The final season of Game of Thrones is here. The show’s had a remarkable run and impact on popular culture. Baldur’s Gate and The Lord of the Rings proved fantasy wasn’t just for weird basement dwellers, but Game of Thrones took it to another level. The whole country became like Daniel Desario at the end of Freaks and Geeks: completely and unexpectedly enthralled by dungeons and dragons.
Just to settle any arguments, season 4 was the best. That was the season of Oberyn Martell. The triple punch of the final three episodes — Oberyn vs. The Mountain, the Battle of Castle Black, and Tyrion murdering Tywin — is incomparable. Plus, the show’s never been quite the same without Tywin. Debate over.
But here’s another debate: why aren’t there more important non-white characters and kingdoms in Game of Thrones? It’s a question that goes beyond this show or even the fantasy genre. When people say we should have a non-white James Bond or a non-white Jane Austen character, the same root issue is at hand: do traditionally white stories need to have more non-white characters?
For actors, this may be mostly a labor issue. If shows and movies are constantly set in historical or pseudo-historical Europe, then it’s difficult for non-white actors to make a living unless there’s race-blind casting. The entertainment industry often purports itself to be progressive and equal opportunity. So if it’s doing a ton of Shakespeare and Dickens, then some adjustments will have to be made in order to live up to those egalitarian ideals. Or stop rehashing the old and start doing something new and more inclusive. This is a point that I can support.
What I find less supportable is when people approach this from a more moral and philosophical standpoint that argues it’s a matter of racial justice that non-white people be included in white narratives, regardless of the employment opportunity issue. If adherents of this view wanted POC-centered alternatives, like a Game of Thrones set in a fantastical Africa or a Pride and Prejudice set in historical Asia, then I’d be more sympathetic. But I suspect that for many, this isn’t what they’re looking for.
What they’re seeking is not quite equality, but rather, inclusion. Specifically, inclusion among the white characters and settings they’ve idealized for so long. A full transposition of these white narratives into POC-dominated alternatives would ruin the chance to finally feel included. This sentiment can be seen in this article with the curious claim that To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was better for representation than Crazy Rich Asians.
At initial glance, the article’s argument seems preposterous: how can a movie that only features one Asian character be better for representation than a movie that features an all-Asian cast? But reading between the lines, one can reasonably conclude that what the writer is really trying to say is that being accepted in a white setting is a greater accomplishment than being accepted in a non-white setting. She praises the heroine of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before for being defined by more than just her race, but who said the characters of Crazy Rich Asians were only defined by their Asianness? If anything, a cast of all-Asian characters makes it impossible to lean on race as a crutch because it’s no longer an otherizing marker. In this usage, “defined by more than just their race” simply means no longer having to be relegated to one’s POC social ghetto.
The problem with this inclusion-obsessed mindset is how much it’s giving into the idea that white settings and histories are just so overwhelmingly desirable, so much so that the highest achievement that POC can seek is to be admitted into these prestigious clubs. It’s a mindset that confesses that non-white histories and settings are so unworthy, uninteresting, or simply non-existent that the best thing to do for these poor unfortunate non-white souls is to save them a seat at where the real party is. Because, after all, nothing exciting or romantic has ever happened outside of where white people lived, right?
With respect to Game of Thrones, let’s stretch our imaginations to the extreme and say that its creators could create non-white characters and kingdoms without resorting to lazy stereotypes. If so, which non-white groups get included? And from those groups, which demographics (in terms of ethnicities, gender, sexual orientation)? Once you put the power to include and exclude in the hands of white people, you’re playing a very dangerous game that almost always results in POC infighting with everyone striving for that precious inclusion. It’s the kind of white asssimilationist liberalism that was rife in something like Master of None.
The fact is that Game of Thrones is weakest when it tries to be inclusive. I never liked Daenarys because there’s something off about seeing a blonde monarch walking on top of the outstretched and grateful hands of her dark-skinned subjects. The same thing happened with Girls in its second season when Donald Glover played the familiar black boyfriend trope. Some shows are actually just better off being too white.
But at least Game of Thrones is fantasy and Girls is about contemporary times. Things get even worse when we go back into actual history. Take this tweet for example:
Let’s say Henry Golding gets to play Mr. Darcy. Will Lizzy Bennet still be white? If so, where would the Asian women be? Isn’t this an elevation of Asian men over Asian women via white acceptance, in a world where many Asian women still feel incredibly burdened by European beauty standards? Furthermore, what the fuck is Asian Darcy doing in Regency England? What’s his stance on the rampant European colonialism of his home continent? Does anyone in that phrenology-loving time not have a problem with an Asian guy owning huge tracts of land? If no, isn’t that just a fantasy that English people at the height of the British Empire had the same social sensibilities as today’s Vassar students?
Thus far the revolutionary potential of works of art in the age of mechanical production in which Walter Benjamin had placed so much hope had not been realised: culture had become impotent to change oppressive social reality; worse, it helped hold that oppressive order in place. Marcuse, in his 1937 essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” had argued that culture separates itself from society or civilization and creates the space for critical thought and social change. But instead of fulfilling any emancipatory role it had become an autonomous zone, a place of retreat from social reality. In this zone, Marcuse argued, the demand for happiness in the real world is abandoned for an internal form of happiness, the happiness of the soul. Bourgeois culture creates an interior of the human being where the highest ideals of culture can be realised. This inner transformation does not demand an external transformation of the real world and to material conditions. Such is affirmative culture: the horrors of the everyday can be dissipated by attending to the beauties of Chopin.
— From Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries
What is race-bent historical movies other than the art of affirmative culture, one that soothes contemporary peoples’ guilt and fear, especially those of white people, that their cherished past was actually brutal and ignominious? That under every doily-strewn Austenian tea party, there was a foundation of black slavery, brown famine, and yellow colonization? But with an Asian Mr. Darcy or Indian David Copperfield, the imagery of a racial meritocracy can now be projected way backwards: maybe if those Asiatics weren’t such personality-free savages back then, they could’ve gotten into Oxbridge.
It devolves into a history saturated with wishful thinking. So the question is, what is the wish? For white people, it’s being able to celebrate their past without the confronting difficult questions. For POC, it’s finally seeing our own faces in white stories, the most exclusive and prestigious stories of all. The teenage me would’ve loved to see an East Asian guy play Pip in Great Expectations because the younger me thought Asians could only matter if we were included in white narratives. But there are ways—much better ways—to be diverse without making POC cosplay as white people.
The recognition of whiteness — in particular, urban and educated whiteness — as a salient racial and ethnic identity has been a boon for racial progress. What has been more harmful is the fiction that whiteness is a raceless and universal ideal that every outsider should strive to attain. Of course, white identity to the extreme is immensely harmful, but that shouldn’t mean going to the other deep end and acting as if whiteness isn’t an identity at all.
So if whiteness is a real identity, then it follows that whiteness should have its own space. Not to the extent that such a space crowds out everybody else’s (as it has done in the past), but it should be reasonable to let white people have their own narratives too. It would actually stand for the radical and egalitarian proposition that whiteness, just like blackness or yellowness or brownness, is a racial identity with all its peculiarities and prejudices. Whiteness would thus no longer be the imperious universal.
As for people of color, the radical and egalitarian proposition for us would be to seek more than just inclusion, but rather true equality. Instead of wanting access into a thinly veiled Europe or actual historical Europe, we should be creating worlds drawn from our own overlooked histories and backgrounds. Instead of begging to be included at the (predominantly white) cool kids’ table, we should make our own tables that can seat more than just a few of us. And if those cool kids eventually want to leave their table to sit with us, then that’s great. Because in the end, sharing and inclusion should be the goal. But that has to come from a position of equality, not weakness. We’re not in that position of equality right now, so it’s up to us to create it.