Since last week’s Game of Thrones Season Finale, this particular image has been getting a lot of exposure on the internet. Now I know that most of you recognize this image, but for those who don’t: this is a photo of Daenerys of the House Targaryen, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass sea, The Breaker of Chains and the
Great White Hope Mother of Dragons.
And she is body surfing on the hands of the grateful brown slaves that she has freed from the collective yokes of those cruel, cruel masters in Astapor, Yunkai, and all of the other colorfully named city-states outside of Westeros proper.
This image usually accompanies a very well thought out critical review of Game of Thrones handling of race and gender and sex throughout the series. One of my friends wrote a really great post that examines these themes, in which she highlights a couple of very key points: Game of Thrones frequently handles race and gender incorrectly, even as it makes us examine our notions of what these things are. Also, the nonwhite, non-male, non-hetero people who have to consume these works do so despite much of the imagery and thematic elements being offensive to them.
Yet, in every post or article that posits this view, we have the inevitable anonymous detractors who claim that
“maybe your own worldview is wrong,” or
“you’re interpreting these things incorrectly,” or
“stop being so sensitive,” or
“you’re ruining artistic license by making everything about racism/sexism,” or
“things are better/different in the original property,”
When the real issue here is simply that a lot of the works/property that SFF culture and curators of that culture produces is extremely racist and/or sexist. In the same vein, a lot of people that consume the works of SFF culture contribute to this racial/sexual bias.
not sorry to have to break this to you, but it’s true.
I mean, we could start with an assortment of wonderfully kitschy quotes from all of the racist grandpas of the SF&F genre…no? Okay.
The article that I linked to above references Klingons. I’m sure that you all have seen the original Klingons.
Original descriptions of Klingons in the script of the episode that they appeared in include “Oriental” and “Hard-Faced”. Of course, this isn’t racist, right? The original use of the Klingon aesthetic was to soothe a populace recently terrorized by Japan in World War II. Star Trek examined some pretty salient and socially conscious themes, but this depiction of Klingons is still a bit offputting, no?
Of course it isn’t.
You all know that I love David Eddings. Reading his work as a young man greatly influenced my decision to write fantasy literature. One of the races in his book is the Morindim, a dark-skinned, illiterate race that uses roots and herbs to summon evil spirits. The heroes of the Belgariad fool these witless magicians by dying themselves and their hair dark. In case you didn’t catch that, they literally fool these stupid, superstitious, dark skinned savages by going into blackface:
They were all kept quite busy for the next several days while Belgarath radically altered their appearances. Silk set crude traps among the maze of rabbit runs twisting through the tall grass, and Garion roamed the foothills in search of certain tuberous roots and a peculiar smelling white flower. Belgarath sat at the mouth of the cave, fashioning various implements from his saplings. The roots Garion had gathered yielded a dark brown stain, and Belgarath carefully applied it to their skins.
“The Morindim are dark-skinned,” he explained as he sat painting Silk’s arms and back with the stain. “Somewhat darker than Tolnedrans or Nyissans. This will wear off after a few weeks, but it will last long enough to get us through.” After he had stained all their skins into swarthiness, he crushed the odd-smelling flowers to produce a jet black ink.
“Silk’s hair is the right color already,” he said, “and mine will get by, but Garion’s just won’t do.” He diluted some of the ink with water and dyed Garion’s sandy hair black.
“That’s better,” he grunted when he had finished, “and there’s enough left for the tattoos.”
“Tattoos?” Garion asked, startled at the thought.
“The Morindim decorate themselves extensively.”
“Will it hurt?”
“We’re not really going to tattoo ourselves, Garion,” Belgarath told him with a pained look. “They take too long to heal. Besides, I’m afraid your Aunt would go into hysterics if I took you back to her with designs engraved all over you. This ink will last long enough for us to get through Morindland. It will wear off eventually.”
And when our heroes meet the Morindim, this happens:
The man in the lead of the mounted group was burlier than most of his companions, and the black tattooing on his face had been outlined with red and blue, marking him as a man of some significance in his clan and making the devil mask of his features all the more hideous. He carried a large wooden club, painted with strange symbols and inlaid with rows of sharp teeth taken from various animals. The way he carried it indicated that it was more a badge of office than a weapon. He rode without a saddle and with a single bridle strap.
He pulled his pony to a stop perhaps thirty yards away. “Why have you come into the lands of the Weasel Clan?” he demanded abruptly. His accent was strange and his eyes were flat with hostility. Belgarath drew himself up indignantly.
“Surely the Headman of the Weasel Clan has seen the quest-mark before,” he replied coldly. “We have no interest in the lands of the Weasel Clan, but follow the commands of the Devil-Spirit of the Wolf Clan in the quest he has laid upon us.”
“I have not heard of the Wolf Clan,” the Headman replied. “Where are their lands?”
“To the west,” Belgarath replied. “We have traveled for two waxings and wanings of the Moon-Spirit to reach this place.”
The Headman seemed impressed by that.
But this is just an examination of a fantastical culture, not projecting existing bias onto a nice, safe, socially acceptable canvas, right?
Defenders of these instances would have you believe that the savage minority/rape as character growth tool/great white savior problems in SF&F are long gone, that these things are relics of a bygone era. But we clearly see that RIGHT NOW, in 2013, we have a group of creators who didn’t even think about the problems that an image of a white person crowdsurfing on the grateful hands of a bunch of uncultured, unwashed, uneducated slaves could create. This is problematic, given the gigantic cluterf*ck of an intersection that is THE EARTH and SLAVERY.
And that’s what’s amazing about the pull of Science Fiction and Fantasy properties…despite the unabashed stupidity or carelessness of the creators of this stuff (in the mainstream, especially), groups categorized as “other” cannot get enough of it (myself included). We support television shows that force feed us savages that slay each other and rape in celebration. We live-tweet book reviews that condone and illustrate in graphic detail rape (why is rape so beloved by these people?) and the idea of gender inferiority for no other reason than that it’s accepted…and it’s accepted alongside the fact that most of these things are just the creations of some person who took it upon themselves to dream up a great story for us.
(By the way, Does the fact that so many creators push their biases and this inequality out into these fictional properties and we all think that it’s cool because it’s fictional bother anyone else? I mean, I can attest to the fact that a lot of my subconscious stuff makes it into my writing. Think about that and apply it to your favorite creators. What does that say about them?)
But these “other” groups are still bothered by this stuff, even as we make jokes about all of it. For a lot of us, the fantasy doesn’t end when we close the book or turn off the television. When we do decide to step out into the world, all those screwed up things that existed in the land of Standard Eurocentric Fantasyshire or the U.S.S. No POC Exist in the Future are still there, waiting to settle back on our shoulders as we go back into our routines. And we call this escapism.
Oh and don’t think that you are off the hook, dear anonymous internet commenter. Lest we forget, a lot of people nearly imploded when The Hunger Games movie revealed that a black actress had been cast to play the tribute from District 11, a girl named Rue. This is INSANE, right? I mean, it wasn’t like Rue was black in the book or anything.
…And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that’s she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor…
Hard to believe that the skipping of one little line and the casting of one little girl lead to this:
This illustrates a prime example of many of those who consume the SFF contributing to the problem of racism and sexism extensively. As consumers, by outright refusing to imagine that any of the characters that you see are different than you except by these exhausted social markers (skin tone, radically different cultural norms), you contribute to creators’ unwillingness to move away from tired conventions of character representation.
It’s hard enough to convice creators of mainstream SF&F that PoC, Women, and LGBT characters are worthy of being treated like actual people with actual emotions and value. Throwing a consumer culture that doesn’t value actual these character differences into this mix only continues the flawed system that makes flat, unemotional, ridiculously stupid caricatures of “other” groups the norm instead of the exception.
I know that many people that consume these properties are outright sick of all of the calling out of racism and sexism in these beloved properties. It must be really tough to have to constantly defend the things that you love from unwarranted attacks from people who just refuse to understand what the things you love are all about.
Believe me, I totally get where you’re coming from. I know a lot of other people who understand as well. How about doing all of us a solid and giving that understanding thing a try? We only call out the shortcomings of the genre/culture because we love it just as much as you.