For a while now, I’ve wanted to watch Game of Thrones.
Even a year after the show came to its conclusion, people still discuss it as if its relevance hasn’t faded. That said, after waiting until the initial hype boiled over, I decided to give the series a look myself.
As I type this, I am already on season four almost to season five and I have to admit, it is a very interesting show. However, some of the themes and narrative decisions are worth discussing and looking more into.
Season one was interesting while shedding light on the various houses and the lore that made them great. But one thing that stood out to me the most, from the beginning to the end was in fact, the Dothraki and their relationship to Daenerys.
On one hand, it was interesting to see a group of brown and black characters who had great importance in the series. They had their own form of government, laws, culture and in general their concept was unique. On the other hand, their portrayal and the way their narrative weaved in with Daenerys’s story line was…upsetting to say in the least.
Many saw Daenerys and her relationship to the Dothraki as a story of a young, timid girl prevailing over abuse, gaining confidence and becoming a proud, ruthless ruler. While that much can be true, it is just as important to acknowledge the racism in her narrative, and how the Dothraki serve to not just be used as her plot device, but to harmfully portray people of color as well.
That said, this article discusses racism, white feminism/femininity, imperialism and abuse. A fair warning.
When we are first introduced to the Dothraki, we immediately see them through the eyes of Daenerys. A group of brute and savage like people, primarily black and brown who are renown for violence, slavery and rape. We are made to dislike them, to fear them and to feel terrible for Daenerys, the young white girl who will soon be married to their leader, Khal Drogo.
Daenerys, who is only 13 in the books is swiftly married to him and subjected to all forms abuse by him. Understandably, this is disgusting and we as the viewers are made to think so. As her time with the Dothraki continues, the narrative still portrays them in a very unfavorable light yet — this slowly changes when Daenerys starts to accept this culture, form a relationship with Khal and eventually she becomes ‘one of them’.
And when finally Daenerys steps out of the pyre, untouched by the flames and with her dragons by her side, she has won the trust of the Dothraki who decide to stay with her — her khalasar. And through that, when finally she climbs to power and is their leader, not only are we made to praise her for overcoming every obstacle she has faced, but appreciate this Khalasar that has pledged their loyalty to Daenerys. Daenerys is seen as a queen, a warrior and a survivor.
So what is the issue? And how is this racist?
Let’s make one thing clear. The Dothraki and the culture was, unfortunately presented by the narrative as bad. There is no getting past that. The normalization of raping, slavery and abuse isn’t acceptable in any circumstance. However, the issue of racism comes with the fact that the author George R. R Martin, and the show creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss, thought it was okay to portray a group that is known outside and inside the source material as savage like, and barbaric, as people of color.
Especially given that this harmful rhetoric of savage, rapists like black and brown people has hurt, and continues to hurt actual people of color today. Add the fact that we first see them through the eyes of an innocent white girl, then that is an even bigger issue.
GRRM takes inspiration from, “Mongols, Huns, Alans, Turks, Native American plains tribes” according to gameofthrones.com, actual, real life groups that have been subjected to demonization and slander for years through a white gaze.
More specifically, when we look at the relationship between white women and Native American people — in this case we can also say Indigenous people, these tensions have been tumultuous ever since white people came into contact with Indigenous groups.
Indigenous native men have historically, in European and Western literature (and cinema) been portrayed as rapists, abusers, and violent to white society yet more importantly to white women and their femininity. Where as indigenous native women have been seen as exotic, and dangerous in comparison to pure, white femininity.
When we see movies that portray the wild west or even international movies that show us a romanticized version of colonization or voyages to the ‘New World’ that just so happens to include Native and Indigenous people, white women are always being victimized by them.
We clearly see this with Daenerys and her personal relationship with Khal Drogo who is played by a Native Hawaiian man. With the racist stereotypes of white women being brutalized by native men, and in some harmful portrayals forced to be their wives — you can see why the portrayal of Daenerys and Khal is extremely problematic and reinforces harmful ideas and views on native men — views that still affect native men today.
On a whole note, the Dothraki men and women still follow these harmful, racist stereotypes, even when Daenerys becomes one of them, even when she becomes their ‘leader’.
And this brings us to another point. Earlier I mentioned that Daenerys’s narrative could be seen as a young girl who was a victim of abuse rising to power and even towering over the culture and the people who mistreated her.
While on the outside this portrayal seems good — there are various issues with it all the same. For instance, the idea of a white girl being introduced to a problematic culture and is the one to ‘tame’ and ‘lead’ said culture to better things and to break away from said cultures binds is problematic. Because this conveys two things.
One, it works to again demonize a black and brown culture through the eyes of a white girl and convey that the only way they are acceptable is if she tames them and becomes one of them — eventually becoming their leader.
Two, it ignores the struggles of the women of color in that group, while pushing an emphasis on white femininity being the more desirable and stronger type of femininity.
In all truth, it should have been a black or brown woman in Daenerys’s place of leadership.
I’ve mentioned countless times that the Dothraki culture isn’t perfect — even if it is racist to portray them using people of color. That said — if there was one person who had to rise against the oppressive, misogynistic culture — then why not make it a black or brown woman, more importantly and enslaved Dothraki woman who rose to power?
This also raises to mind other issues, such as, the only reason Khal loved Daenerys is because she was different and unique (white skin and hair — an emphasis on white femininity being the only accepted femininity among the Dothraki), and it is even alluded to the fact that he did not want a Dothraki woman as a wife (“If he wanted the Dothraki way, why did he marry you” — Doreah to Daenerys in season 1).
So therefore, at least in Khal Drogo’s khalasar a Dothraki woman can never come to power the way Daenerys has because they are not seen as worthy of being a Khaleesi and therefore, couldn’t obtain any sort of authority.
This also alludes to the fact that Dothraki women are not seen as desirable to Dothraki men the same way Daenerys is, which gives us a whole different layer of racism and anti-blackness. It also again proves that Daenerys, being different and unique is what eventually helps her to gain respect and power in ways that would never be offered to a Dothraki woman — therefore, another emphasis on her white femininity.
The trope of the passive black and or brown woman who is subjected to abuse and patriarchal mistreatment in her own community and therefore needs to be saved by a white person (man, woman or community) reinforces harmful stereotypes about cultures of color, and pushes this idea that black and brown women — and black and brown communities in general- will only be saved, and ‘reformed’ by white interference.
Specifically in the case of black and brown women and white women, it negatively portrays this idea that women of color are docile in the face of mistreatment even in our own communities, while white women are the unique, foreign, preferable women who can make a change and who are allowed respect by even men in our communities .
These white women, and their pure white femininity are the only things that can save and lead black and brown women to salvation.
Which is not true. Because black and brown women are always the loudest advocates against various sexist and patriarchal based oppression in our own communities while white women use us for canon fodder to be anti-black, Islamophobic, and all sorts of other forms of racism that are excused under the guise of feminism.
This isn’t to say that the Dothraki culture shouldn’t have been scrutinized and for certain, a woman should have called it out and risen against the patriarchal culture. But it should have been a black or brown woman, not a white woman who is seen as the voice of reason and the one who leads them at the end.
And this brings me to my final point. Daenerys is at the end of the day, an example of white imperialism. Where cultures of color scrutinized through the lenses of whiteness are purposely portrayed in such ways where a white person — usually a woman — is used to “fix” it and the main offenses are excused as long as we are seeing the culture through her eyes.
For instance Daenerys still scoffs at some factions of Dothraki culture yet, we are made to accept other parts of it if we’re looking through her point of view. Example? We all remember how joyous Daenerys looked during Khal’s pledge to take the Iron Throne and rape the women in Westeros.
The narrative of Daenerys follows that of ‘The White Man’s Burden’. The White Man’s Burden is a trope that showcases the white oppressive force having power but caring for specific groups of people who aren’t white, to the point of near assimilation into their culture yet still those white factions remain a ruling force.
This trope again, paints people of color in positive lights if only we’re seeing them through the gaze of a white person and even then, we are allowed to critique them because their white assimilated leader does. We of course see this through Daenerys and her open critique and dislike of some Dothraki customs even when she is Khaleesi.
Yet it is still her presence and influence that ultimately redeems the Dothraki. As long as she a white woman, is ‘taming them’ and leading them, then we are allowed to like them — but just not enough. Only as much as she does. We can appreciate them for helping her on her way to Westeros but we must also scrutinize and not grow too comfortable with them and their customs (i.e rape and slavery which both are extremely important to call out).
Yet at the same time, we can praise Daenerys for marrying rapists to the victims and catching a rape victim on fire when said rape victim fights back at her oppressors (in addition, we can excuse Daenerys forcing that very rape victim to burn with the body of the man who enabled her rape). We can excuse the fact that Daenerys’ servants were slaves of the Dothraki because she was kind to them.
We can like the Dothraki as long as they’re being used by Daenerys for her own personal goals. Other than that, they are a ‘savage’ like race of black and brown people, their women are docile and unworthy of being empowered by a white centric narrative.
Without the pure, raw White Feminist power of Daenerys, the Dothraki are just a group of black and brown people who were written by a white author to be disgusting and repulsive.
As a black fan myself and a black nonbinary woman — this was hard. Because as I love to identify with fantasy lands and narratives, seeing where I would fall into play in a Game of Thrones narrative is disheartening and I’m quite sure many people reading this can also relate.
When white authors have the power to create amazing narratives that will no doubt be influential, I always wonder why they look at people who look like me, my friends or family or even people who are reading this, and write us off as savages who can only be tamed by white femininity and imperialism.