Yeah, A Song of Ice and Fire is Orientalist

Game of Thrones Season Five premieres on April 12th! I'm excited for the show to come back, but I have unfinished business to attend to.

Remember this post?

Daenerys Targaryen as White Savior: Historical Prejudices in Game of Thrones

In the post, I criticized a disgusting "white savior" story line and portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen in the HBO series Game of Thrones. That post has more comments than anything else on this blog, both positive and negative.

Many of the people who commented told me I should keep reading George R. R. Martin's books on which the show is based—A Song of Ice and Fire. Since then, I finished A Dance With Dragons, so I did what they asked.

When you read the books, GRRM clearly does present a complex view on slavery and emancipation: Emancipators aren't always seen as heroes, freedom doesn't always bring happy results, and some people even prefer to be slaves. That nuanced, complicated portrayal is great, and very much in keeping with the gritty realism of the story as a whole. Admittedly, the books do diminish the image of Daenerys as a "white savior" that was so obvious in the show. Nevertheless, there's still one disappointing, inescapable conclusion you have to reach about George R. R. Martin and his writing: A Song of Ice and Fire is orientalist.

What does it mean for something to be "orientalist"?

Missandei is a sympathetic character
from Essos in the books and show—
whose plot purpose is to aid and
further humanize Daenerys
An orientalist piece of writing perpetuates stubborn "Western" [European-origin] stereotypes about everything that is "Eastern"—usually related to the Middle East, but also other regions of Asia. Such conceptions include seeing the "East" as a place full of superstition and ritual, where people neither invent things or think for themselves. Most harmfully, it clouds the ability of those raised in a Western culture to see people from the Middle East or Asia as anything but an "Other," fundamentally different and separate from themselves.

Unfortunately, George R.R. Martin fell into this orientalist trap. The people on his continent of "Essos" painfully follow the same pattern as countless painful representations. To start with, here's his plot for Essos: A white girl from the west "finds herself" by freeing (or vainly trying to help) poor suffering brown people in the east. Ouch. Most damningly, though, this storyline gives Daenerys (the white girl) nearly all the power in directing the story: When eastern characters do take action or make important decisions—which is rare—it's always for reasons that follow some sort of tradition, religion, or at best some sympathetic emotions, not the calculated realpolitik that so many Westerosi characters pursue.

In general, the continent of Essos is presented to the reader of A Song of Ice and Fire as a mosaic of unique and interesting cultures—not unique or interesting individuals. The roles that Essos plays in the story, then, simply depend on whatever cultures the main Westerosi characters are interacting with at the time. Westeros, meanwhile, certainly has many different cultures and ways of thinking, but it's what the individuals do that matters, and the cultures determine next to nothing.

I am clearly not the only person thinking and writing about this topic. Here are two great comments that were left on this discussion board:
The issue is Martin giving Daenerys that power [to free slaves] in the first place, which is a classic colonialist narrative. The issue is Martin portraying Eastern cultures as monolithic, as though there are no Dothraki who oppose rape or Meereenese who oppose slavery, while Westeros, despite being just as fucked up as Essos, is full of people who question how their society is set up. The issue is why a fantasy author writing about a world that is fundamentally different from ours needs to people it with stereotypical Mongol hordes and inscrutable Orientals. – Sean 
Despite deconstructing almost every trope in fantasy literature, curiously G.R.R. Martin followed every cliché about "Orientals" there is in the genre. РRasnac
I also very much appreciate this article by Stokes. Here's a thought-provoking passage:
... Martin’s depiction of cultural “otherness” becomes fascinating to me, because I think it actually tells us something profound about our own internal models of cultural difference.  We don’t think of our own culture as the be-all and end-all of our abilities and opinions. We see ourselves as free agents operating within a culture, and because we accord ourselves that freedom we tend to accord it to other people in our culture as well.  But when it comes to other cultures, we have much more of a tendency to see people simply as tokens or instances of the broader cultural category they come from, which means that their “is known” and “I know” are collapsed. Most of us try to guard against this kind of thinking, as it’s pretty much textbook racial stereotyping. But it’s not hard to slip, and I think this is illustrated by how easy it is not to be bothered by Martin’s world.
Grey Worm is a slave who's freed and
decides to keep on doing exactly what
he did before, except this time for a
benevolent master—Daenerys
Right, so if you haven't been bothered by the treatment of Essos in A Song of Ice and Fire, it's ok. We're used to seeing people who look and act differently from us as mere expressions of different patterns. However, if we want to train our minds to do what's most considerate and best for our society, we'll strive to understand everyone as individuals—influenced by their cultures, but unique.

I don't ask that George R.R. Martin become an activist writer, or that he create works of fiction that fulfill every requirement of "political correctness." It's simply a real shame that A Song of Ice and Fire is groundbreaking in so many ways, overturning old weaknesses in fantasy writing, but then fails to treat the dark-skinned outsiders of the story any differently than the way they always are.

It wouldn't be much to ask for GRRM to have chosen at least one point-of-view character who could truly present part of Essos from the perspective of Essos. Of the many POV characters, only two come from Essos, and the bodyguard and priestess have not done much to present their own independent mindsets yet, or give the reader more genuine insight into the places they are from. I hope George may yet address his story's orientalist issues in the final books of A Song of Ice and Fire. After all, he's still writing them, so maybe we'll see him respond to critique!