Game of Thrones, True Blood, and the Fantasy of Otherness
With the season premiere of True Blood coming right on the heels of the season finale of Game of Thrones, this seems like an opportune time to write about my longstanding complaint about both shows – their handling of race. Both series have received criticism for their racial representations. Blogs like Racialicious have offered insightful critiques of the representations of race in True Blood. More recently, in the wake of the Game of Thrones season finale, several blogs have commented on the creepy white savior imagery of Daenerys Targaryen as a crowd of dark skinned slaves chanting the word for “mother” lifts her in the air. But, beyond these representations, both series have deep underlying racial logics that betray an inability to think beyond Western racial categorization even in the most creative fantasy worlds.
Game of Thrones is set in a fantastical fictitious universe … that still somehow manages to mimic the Oriental/Occidental colonialist logics of the West with remarkable precision. In the real world colonialist paradigm, the East (which includes the Middle East) is cast as an exotic, inscrutable, mystical land, which is then placed in opposition to the “civilized” and rational West. This ideology works hand-in-hand with forms of biological racism that have framed people of color as somehow more primitive and closer to the primordial natural world. A connection that has been lost by people of European descent as a result of social and intellectual “advancement.” The Game of Thrones world mimics the Oriental/Occidental discourse right down to the geographic relations of east and west.
The majority of the series is set in the land of Westeros (yeah, Westeros), which is patterned on a Medieval European feudalism. The entirety of both the ruling and peasant classes, save a few foreigners, are white. In Westeros dragons are long extinct and magic is merely the superstition of centuries past. However, in the land across the sea to the east, dragons have returned and magic thrives. The east is the land of warlocks and shape-shifting assassins. Oh, and, coincidentally, it’s also where all the brown people come from. The inhabitants of this land have phenotypes that range from Arabic to African in appearance.
True Blood, on the other hand, takes place in a supernaturally augmented version of our world. The series often uses anti-vampire sentiment as a metaphor for the oppression suffered by real life marginalized groups. The recurring slogan “God hates fangs” is a clear reference to Westboro Baptist Church’s “God hates f*gs.” Last season, we saw an anti-supernatural hate group patterned on the Ku Klux Klan, complete with Grand Dragon leader. And, if the previews for the current season are to be believed, the main plot will feature vampires being rounded up, experimented on, and killed in what is unmistakably a reference to the horrors of the Holocaust.
But, the vampires as metaphors for the oppressed has never sat right with me. LGBTQ people, people of color, and Jewish people have historically suffered violence because they were/are viewed as somehow fundamentally dangerous. In the True Blood universe, vampires are apex predators, many of whom have little regard for human life. Vampires are dangerous, and so the vampire-as-metaphor-for-oppressed theme preserves the underlying logic that those being oppressed are somehow inherently pose a threat. Using a violent supernatural being as a stand it for marginalized groups resonates with discourses that view these groups as inherently sinister – LGBTQ people preying on children, irrationally violent Black and Brown people, and fiendish Jewish conspiracies to control governments and banks.
Both series preserve problematic logics of Otherness. For Game of Thrones it is the Orientalism that juxtaposed the rationale and “modern” society of the West with the exotic and mystical cultures of the East. For True Blood it is the subtle affirmation that those at the receiving end of brutal oppression do in fact somehow pose a threat. Apparently, a world in which vampires or dragons are real is easier to imagine than a world not organized by discourses of Otherness.