Not long ago, Game of Thrones star Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei) was asked about some of the criticisms the show faced over the years about not featuring enough people of color in its cast. Emmanuel, one of the few people of color to have a meaty role on the show, probably gets this question a lot.
She answered with tact and thought, saying that while she’s thankful for all Game of Thrones did for her career and how much she enjoyed playing Missandei, she thinks the criticisms about representation were “fair.”
I think it’s important to note that they could have done better there. Hopefully that criticism will be heeded for future shows of that magnitude. That’s only a positive thing, so I’m excited to see what those conversations have started.
That sounds reasonable to me, but whenever we’re dealing with a touchy subject like this, nerves can get frayed. After Emmanuel made these comments, I saw some people making an argument I see a lot whenever the subject of race in Westeros comes up: that it would be unrealistic to include people of color in Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire because those stories are set in a world based on medieval Europe. Since medieval Europe was mostly populated by white people, the argument goes, including people of color wouldn’t be true to the “source material,” which in this case is history.
Now, for this article, I want to set aside the question of whether medieval Europe was actually racially homogenous, although I’ll note that there’s a ton of evidence that it wasn’t, whatever movies tell us. Instead, let’s focus on an obvious counter to this argument: that even if you assume that medieval Europe was mostly white, it shouldn’t matter when you’re telling a story involving dragons and witches and ice zombies. Yes, A Song of Ice and Fire is based on medieval Europe, but 10 Things I Hate About You is based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and I don’t see anyone in that movie strumming a lute or hanging out in a castle, and no one complained. You’re free to change stuff during the adaptation process, especially if you’re writing fantasy.
A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin is a big history buff and included plenty of historical references in his tale, gleefully mixing and matching events from different periods. But I don’t think he put much stock in “accurately” depicting the theoretical racial homogeneity of medieval Europe. I think he was more concerned with what would work well dramatically. In fact, talking with a fan on his blog in 2013, he talked about how he thought it could have been a good idea to give the Targaryen family black skin:
[R]ight from the start I wanted the Targaryens, and by extension the Valryians from whom they were descended, to be a race apart, with distinctive features that set them apart from the rest of Westeros, and helped explain their obsession with the purity of their blood. To do this, I made a conventional ‘high fantasy’ choice, and gave them silver-gold hair, purple and violet eyes, fine chiseled aristocratic features. That worked well enough, at least in the books (on the show, less so).
But in recent years, it has occurred to me from time to time that it might have made for an interesting twist if instead I had made the dragonlords of Valyria… and therefore the Targaryens… black. Maybe I could have kept the silver hair too, though… no, that comes too close to ‘dark elf’ territory, but still… if I’d had dark-skinned dragonlords invade and conquer and dominate a largely white Westeros… though that choice would have brought its own perils. The Targaryens have not all been heroic, after all… some of them have been monsters, madmen, so…
Well, it’s all moot. The idea came to me about twenty years too late.
The Valyrian Empire is roughly based on the Roman Empire. Did the Romans have black skin? White skin? Olive skin? I have no idea, although they’re pretty consistently depicted as white in the movies. But the point is that their race wouldn’t matter for the purposes of a story like A Song of Ice and Fire, because even if the Valyrians are based on the Romans, Martin wasn’t tied down to anything specific about them, including their skin color.
Obviously, Martin didn’t end up giving the Targaryens dark skin. As he notes, by the time he got the idea, it was way too late; books were already out. I also understand his concern about making the invading family of conquerors the only prominent people of color in the story. Particularly after what Daenerys does in the final season of the show, that could be read as tone-deaf.
On the other hand, who’s to say that he couldn’t have gotten around that potential minefield by making the Starks people of color as well, or the Lannisters or the Greyjoys or the Tyrells or whomever? At minimum, a slavish devotion to “historical accuracy” wouldn’t have stopped him, because even if a fantasy story borrows from real-life history — and a lot of them do — borrowing isn’t the same thing as channeling. They’re still fantasy stories and the authors can change whatever they want.
When it comes to racial representation in A Song of Ice and Fire, I don’t think Martin was wrong to make the choices he did, nor do I think that HBO was wrong in adapting his work the way it did. But I don’t think the people criticizing these stories are wrong, either. I agree with Emmauel that the conversation about representation on TV and in literature is far from over. I hope that future storytellers pay attention to why Game of Thrones was celebrated as well as why it was criticized, and learn as many lessons as they can.