Am Afraid
Being a nerd, I read a lot of things typically associated with all things nerd (as is the act of reading itself coincidentally). Many of the websites, books, blogs, and magazines that I read qualify as guilty pleasures so I do experience some degree of vindication when any of them make their way to mainstream success. Such is the case with “Game of Thrones”, HBO’s television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. I have now witnessed animated arguments about “Game of Thrones” pop off in my barber shop so I think it safe to say that the show has some mainstream appeal.
Like most television shows based on novels, the show takes many liberties with the source material. In my mind, the most notable of these alterations is the show’s tendency to collapse characters and scenes from the book in order to speed up the pacing of the show. The show is also rather liberal in translating the races of its characters. The book series does not feature traditional racial categorizations but it does portray numerous peoples with distinct cultures, histories, and skin colors. Very few of the darker-skinned characters feature prominently in the book series. Thus, in a move that I can only assume was done to attract a wider audience, some characters that I would guess most readers envision as non-Black in the books are portrayed by actors of African descent in the television series.
It did cause some mild alarm when I discovered that HBO would be shoehorning Black men into the show because the world in which the characters exist is not one that is terribly progressive with regards to women. For those unfamiliar with the book or show, the world of “Game of Thrones” is a brutal one for all, but especially so for women. It affords limited opportunities to women and fiercely enforces the lower social standing of women. One of the most common methods of enforcement is through the routine rape of women. The books spend quite a bit of time discussing rape and constantly establish rape as an ever-present danger for women (so much so that I began to worry about the mindset of the author at various points). This motif carries over to the show though it is toned down somewhat. Being a HBO show, “Game of Thrones” has its share of gratuitous sex scenes but even much of the consensual sex is presented as experiences that are far from egalitarian.
To the credit of Martin, he appears fully conscious in presenting a world that is worthy of critique. For the most part, I believe that he presents a flawed world without the intent of glorifying those flaws. I’m still wary when Black men are forced into this world where rape is commonplace (many of the female characters fully expect to be raped at various points) and the more honorable men have a habit of getting their heads chopped off because I fear that doing so can easily advance tired myths about Black men as rapists. It’s not that media should never present Black men in unfavorable roles as we all have behaviors and attitudes that are deserving of criticism. It’s just that dark skin is too often applied lazily and arbitrarily to characters in order to signify the threat of sexual violence.
I draw much of my perspective from Angela Davis’s “Women, Race, and Class” (1981). This book was written over thirty years ago but its review of the myth of the Black rapist remains the most effective to date in my mind. In the chapter entitled “Rape, Racism, and the Myth of the Black Rapist”, Davis relates how America once held a very conscious and widespread practice of demonizing Black men via spreading tales of their alleged sexual aggressiveness and depravity. Entrenched habits do not die easily and astute observers can easily find remnants of this practice.
Visual media is but one arena where one can find examples and “Game of Thrones” would seem to be particularly fertile ground for careless writers to rest on archaic notions of Black, male sexuality in front of a wide audience.
As far as I can tell, there are two characters in the television show that have been substantially re-envisioned with Black actors to date – the pirate Salladhor Saan and the merchant king Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Both are presented as scheming, deceitful men loyal only to their quests for money and fame. Both also spend a decent amount of their screen time lusting after White women, but neither has seriously been used
to advance the threat of sexual violence against women thus far if my memory serves. In fact, Salladhor’s lone scene includes dialogue in which he refutes another character’s presumption that he intends to rape a woman that he desires. I don’t know if this is due to conscious restraint on the part of the writers or not but I will take it.
The return of “Game of Thrones” for season 3 is fast approaching and there will be a host of new characters judging from the trailers that I have seen. I look forward to seeing how the producers imagine the new characters but there are a few characters that I’m hoping that they have the good sense not to assign to Black actors. I’m excited for the show’s return but I’m also scared – so very scared.