Daenerys Targaryen as White Savior: Historical Prejudices in Game of Thrones
However, after this last episode (the finale of season three), there is just one major criticism I have to make: I am getting sick and tired of the "white liberator" or "white savior" storyline that is escalating, carried on by Daenerys Targaryen. Yes, I know this is just a work of fiction, and an entertainment production, but hear me out:
I'll tell you why this is unfortunate. Like I said, G. R. R. Martin's books are just stories, and the TV series is just entertainment. However, stories and entertainment contribute to the beliefs and prejudices present in a society, and I think Danys' storyline feeds some prejudicial ideas that continue to influence Americans, Europeans, and others.
The main idea is, in essence, that Europeans and Euroamericans ("white people") have played the critical roles throughout history in abolishing slavery and bringing the concept of liberty to the world. Most Europeans and Americans probably don't think about this idea much explicitly, but they tend to believe it implicitly. After all, don't all Americans know that Lincoln "freed the slaves"? Don't the British know their navy "stopped the Atlantic slave trade"? Don't the French know that their government "abolished slavery" in its African colonies? The list goes on, but I think that—by and large—many people do "know" these things.
|Doesn't this statue just|
cry "white savior"?
One might call this clarification unimportant, but the sad part is really what gets left out of the story: Legal emancipation did not truly free most of the former slaves in the United States, or their immediate descendants. Instead, those with wealth and power created new means of subjugating and exploiting these people, bringing them into modified forms of coerced labor and political marginalization. Powerful white Americans were mostly either the designers of these systems, or complicit in allowing them to go unchallenged, as when Northern presidents Grant and Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South as part of the Great Betrayal of 1877, paving the way for the imposition of the Jim Crow laws.
Whenever people in power (regardless of color) abolish some form of slavery or another, they most often create new means of subjugating and exploiting the less powerful. This also applies to the stories from Britain and France, states that purportedly "abolished" slavery, only to subsequently engineer colonial and neo-colonial systems in Africa (and elsewhere) that to this day have left Africans and their governments less powerful, less wealthy, and less valued on the world stage.
can do it!
While assuaging potential guilty feelings, the celebration of such heroes also feeds continuing trains of thought like those related to the "white man's burden"—the notion that Europeans and their cultural compatriots have an obligation to spread the "civilization" and "enlightenment" of their practices and ideas to make the world a better place. Daenerys exhibited this sort of ethnocentrism rather well during season one of Game of Thrones, as she attempted on occasion to "civilize" the Dothraki, crudely described as a "cross between the Mongols and some of the Native American tribes."
I don't know how familiar George R. R. Martin may be with the "white man's burden" or colonial history in general, but it's highly unfortunate that his Daenerys storyline (at least as portrayed in the HBO series) seems to slide so well into the same sorts of prejudices that have comforted Europeans and white Americans for centuries. Today, Europeans and Americans perpetually gloss over the histories of exploitation that implicate their predecessors, opting instead to promote self-congratulatory (and often very false) stories of how white people improved the human condition. Again, let's look at that picture with Daenerys:
Are you ok with that image? It actually makes me very uncomfortable, if not disgusted, and I hope by now you can understand why. Let me know what you think.
[Note: This blogger pointed out Dany's ethnocentrism weeks ago while this one argued in response while also stating that "the representation of non-Westerosi cultures and races is one of the most problematic elements of the series." Both are worth a read, and I think they both make legitimate points.]