Daenerys Targaryen: First of Her Name, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, and White Lady Jesus
Two years ago, we analyzed the Game of Thrones Season Three season finale “Mhysa” on ourpodcast and also complied dozens of critiques that highlighted the closing scene, which featured Daenerys Targaryen being exalted by and crowd-surfing on a sea on brown and black bodies.
In case you need a reminder:
We were some of the many book fans, show viewers, and critiques to find the images in that scene to be racially charged. The scene was a cringe-inducing end to a season that otherwise featured some of the most iconic stories in any of the books.
Last week, Vanity Fair trudged up the scene again to argue that the scene has been “redeemed.” The article, written by Joanna Robinson, claims that because Daenerys Targaryen is currently flopping at ruling the worshipful brown people, the critiques directed at the white savior imagery two years ago were a "misguided uproar” from “uncomfortable viewers” who did not understand in the same way book readers did that the scene was “supposed to look awful.” (Note that the phrase in the article, “‘White saviour!’ some uncomfortable viewers cried,” links back to our original compilation post).
Now, full disclosure: my cohorts and I have read the books. We know the sordid details of Dany’s downfall and we’ve known about them for years. This doesn’t mitigate the fact that the context of this moment in “Mhysa” utilised common racialised imagery framed against a soar of triumphant music, with nary a textual critique in sight.
Essentially, the argument here is that “Mhysa” is retroactively meant to be disturbing for future impact (the end scene in The House of Black & White). If this is the case, why did it have to include racist visual tropes in order to be disturbing? Isn’t it enough that Daenerys is entering cultures that aren’t her own and attempting to rule in political systems that she doesn’t understand? Must we include racist imagery in order to drive home a theme or teach the audience a Very Important Lesson? I’m tired of people of colours’ struggles being used as teaching moments for white people. I’m tired of Game of Thrones brutalizing nameless and faceless women to provide motivation to male characters. I’m tired of defenders of these scenes condescendingly explaining them away as insightful messages from the show about how “white savioring or sexism is bad” designed to play out over multiple seasons. The viewers who are directly impacted by racist and sexist scenes are not misguided because they chose to speak out instead of waiting for the showrunners to write about racism and sexism in less cliched ways.
So, which is it? Did the production have no choice because these extras showed up or did they do it purposely so they could “redeem” it two seasons later by having Dany lose the adoration after executing a man of colour. And, if the scene was purposely posed this way, can a show that clumsily handles race and constantly relies on racist tropes really produce any sort of subversive commentary about racism?
We acknowledged that it was possible that Game of Thrones played the scene this way in order to later subvert it, however apart from the music and framing, there are other elements that made it clear to us that the people behind the show didn’t think about the implications.
This is a series where the majority of people of colour on screen are servants or slaves, and in season 5, this has yet to change. Prominent characters of colour from the books have also been downplayed or completely erased from the narrative.
In season one, the first women of colour (specifically black women) who appeared on screen were naked with their breasts bared and engaging in raunchy public ritualistic sex.
There were two significant women of colour later in the season: Irri and Jhiqui, who both played slaves and servants to Daenerys. Jhiqui disappeared somewhere mid-season without a thought and Irri died.
As for men of colour, Rakharo died and Kovarro disappeared, or more accurately, faded into limbo, where characters of colour are often banished.
And the Dothraki for the most part were a monolithic trope of native rape-y brown people.
In the second season, Daenerys’ entire Khalasar was replaced with another group of brown and black bodies and new lovable side characters of colour. It’s been a constant that people darker than paper bags have taken on subservient roles and/or have ended up dead or erased entirely. “Mhysa” intensified the show’s already prevalent racism problem. It’s a sobering and disturbing reality that whenever the production needs a throbbing mass of downtrodden marginalised human beings, their entire people of colour budget shows up.
In the Vanity Fair article, Robinson implies that the show’s decision to feature characters of colour like Grey Worm and Missandei in Season 4 was “compensation” to “placate” show viewers who hadn’t read the books and didn’t understand Game of Thrones was deliberately trying to make viewers experience the microaggressions and cognitive dissonance that come with viewing racist imagery. It is insulting to the audience, the performers, and the production for Robinson to suggest that the increased visibility of characters of color was an unnecessary attempt to make the show more “palatable” to fussy show viewers (rather than the true fans who read the books.) Regardless, arguments about these roles being visible or important should be taken with a grain of salt–these characters aren’t leads with their own rich stories and there aren’t multiple positive representations of people of colour to compensate for offensive portrayals.
It is possible to critique white savior phenomena without perpetuating cliched racist imagery. The show demonstrated far more mastery of this critique in the most recent episode–but that does not “redeem” the show’s previous lack of self awareness, and it doesn’t invalidate the problems that fans like us had with the Mhysa scene.
No matter how “misguided” Robinson and Vanity Fair believe these critics were, why should we put our faith in a show that boasts some of the poorest representation on cable television and constantly portrays people of colour in submissive roles? Regardless of the intention, Game of Thrones is not exempt from criticism when it produces scenes that perpetuate the very same racism Robinson says it is trying to critique. There’s absolutely no reason fans should have to constantly suffer through racist portrayals of people who look like them, hoping for some kind of payoff that might never come. While last episode’s depiction of this plot was much improved, it in no way absolves the negative impact of this:
Dany felt a lightness in her chest. I will never bear a living child, she remembered. Her hand trembled as she raised it. Perhaps she smiled. She must have, because the man grinned and shouted again, and others took up the cry. “Mhysa!” they called. “Mhysa! MHYSA!” They were all smiling at her, while others cried “Aelalla” or “Qathei” or “Tato,” but whatever the tongue it all meant the same thing.
“The show’s previously been careful to maintain a heterogeneous look for most of the cultures Daenerys encounters in her travels through the eastern continent of Essos, so the uniformly brown skin tone of the freed slaves worshipping the blondest possible savior figure was surprising and disconcerting – doubly so since, in the books, much is made of just how many different kinds of people had been forced into slavery by Yunkai and then freed by Dany when she took the city. This uncomfortable contrast kneecapped what could otherwise have been the most purely uplifting and cathartic moment in the series so far. Plus it gave the episode its title and was, you know, the final shot of the season – a rough one to go out on.”
Sean T. Collins, ‘Game of Thrones’ Finale Recap: 'Everyone is Mine To Torment’ (x)