Outrage over Game of Thrones’ Dornish plot line erupted last summer when it was announced that Princess Arianne Martell would be cut from the show, only to be replaced by her little brother (she always said it would happen!) as heir of Sunspear. In the following months, criticism arose over the casting of the Sand Snakes, and later, with the news that Ellaria would seek vengeance for Oberyn’s death. Most of these controversies culminated on Sunday night’s episode “The Sons of the Harpy” with the introduction of the Sand Snakes, and the beginning of a revenge plot line more violent than its literary counterpart.
When Oberyn Martell was introduced on the show, he quickly became a fan favorite with his colorful personality and willingness to shake things up with the Lannisters. His brazen attitude was a welcome addition to King’s Landing, where everyone deals in secrets and whispers. Even in death however, there was always a degree of sweet naiveté to his quest for revenge for his sister’s killer, and as readers learn in A Feast for Crows, Oberyn was afforded the ability to be brash because his older brother had taken on the responsibility of being cautious and practical.
As pretty much the only Dornishman we’ve gotten to know on the show, Oberyn has become the poster child for how Game of Thrones wishes to approach all of Dorne, but the introduction of the Sand Snakes in last week’s episode has taken the Dornish stereotype to a new extreme.
In “The Sons of the Harpy,” Bronn makes the blanket statement that all the Dornish know how to do is “fuck and fight, and fight and fuck.” And while this stereotype would be a common one shared by characters outside of Dorne, it’s a problematic stereotype for the show itself to share as a whole because Dorne is the only region of Westeros traditionally made up of people of color.
Game of Thrones is no stranger to criticism in its portrayal of characters of color, but in its depiction of Dorne, as the only place in the Seven Kingdoms that specifically has people of color in power, the show had the opportunity to correct its previous narrative. Dorne is a thriving, progressive region with thoughtful, intelligent people in power, but the desire to uncomplicate the Dornish plot line this season has created a caricature of Westeros’ people of color.
While in the books we are given several wonderfully varied Dornish point of view characters showing us the diversity of personalities even within the Martell family, in the first few episodes we’ve been presented with this season, Game of Thrones has removed much of the nuance and subtlety that characterizes the very complicated Dornish people.
In a television show already crowded with cast members, Game of Thrones has simplified the Dornish storyline by inserting the already established Ellaria as the ringleader of the Dornish rebellion. In the show, Ellaria defies Prince Doran by choosing to seek out war instead of accepting peace, and in a departure that is not only out of character for Ellaria, but out of character for the Dornish, she believes the key to seeking justice from the Lannisters lies in harming Myrcella, a child.
Ellaria’s desire for vengeance is an extreme departure from her book counterpart, whom after witnessing the horrific death of the love of her life gives a powerful speech to the Sand Snakes where she preaches for peace:
“Oberyn wanted vengeance for Elia. Now the three of you want vengeance for him. I have four daughters, I remind you. Your sisters. My Elia is fourteen, almost a woman. Obella is twelve, on the brink of maidenhood. They worship you, as Dorea and Loreza worship them. If you should die, must Elia and Obella seek vengeance for you, then Dorea and Loreza for them? Is that how it goes, round and round forever? I ask again, where does it end? I saw your father die. Here is his killer. Can I take a skull to bed with me, to give me comfort in the night? Will it make me laugh, write me songs, care for me when I am old and sick?”
The show has received criticism in the past for its seeming inability to separate the strength of a woman from her actual physical strength or willingness to participate in violence. But there is strength in choosing peace. As the only person in the family to actually watch Oberyn die so horrifically before her, Ellaria has been forced to mature in a way the younger girls aren’t ready to understand. Their youth makes them feel invincible to defeat, but like Doran, Ellaria has seen enough to understand that seeking peace for the living is more important than seeking vengeance for the dead.
The Sand Snakes’ desire for vengeance is born out of heartbreak and immaturity, but despite this, unlike so many other Westerosi houses, the Martells never lose their basic sense of morality. The Martells have a sense of civilized human decency that a person like Cersei Lannister can’t even believe still exists. When Oberyn tells her that they would never harm Myrcella, he means it. It’s unfathomable to the Martells to think of hurting a child. Even when Prince Oberyn explains to the Sand Snakes that Cersei plans to have his young son Trystane killed on the way to King’s Landing, they are horrified, saying that Cersei “must be mad,” to plan something so “monstrous” when Trystane is “just a boy.”
Even when seeking vengeance for Oberyn, the Sand Snakes and Arianne keep in mind the importance of protecting Myrcella, who is just a child. They want to use her as a means for manipulation into getting what they want, but in their naive outlook on the world, they believe their plans will keep her safe and happy in their protection.
This is in direct contrast to Game of Thrones’ portrayal of Ellaria Sand, who asks Prince Doran to give her Myrcella so that she can torture her, sending her back to Cersei piece by piece. Her comments are eerily reminiscent of Ramsay Snow’s sadistic behavior, and sounds frighteningly out of character for the sane Martells.
Because while other Westerosi nobles live with a medieval sense of morality, in so many ways, the Dornish are the most modern, progressive people in the Seven Kingdoms. Unlike many other noble families, the Martells work out their family issues, choosing to love and remain loyal to each other, even when they furiously disagree. The Dornish treat their bastard children like any other family member— Ellaria Sand is treasured by her nobleman father, and as Oberyn’s paramour, she has her own place in Prince Doran’s court. Oberyn’s eight bastard daughters, the Sand Snakes, are given the same education and opportunities as any “legitimate” Martell child, and Prince Doran considers them his beloved nieces— even sending Nymeria, a bastard daughter, to represent him on the King’s Council in King’s Landing.
The idea of sending not only a bastard, but a woman to represent a noble house might seem outrageous to some Westerosi families, but the Martells don’t even blink an eye. The Dornish practice primogeniture, and the idea of inheritance regardless of gender is important in separating Dorne as a region that is more socially-progressive than the rest of Westeros in terms of gender equality. Arianne Martell has been raised to rule, not as a wife, but as a leader of her people, intelligent and capable enough to make the decisions that will affect a nation.
Unfortunately, in last Sunday’s introductory scene of the Sand Snakes on Game of Thrones, the show has chosen to fall back on stereotypes that are not only insulting, but also just plain embarrassing to watch. The two minutes of flashy, daring behavior and ridiculous monologues preaching vengeance were laugh out loud funny— a mockery of four grieving women. The terrible, fake Spanish accents they’re using are offensive, especially considering that none of the actresses are actually Hispanic. Obara has nipple armor like a George Clooney superhero! Nym brutally tortures a man just so we can cheer at her Indiana Jones whip skills!
To simplify Game of Thrones’ Dornish plotline, the show is choosing to work off of Hollywood’s traditional (and insulting) stereotype of the vengeful, spicy Spanish woman. In the process, it is once again presenting a group of people as backwards and merciless, and once again, this group happens to be made up of people of color, like the barbaric Dothraki and ensalved Unsullied before them.
Yes, the Dornish are traditionally known for being smart and sneaky—it’s how they held onto their traditions and won their wars against the Targaryens back in the day. It’s how they managed to remain, throughout the centuries, unbent, unbowed, unbroken. But if Game of Thrones is going to present them as the only people of color this side of the narrow sea, it has a responsibility to show the Dornish as something other than bloodthirsty sex fiends. The Martells are regal and kind, compassionate and good-humored, and they deserve the chance to be just as complicated as any other house in the Seven Kingdoms.