in Books, Television

Did “Game of Thrones” Whitewash Oberyn Martell?

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Today, news broke that Game of Thrones finally cast Oberyn Martell, a highly anticipated character from the books whose nickname is “The Red Viper.” Pedro Pascal, a Chilean actor who attended Orange County High School of the Arts and is currently playing a recurring character on USA’s Graceland, won the coveted role.

Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss said of the role:

The Red Viper is sexy and charming, yet believably dangerous; intensely likable, yet driven by hate… We found a fellow who can handle the job description and make it seem effortless. He wasn’t easy to find and he won’t be easy to stop. [Entertainment Weekly]

Okay, acting ability (or non-ability, since Pascal has yet to prove himself) aside, why am I so upset about this casting?

For starters, A Storm of Swords, the third book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga, is explicitly clear in regards to the way people from Dorne – the region in Westeros where House Martell is from – look. As told from Tyrion’s point-of-view:

The salty Dornishmen were lithe and dark, with smooth olive skin and long black hair streaming in the wind. The sandy Dornishmen were even darker, their faces burned brown by the hot Dornish sun. They wound long bright scarfs around their helms to ward off sunstroke. The stony Dornishmen were biggest and fairest, sons of the Andals and the First Men, brown-haired or blond, with faces that freckled or burned in the sun instead of browning. [A Storm of Swords, p. 520]

From this passage, we can assume that Dorne is a multi-racial region, consisting of people who are both light-skinned and dark-skinned. The following excerpt describes where Oberyn Martell lies on the color spectrum:

The princeling removed his helm. Beneath, his face was lined and saturine, with thin arched brows above large eyes as black and shiny as pools of coal oil. Only a few streaks of silver marred the lustrous black hair that receded brown his brow in a widow’s peak as sharply pointed as his noise. A salty Dornishman for certain. [A Storm of Swords, p. 521]

As described in this passage, Oberyn Martell is dark and olive-skinned. Even George R. R. Martin has stated before that Nymeria Sand, one of Oberyn’s bastard daughters, looks like Janina Gavankar, an actress of Indian and Dutch descent who has a fairly olive-skinned complexion. So the author himself doesn’t see House Martell being white or light-skinned (with possibly one or two exceptions).

Appearance-wise, Pedro Pascal does not fit the criteria of a “salty Dornishmen.”

Here are a few, common reactions I’ve been reading on the Internet so far:

1. He’s Chilean! That means he’s not white… right? 

Actually, no. There are white Hispanics and white Latinos with predominately European features who do exist, which means people from South America can be white and light-skinned. Just turn on any Spanish-language telenovela and you’ll see the over-representation of white Latinos. It’s both disingenuous and extremely troubling to cast a white Latino in a role and then try to pass it off as groundbreaking, non-white casting.

Other white Latino actors include Cameron Diaz, Martin Sheen, and Alexis Bledel.

2. Skin color doesn’t matter!!!

This is a common argument made in any discussion of race.

First of all, pointing out Oberyn Martell’s whitewashing in Game of Thrones is not the same thing as complaining about Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall in the Thor movies, for example. Unless it’s to show them as thugs, violent criminals, and the like, POC representation in media is few and far between, whereas white people have been over-represented in the media. The few roles that are available to actors of color are often passed over to white and lighter-skinned actors, instead, as is the case with Oberyn Martell.

Second, all of the major characters in Game of Thrones have been white, except for slaves, slavers, and savages. This is especially disturbing in light of the white savior fiasco involving the character of Daenerys Targaryen that’s been going on since season 1. (This came to a head in the season 3 finale where she’s hoisted up by a sea of brown people calling her “mother.”)

Not only is POC representation few and far between, but the few POC that do exist on this show have been put into subservient roles, killed, or erased completely.

3. He was the best actor for the role.

The idea that talented actors of color don’t exist is absurd.

There’s also this handy dandy clip of Pedro Pascal during an audition, so judge for yourself.

4. Use make-up to darken his skin. 

I’m not kidding when I say that some people have suggested this as a serious option. If you know anything about the problematic history of attempting to make white actors look “more ethnic” (see: blackface, yellowface, brownface), then this would never even cross your mind.

So, what does this mean for future casting? Pedro Pascal’s pale complexion probably means that the rest of House Martell will also consist of pale-skinned actors, which means even more whitewashing. At this point, I would not be surprised.

I’m curious as to what George R. R. Martin thinks of the casting. His books aren’t exactly ripe with people of color and there are plenty of problematic elements in regard to race and ethnicity (see: Dothraki), but House Martell was one of the few, definitive opportunities to cast actors of color and not have Game of Thrones consist entirely of lily-white British actors.

Click here for my follow-up post.

What do you think of Pedro Pascal playing Oberyn Martell? Hit the comments below to join the discussion. 

  • HBO would be the last company I would accuse of whitewashing. They have a long history of casting non-white actors for lead and major roles in their shows. If they chose Pedro, then I’m going to assume they did so for his ability to play the character of Oberyn, not for his skin color.

    • I don’t know about that. Looking at their present shows, all of them (except for “Treme,” which they hardly promote anyways) consist of white actors in lead roles. There’s just a handful of actors of color in major supporting roles. Of their past shows, “The Wire” is the only one that jumps out at me as being racially diverse.

  • msd

    This is depressing. An actor who has probably spent his whole life being told by casting directors and executives that he’s “too ethnic” now has put up with strangers on the internet sneering at him and complaining that he’s “too white”.

    • My problem is not with the actor himself. My problem is with the casting decision and the blatant whitewashing of the character.

      • msd

        Then why post a link to a “handy dandy” video of the poor guy from years ago? You clearly don’t think he’s any good or you wouldn’t have been so snide. I’m also not convinced you’ve read the books, despite including quotes here as though you have. You mention Nymeria Sand having olive skin yet another of his daughters is a fair blonde with blue eyes. His daughters run the gamut from fair to olive skinned to very dark – because they have different mothers. The showrunners seem to be using Spain, which Martin has mentioned as his key influence for “salty” Dornish, to guide them but apparently that’s still not good enough because the guy they were most impressed with in the auditions isn’t sufficiently Latino looking for some people.

        • I think people should judge for themselves whether or not Pedro is a good actor. I’m not here to convince people one way or the other because I think it’s irrelevant. What I take issue with is the idea that talented actors of color don’t exist or couldn’t have played the role. Also, I should have been more clear about House Martell being more diverse. I wrote: “So the author himself doesn’t see House Martell being white or light-skinned (with possibly one or two exceptions).” By mentioning those exceptions, I was referring to Tyene Sand in particular. Even though we have a difference of opinion about this casting, hopefully we can both agree that George R. R. Martin has created a very detailed world and his books have impacted a lot of people. Thanks for reading.

  • Demoniser

    People really should stop using that video as proof that he will be terrible for the role.
    1. It’s a stage role, theatre actors always ham it up.
    2. We have no idea how good his audition was. It may well have been the best.

  • Leirus

    I always thought of Dorne as a fantasy version of Spain, and assumed that the darkest people living there would be fantasy moors, because the black people (fantasy black africans) of the summer islands is stated to be far darker. Most of the white latinos are of spanish stock (Martin Sheen has galician blood, and Rita Hayworth father was from the Canary Islands). They were probably trying to cast someone with an hispanic look, and they got a Chilean. That does not mean that there are not talented darker actors, just that amongst the ones who tried the role he was the one they liked the most. So I do not really have a problem with his casting.

    BUT I can understand that for someone who read the books thinking that the darker dornishmen were indeed black people (as opposed to arabs) this would be blatant whitewashing. I was kind of more upset with Dario Naaharis. I expected him to be a foxy arab too… same goes for Thoros of Myr.

    • Marven

      They are both supposed to be white skinned. Myrish and Lysene are white. did you read the books. Daario has blue eyes.

  • Carmen

    I think people have a right to be upset if they think the casting isn’t right, for whatever reason and I haven’t read the book so I don’t really know how far they go into describing them. It sounds like the appearance of this group of people wasn’t really described much beyond the olive skinned part.

    But one thing I always wonder about when things like this come up is what if they’d cast an olive skinned Italian or Greek? Because there have been other times when someone in a book has been described as having olive skin and there has been some upset over the casting not being a person of color. I don’t know maybe because I’m half Italian, but whenever I read “olive skinned” in a book I picture Italian. I have relatives who are darker than this guy(I’m also half Irish, I just look kind of green, LOL I have fair skin but with a an olive undertone.)

    So what would you be saying if an olive skinned Italian or Greek or other Southern European was cast in the role? Would it still be considered “white washing” even if it doesn’t contradict the book, as it doesn’t seem to?

    These were people traditionally described as having olive skin tones in the first place. I’m pretty sure that’s why “olive” was chosen to describe it, because of the abundance of the growth of olives around the Mediterranean. In fact another common name to describe it is “Mediterranean coloring”.

    • Marven

      you people are being ridiculous. It would be white washing is they got a blond blue eyed character. He is dark-haired dark-eyed and has southern Eurpoean facial features. He does’nt look Northern Eurpoean. He fits the role. he just needs to be darker. It is not whitewashing. Suggesting that is ridiculous. The show made a lot of white characters black. Like Salladhor Saan who is Lysene and according to the book Blues eyes and pale hair are common there they are white. or Xaro Xhoan Daxos who is not BLACK!! This show does not white wash and does a pretty good job with casting. Petyr Baelish is spot on. Catelyn Stark is perfectly cast. Jaime Lannister could not have been cast better. They are all well acted. The only casting choice that bothered me was Renly because they made him too wimpy. He is supposed to be bold and charismatic and one of my favorite characters just because of the peace scene. Which the show fucks up Renly doesn’t have the right regality and boldness. This guy as Martell is fine. That guy a Renl was awful.

  • The issue here is two things, people think he was cast as the ‘best’ for the role which is basically saying that there are not good PoC actors for this specific role, and they are not understanding that he’s blatantly described as person of Dark Skin, Tyrion notices at first glance, there are even mentions of racism in the King’s Landing court. And also because this guy is latino, it just magically becomes diverse, when is not. Dorne is suppossed to be the most diverse country in Westeros but its main characters are always described as being of darker tones of skin, and this man is a white latino, maybe a bit of a dark hue but other than that not really what anyone would think of Dorne, this is racism and Benioff and Weiss have always shown they don’t care about racial representation. Just check the Mhysa scene, and farther back, the decimation and mute existence of Danny’s Dothraki.

  • Patricia

    “Light-skinned” or “white-passing” latin@. Do not call a latin@ “white” unless you know they identify as “white”.

  • Gray

    I think what makes me uncomfortable with your article here is that it seems that you’re saying that light skinned people of Latin origin aren’t people of color. It appears that you’re grouping white latin actors in with white actors in terms of representation and ability to earn roles in film and television. And I guess I’m kind of unsettled by that because lighter skinned Latin actors still face difficulties in finding roles, especially if they’re lighter skinned but not white passing in appearance.

  • Corey Cockrum

    Today George RR Martin stated that he pictured the Martells to be Greek looking in apereance and that this actors skin matches that description perfectly. So in other words the supreme ruler has spoken. The Martells are not Indian.

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  • The “whitewashing” thing is plentiful in movies and TV, but in this case the accusation is just some bullshit, frankly.
    The idea that Dornishmen, or at least some of them, are “people of color” is kinda weird, and it really depends on what your definition of a person of color is. Is a Spanish or Italian person a person of color? Most people would say not. Is an Arab a person of color? Many would say yes… yet many Arabs would be indistinguishable from many Spaniards. Is Pedro Pascal a white guy? He has light skin. Yet Ice-T and Prince also have quite light skin, are they white? Race is highly socially constructed, and fluctuates over time. Even those who envision the Dornish as looking like Indians should remember that most Indians, particularly north Indians, are predominantly “Caucasian” in their genetic makeup. Naveen Andrews played an Iraqi in Lost; yet there are many Iraqis who would clearly be regarded as “white”.
    When Dornishmen are described as “dark”, this is dark by Westerosi or medieval European standards. They are meant to look like Mediterranean people, which could range from an Italian or a Spaniard to a North African Arab or Berber. I have no idea where you would draw the line between which of these people are “white” and which are “of color”.

    Bear this in mind: Oberyn Martell, the salty Dornishman, is the brother of Elia of Dorne. Is she a “person of color” as well? Elia is the mother of the young Aegon, who apparently has the Targaryen look, ie. silver hair. He sounds pretty white… or is he also a “person of color” like his uncle?

  • Nick

    I’m dissapointed. I caught myself saying “I would of put more ethnic nobles in this story.” I read up on the books and discovered this family. I looked forward to it, to be honest. Now this actor was casted. I say Congrats! He got the role fair and square. However maybe the reactions of the fans would be considered for the other Martells castings, especially the little lady heir I look forward to. As for the “what does race matter?” argument, well his skin color/race wouldn’t be a problem if Daenerys wasn’t being worshipped among the brown slaves she liberated. I’m confident the show CHOSE to cast the slaves as Indian, Middle Eastern, African, and Latinos on purpose because they thought is was appropriate, I don’t see any of them arguing. Finally, don’t slander this man because the directors or whom has authority chose a lighter man for the role of the only dark colored noble family of the series.

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  • Al

    This post is blatant racism and ignorance. How this piece of crap actually came up in a search for season 4 of Game of Thrones is beyond me! Before you start rambling about how disturbing the lack of People of color is to you, consider the time period and setting of the books. They’re based on Medieval Europe . The actor casted has the ethnicity that matches the role. He’s not dark enough for you? You’re a racist.

    P.S. Moron:
    Did you want more people of color in the movie braveheart too? Grow up

  • This isn’t whitewashing, George RR Martin said himself that he imagined Salty Dornishmen as Mediterranean. He also said himself that he agreed with their casting decision of Oberyn Martell. Sorry guys but if the AUTHOR OF THE BOOKS says he is on board, then drop it. You can say all you want about what YOU imagined him be but baseline is: He is the actor they choose for the role, the writer supports it, the show supports it. GET OVER IT AND GROW UP.

    Source of Martin’s claim: http://io9.com/is-it-whitewashing-george-r-r-martin-responds-to-red-683323782

  • Tito

    Please… some people think that pink skin saxon people are the only that can be described as “white”. Mediterranean people are also white, they are just not (usually) pink skinned.

  • Spanish

    Dorne is supposed to be a fictional representation of Al-Andalus, the muslim part of what today is Spain. If you do a little bit of research you would find out that, although at the beggining the men who invaded Spain where of arabic and north-african origin, they mixed with the local people. You know, the country was not empty when they arrived. Between the 711 (the year they entered the country) and 1492 (when the last muslim kingdom was defeated) there is plenty of time to mix races. Spanish have a large history of invations, not coming only from the south, but also from the north, and this is the reason why you can see blondes with blue eyes and also pretty dark skinned people with black hair and eyes. All of them are perfectly normal in Spain. So what I don’t know is why some people tend to think that Spanish look just like the latinos when they don’t. The latinos are a mix themselves of Spanish, Italians, people who came as slaves from Africa and all the natives which where there before the Europeans even knew they existed. That means that result is mostly different from what you can find in Europe, depending of course of the heritage of the parents. Spanish have more to do with Italians in terms of looks than with an average Mexican or a Columbian.
    Soooo, all this comes because I don’t agree with you. The actor is well chosen for the part because, even when he is not Spanish, he looks like one. That’s how Spanish look like. He could also be darker, or have blue eyes. It would also be OK. But staying with the “average” look, Oberyn Martell looks fine.

  • Jessie

    For starters, Martin Sheen is not Latino. He is Spanish (half). Latino=Latin American. Spain is not in Latin America. It is in Europe.
    As for the casting, I always pictured Salty Dornishmen to look like Southern Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, Welsh, and Southern French, since those people are olive-skinned in general. I don’t think it’s a bad casting because Pedro Pascal fits neatly in that colour spectrum. He is olive-skinned. As for the sandy dornishnen, I pictured those to be more middle eastern in appearance. The stony dornishmen to me look more like Northern French, Northern Spanish, or Northern Italians in appearance.

    • lorena

      Spanish people are latinos as well just like Italians or portuguese. Latinos are people who´s first language is a romance language (which is any language that derived from Latin, example: Spanish) people from the UK or USA are not latinos because english is of germanic origin not latin. It has nothing to do with living in latinamerican. What spanish people are not is latinamericans because they are form Europe. There´s the difference.

  • lorena

    Well you must be eating your words right now, because Pedro was amazing in season 4 as Oberyn Martell. He killed it.