Game of Thrones, HBO’s blockbuster show based on the A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series by George R.R. Martin, wrapped up its third season on Sunday evening. But the closing scene of the episode may have left some of the reported five million viewers uncomfortable with the scene’s cultural insensitivity and potentially racist tone.
The scene shows heroine Daenerys Targaryen appearing before the thousands of Yunkai slaves she has just liberated. The fictional city of Yunkai’s main trade is slaves, and Martin’s books note that Yunkai slave traders have captured a broad spectrum of individuals throughout the years. As such, one would expect the Yunkai slaves to be diverse in appearance, notwithstanding the scorching sun.
Well, that wasn’t the case.
From the first wide-angle shot of the crowd of slaves, to the close-ups of the slaves as Daenerys walks among them, it is all a sea of ethnically brown and black individuals.
Making the scene even more culturally insensitive was the visual of these dark-skinned slaves raising in adoration a platinum blond, blue-eyed individual as their savior.
The question is… Why? Why did HBO make a conscious choice to portray the slaves almost exclusively as brown and black, particularly when the book does not describe them as such and, on the contrary, notes the slaves of Yunkai hail from all over and thus reflect a variety of ethnicities?
Making the scene even more culturally insensitive was the visual of these dark-skinned slaves raising in adoration a platinum blond, blue-eyed individual as their savior. The undertones of colonialism are evident.
In contrast, while apparently skewing the books in order to portray slaves as dark, the show has done the opposite for a key figure: Daario Naharis, a main character introduced this season, is understood by book readers to have dark skin. HBO instead cast a blond, blue-eyed Calvin-Klein-model type.
Latinos have long suffered either exclusion, negative depictions, or even subtle slights in a variety of entertainment mediums: for instance, any Latina who grew up reading the Sweet Valley High books, in which Jessica and Liz Wakefield’s blond hair and blue eyes was described as “perfect,” surely recalls the somber effect of reading such descriptions and looking at one’s own eyes and hair in the mirror. And while Latinos in Hollywood have made tremendous strides in the past decade, subtle, disconcerting images such as those in the Game of Thrones finale stubbornly linger.
So, HBO, while it’s tempting and easy to film a ‘throng of slaves’ by yelling: “I need some black and brown extras for this scene!” to your casting director, next time consider accuracy or at least the culturally insensitive effect of your depictions.