HBO and Amazon have come under fire by some people for their diverse casting choices. Why? And does this backlash represent rank hypocrisy?
If your orbit includes Amazon Prime, HBO, and social media, you may well be aware of a whole lot of fuss being kicked up in terms of casting decisions. It has come to the horror of many fantasy fiction literalists that recent TV prequels to The Lord of the Rings and The Game of Thrones have taken the shocking decision to aid representation by casting actors of ethnic diversity to play supporting roles in the shows set in make-believe worlds as elves and hobbits.
Explaining the backlash
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is set thousands of years before the events of fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The story is set in the “Second Age” just before the evil sorcerer Sauron re-appears. Some viewers are angry that the elves, dwarves, harfoots and humans of the series include people of color.
According to the “Rings” Twitter account, some actors of color have experienced “relentless racism, threats, harassment and abuse.” The series has been subject to the online trolling practice of “review bombing,” in which a minority group of displeased viewers tanks audience reviews on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb. On Rotten Tomatoes, the critic score sits at 85% but the audience score is a low 39%.
Amazon has gone so far as suspending user reviews for the first 72 hours to prevent these uptight critics from “review bombing” the series.
Across the networks, on HBO, House of the Dragon is set some 200 years before the blockbuster Game of Thrones, which itself faced criticism for having a huge ensemble cast but very few actors of color. In the prequel series, Steve Toussaint plays Lord Corlys Velaryon, a member of house Targaryen who are famed for their silver-white hair. It is worth noting, however, that the books, Corlys Velaryon was not not white. His skin color was simply not mentioned. More on default skin color later. As with Amazon, the creators have faced backlash at this casting choice.
Screen Rant discusses this issue:
In what some may proclaim as the biggest “gotcha” of the discussion around House of the Dragon’s casting, Corlys Velaryon is not Black in any of the books in which he’s mentioned, including Fire & Blood. But, at the same time, he is also not not Black. Simply put, Corlys’ skin color is never described on the page, meaning there’s no reason he can’t be portrayed by a Black man in House of the Dragon. Yes, he is of Valyrian descent and, yes, they are largely known for their pale skin as well as silver hair and violet eyes (the latter two attributes Corlys does have in the books, and just wait until people find out what Toussaint’s real eye color is…). But there is no definitive there; nothing to claim ALL those of Valyrian descent have pale skin.
Defending the decision, and poking holes in the rationale of critics, Toussaint told Men’s Health. “It seems to be very hard for people to swallow. They are happy with a dragon flying. They’re happy with white hair and violet-colored eyes, but a rich Black guy? That’s beyond the pale.”
This was on the back of comments he made in July: “I didn’t realize [the casting] was a big deal until I was racially abused on social media. Yeah, that shit happened. I was just like, ‘Oh wow,’ and then I thought: ‘OK, so this means a lot to some people, but I can’t allow that to bother me.'”
Amazon has understandably been standing by their actors and casting choices:
What’s their beef?
What arguments do some viewers give in an attempt to rationalize their apparent racism?
In the case of Tolkein, it is primarily because this was not what Tolkien intended. Even though harfoots were described as having “browner” skin, it is true that Tolkien, an English author obsessed with Nordic and European history and mythology, wrote the books as not only parallels to a European mythic history, but as a sort of English pseudo-history (given the nation’s lost mythology as a result of repeated invasions).
Though black people certainly existed in medieval Europe, people have long questioned whether Tolkien was himself racist. He was a man of his era, obviously, and the context of the 1930s to the mid-1950s UK, together with decolonization and social anxieties about immigration, may have helped to shape his narrative. Or not. These ideas are theoretical, given we can’t interview the author, who died in 1973.
Dr. Stephen Shapiro, an expert in cultural studies, race, and slavery, just before the second Peter Jackson movie was released, accused the author of using the novels to make racial prejudice innocent by presenting bigotry through a fantasy world. The academic claimed: “Put simply, Tolkien’s good guys are white and the bad guys are black, slant-eyed, unattractive, inarticulate and a psychologically undeveloped horde.”
The main thing to bear in mind is that these books were made up. This is not history.
There is perhaps a larger question as to whether, in light of social norms and demographic changes, such creations are duty-bound to adhere as strictly as possible to their source material.
This is where it gets interesting.
And this is where I get to make accusations of overt double standards.
Backlasher double standards
The wealth of television and movie output over the last 100 years has been incredible. We have seen every story under the sun told in myriad different ways, from Zorro to Sinbad, Noah to Jesus, the Prince of Persia to the King of Siam, Othello to Pocahontas, every Pharaoh to Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan to Gandhi, Dragon Ball’s Goku to Tonto. These genres include myth, legend, history, fantasy, fiction, and so on.
In each of the above cases, as pointed out by a meme that inspired this piece, the non-white characters have not been played by non-white actors. Instead, we have not batted an eyelid when watching white actors play these roles on screen.
Take Sinbad, a legendary Arabian hero, who in the 1958 film The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was played by a white actor, as was his crew. Benjamin Judge recently watched the movie after seeing it as a child, and detailed his thoughts:
I don’t want to skip the fact that the majority of the actors in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad are white guys pretending not to be white guys, or that everyone is ‘doing an accent’ except for the two leads, or that the accents that they are attempting are inconsistent and usually problematic, but after pointing it out and acknowledging that the awfulness of that will bang heavily on the fourth wall throughout the film as you watch it, what else is there to say? It’s a film about a character from 8th Century Baghdad made in 1950s Hollywood: obviously they were going to make a mess of that. We can take some small comfort in the fact that the portrayals are clumsy rather than overwhelmingly racist.
The people who are kicking up a stink with regard to black elves and Targaryens are almost certainly the same people who have watched any number of movies about the above characters and have not thought twice about a misrepresentation of history or source material.
Jesus was Middle Eastern (if he was not himself fictional). Pharaohs were Egyptian. Tonto was a Native American. So on and so forth. And yet they have all been played time and again by white actors. With historical individuals, there is certainly a case for them to be played by appropriate actors, especially if accuracy is an important criterion. The same goes for culturally framed legends. That is where these angry internet individuals should be focusing their wrath.
But, alas, tumbleweed. Instead, it is the “woke” crew who get accusations of “do-gooding” in bringing this up.
But outright fantasy that is for all intents and purposes made up from whole cloth? That is a different kettle of fish. It is somewhat more difficult to argue that this must adhere to what was in the mind of the author. In one case, the author has long been dead, and in the other, he can be asked if this is an issue. George R.R. Martin has yet to make a comment, though he was intimately involved in the creation of the series.
This all revolves around the problematic idea that “white is neutral,” which sounds a lot like “white is the default.” There are parallels here to “male is neutral” where “woman” is a (linguistic) variant of “man,” “actor” and “waiter” are generic, but “actress” and “waitress” mark the person out as female. There are similar issues with Mr. being a generic, one-word-does-all for men, and women being defined by their marital status in various ways (Miss, Mrs., Ms.).
We must also recognize why some of the choices are being made. This is largely about representation. While some may argue that it is tokenism or wokeism, I don’t think they understand quite how important representation and normalization is, and how well it works. Almost to a tee, these people will be white, and part of what they implicitly see as the default.
I set out the importance and success of normalization in my recent piece “Normalizing sexual diversity: How ‘meh’ can save the world.”
While for some not used to seeing a diverse cast on their screens, these choices might seem forced. But this really isn’t for you so much as it is for the young, and for generating a society ten years down the line. In a decade, there won’t be this forced nature to make sure there is representation, there simply will be representation naturally because there will be so many diverse actors and writers inspired by positive role models, and equality of opportunity. Diversity will be baked into the system by then, representing a more obviously diverse society.
Well, that’s the hope.
So what we have here is the aspiration for representation overcoming the desire of some people for the source material to be delivered as accurately as possible. And when that source material is pure fantasy, there is an awful lot of wriggle room.
Those of us in certain demographic groups are often so very unaware of our own position of privilege or culturally imposed “default” status that we implicitly forgive when people from our in-group act roles that really should be played by people from a different demographic. But when a fantasy fiction character is played by a person of color, well, this is cultural blasphemy!
A double standard is hypocrisy. Such naysayers are hypocritical.
But more than this, they don’t have an eye on the big picture.