HBO’s House of the Dragonthe prequel to the hit show game of Thrones, made headlines for its diversity casting, with Black actors being given major roles in the show. The headlines weren’t all positive; the casting somewhat flew in the face of the plot, which revolves around the race-purity obsessed Targaryen family. It was jarring to many, including myself, to suddenly see Black actors portraying characters with Valyrian ancestry married into the Targaryen family fold, like Steve Toussaint, who portrays Lord Coryls Velaryon. But others extolled the decision, casting it as the show runners themselves did, as a kind of corrective to the original material.
The popularity of the original Game of Thrones HBO series did not shield the show and its creators from intense criticism during the series run, with headlines like “Game of Thrones: we need to talk about the show’s diversity problem” and “There are no black people on Game of Thrones: Why is fantasy TV so white?” the regular feature of the Monday morning press.
The new prequel, House of the Dragonhas by contrast been praised by critics for “fixing” game of Thrones‘ diversity problem, which many even blamed Martin himself for.
And therein lies the irony. For in its clumsy, pro-forma insinuation of actors that makes little sense in the context of the plot, it is House of the Dragon that is committing the race crime, while Martin’s source material had a deep, rich, and sensitive approach to incorporating racial difference in his books.
As a person obsessed with fantasy and sci-fi who as a young girl longed to see people who looked like me cast in my favorite shows and movies, I understand the importance of representation. And yet, the marketing decisions around diversity casting in fantasy are often responding to a cultural and political climate where art and entertainment is solely valued based on signaling political allegiance to changing social conventions.
This is the opposite of the goal of diverse representation, which is all expanding art’s universal appeal—something that is undermined when Black actors are stuck into explicitly white roles with no concern for plot or whether it makes sense. By creating a tension between the universal elements of the artistic endeavor (plot and character), and the political drives outside the artwork (casting this or that race), the drive to diversity casting actually disfigures the art’s universal appeal. Worse, it can act as a cynical distraction from the content itself by overemphasizing the aspirational imagery of diversity at the expense of humanity and honest storytelling.
When it comes to casting in House of the Dragon, the awkward casting tokenizes its non-white actors for the marketing appeal of racial diversity while bypassing the “inconvenient” historical and symbolic dimensions of the story.
What’s even sadder about the situation with House of the Dragon is that Martin’s source material is renowned for exactly the kind of universal storytelling that brings millions together.
Martin’s A Song of Ice and Firethe fantasy universe that HBO’s House of the Dragon is adapted from, draws upon influences from feudal Europe and heavily references the mythology and historical events of the period. It’s loosely based on the Wars of the Roses, a mid to late 15th century battle between the noble English houses of York and Lancaster—coupled with plenty of homage to JRR Tolkin’s Middle Earth. But Martin’s vision expands upon Tolkien’s legacy by introducing elements of moral complexity and incredibly detailed world building that contrast Tolkin’s more simple and archetypal form of storytelling. The thematically complex world that game of Thrones is steeped in is a deep exploration of a brutal, feudal order that does not shy away from the guts, filth and the more unsavory aspects of feudal life, even when these elements contradict our modern sensibilities.
Yet despite the gritty nature of Martin’s work and the historical complexities surrounding his narratives, Martin still skillfully and sensitively depicts a variety of cultures in the World of Ice and Fire that are outside of the main narrative set in the fictional land of Wests but still play a vital role in the unfolding story. And he crucially does it in a way that doesn’t feel awkward or like pandering.
In Martin’s world, we are introduced to the histories of the lands beyond Westeros, including places like the Summer Isles, a mysterious land loosely based on African Kingdoms; Yi Ti, a country that takes inspiration from Ancient China and other parts of East Asia; and many other exotic locations where important characters in the narratives come from.
Martin went out of his way to create an infinitely complex universe populated with a mixture of cultures, even though the main events of A Song of Ice and Fire take place in feudal Westeros which mirrors aspects of European history.
It is exceedingly rare to see a fantasy author go out of their way to tastefully depict cultures that are foreign to them and that do not naturally align with their personal cultural unconscious—yet still, Martin faced accusations of not doing enough to make his world more diverse. And this despite showcasing elements of the history and aesthetic achievements of non-European cultures in his infinitely complex world dele.
Martin’s commitment to telling complex and historically inspired narratives also reaches far beyond race and culture. A Song of Ice and Fire features prominent LGBT Characters, some of the most complex and dynamic Female antagonists and protagonists in fantasy history and a point of view style which lends the reader valuable insight into the perspectives of everyone from women to children, slaves to kings . His writing by him beautifully highlights the universality of the human condition and despite not meeting the arbitrary modern standards of diversity, Martin’s work sensitively depicts the plights of its diverse range of characters while not shying away from the gritty realism that sets the story apart from the trope -filled fantasy.
His driving ethos is exploring and uncovering the universality at the heart of the human experience, one that transcends even the rigid hierarchical barriers of a feudal world. “The human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about. I’ve always taken that as my guiding principle, and the rest is just set dressing,” George RR Martin famously said.
This has made it all the more disturbing to see the author criticized with accusations of tone deafness, despite the decades of his life that he has been devoted to telling stories that highlight universal aspects of the human condition and his commitment to building complex characters who come from many different walks of life. From Daenerys Targaryen, a princess from a fallen house who rises from the ashes of sex slavery and destitution to become a queen in her own right, to Gender non-conforming female knights like Brienne of Tarth and outcast dwarf sons like Tyrion Lannister, A Song of Ice and Fire, at its heart, is a story about outsiders and depicts those on the fringes just as equally as it depicts those in power. The inability or unwillingness of Hollywood “progressives” and critics to understand, appreciate, and respect his Martin’s vision, while allowing him to tell his story without bastardizing it with their cultural proclivities, stems from their inability to appreciate his universalism.
And therein lies the truth: They took a universalist work that contains true diversity, and criticized it for not having enough people with a certain skin tone in it. Then they added those people in an awkward, insulting way, harming the plot, the actors, and viewers like me who crave diversity—true diversity.
Hollywood’s obsession with race and representation blinds them to real forms of diversity, sensitivity, and insight that A Song of Ice and Fire showcases, which exists beyond crude racial classification. A story can—should—display diversity and sensitivity without resorting to arbitrary filling quotas and haphazard attempts to replace characters with conspicuous diversity marketing.
Diversity can come in many forms and it is important not to throw the baby out with the bath water simply because the cast of a story is not a rainbow coalition of representation that ticks all the boxes associated with modern racial sensitivity.
Anyone confused about how to do this can consult Martin himself. He’s a genius at it.
Angie Speaks is the co-host of the Low Society Podcast.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.