in Television

Race, Ethnicity, and “Game of Thrones”


Oberyn Martell, as drawn by Amok, and Arianne Martell, as drawn by Magali Villeneuve

In my last post about this topic, I wondered how George R. R. Martin, author of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books, would react to Pedro Pascal – another light-skinned actor – being cast as Oberyn Martell, one of the few characters from the book series who was described as non-white. Predictably, Martin defended David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ casting decision on his Livejournal blog. In response to a fan question, he stated the following:

I do know that David and Dan and HBO do favor having a racially and ethnically diverse cast on the series. It is true that we’ve lost several black characters who appear in the novels (Chataya and Alayaya, Jalabhar Xho, Strong Belwas), but to balance that, characters like Salladhor Saan and Xaro Xhoan Daxos, both white in the books, have been played by black actors. Missandei as well, though in the books the Naathi are golden-skinned, not white.

As for the Dornishmen, well, though by and large I reject one to one analogies, I’ve always pictured the “salty Dornish” as being more Mediterranean than African in appearance; Greek, Spanish, Italian, Portugese, etc. Dark hair and eyes, olive skin. Pedro Pascal is Chilean. (Check out Amok’s version of the Red Viper, that’s how I saw him. Or Magali Villenueve’s beautiful and sexy portrait of Princess Arianne).

When and if the show introduces Prince Oberyn’s daughters, the Sand Snakes, I expect we will see the same diversity as in the books, ranging from Tyene (blond and blue-eyed) to Sarella (light brown skin, as her mother was a Summer Islander). And I expect that the crew of the CINNAMON WIND will all be cast with black actors…

This isn’t the first time Martin has gone on record to defend the two Game of Thrones co-runners. Recently, he explained away the infamous Mhysa scene from the season 3 finale by talking about the logistics of shooting in Morocco.

"The Moorish Chief" by Eduard Charlemont, 1878

“The Moorish Chief” by Eduard Charlemont, 1878

Despite Martin’s claims, Benioff and Weiss’ have not demonstrated that they “favor having a racially and ethnically diverse cast on the series.” The overwhelming majority of the characters are white and the few people of color that exist in the books have been largely erased or killed off. Martin brings up Salladhor Saan and Xaro Xhoan Daxos as examples of “balance” on the show. However, the former appears in all of two scenes (from what I can remember), while the latter – who is still alive in the books – was killed off on the show after being shown as a traitor.

That is not racial and ethnic diversity. Neither Salladhor nor Xaro are fully fleshed out characters given the amount of importance, development, and screentime that characters like Jon Snow, Samwell Tarly, and Davos Seaworth have been given.

Moreover, Missandei (played by Nathalie Emmanuel) – along with Grey Worm and the rest Daenerys’s Unsullied – is more or less a background character. The point Martin makes about her being “golden-skinned” in the books doesn’t take away from the fact that she’s been written as a person of color from the get-go. At the very least, she is racially ambiguous. “Golden-skinned” doesn’t automatically make her white. Plenty of POC can be “golden-skinned.”

Never mind the fact that Missandei is also a slave, which only serves to reinforce Daenerys Targaryen’s “white savior” role on the show.

Martin’s statement that he pictured the ‘salty Dornish’ as being “more Mediterranean than African in appearance” ignores the diversity among Africans and people living in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean isn’t exclusive to south Europeans living in Greece or Italy. It includes North Africans, Arabs, Turks, etc. Dorne, according to Martin himself, is based on Moorish Spain and medieval Palestine. At that time, “Moor” referred to Arab and Berber-looking people, as well as darker-skinned Africans. The casting should accurately reflect the people whose culture and way of life is a source of inspiration for Martin’s books.

"Book of Games", Alfonso X, 1283

“Book of Games”, Alfonso X, 1283

He ignores the diversity among Chileans as well, when he mentions Pedro Pascal’s ethnic background, as there are a variety of races and ethnic groups living in Chile. As I said in my previous post, race and ethnicity are two separate things. Latinos and people living in South America can be white and light-skinned.

Mentioning the crew of the Cinnamon Wind – again, they are background characters – doesn’t reflect racial and ethnic diversity, either.

Though it comes as no surprise, I am disappointed in Martin’s response. His statement about Benioff and Weiss caring about racial and ethnic diversity is especially laughable. There has been no evidence on the show to suggest that diversity has been given a priority. For the most part, roles for non-white actors have been limited to slaves or savages.

The silver lining here is what Benioff and Weiss will do about the Sand Snakes and the rest of the Martells. Since the roles have yet been cast, there’s a chance – albeit small – that they will go to actors of color.

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