Apr 11, 2012

Implicit racism in Game of Thrones

There’s been some recent talk of racism in Game of Thrones – Saladin Ahmed wrote and article for Salon which, as one would expect, received a whole lot of ‘blinded by privilege’ commenters. 

I was alerted to the article by  Sofia Samatar, a fantasy author herself, posting on racism and fandom (well worth reading the article for its criticism  of Harry Potter and subsequent links to crunchy goodness).

I was discussing this with my cousin who has HBOGo and she alerted me to the whopper of a ‘racefail’ that occurs in Episode 2 of Season 2 with the character of Salladhor Saan.

Back to the source

Now, we all readily appreciate that adapting a book to the small screen necessitates some changes, scenes and characters will be cut or changed.  Here is an excerpt from Clash of Kings on which the scene I am talking about takes its inspiration.


The other[Saan] shrugged. “The walls are high and strong, but who will man them? They are building scorpions and spitfires, oh, yes, but the men in the golden cloaks are too few and too green, and there are no others. A swift strike, like a hawk plummeting at a hare, and the great city will be ours. Grant us wind to fill our sails, and your king could sit upon his Iron Throne by evenfall on the morrow. We could dress the dwarf in motley and prick his little cheeks with the points of our spears to make him dance for us, and mayhaps your goodly king would make me a gift of the beautiful Queen Cersei to warm my bed for a night. I have been too long away from my wives, and all in his service.”- A Clash of Kings

Now note, to this point I don’t recall Salladhor Saan’s race being mentioned.  Owing to privilege I assume him to be white.  On checking the text and pre-TV series materials he is indeed described as having white hair and blue eyes and coming from Lys, whose people are noted to be of fair colouring.  Indeed the other Lysene character Doreah, who serves the Daenerys is directly contrasted with her fellow ‘olive skinned’ handmaidens in the text.

And so you might ask?  What is wrong with making Salladhor black?  To which I reply – not a damn thing.  If you need a textual justification for it, Lys is a free city and Saan a pirate prince so out of all the homogenous societies of Westeros it’s one of the most likely to be multi cultural. 

No, what floored me is that the writers of the show did the following:

Transcription from season two [credit to my cousin]

Davos and Salladhor Saan are walking along the beach with Davos’ son Matthos.  Davos has just goading Salladhor into helping Stanis, saying that it will be hard but the rewards will be great, gold and fame and an easy and safe retirement.

Salladhor: [pondering] “Salladhor Saan is a good name for songs. One thing.[pause] I want the Queen.

Davos: [perplexed] :”Queen?”

Salladhor:[with conviction] “Cersei. I want her. I will sail with your fleet all thirty of your ships; and if we don’t drown at the bottom of Blackwater bay I will fuck this blonde queen and I will fuck her well.

Matthos: [Aghast at the suggestion from this savage buccaneer] “This war is not about you, we are not attacking King’s landing so you can rape the queen.”

Salladhor:[As if explaining to a child] I am not going to Rape her, I am going to fuck her.

Matthos: “As if she would just let you”

Salladhor:”You don’t know how persuasive I am.  I never tried to fuck you [reaches for Matthos’ groin]

Are you seeing it yet?

Contrast the book excerpt – a conversation between two white men in a bar.  The tone is jovial.  Saan is being vulgar but there is no hint that getting the queen is a driving ambition.


A black man who is making sexual possession of the queen a condition of his signing on.  He’s quite forceful about it too, underlining it with reference to racial features like blonde queen.  With the GoT Saan it’s all about the sex.

The “Black man rapes white woman trope” writ large, underlined and emphasised.

This in a country where black men were hung for raping white women, often without evidence or charge, while black women were routinely raped by white men out of self gratification and as a tool of subjugation and terror.

Implicit Racism?

I have to believe that the writers were just blindly fumbling – “How can we add some edge to this character? Oh let’s make him sexually menacing.” because the other option leads to despair. 

It’s great to see Lucian Msamati getting some more work and his performance in the role is excellent given the 2-3 minutes of screen time.  But it would be nice for him to be given that role without the terrible over sexed dialogue, and racist stereotyping.

What purpose does changing the original tone of the conversation do? Will Saan be more than a minor character?  Or will the audience just be left with:

“oh yeah he was that black guy who just wanted to rape/f*ck that hot blonde chick”

Your thoughts?

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If you appreciate the work that I do in Australian Speculative Fiction Fandom and you have a spare $5, you can vote for me here and help send me to the National Conference.

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