Is Game of Thrones Really Orientalist? : A critique of the io9 article

Note: Spoilers through end of this season of Game of Thrones. And implications about what may happen to Daenerys in the coming seasons that are so vague I doubt anybody could be bothered by them but hey, better safe than sorry.

Also: Potentially trigger-ing because of discussion of rape in the Game of Thrones universe.

io9, a “nerd-culture”-focused offshoot of the Gawker empire, recently published an article entitled, “Daenerys’ whole storyline on Game of Thrones is messed up.” In it, comedian Aamer Rahman argues that Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline in Game of Thrones is deeply racist, orientalist, and….just read it.

[Daenerys’ storyline] begins with taming the savage Drogo who rapes her “like a hound takes a bitch,” on their wedding night (and every night after that) – until she teaches him the tenderness of looking him in the eyes when they sleep together. Then, the reforming of Dothraki customs: Dany prevents the rape of female prisoners and even gets Drogo to back her against the wishes of his riders. Finally, she establishes herself as a leader when she gives birth to her dragons (at this point the brown people literally prostrate themselves to her).

Barbarian cultures who don’t know how to treat women bowing in the face of superior technology and military arsenal (Dragons are basically the advanced fighter jets of the GOT universe) – does this feel familiar? She then goes from city to city freeing slaves who dutifully join her quest. Dany’s story is, at its heart, a neocon wet dream. She is Laura Bush, advocating for the invasion of Iraq under the pretext of saving its women who are desperate to live a life like hers.

Harsh stuff. But Laura Bush? You’re going to compare someone who is arguably one of the most bad-ass women in the fantasy/sci-fi genre to Laura Bush?

I’m just going to say it again: Laura Bush.

Mother of Dragons.

Despite my issue with his language and his point, I don’t disagree with Rahman entirely. George R.R. Martin’s construction of the non-Westerosian world in A Song of Ice and Fire is undoubtedly orientalist. Just as Westeros mirrors the petty medieval feudalism of Early Modern Europe, (it’s literally called WESTeros) the rest of the world mirrors orientalist conceptions of the East – a world of magic, mystery, a world that holds both power and perversion. As Edward Said once said, its a worldview that is “ignorant yet complex.” And when A Song of Ice and Fire was visualized and HBO-ified as Game of Thrones, the use of these orientalist tropes was more obvious, and I’m a little disappointed that the show-runners magnified these qualities rather than downplaying them.

But I tend to disagree with Rahman’s sort of critique of Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire because it looks at the story as a simple one with a simple message.  Viewing the Game of Thrones universe as simplistic spawns an inevitable misreading that has led to a number of critiques that completely miss the point of Game of Thrones. If you read one of these articles, such as the one where a Christian called the world “dangerous and damaging” to a “condescending and willfully misleading” critique alleging that George R.R. Martin is obsessed with rape, you’d think that Game of Thrones is a mere orgy of death with no real message. (Other than perhaps a Cormac McCarthy-esque “meditation” on the fact that men really are predisposed to evil.)

Game of Thrones is certainly not this. At least not for anybody who spends half a second thinking about it. Game of Thrones is a complicated world wherin “good” decisions are often harmful, “good” people do evil, and even one where “evil” people can become good at a moments notice. Heck, who thought they’d be rooting for Jamie Lannister at this point?

Indeed, if there is any consistency in Game of Thrones, it’s that good intention doesn’t match up to good action. Ned Stark’s intention to spare the lives of Cersei’s children rather than helping Renly seize power leads to the king’s death, his death, and a massive, avoidable war. Similarly, Robb Stark’s intention to do good and follow in his father’s path leads to his death, the butchering of his army, and the North and the Riverlands being taken over by two of the biggest sadists in the entire show (which is saying something). And Jon Snow’s wildling sabotage? Not exactly on track.

It’s hard to directly critique Rahman’s article- which is largely talking about Dany’s “crowdsurfing” moment – without spoiling the next two books. But I think that there’s actually a pretty good critique of Dany’s somewhat “imperialist” mindset embedded in the narrative of the first book/season. Daenerys’ desire to help everyone, regardless of  pragmatic circumstances, causes her to often be unwise and/or a hypocrite. For example, her attempt to rescue one woman from rape by Drogo’s riders shows that she does not understand that this is an event that is part of the way the horde functions. This one rescue does not remove her complicity in the rest of the rapes and murders the Dothraki carry out. Which is probably why both the Dothraki and Mirri Maz Duur react so incredulously to her desire to stop the murders and rapes of women who she has essentially endorsed the murders and rapes of, by being the wife of Drogo.

And the result of this noble, white-savior action? One Dothraki tries to murder Drogo (in the TV show, not the book), and Mirri Maz Duur poisons Drogo and kills Dany’s unborn child through blood magic. After her crimes become apparent, Mirri Maz Duur reads Dany’s naive hypocrisy near-perfectly, reprimanding Dany for claiming to have “saved” her from rape when she’d already been raped several times, and for claiming to have “saved” her when Dany already destroyed her home. She then describes why she murdered Dany’s child,

He would have been the Stallion who Mounts the World. Now he will burn no cities. Now he will trample no nations into dust.

That’s a fair point, actually.

At any rate, Dany’s rescue of rape victims, which Rahman so uncritically took as an endorsement of a white savior complex, directly leads to the poisoning of her husband and the loss of her unborn child, and the crumbling of the Dothraki horde. A more total reading of the situation shows her attempt to “help” people to be equally a tactical and moral disaster.  That doesn’t exactly feel like an endorsement of Dany. If anything, its a condemnation of her attempt to both conquer and save people – and thus is anti-imperialist.

As for what happened last episode…well, ask yourself, watcher of Game of Thrones: do you think the next four and half books is the story of Daenerys continuing to crowd-surf over non-white people? Do you think that her idealistic conquest of a society that is dependent on slavery for its economic well-being will go unnoticed, or be without reprisal? Do you think she’s going to be able to just pick up and move to Westeros and start her little dragon conquest? Maybe if you’re lucky, no more major characters will die, either!

SPOILER: Dany frees the slaves and everyone lives happily ever-after! She marries Jorah and they rule Westeros and Arya and Gendry are their adopted children. It really does just go uphill from here.

Indeed, Rahman’s article is really more of a critique of Dany’s character than it is of the show itself. George R.R. Martin is critiquing Dany’s character, too, pointing out that her simplistic desires: to do good, be loved by the people, to find romantic love, and to conquer Westeros, are all deeply and irrevocably in conflict. Dany’s “neocon wet dream” is often harshly in contrast with reality. Dany is actually at her best when she tempers her idealism with pragmatism: such as when she takes control of the army of Unsullied. In light of this, you could actually read Dany’s story as a critique of Laura Bush-style imperialism – Daenerys’ “white savior complex”, if we can call it that, often hurts as much or more than it helps.

However, you might be unwise to read Game of Thrones this way. Game of Thrones is always dodging attempts to read it as a simplistic moral lesson. Instead, its the story of people – deeply flawed, often idiotic, frequently cruel, yet still tragically human, people. Yes, it has used orientalist tropes, like basically every fantasy story ever. But it doesn’t leave these tropes un-criticized. Orientalism, after all, is a fantasy that people in another place live a strange, mystical life that is dramatically different from ours. For a story of the fantasy genre, Game of Thrones leaves no fantasy about human nature un-critiqued – and indeed, what seems like a simple Orientalist “East” becomes more and more complicated as the story’s major characters become wrapped up in it.

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One response to “Is Game of Thrones Really Orientalist? : A critique of the io9 article

  1. I’m a newcomer to the series and I’ve decided to stick with just the TV series. The whole Daenerys storyline has really unnerved me with its racial dynamics, so I appreciate your spoiler-free hints that, as with all things Game of Thrones, the message is complex and chickens will eventually come home to roost for her.

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