Our own Jordan Pedersen said nothing about this in his review, but it appears that more than a few TV critics are a little unnerved by the Dothraki, GoT’s barbarian horde. Adam Serwer, writing for the Atlantic, expressed disappointment at the casting department’s choice of “miscellaneous brown people.” TIME’s James Poniewozik wondered if “if it's possible to be racist toward a race that does not actually exist” while calling the Dothraki a “grabbag of exotic/dark/savage signifiers.”
Caveat: I have not read any George R.R. Martin, and I have yet to see Game of Thrones. But this issue is larger than one HBO series (no matter how huge the hype). Racism and other forms of prejudice crop up in fiction because it remains an unfortunate part of society, however veiled it may be.
And while the public seems generally okay with capital-l Literature, etc. exploring such topics (with a few capital-n Notable exceptions), we get nervous when they appear in our pulpier entertainments like fantasy or science-fiction.
A few months ago, Penny Arcade did a comic about the upcoming Thor movie. Marvel Entertainment had recently revealed some casting details, and one in particular had incensed the comics community. The Norse god Heimdall will be played by Idris Elba.
Idris Elba is a black man, known primarily for his work on The Wire. Heimdall, being a Norse god, is portrayed in Marvel mythology as somewhat Scandinavian (white, blond hair, etc.). Some were outraged at the casting incongruity; others were outraged at the outrage.
The argument for allegiance to the source material is not without its merits (to quote Gabe from the PA comic, “Weren’t the Norse gods White, though? I mean, even a racist clock is right twice a day”), but the language supporting the Aryan Heimdall argument is repugnant. “It seems that Marvel Studios believes that white people should have nothing that is unique to themselves,” wrote the Council of Conservative Citizens, calling for a boycott on Thor last December. They also referred to Elba as “Hip Hop DJ Idris Elba,” neglecting to mention his substantial acting resume.
In their behind-the-scenes video on the comic, Penny Arcade creators Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins express their concern over “agreeing with racists.” Mike then concedes that supporting Asian casting for a Last Airbender movie may necessitate supporting Caucasian casting for Thor. He continues the theoretical argument with himself, retorting that the racial imbalance of Hollywood makes accurate Caucasian casting a bit lower of a priority. For them, it boils down to wanting to avoid the conversation entirely, lest you inadvertently side with people whose sole agenda is hatred. The only way to win is not to play.
Writing for Slate’s “Brow Beat” blog, Nina Shen Rastogi acknowledged that the Dothraki, while brutal and perhaps offensive to some viewers, are a “hodgepodge creation” with no “specific antecedent in our world.” This absolves Game of Thrones from the claims of racism levied at the Star Wars prequels for the Gungans and the Neimoidians (which a poster from the Internet’s younger days summarily dismisses). But Rastogi concludes, “It does seem sad to me that, even in a fantasy world with the freedom to untether itself completely from our own, the "exotic other" has to look so boringly familiar.”
An “exotic other” in a fantasy series about a fictional land named Westeros presents huge problems for a casting department. There is an art to casting. Unfortunately, there is no abstraction to your instrument. A painter has color and shape, a composer music, a writer imagery and metaphor. A casting director has actual human beings. The literality of the onscreen actor limits how far fantasy can go before you need latex or CGI.
Fantasy needs its own original diversity, though. Both fantasy and science-fiction are fertile ground for the exploration of themes like racism because of their world-building element. The author resets everything to zero and then fashions a setting best suited to deal with the themes at hand. Mages in BioWare’s Dragon Age universe and the mutants of Marvel’s X-Men are both treated poorly for being born different. Both also happen to have extraordinary supernatural abilities, which is a visually stimulating metaphor for “redemptive qualities.”
In science-fiction, xenophobia is literal. Aliens literally come from other planets, not just across borders from other countries. Orson Scott Card’s Ender books introduce humanity to a race of insectoids and a race of pig-like symbiotes, species that could not be more different from our own biologically (read: culturally). The later books even have humans interacting (or attempting to interact) with a digital entity and some kind of intelligent virus. With these extremes, common ground is a rare treasure, a goal to be sought at all costs.
Casting troubles aside, the Dothraki are not direct allegories. They are a type of people, a type defined by their relationships to the other people in their world, not by the color of the actors’ skin. Suspend your disbelief. You’ll be well rewarded.