Home People Race and Ethnicity Race and Power in ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘House of the Dragon’

Race and Power in ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘House of the Dragon’

An AI-generated image of a diverse group of characters from Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon sitting at a table, discussing important matters. The image is a banner for a blog post about the historical themes of race and power in the show

Ahead of the Season 2 premiere of House of the Dragon, the ATC Editorial Team is happy to present to you a piece by the Wiki of Thrones Editorial Team exploring themes of race and power in the TV-adapted world of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Visit Wiki of Thrones for a wealth of information on George R.R. Martin’s creative universe and an online community to experience it with.

– Zander

The creative ingenuity presented by George R.R. Martin (GRRM) in envisioning fantastical worlds like that of Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon is undeniable. From dragon-led battles to incessant bloodshed and betrayals, Westeros is a world beyond anything we have ever seen. The HBO shows transport us to a world where anything is possible, just without racial diversity. Representation and diversity have been tokenized lately to boost conversations about a show or a brand, but how many modern entities truly value equitable and accurate representation of racial groups on TV?

People are pulled toward fantasy movies and TV shows because they help escape life. But if there is no place for Black or colored people in the real-world based fabric of Westeros, how will they be able to resonate with the story? Let’s take a deeper look at how race and power intersect in the expansive world of dragons, debauchery, and drama in Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon

Targaryens: The Superior Bloodline?

The belief that only Targaryens were meant to rule the Seven Kingdoms and sit on the Iron Throne stemmed from the fact that they considered themselves god-sent missionaries to usher in a new era of stability into the realm. The Targaryens put themselves on a pedestal from which everyone and everything else seemed insignificant. For a clan that only cares about staying in power, it’s difficult to focus on other matters, let alone public approval. 

With a heritage that dates back to the ancient Valyrian Freehold, the Targaryens thought themselves to have superior blood, as shown by their unusual silver hair and violet eyes. This idea in their supremacy grew ingrained in their minds, instilling a sense of entitlement to the Iron Throne. 

The Targaryens resorted to incestuous relationships to preserve the purity of their bloodline, frequently marrying siblings or close family members. Many in Westeros despise this practice, but the Targaryens justified it as vital to preserve their dragon-riding talents and divine right to rule. 

The depiction of Targaryen’s incestuous connections in both Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon raises significant concerns about the nature of power and the extent people and dynasties will go to keep it. While the Targaryens believe such methods are necessary to maintain their supremacy, they also emphasize the moral uncertainty inherent in their desire for power. Their contempt for cultural conventions and ethical bounds emphasizes the ruthlessness of their goal, blurring the distinction between righteousness and tyranny.

The Targaryen narrative revolves around their steadfast belief in their right to reign from the Iron Throne. For ages, the Targaryens possessed unprecedented power, with their dragons representing both their dominion and divine command. Their dominion over the Seven Kingdoms was based on a sense of superiority, which was strengthened by their mastery of dragons and loyalty to a holy lineage. 

In both Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon, the representation of Targaryen supremacy and their dependence on incest to maintain lineage purity provides a complex examination of the interconnections of race and power. 

The Racial Dynamics in Westeros and Essos

From the freezing borders of the North to the warm deserts of Dorne, the series’ racial dynamics show in its depiction of slavery and a few non-White ethnic groups with differing, often minimal, degrees of agency and representation.

The dramatic contrast between Westeros’ primarily White governing elite and the many tribes of color spread throughout the continent of Essos is central to the racial dynamics of Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon. Slavery’s legacy remains big in Essos, particularly in the southern districts like Slaver’s Bay, where the practice is widespread and deeply ingrained. Here, Daenerys Targaryen enters the scene, who ascends from the pits of powerlessness to become a messianic figure hailed as the Breaker of Chains. 

However, beneath the veneer of benevolence lies a troubling narrative of White saviorism, as Daenerys liberates slaves and imposes her own brand of justice upon the people of Essos. She doesn’t cage them as slavers would, but her ambition for the throne puts the masses in the middle and they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Her dragons, symbols of her Targaryen pedigree, function as tools of dominance, promoting the sense of divine entitlement while also sustaining colonial power systems.

Moreover, the representation of the Dothraki, a nomadic warrior society similar to ancient Mongolian tribes, embraces clichés of ferocity. Their tribe is diminished to the status of animals who know nothing other than raping women and prancing around on their horses. The Dothraki, often seen as savages, remain useful to Daenerys for their brute power which comes in handy when she claims the Iron Throne. The lack of a clearer identity and ability to think through every action for the Dothrakis is glaringly absent from the show. 

Dorne stands out among Westeros’ different provinces as a microcosm of racial conflict, with a Black-adjacent populace based on Moorish Spain. Their unique culture and staunch independence ensure the people of Dorne are frequently disregarded and ignored by the Seven Kingdoms’ governing elites. Princess Elia Martell’s death is a devastating reminder of the injustices endured by the Dornish people, with her cruel execution during Robert’s Rebellion exposing the disposable nature of those judged inferior by the ruling elite.

From slavery’s institutional oppression to the representation of marginalized ethnic groups, the tale challenges viewers to confront difficult facts about the historic nature of power and privilege. By illustrating White saviorism tropes and the “savage other,” the series prompts criticism of race and power dynamics in both fiction and reality.

Lack of Black Characters in GRRM’s Universe

Despite their vast tapestry of cultures and communities, the tales of Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon have severely deficient Black representation. While the recent choice of Black actor Steve Toussaint as Corly Velaryon in House of the Dragon is a dramatic departure from Game of Thrones’ largely White cast, it raises serious concerns about how representation is tokenized in fantasy stories.

The whitewashed geography of the known world in Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon is only one example of how GRRM has utterly overlooked people of color while creating his elaborate narrative. This has caused some to doubt the legitimacy of a universe in which dragons and incest are more prevalent than finding a Black person or person of color in a position of authority, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and racist erasure. 

By making Whiteness the norm, the narrative reinforces power dynamics that favor White experiences while marginalizing those of Black and other non-White people. It’s hard to imagine that in the expanses of Westeros and Essos which make up so much of the globe, there is just one place where people of color live. 

While the recent casting of Steve Toussaint in House of the Dragon looks to be a step towards greater diversity, it also raises questions about the decision’s goals. Lord Velaryon has a significant part in the plot, although adequate portrayal is still missing because the limelight has been focused on his White wife and other members of the Targaryen dynasty. Is the casting driven by a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion, or is it merely tokenism intended to placate critics and deflect accusations of whitewashing?

In the source material, Velaryon is a relatively minor character, often sidelined and overshadowed by more prominent figures within the narrative. By casting Black actors in secondary or tertiary roles, the series risks perpetuating harmful stereotypes and narratives of racial marginalization rather than genuinely addressing the lack of diversity in the source material.

Colonial power dynamics, the paucity of Black characters in George R.R. Martin’s universe, and the latest casting decisions in House of the Dragon highlight the continuous battle for diversity and representation in fantasy fiction. Casting Black actors in supporting roles may appear to be a step forward, but ultimately fails to solve the genre’s structural challenges of representation and erasure. 



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