HBO's Game of Thrones, an adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, finally premiered last night after months and months of anticipation on many people's parts, including my own. And yet, as I gleefully lapped up the internecine political maneuverings of grave people wearing a lot of fur, a question started to poke at my mind, at first gently, but eventually with all the force of a Don Draper fingerbang: does Game of Thrones have a race problem?
My short answer? Yeah, kinda.
But here's my long answer, and I should start it by stating two things: I very much enjoyed the first episode otherwise, and I've never read the books. So know that I'm strictly talking about the HBO adaptation, and even more specifically about the first episode. Hopefully, the problem I had last night will get ironed out as the show goes on. Because there I was cooing at direwolf pups when BAM: enter Khal Drogo and the Dothraki. We meet them via Daenyres Targaryen, a young women who will wed Drogo to strengthen a political alliance. And I could do little but gape at the Dothraki themselves, who came off last night as little more than an amalgamation of Middle Eastern and African stereotypes with some Mongolian Empire flavoring sprinkled on top.
You should see the look on the (platinum blonde) girl's face when she realizes she'll have to marry such a brute! He's swarthy and he wears drag-queen levels of makeup! His similarly painted people are themselves a range of swarthiness that stretches from… light brown all the way to dark brown! When the men aren't doing freaky sex dances with bare-breasted women, they're killing each other for fun. (This murderous streak is quite damning, despite the fact that we just watched a different man behead someone while his young son watched. But that time it was about "honor.") And on top of all that, their food looks totally gross. The people of Westeros naturally look down on these savages who clearly wouldn't be getting an invite to any royal functions if they weren't so damn good at being an invading horde of nomadic warriors. Frankly, the producers could have saved good money on these scenes if they just tattooed the words "Scary Brown Person" on everyone's forehead.
Maybe all of this is in the book and the producers are just staying faithful to the source material, but that doesn't change the fact that this is an unfortunate trope that crops up all too frequently in popular sci-fi and fantasy. Think of the turban-wearing, generically evil Men of the South in The Lord of the Rings, or the also turban-wearing, dark skinned Calormenes who help literally end the world in The Chronicles of Narnia, or the menacing Persian army (which is historically real but never had a leader who dressed like an S&M queen) in the movie version of 300.
I understand that the creators of these works are coming at these stories with a very Western mindset and often explicitly base them on European (and especially Anglo-Saxon) history, with some magic thrown in here and there. And while that might explain the prominence of these stereotypes, it doesn't address the problem, which is that Scary Brown People become an easy source for uncivilized types of all sorts, whether for their frightening sexual licentiousness or their frightening capacity for violence. Sure, some of the white people in Game of Thrones are off-putting — there are some murderers and some incest-committers, etc. — but those are the bad apples in the otherwise noble European apple basket. It's not the backbone of their culture.
And finally, all these Scary Brown People tropes aren't even historically accurate! The golden age of Islamic culture combined the best discoveries of Greek and Roman society with those from India and China and greatly advanced philosophy and science. The Mongols had a complex meritocratic political system and fostered trade along the Silk Road while practicing religious tolerance. Was it all sunshine and flourishing art scenes? No, but no culture ever is. In the end, this fantasy of a Scary Brown Person society hurts everyone: it's a cheap shortcut and it's boring, while its use promotes terribly outdated stereotypes that are honestly laughable at this point.
Still, I'm sticking with Game of Thrones. But isn't it time fantasy dropped this sorry convention for something better?