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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  • It’s just so sad that Martin said that, he erased races from Mediterranean just to defend those two racist misogynists dudes, I mean, he could have stated his discomfort, it’s not like it would do anything to his partnership with them, it should be an open discussion, but no, he became a racist apologist and whitewashed his own world. I don’t even have hopes anymore for the Sand Snakes, and if there is, I just hope they don’t give more importance to the white ones over the color ones. I want them to show their equal level of importance as sisters and daughters of a strong father figure who taught them independence from any other man and even women. But that is one long shot, ugh…

    • As both a fan of the books and a person of color, it’s really disheartening 🙁 With all of his whitesplaining, Martin is truly showing his ignorance. I want Benioff and Weiss to cast POC for House Martell and the Sand Snakes, but I’m not letting my hopes get too high. Thanks for reading, by the way!

    • guest

      The Dornish people are supposed to look Mediterranean. I don’t see a problem with the casting. You’re making problems where there are none. It’s his story.

  • Kim

    The overwhelming amount of people in the world Martin created is white, which is just the way it is. You can always create your own fantasy universe. No matter how much that offends you he has now gone on the record saying he pictured a South-European look. The author has spoken, discussion closed.

    And I have no idea how the education system works in USA, bad I would think, after reading this text. But in Europe, when referring to someone possessing Mediterranean appearance one would refer to the European part. People from South Europe does not look like someone from North Africa, if you so believe so, I would advise you to try visiting Europe.

    And the “moors” where always a strong minority in Moorish Spain, the majority of the population was natives who converted to Islam through direct force or indirect means such as crippling taxes or having lesser rights for being Christian.

    • Ball

      I am late. Put I just wanted to say something.

      This kind of racism is always interesting to me. The fact that poc have to go create our own fantasy universe to get some kind of decent representation; yet this old man can take what is apart of someone else’s culture and get praised for his diversity when he didn’t even take the people in it. When poc do create their own stories, they get called out saying that they are racist for not having white people. It’s disgusting when characters of color get whitewashed terribly because frankly this is exactly what happened. I remember that little debacle with Ursula Le Guin, who characters were very much people of color with hardly any white people in her books and yet when Syfy does the miniseries everyone is white. WTF. Or what about book series that have characters who are explicitly people of different races yet people are like, “I just saw them as white so what.” It’s not a big deal. After they have had a reality check about the characters race, they continuously say, “It’s no big deal. I will keep seeing them as white.” How is this not racist? How isn’t it racist when you feel that they should just darken a person’s skin tone for a role? How about you just find a person who fit the skin tone.

      The movies are just wow. How can a person not notice these things? Take the movies Prince of Persia and 300. In the movie, 300 the heroes are the white Spartans while the evil empire are the dark skinned Persians. Then look at the movie Prince of Persia, the Persians are the heroes now they are light/white people. Where are the actual Persian? Oh yeah, they are playing terrorists on a tv show. Let’s not forget Avatar the Last Airbender tv show and movie whitewashing.

      It’s Moorish Spain. Have you even read the book. There are three different categories of Dornishmen. The person that they casted isn’t even the lightest. He wouldn’t look out of place among Stark bannerman. I don’t know how you can go on record and say that the discussion is closed when this type of thing is constantly happening. The author is receiving millions of dollars from this production. Do you honestly think he will say, “No, they should be darker. I don’t think the man was a good chance.” No, he is getting alot of money from these people. Martin has become a darling. He is the spotlight basking in the glory of this lame show. Being hailed as the best thing since sliced bread.

      The Mediterranean Basin (also known as the Mediterranean region or sometimes Mediterranea) is the region of lands around the Mediterranean Sea that have a Mediterranean climate, with mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers, which supports characteristic Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and scrub vegetation.

      The northern portion of the Maghreb region of northwestern Africa has a Mediterranean climate, separated from the Sahara Desert, which extends across North Africa, by the Atlas Mountains. In the eastern Mediterranean the Sahara extends to the southern shore of the Mediterranean, with the exception of the northern fringe of the peninsula of Cyrenaica in Libya, which has a dry Mediterranean climate.

      Well, North Africa is also considered apart of the Mediterranean so there.

      The Moors weren’t the only people who forcibly converted people. Christians did the exact same thing.

      Hopefully the actor will do an amazing job, but that is besides the point.

      • guest

        Persians are white just like Greeks. Middle Easterners are white. There were no actual Greeks in the cast of 300 either.

    • Cecilia

      As someone from Southern Europe (Sicily, exactly, which was an Arab Emirate for more than 200 years, and part of Spanish Empire for 400 years) I can attest you that the lines between Northern African and “European” people are blurred.
      It’s not an accident that, before African immigrants were a thing in Europe, it was Southern Italians and other Southern Europeans were looked down on. My point is, you can find people who can look that actor, but you can also find people who look much darker than that, and they still can be considered South Europeans. I doubt that they couldn’t find an actor who had olive skin as the book describes.
      But even if their culture is based on Medieval Europe, not the actual one, so what? Medieval Europe was more racially mixed than we think, no doubt thanks to the various conquests that the Arab did in those centuries.

  • Jay Comte

    What I find amusing in your post is that you want the showrunners to make the dornish look like moorish spain, when they already have. Moorish Spain was mostly white since Spain was white before the moors invaded. It consisted of Iberians, celtiberians, Celts, Basque, Scandinavians (vikings and the suevi) Romans, Greeks, and Germans (visigoths, vandals), who are all white. The moors themselves were by and large caucasian berbers with the tiny ruling class being Arabic. Even then, Spain’s demographics have always been just like all other European countries: predominantly white, even when it was ruled by middle eastern muslims. The percentage of non-white people in Moorish Spain was quite small. And anyway, Martin himself has said that he pictured them looking more like European mediterraneans: Greeks, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italians, etc. So what is truly your problem?

  • Christian Pellegrini

    I don’t have the time to sit and argue with everyone here nor do I want to. So far most every comment, including this author’s articles, are full of useless information and opinions. you are creating a problem where there isn’t one and quite frankly taking some of the fun out of this story. as for Pascal playing oberyn, he did absolutely awesome. you guys act as if many other characters appearances haven’t been butchered, just enjoy it for what it is.