By Isaac Butler
[NOTE: There are spoilers up through the end of season 3 of the show, I am going to do my damndest not to spoil the books past that point in the plot, but I will talk about differences between the two for the parts shown thus far.]
The twitter feed for Media Diversified is tweeting about race in Game of Thrones and its depiction of Daneaerys, the Dothraki and the various peoples she encounters while using her dragons to end slavery. In particular, they object to the Dothraki Wedding sequence in the first season (in which men literally murder each other over who gets to rape a woman) and the final shot of the third season (in which Dany is hoisted aloft by the brown people she has just liberated in a way that clearly references all sorts of clichés of white saviordom).
Moments like these are definitely troubling, but I want to carve out some space to try to articulate what I believe the books (and to a lesser extent, and less successfully, the show) are trying to do around these issues. One of the clear defining principles of Game of Thrones in both of its forms is the upending of the genre clichés of heroic fantasy. It does this through the frequent presentation of those clichés, only to find ways to undermine them down the road. For example: Ned Stark dies (and is the worst detective on Earth) not because he's an idiot, but because he clings to outmoded paradigms and assumptions about how the world works. Those assumptions are the same assumptions as those of a heroic fantasy novel and its readership. That's part of why his death is so shocking.
We see this time and again thoughout the series, and I believe it extends to the book and the show's treatment of race. There is the initial depiction, which tracks with our clichés and stereotypes, and then there is the gradual undermining of those assumptions. Another example of this is Jamie Lannister, who is basically a mustache-twirling villain when we first meet him and becomes one of the books' most heartbreaking characters as the series goes on. He even rails (both in internal monologue and to a few characters) about feeling trapped in the role of the Kingslayer. Present and undermine.
The other key thing in the books is that every chapter is told in third person limited by the point of view of one of a handful of characters. Those points of view are always flawed. We are not meant to take a character's self-conception and depiction of their world as gospel truth.
With the Dothraki, they are presented through Daenerys's eyes. She doesn't understand their language and they are strangers to her. They are the ultimate "other," and thus their behavior is depicted as barbaric, unknowable, perhaps inhuman. But as the series progresses, the "barbarism" of the Dothraki pales in comparison to that of the Westerosi (there is no Dothraki as brutal as the Boltons, for example). It is their otherness that makes them "savage." I don't want to go so far as to say that the books are self-consciously critiquing western visions of other cultures, but it is more complicated.
Then there is Danaerys's white savior schtick. Here it gets harder to talk about this without spoiling anything, but I'll just say that like with everythign else on Game of Thrones, the initail trope-laden depiction is not what turns out to be reality. The city she comes to occupy is filled with individuals, a complicated policial system, longstanding feuds, etc. It's an actual culture with needs, values and codes that Danaerys couldn't possibly hope to understand, and this leads her to make really poor decisions again and again and again.
(The books also complicate this further by making the Targaryens racially distinct from the Westerosi. They're paler of skin, have purple eyes and white-gold hair. They come from a different country which is no longer habitable (there are fringe theories on the internet that they're actually aliens). They are, then, less a symbolic stand-in for "Westerners," they're instead a totally different group that has conquered the West, been overthrown, and moved East.)
I'm not going to go so far as to say there is a self-conscious critique of colonialism built into the books. I'm not sure there is, and i'd need to go back through them to really mount that argument and i do not have the books handy. But I do thinkt here is at least some complexity to this issue, particularly in the books. The TV show is less complicated on this front, in part because due to the realities of the medium and its business, we spend less time in the company of and thinking about Danaerys. The other thing is that the present-and-undermine strategy is much harder to acoomplish on television because visuals are simply so powerful and playing with tropes and stereotypes is a really risky move. Also, we haven't watched the fourth season yet, so it's unclear how much undermining of Danaerys will actually happen, so time will tell on that one.