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Game of Thrones: we need to talk about the show’s diversity problem

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Sarah Shaffi
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Game of Thrones: Grey Worn and Missandei

After the killing of Missandei, it’s clear that Game of Thrones has a disregard for its characters of colour.

Let’s not beat around the bush — Game of Thrones has, to put it mildly, a diversity problem.

It began its final season with just two characters of colour. Both Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) are former slaves rescued by Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), meaning they entered the show as subservient to a white character.

Although they went on to develop their own story arcs - including a touching romance - that was all undone when Missandei was killed off at the hands of a vindictive Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) this season. The decision was a controversial one, with online commentators angry that Missandei was fridged - the term used when a female character is killed off to provide motivation for another character, usually male but in this case Daenerys.

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And it seems that Emmanuel herself understands the heartbreak people are feeling.

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, the actress said that she wasn’t surprised Missandei was killed off, because so many of the show’s characters have died. But she said she was “fully aware and engaged in the conversation of representation because I am the only woman of colour in this show that has been on there regularly for many seasons”.

Emmanuel said that it was “safe to say that Game of Thrones has been under criticism for their lack of representation and the truth of it is that Missandei and Grey Worm have represented so many people because there’s only two of them”.

She’s not wrong.

The show has never been good at inclusion - its focus is almost entirely on white characters, from the Starks in the north to the Lannisters and Baratheons at King’s Landing.

And when it does feature characters of colour, they’re either marginalised or killed off. That began back in season one with Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) and the Dothraki - Drogo was described as a “savage”, he and the Dothraki were presented as primitive, he got blood poisoning and then he died. His death led Daenerys - a white woman - to find her power and become the mother of dragons.

After Drogo and the Dothraki, we rarely saw a black or brown character until the end of season three, when Daenerys freed the slaves of Yunkai. Who could forget the white saviour image of Daenerys held aloft in a crowd of characters of colour falling over themselves to praise her?

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Daenerys went on to “liberate” a number of cities, but in true white saviour style did her thing and then left them to deal with the consequences of what happened next. Of course, this can be read as a critique of white saviour narratives, given the parallels Daenerys’ actions have with the real world (Iraq, anyone?). But given the show’s lack of diversity elsewhere, it’s hard to give it much credit for any more subtle messaging it might contain.

The killing off of Missandei has brought to the fore a conversation about the show’s lack of diversity that’s needed to happen for a long time, and people on Twitter aren’t holding back.

The optics of killing Missandei, as Twitter user @BreezeRiley said, are not good. Emmanuel said that although she was aware of her position as the only woman of colour of the show, it wasn’t until Missandei was gone that she realised what it meant.

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, she said: “I knew what it meant that she was there, I know what it means that I am existing in the spaces that I am because when I was growing up, I didn’t see people like me. But it wasn’t until she was gone that I really felt what it really, truly meant, until I saw the outcry and outpouring of love and outrage and upset about it, I really understood what it meant.”

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It’s unfortunate that, because Game of Thrones has featured so few characters of colour, the burden of representation has fallen almost entirely on Missandei and Grey Worm. That meant that anything that happened to them would be taken as a wider message, rather than on an individual character level. As Emmanuel said: “If we were more generally inclusive, that probably won’t be as prevalent.”

It’s not only people of colour that Game of Thrones has diregarded. Its treatment of women in season eight has been dire. Both are signs that its writers’ room needs to become more inclusive. We can only hope that the forthcoming Game of Thronesprequel, and any other spin-offs, learn lessons from the current show and have representation at their core.

Image: HBO

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