Did I mention that I love Dorne? That I freakin love it?
As it turns out, I did, in Part 1 of The Importance of Dorne. FaBio asked questions of eight Game of Thrones fans and two weeks ago, presented Part 1 of the series, sharing our thoughts on the land of Dorne and the fan-favorite character, Oberyn Martell. Opinions on casting and the character’s sexuality were expressed, and WiC readers had a lot to say as well on the subject.
We return now to complete the roundtable, and to explore the ethnicity of the Dornish people and its Great House, House Martell. The debate on how to interpret “salty,” “sandy,” and “stony” in terms of Dornish ethnicity has been going on in the A Song of Ice and Fire fandom for years. Well, these are theoretical questions no more, with Oberyn’s season four casting already in the works.
Returning members of the roundtable are: Sade (Nigerian American); Rachel (white New Yorker); Jonelle (Jamaican); and Marissa (Taiwanese American). For Part 2, we listened to the feedback from commenters in round 1 and brought in some new blood for balance, including one woman and three men. Joining the original four will be: Miss (South Asian); Hogan (white); Miguel (Latino); and Amin (Canadian of Middle-Eastern descent). Some of you will know Amin as the co-founder of A Podcast of Ice and Fire and a contributing author of A Flight of Sorrows.
NOTE: Once again, we’ve tried to avoid direct spoilers from leaking into the narrative. We ask that if any of you wish to discuss some of the more spoilery plot points that Dorne brings about—PLEASE use spoiler text! Occasionally the roundtable will refer vaguely to future character arcs but specific storyline spoilers will not appear in this post.
Question 3. The people of Dorne are said to be one of three distinct types: olive-skinned, black-haired “salty” Dornishmen who live on the coasts; darker “sandy” Dornishmen from the deserts; and fair-skinned “stony” Dornishmen who live in Dorne’s mountain heights. Do you think the show should endeavor to show us all three, or should it pick one general ethnicity and stick to it for simplicity’s sake? Also: should the ruling Martells reflect one ethnicity? What about the Sand Snakes?
Hogan: I think it is definitely important to show at least one of the first two descriptions listed, but of course, this depends on how many Dornish characters the show plans to introduce. When reading the books, it was always obvious to me that Dorne was a very different culture than the rest of the kingdoms of Westeros and I always pictured the people of the region as a reflection of that difference as well. I think the majority of the characters we’ll begin see on the show first will be the Martells, who I’ve always pictured as olive-skin and black-haired- hints of Moorish, Spanish, and Indian culture.
Also, as a designer, I think if the costuming is done well, that will further the Dornish distinction from the rest of the realm. Michelle Clapton has done an incredible job in making the style of each kingdom it’s own, so I have faith in that aspect.
Rachel: I think it is less important to distinguish between “salty”, “sandy” and “stony” in the show because, well quite frankly that is not going to happen. They’ve only got an hour and I want Dorne to be as rich and diverse and just damn interesting as it is in the books, but sacrifices must be made to the gods of brevity. I hope they don’t just default to the lighter skinned Dornishmen because as I said, too many white people! I’m pretty sure the audience can handle it. If they can do it on low-budget hokey fantasy shows like Merlin and Xena they can do it on Game of Thrones!
Marissa: This breakdown of Dornishmen is taken for gospel in the ASOIAF wiki and by fans, but it’s important to note that this tidbit of information is conveyed to us in the novels from Tyrion’s memory from a book written by King Daeron Targaryen I—a King who was trying to conquer Dorne over 100 years earlier. These categorizations remind me of (pretty darn racist) anthropology books from our world written 100 years earlier when people were trying to make sense of different racial groups and writing from a very Eurocentric lens. This is not how the Dornish view themselves–this is how the other Westerosi view the Dornish and try to categorize them.
We can see even in the Martell family through the Sand Snakes that there’s a huge range in physical features: Tyene has Valyrian features; Sarella’s mother was a Summer Islander…Oberyn’s children really reflect the vast diversity of the Dornish region. What do we know about Dorne? We know that it is Rhoynish and the Rhoynar people look distinctly different from the so called “stony Dornish” and Westerosi of Andal or First Men or Valyrian descent. They have black (not brown) hair and “swarthy” skin. The Martell family has a strong Rhoynar lineage.
It would be meaningful and important to depict the Dornish ruling family as people of color, though, to emphasize that Dorne has a distinctly different history from the rest of Westeros. And as far as the Sand Snakes go…I think viewers are astute enough about genetics to understand that the ladies can all have different hair and skin tones and still have the same father!
Miguel: The show should definitely try to show us all three types of Dornishmen. I don’t think the Martells should reflect one specific ethnicity or culture, as the show’s production has gone above and beyond to give each region and House its own distinctive traits inspired from real world cultures. House Martell should be no different. The Sand Snakes are each unique and really interesting in their own way, and the casting should definitely reflect that. Tyene Sand’s appearance (blonde, blue-eyed) is important considering her role in the story. This could be an amazing opportunity for actors of color in a genre usually lacking in diversity.
Sade: I think much of the Martells’ identity is wrapped up in the differences between them, the rest of the ruling families, and the subsequent “othering” that they are subjected to as a result of this. I would love for casting to show the diversity of the people who live in Dorne without being confined to the three archetypes that were ultimately placed upon Dorne by an outsider.
As for the Sand Snakes, I would hope they would consider the fact that their father is a person of color and they are too, regardless of who their mothers are. And no, Tyene having blonde hair and blue eyes does not automatically make her white. Genetics, people. See the Solomon Islanders, Jesse Williams, Michael Ealy, and Dudley O’Shaughnessy for further reference.
Jonelle: Even though there are said to be distinct types of Dornish people, they all intermarry and interact, so the descriptions are somewhat outdated—just look at the physical diversity amongst Oberyn’s daughters alone. I think first and foremost, the show should simply adhere to representing the Martells as people of colour—and also consider the diversity and different types of people of colour represented in Dorne, but they don’t necessarily have to strictly endeavor to such simplistic descriptions.
Amin: I think it is important that Dorne’s diversity of ethnicities be well represented. I am aware that the fact that there are three distinct types of people in Dorne may be lost in the in the realities of adapting the books to the screen. Nonetheless, I think it is critical for HBO to take advantage of the inherent diversity of Dorne to cast Dornish men and women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
There have been vigorous debates on exactly where to place Dorne, but it is important to keep in mind that Dorne, like the rest of the story, is not a 1:1 transition from our world to Martin’s saga. George himself has noted how boring it would be to have the 1:1 parallels for both characters and locations and it is mainly inspirations of various sources that aid George in his splendid world building. The various placements of Dorne have been reflected in the vast quantity of fan art, which have drawn Dornish castles, vistas of Sunspear and Dornish characters that vary in range from Southern European to Middle Eastern and South Asian.
As George has noted in his books, “[b]lood, custom, geography, and history all helped to set the Dornishmen apart from the other kingdoms.” HBO can take the opportunity here to follow in George’s footsteps and cast from that spectrum of ethnic backgrounds.
As said, there is room for variety here and most casting choices could be justified one way or another with the textual references present in the books. It is my hope that they do pick some of the more ethnically diverse actors for the Martells (Alexander Siddig being one of my dream choices) and at least some of the other Dornish characters.
Fury’s note: I’m on board with Alexander Siddig being either Martell prince, but the filming of his role in BBCOne’s new series “Atlantis” may conflict with Thrones‘s shooting schedule this year.
Miss: I definitely don’t think there should be any operating mentality that multi-ethnic societies are too difficult for viewers to understand. Star Trek had black Vulcans two decades ago, people can handle Dornish people of different ethnicities (planets aren’t provinces, but I doubt the viewer psychology issue is very different). Should they go through the trouble to show all three? It seems to me like more trouble to stick to only one ethnicity, since it limits the talent pool.
Also there are people who aren’t white and have “fair” skin, so it’s possible to cast the entirety of Dorne with actors who aren’t white and fit the known descriptions. While I wouldn’t mind if some sandy Dornish here and there were played by white actors, I think all the Martells and Sand Snakes should be actors who aren’t white. The imbalance of representation in the real world is too great to not pay attention to, all else being equal.
Miguel: The various ethnic groups of Dorne (and people’s attempts to classify them into neat categories) kind of remind me of how most people view Latinos in real life. Most people assume that Latinos are a single race with brown skin, dark hair, and dark eyes, but there are white, black, and Asian Latinos, too. Latino actors are often brought up when it comes to casting the Martells, and so people assume that all of Dorne must fit the phenotype. Obviously, there are limitations to what can be done on-screen, but there should be clear distinctions as characters like Gerold Dayne [Darkstar] would be physically similar to the Targaryens.
The roundtable began before the airing of episode 10. After “Mhysa” aired, some critics and fans expressed concerns about the depiction of the final scene in the episode where Daenerys is embraced and lifted by the freed slaves of Yunkai. We touched upon that subject in our continuing conversation.
Rachel: In light of the Season 3 finale: I’m actually going to change my hope for a multi-ethnic Martell House and say it probably HAS to be multi ethnic and not should but HAS TO BE.
I’m just really shocked that they had Emilia in that white wig get carried around by a bunch of non-white appearing extras and thought to themselves, “Yea. That looks good. That’s a good savior shot that is not at all horrible.” After I watched that ending scene my hopes for the Dornish to be anything but colonial accessories dropped.
Amin: Is it just me who suspects that the “white saviour” theme at the end was intentionally created that way by the writers? I think they were attempting to tie it to later events. As Sean T. Collins put it, “it won’t all be crowdsurfing and dragon flyovers forever.” That being said, the show is doing the contrast to an extreme, like it sometimes does.
Sade: If the commentary was “Hey this is going to blow up in her face later! Just wait and see!” they definitely went about it the wrong way. The dramatic camera angles, rousing music (in all seriousness, children singing just makes things a thousand times more epic), close ups of grateful slaves, the “christ-like” lifting, the flying dragons, the bird’s eye camera pan out—-the whole nine yards. In my opinion, this scene had a celebratory feel fully intending the viewers to accept it as an uplifting conclusion. There is no camera pan on say-Jorah or Missandei-giving a face of concern or disapproval. As spectators of this event like we were, wouldn’t a negative reaction from them alert the viewer that this happy ending isn’t coming without consequences?
Rachel: Maybe this was meant to be a much more critical scene than it first appears to be. I’ve been enjoying the show but I found that scene with Dany to be so heavy handed and unaware of the imagery that I almost couldn’t believe it. Is it actually possible that everyone involved in making that scene happen did so without a thought to how imperialistic and racist it was? I’m totally willing to give the show runners the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this is a critique of Dany’s own storyline that will be more fully revealed in future seasons as we all know.
4. Lastly, with regard to race casting in Game of Thrones, how would you grade it thus far? When you look at Westeros and Essos, do you see a world you can believe? Also, as book fans, do you find the show better or worse than the source material in this regard? Is this a world you can live in?
Sade: I’m not sure if I can grade the race casting in Game of Thrones, yet. I do think they have ignored opportunities to include characters of color from the books and expand on them. Also, King’s Landing is strangely homogenous for a major city with trade ships coming from all over the world. I wonder about the decisions in the casting of Thoros of Myr. I think they may have gotten too caught up in the monolithic fantasy ideal where everyone is the same unless they are from a strange land. The Martells challenge that ideal as an old family from lands that haven’t been conquered (or enslaved). They are people of color who are major players in this game. It’s a chance for the show runners to work with another aspect of ASOIAF that further separates it from typical fantasy series. I sincerely hope they don’t disappoint us.
Rachel: Well I won’t lie I was absolutely shocked that Thoros of Myr was a white guy. I don’t know why I should be shocked when the majority of the populace of Qarth and Astapor are also white guys. It’s a big wide world with two epically enormous continents that encompass most of the interesting bits of real history that GRRM likes to steal from… and everybody but 3 dudes and a whore are white. It’s pretty pathetic. The books totally do a better job (but when do books not do a better job?) I understand that they cast a white guy with red hair as Thoros in order to create some kind of visual connection between him and Melisandre, but it also bothers me. The mysterious white people and their strange god from the East! Orientalizing much? If they decide to cast the Martells as swarthy European types then the show runners would also be missing an easy way to expand the scale of this fictional world. They shrank it when they gave Littlefinger those teleportation powers.
Putting a few people of color in their cast creates, for the viewer, the illusion that whatever this world is, it’s big enough for different cultures and vast, geographically distinct areas of this world to exist. They spent so much money on the map animations for the intro, so why not make it mean something?! Ya know, for the most part I’m pretty happy with the show. The basic storylines are clear. I appreciate that they haven’t strayed too far from the books. I think the cast is wonderful. I think the show (with the exception of the case of the curious and continuing lack of extras ((WHERE ARE THE SMALL FOLK?)) is wonderful and I’m proud that a book series that I would never have thought would be adapted, was adapted and that it has found a huge audience. I love seeing every 3rd person on my subway commute to work reading these books and it is totally because of the show and how great it is.
That being said there is no way in all seven hells that I would live in Westeros. I’m also a sucker for indoor plumbing.
Marissa: Even medieval Europe was not racially homogenous; there were noblemen of color and of course Dorne is partially inspired by Moorish Spain. These themes and backstories can be really emphasized and highlighted if HBO casts characters of color as one of the ruling families of the Seven Kingdoms. Based on my observations as an advocate for diverse media representations, sometimes Hollywood will tokenize women and people of color and then point at it and call it diverse. (So for example, in the Marvel cinematic universe franchise, diversity is the inclusion of black men and white women even though that doesn’t actually reflect the entire diversity of our world.) Game of Thrones has done a bit better than that—there have been women of color on the show, for example, and characters of color are included when the predominantly white Westerosi characters are in a position to encounter them. Still, that shouldn’t be the only time when characters of color appear in the series.
So far the characters of color presented in the show have been the wild Dothraki, a sailor-pirate, a character framed as a deceptive jumped-up immigrant merchant, a brothel worker, etc. The Martells are old blood and old money, they are royalty, and they are people of color. This is really an opportunity for the showrunners to expand diversity on Game of Thrones and I hope they take it. I’ve been waiting for four years holding my breath that they will not whitewash the Martell roles. I can’t wait to see who they cast.
Miguel: I have been somewhat underwhelmed by the lack of diversity on the show, especially with regards to characters who are people of color in the books. Essos in particular has suffered on the show. It feels like a majority of Daenerys’s supporting cast, particularly the Dothraki characters that show fans have come to care about, are replaceable to the writers. Even Ian McElhinney (Barristan Selmy) was disappointed when he found out Strong Belwas was cut from the show! And we often hear characters mention places like Dorne and the Summer Islands, but these characters aren’t acknowledge on-screen.
Jonelle: If I were to give it a physical grade, it definitely wouldn’t be something that you’d want to point out to your parents on your report card. Diversity means much more than having a person of colour occasionally appear in the background to fit a quota; it means having positive and/or multifaceted portrayals of people of colour (a show that really wins in this department is Spartacus, for example). For the most part, people of colour on the show have been caricaturized, in positions of servitude, portrayed as monolithic savages, framed as betrayers, altogether erased from the series (Alayaya and Chataya, Jalabhar Xo, Jhiqui disappearing without explanation, Irri being killed off etc), or whitewashed (Thoros of Myr). There seems to be more diversity represented in the actual books as opposed to the series, so I do indeed find it worse than the source material.
I think George R. R. Martin attempted to represent at least some diversity in ASOIAF because historically—due to the ease of trade—it’s only sensible that people of colour would settle in Westeros, especially in a diverse area like Dorne. So far, most of the people of colour on the show have been sequestered to Essos, which is a pretty inaccurate depiction of the diversity in the book series and I think more diversity would certainly enrich the show and better reflect the intricate world George created.
Amin: I think HBO has done a relatively good job with casting its characters so far. I would have liked the Dothraki to have more people of East Asian descent present, particularly when there aren’t that many in the books already. And that is not to say anything disparaging of George, as he is writing in the Western tradition and his focus in the books has always been the story of Westeros, even when certain characters are traversing Essos.
I think HBO had good intentions when it cast characters such as Xaro Xhoan Daxos and Salladhor Saan differently from what was in the books. The beauty of casting Dorne is that they don’t have to deviate from the books to cast characters from a variety of ethnicities. It is George’s Dornish worldbuilding that has particularly made Dorne my own favourite place in Westeros. I like that George created the various groups of people in Dorne and lay down a spectrum of ethnicities that many of us can personally identify with.
As a person of Middle Eastern descent, one reason I particularly enjoyed reading about Dorne is because there are some characters there I could actually make a Halloween costume for or cosplay without feeling a little weird about it. Also, given that much of the Middle East is currently behind the rest of the world on issues like women’s rights and sexual freedoms, it is refreshing to see Martin avoid a potential stereotype with Dorne and turn our potential expectations on our heads, just like he has already subverted so many classical fantasy tropes and stereotypes.
Miss: I don’t think I watch enough television to grade in a standardized way. But from a personal standpoint I do feel the absence of people like Jalabhar at court or Chataya and Alayaya in King’s Landing. I would say the books are a bit better, if only because the books’ Westerosi continent is more diverse and fewer secondary characters in Dany’s storyline get killed off as collateral damage. The show did give us a Volantene Talisa which should be mentioned though, as well as a Lysene (Salladhor Saan) played by a British-Zimbabwean actor.
Without getting into my personal autobiography, I’ve watched shows that are less representative, so I can suspend disbelief because I’ve been forced to suspend disbelief due to the limits of availability, and because of that it’s difficult for me to answer the question in a relevant way. But I know, because I’ve read, that medieval Europe didn’t consist solely of white people, and for what it’s worth whenever people ask me where I’d be in the story, I inevitably find Dorne or Essos the only instinctive answers. It’s hard for me to separate the experiences since I read the books so long ago, but trying anyway: in the show I suppose I could see myself in Essos, although I don’t think much has been inspired by South Asia in specific. I can’t see myself in HBO’s Westeros yet; that would get easier if the Dornish are cast a certain way. Though honestly for me specifically it’d probably still be a function of imagination bolstered by a sense of verisimilitude at most. But for someone else it could make a big difference, and that’s important to me.
Hogan: There have been some interesting changes made—Lucian Msamati’s Salladhor Saan is one that stands out for me in a positive way. Unfortunately, the show sort of dropped the ball with some great book-established POC—Chataya and Alayaya come to mind. As far as establishing Westeros as a pseudo-medieval European type continent, I think it is rather believable (my biggest hang ups have to do with the costuming/sets), but I think Essos is where the show could have introduced a bigger variety of ethnicities. I actually had no objection to the Xaro Xhoan Daxos change, I just felt that either the writing, the acting, or both fell a little flat. But if anyone’s story line can be believably more diverse it’s Daenerys’. As far as comparing the show to the book, I think the book has done a slightly better job than the show has. I do, however, believe this may have come at the cost of cast consolidation, which is why I think it’s so important to establish the Dornish as a noticeably different race. Not only (IMO) did GRRM write them as such, but it’s also an opportunity for the show to bring some major POC players into the fold.
Miguel: I was really disappointed that we didn’t see the bloodrider Kovarro at all this season after they spent so much time building him up last season. The addition of Grey Worm and Missandei to Dany’s supporting cast was great, but it still feels lacking. The Dothraki this season were background extras at best in Dany’s storyline and it seems like a grave mistake considering how important the Dothraki continue to be to her. I’m still holding out hope that we could get Strong Belwas next season, maybe as a pit fighter introduced in Meereen. It would be great to see Quhuru Mo, a Summer Islander who eventually plays a big part in Sam’s storyline.
Marissa: It definitely seems like Dany has replaced one group of people of color for another and that is really awkward from a storyteller and viewer point of view. I feel like if this show wants to have a lasting legacy that can compete with the legacy of the novels, it is going to need to develop a better sense of self awareness when it comes to the depiction of women and people of color.
Please, show runners, depict the characters of color in GoT (who are already in the minority anyway) with conscientiousness and respect. Hire some writers of color or at least some white writers who are knowledgeable about avoiding embarrassing and offensive racial tropes. Cast some more characters of color to make your story less contrived and increase the verisimilitude of GRRM’s epic and expansive and diverse world.
If Game of Thrones had been made ten or fifteen years ago you would not have access to the same amount of feedback from viewers about topics such as diversity and representation, but you do have access to these voices and these insights today–please take them into account. We all want GoT to be an amazing show, and we want to be able to look back and say that gender and race and sexuality in this series was not clunkily handled.
Couldn’t have said it better myself! Game of Thrones has the opportunity to present a diverse creation in House Martell and Dorne, and I hope the show rises to the challenge.