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Three ways to ask whether Game of Thrones is racist

Is A Game of Thrones -- either the book by George R.R. Martin or the series on HBO -- racist? Some people certainly think so. Others disagree. I've never read the book or seen an episode of the show, so I can't give an answer of my own. But that actually makes this an excellent example to use to illustrate some thoughts on interpreting literature*, because I can focus on clarifying what questions literature interpretation can ask without getting distracted by the answers.

So what are we really interested in if we ask whether A Game of Thrones is racist? I propose that there are at least three approaches we could take, which I'll label practical, interpretive, and causal.

The practical approach is interested in literature as the communication of information. Most of the things we read, we approach in a practical sense -- the author had some information, and I want to get it from them. When my friend sends me an email to tell me where we're meeting for coffee, the correct interpretation of her email is the one that leads me to know what coffee shop she intends to be at. Thus the practical approach can put a high premium on authorial intent, since usually the information we're looking for is the same as the information that the author wanted us to take away. But literature can communicate information that the author didn't intend to communicate -- revealing the author's secrets unbeknownst to them. In the context of A Game of Thrones, then, a practical approach would be asking questions like "what messages about race do George R.R. Martin and the producers of the HBO show want us to learn?" and "what do these works tell us about the subconscious attitudes of their creators?"

The interpretive approach is interested in what different sorts of interpretations we might give to a piece of literature. Here there is no such thing as a correct or incorrect interpretation, only interpretations that are more or less plausible, enlightening, or entertaining. For example, I recently attended a concert by the band Hellblinki, who had a debate on stage about whether a certain song was about giving birth (as intended by the songwriter), or about Daleks. To push the Dalek interpretation is not to say that the songwriter really meant to write about Daleks, or that he thinks babies secretly are Daleks. Rather, it creates amusement on the part of listeners as they flip back and forth between the "baby" and "Dalek" interpretive schemes, seeing how the same words take on a different meaning in each scheme. The interpretive approach is often used to rehabilitate works, finding the "feminist" reading of a seemingly sexist text, for example. But it is equally valid to propose a negative reading of a seemingly positive text, because thinking about how a beloved text could be read as racist, or warmongering, etc can also be entertaining or enlightening. For A Game of Thrones, the interpretive question would then be "can we construct a plausible racist interpretation, and how does that lead us to view the story?" and "can we construct a plausible non-racist interpretation, and how does that lead us to view the story?"

Finally, we could take a causal approach, which asks how readers will in fact interpret the text. It's all well and good to propose a plausible non-racist reading of a text, for example, but if readers come away from it having their racial prejudices confirmed, then that is a problem. The only way to answer causal questions with certainty is to do some sort of social or psychological experiments. So we could ask, does A Game of Thrones leads its readers/viewers to alter or entrench their views about race? And we could test this by, for example, giving people an implicit attitudes test before and after exposure to the book/show.

All three of these questions are worth asking, but they may come up with different answers, and have different practical implications. Practical questions tell us something about the creators, interpretive questions guide our enjoyment (or not) of a work, and causal questions direct us to the work's effects on the public.

* I occasionally complain about other disciplines trying to swoop in and do social science -- people from the humanities who pontificate about social topics without bothering with data, and people from the natural sciences who think that simple models based on stereotypes will solve our problems because they involve a lot of math. Feel free to bookmark this post for use in accusing me of hypocrisy next time I bring up such complaints.


Blogger fancycwabs said...

Of COURSE Game of Thrones is both racist and sexist. Or the characters are, anyway. Also, they're built around a system of privilege based primarily on class and the notion of aristocracy. Also, they don't know that microbes cause disease! Furthermore, they're either mono- or polytheistic, instead of good atheists, like all enlightened modern people are!
There's plenty of criticism that can be leveled at A Song of Ice and Fire, but complaining that a series of fantasy novels set in a thinly-disguised dark ages Europe is less than enlightened about race is weak. You want racism? Read Tolkien. You want people suffering and struggling against a racist system? Read ASOIAF.

4:05 PM  

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