HBO’s Game of Thrones has been hailed for its prominent portrayal of strong women. From Westeros to Essos, the women of GOT are strong, confident, heroines, fighters and even villains. The one thing they aren’t however, is very diverse.
Much has been made of the role of women in HBO’s Game of Thrones, the televised adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. Unlike the last fantasy epic that made it into recent popular cinematic culture, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord the Rings, GOT features a complex array of female characters.
While many women exist as sex-workers in brothels, and the controversial use of sexposition (formulated specially for the male gaze) has raised eyebrows, even critics point to a list of prominent female characters: the shrewd Cersei Lannister, the matronly strong Catelyn Stark, the feisty and defiant Arya and, of course, the Mother of Dragons turned abolitionist and conqueror–Daeneyrs “Stormborn” Targaryen. There are fighting women like the would-be-knight Brienne of Tarth, the fierce
Wildling Freewoman Ygritte and the battle-hardened ship commander Yara Greyjoy.
This season has placed new women into prominent roles, including the crafty Margaery Tyrell and her sharp-witted grandmother, the Queen of Thorns. Even a few sex-workers manage to defy one-dimensional characterizations, in the strong-willed Shae and the double-agent Ros. The latter (Ros) was wholly dreamed up by HBO, as was the expanded role of “not-Jeyne-Westerling-but-is-Jeyne-Westerling” in the form of Talisa Stark–both seeming attempts to inject more confident and strong women into the storyline.
And it makes sense. In the plotting and scheming cut-throat Westeros and the lands beyond, meek women or blushing violets (I’m looking your way Sansa Stark), are likely to get trampled–or have their lives controlled wholly by the men of these highly patriarchal societies. Many of the prominently featured women in GOT are thus not simply the match of their male counterparts–they are at times more crafty, stronger and better at the “traditionally” (or perhaps, expected) masculine roles they usurp. The constant humiliation of Theon at the hands of his sister Yara serves as a key example, as does the fate of Ned Stark when he underestimated Cersei Lannister.
So when relating this to a friend of mine who studies feminism in media, trying to get her to watch the show, she responded quite dryly–“That’s nice and all. But um, where are the sistas?”
Yeah. Good question. Where the heck are the “sistas” in GOT? For that matter, where are most of the women of color? The most prominent (as in, allowed a place in the plot) in past seasons was the Dothraki handmaiden Irri, played by the Nepalese-Ukranian actress Amrita Acharia–who suffered an untimely death. For a show that has prided itself on both its strong female characters and (at the least) “flirtation” with diversity, the lack of women of color is pretty glaring.
I know, I know. The first response will be, well GOT is for the most part a medievalist Eurocentric fantasy. What are sistas or any women of color going to be doing hanging about a drafty European court? I’m reminded of a joke by black comedian Steve White regarding actor Morgan Freeman’s role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, asking if Freeman was going to be Kevin Costner’s “arrow-caddy.” After declaring there are no black people in Robin Hood, White then does a riff of Freeman as a medieval Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, complete with the infuriating subservient grin. Funny bit. But actually, Morgan Freeman was playing Azeem the Moor, not a butler. And, contrary to White’s pessimism, medieval Europeans were somewhat familiar with POC, including various Africans (real or imaginary) who dot their tales and folklore–a tradition which I’ve touched on in previous posts.
George R.R. Martin (GRRM) seemed familiar enough with the practice, and included a few POC–including blacks–in the midst of an otherwise lily white Westeros. The most prominent in King’s Landing is Jalabhar Xho, an exiled prince from a faraway land who participates in royal jousts and is a fixture in the court. He is described as ebony-skinned and wearing a cape of green and scarlet feathers. GRRM doesn’t act like this is normal, and the ladies and lords of King’s Landing treat him as a fascinating “other,” an exotic and savage outsider. Still, he’s a bit of diversity often lacking in most Eurocentric fantasy.
Jalabhar Xho didn’t make it onto HBO’s adaptation. And the most probable reason is that as a character, he’s sorely wasted in the books. Much like the Fourth Ghostbuster, he doesn’t really do or say much. He’s just kind of…there. His name pops up once in a while. He gets ensnared in some palace intrigue. But that’s about it. Don’t want to call him a token but…well…there you are.
HBO does make up for this by reconfiguring some other characters as black (or as the blog Geek Outsider calls it a “race-makeover”- read about the trend here)–chief among them the pirate smuggler Salladhor Saan and the richy-rich Xaro Xhoan Daxos of Quarth. There were some minor fanboy grumblings at this deviation from “purity,” but most seemed to take it in stride–and GRRM was satisfied at HBO’s attempt to bring more diversity to the cast. It certainly helped spice up the Quarthians some, who seemed oddly pale in the books though living in a sun-scorched arid land. This season we’ve been given another black figure with speaking roles, the commander of the eunuch soldiers the Unsullied–Grey Worm. Though the book doesn’t appear to say much about Grey Worm beyond him being short, stocky and having brown hair, HBO (by chance or purpose) went with a black actor. Overall, HBO’s Unsullied are a “swarthy” lot, as the scenes were filmed in Morocco and used local extras.
Still, while HBO appears willing to throw in a few second-tiered men of color, the sistas still seem to be lacking for the most part–unless you go back to the first season, in fact back to the first episode. There, several black women made an appearance in a decidedly bizarre way. It was at the famed Dothraki wedding of Daeneyrs and Khal Drogo. I’d read the books so knew to expect some mayhem. After all, as the saying goes, “a Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is seen as a dull affair.” What I did not expect was to see four black women among the festive Dothraki that were…well…”twerking.”
For you pop cultural shut-ins, “twerking” is a style of rump shaking dance made famous back in the early 1990s by New Orleans own DJ Jubilee, and has now catapulted into popular Americana through the magic of youtube. It likely has origins in early black New Orleans dance, possibly a New World syncretic blend of West and Central African flat footed body jerking movements similar to Cote d’Ivoire’s Mapouka. Though originally performed by both men and women to New Orleans bounce music, in recent years it has become a distinctly feminized dance that many (rather erroneously) associate singly with strip clubs or lewd music videos. It has become the subject of controversy (as anything relating to black bodies and sexualization often does) and popular emulation; there are competitions and whole teams; even Miley Cyrus does it, albeit poorly. And here it was–or likely something similar–in the pilot GOT episode.
The Dothraki in GRRM’s books had always been described as non-white, with copper skin and the over-used “almond eyes” trope. So the notion of them as multi-ethnic, especially as they hailed from the East, seemed perfectly fitting. I had also long reconciled that there was a decidedly Orientalist “noble-savage” slant to them. Nothing much I can do about that but grind my teeth a bit.
So I saw nothing amiss with a few darker faces among them. But it was somewhat unsettling that the first black women featured in GOT were not just unnamed, voiceless, buttocks and hip undulating dancers at a wedding (that I came to call The Dothraki Twerk Team), but that the whole scene featured some of them at one point down on all fours while Dothraki men engaged in lewd simulated sex acts with them. I remember sitting there viewing it *rather uncomfortably* (and admittedly enjoying it–they were damn good dancers!) with my girlfriend (a black feminist Bell Hooks reader no less) who with folded arms threw me the side-eye like, “you expect me to actually watch this bullsh*t every Sunday?” It was hard work to slowly coax her back. And thankfully (though somewhat regrettably) The Dothraki Twerk Team didn’t make another appearance. But I had to ask myself, what prompted that entire scene? What was going through the producers’ minds to throw in the only notable black Dothraki as women? And highly sexualized dancers at that? (glimpses of the Dothraki dancers seen here)
Nope. That ain’t a white, older Rick Ross pictured above. And this didn’t come from XXL. That’s George RR Martin at a wrap party for GOT in Morocco 2009. Several of the women in the photo were members of the famed Dothraki Twerk Team.
[Please note, despite my snarky euphemism, the women in the wedding scene were professional dancers, Kelechi Nwanokwu, Coral Messam, Kemi Durosinmi and Kharis George, who do a lot of work beyond this once scene. Their dancing was likely a derivative of varied forms of movements, not just “twerking.” This blog post is not meant to demean or castigate them in any way. They were, again, damn good dancers! Neither am I deriding the art of “twerking.” I hail in part from the I-10 corridor that stretches from Houston to New Orleans–where “twerking” is a friggin’ institution! Respect!]
For the most part, black women didn’t make many other appearances after that wedding scene. Here or there was a Dothraki servant of multi-ethnic background murmuring, “it is known.” And I think I glimpsed a sista once or twice at a brothel in King’s Landing. But there was nothing approaching even a second-tiered role. And that was odd, because GRRM actually does feature black women in his works–at least two–who play key characters in the book A Clash of Kings, upon which season 2 of GOT was based.
Chataya and her daughter Alayaya are from the mysterious Summer Isles, but live in the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, King’s Landing. Chataya is a shrewd business owner, the proprietor of one of the premier brothels in the city, frequented most often by nobility. In fact, one of her worker’s sons was a “bastard” offspring of King Robert Baratheon. This ties Chataya and her daughter into the intrigue surrounding the games and plots to take the Iron Throne. Both are also linked to Tyrion Lannister, with Alayaya playing the part of a spy for Varys the Spider. They are not key players in the story, but are at least woven into parts of the plot–certainly more than poor unexplored Jalabhar Xho.
Chataya and Alayaya of the Summer Isles
So why did GOT, a show that seems (at times) to push for both strong female characters and diversity, give Chataya and Alayaya the axe? Who can say for certain. Same reason there’s no Strong Belwas or Patchface maybe. But I can venture a theory. Chataya and Alayaya are in the sex business. Alayaya herself is a sex worker at her mother’s establishment. And she uses this as cover for her clandestine dealings with the Spider. Had they been included, GOT’s only two black women characters of note–would have been a brothel keeper and her daughter. Throw in the Dothraki Twerk Team, and every black woman in the show would have been essentially sexualized. Not the best look.
In the books however, both black men and women are inherently sexualized. Most black folks in GRRM’s fantasy realm are all crammed together on a small archipelago called the Summer Isles. Its inhabitants are described as ebony-skinned, and are well known for their bright clothing, superior archery skills and swift boats with which they trade across the seas. They’re also known for their love of sex. Oh yeah, Summer Islanders have sex. A lot. And often. In later books, they spend any idle time engaged in sex and in a previous GOT episode there’s an allusion to them worshiping a multi-teated fertility goddess. That’s why Chataya owns a brothel, and why she doesn’t mind that her daughter is an employee. Even Jalabhar Xho’s most memorable palace intrigue revolves around rumors of sexual liasons.
All the black people have sex on their minds? I see some of you already throwing the side-eye. There is after all a lengthy history of sexualization and blackness in popular media–and most of it ain’t good. At all.
But hear me out.
GRRM’s grim dark fantasy realm ain’t Frodo’s celibate and asexual Middle Earth. It’s filled with sex–from Westeros to Essos and even beyond The Wall. King’s Landing is dotted with brothels. Lewd sexual jokes are made continually by men. And key characters like Tyrion are practically sex addicts. Yet with few exceptions, most of the sexual culture is decidedly deviant or exploitative, often enforced through marriage or part of an existent rape culture. The sex-workers in King’s Landing are treated often as less than nothing, to be beaten or killed for any offense. In Westeros, women’s chastity is scrutinized heavily by fathers or brothers who then give them away to men they hardly know–and a whole public ritual is made on the wedding night of her first sexual encounter, in an act that can barely be called consensual. Incestuous relationships, from the nobly born to commoners, seem to pop up everywhere. Rape is a weapon of war throughout the Seven Kingdoms, of both men and women, and appears much more frequently in the books than the show. Rile up a mob in King’s Landing, and acts of rape will undoubtedly occur. It’s little better in the East, where Dothraki view gang rape as a spoil of war and in Astapor slaves are sexually exploited with impunity.
The only group of people who seem to have normal, consensual, healthy sexual relationships–are the ebony-skinned Summer Islanders. With none of the repressed psychosexual problems of Westeros, they merely view sex as an act of “Free Love.” Chataya in fact, is puzzled by the way in which the people of Westeros approach sex, both prudish and deviant at once. Sex should just be a natural act. And her brothel is no more immoral to her than any other line of work. Turns out when it comes to sex, the Summer Islanders are…progressive.
Still, given historical context, the only black people in the book all being sexualized is inherently problematic. It can’t not be. Despite the best of intentions. After all, they could have all been made to have a proclivity for masonry, or philosophy or known for their grand works of literature–and worshiped a goddess holding a thousand scrolls. But they aren’t. And sexualization and racial othering has too long a history to go unremarked or dismissed. And possibly (pure conjecture here), for that reason, the two most prominent black women in Westeros were left on the editing room floor at HBO.
But there’s hope. Across the Narrow Sea, recent episodes have given us Missandei, played by British actress Nathalie Emmanuel. In the books, she’s from Naath which lies south of the Summer Isles, but has spent much of her life as a slave in Astapor (in the books, most black people with speaking roles are not slaves). There’s not much description given to her character in the text–flat faced and with dusky skin. She’s also about 10 years old. HBO decided to go with a mixed-race actress well over twice that age. I have no idea how Emmanuel identifies, if at all, but she is nevertheless the closest GOT has come to having a “sista” in a prominent role.
The Missandei of the books, once freed by Daeneyrs, takes on an increasingly important role–as translator, guide, confidant and adviser. With her age increased for the show, perhaps the writers intend to enhance her role even further, as was done with other female characters. And who knows, with time, more positions for black women will be found for the ongoing series. That way the Dothraki Twerk Team can at least have some company.
TBH, I wonder why there isn’t more backlash at Missandei? Maybe because the producers of the show made her old enough to fit into male viewers conception of hotness (I definitely am a male viewer and I definitely appreciate the casting choice of Ms. Emmanuel). And, this plays even more into the sexualization thing, and…*sigh*. A tangled web, to be sure.
I’ll tell you this: Making Salladhor Saan black was one of the best minor character changes I’ve seen in the show to date. Now, I hope that the producers expand upon the role of the Summer Island archer/merc that tyrion met in exile.
I agree. Missandei being easy on the eyes helped ease the backlash, at least with fanboys. I didn’t even catch though that they chose an actress that is decidedly sexualized. Yeah, Salladhor Saan’s racial makeover was a great choice–and Lucian_Msamati plays him well. Ben Plumm! There should be a whole lotta Summer Islanders for the producers to throw in later on the series–shiploads.
I actually had a great time explaining the idea of the Dothraki Twerk Team to some co-workers of mine. Broke down the sexualization of the black women in the 1st and 2nd seasons, and pointed them to your site. I love making them uncomfortable and then having to explain ( to Unapologetic Tolkien-Heads no less) what a Disgruntled Haradrim is or looks like. I’m now the Official Cool Geek.
I also had to explain to them what it is to twerk.
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Love this article!! Thanks!
Thanks for reading!
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TBF, the Dothraki wedding scene in the book had some all out rapes involved of the slaves… and I’m guessing the Dothraki Twerk team was their way of softening that. And true, the Summer Islanders definitely have the healthiest sexuality in the series/books. But what would have happened if they had had no sexuality at all, as opposed to all the other cultures they ran into? That seems like it would have been another unwanted trope. I wonder if there was a way to strike a balance between overly sexualized and completely sexless?
I think the answer to that might be to not exoticize them based on stereotypes that are older than ASOIAF or GoT. See my other blog, if you got the time, on the problem of “othering” in fantasy and how we can find ways to kick the habit.