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TV reinforces racial stereotypes in history and fantasy alike

Diverse… BBC

We’ve seen the launch of BBC1’s new WW1 drama The Crimson Field, as well as the return of Game of Thrones to our screens. So whether it’s the field of the Somme or the far flung landcape of Westeros, the arena of war dominates television. At the heart of both these dramas are strong women who influence and contribute to their respective wars.

The Crimson Field tells the story of the VAD, the Voluntary Aid Detachments, who alongside nurses administered the front line hospitals of WW1. The women of Game of Thrones lead armies, give Machiavelli a master class in manipulation, and hold their own against their male counterparts.

But it may be too early to declare a golden age of diversity in drama, for lacking in these are strong characters from ethnic minorities – and those that do appear reinforce historical stereotypes.

Set in the western front of World War I, The Crimson Field seeks to portray the horror of the trenches from the perspective of its four female leads. Their wounded patients are both middle class officers and the working class. So the class portrayal of the war may be accurate, but the British Army consisted of more than just white soldiers and officers.

All over the world, soldiers from colonised countries were recruited to fight on the front line on both sides of the war. The Western Front for example, where the Crimson Field is set, saw soldiers from the British Caribbean volunteer to join the war efforts.

Over the course of both wars more than four million black and Asian soldiers volunteered. It is estimated that by the end of the World War I, 15,500 West Indians had experienced battle. These men were assigned the worst of jobs: digging trenches, loading ammunition and the like, and often faced racism from officers. And, of course, black women were also used as auxiliary nurses and experienced field action.

There was a campaign to posthumously award Walter Tull, who was one of the first black officers, the military cross. And some attempt is being made to highlight the role of black soldiers, such as John Williams, who people called the Black VC. But despite this, in fictional portrayals like The Crimson Field, such heroes are generally ignored.

There has only been one episode of this drama, and whilst a war drama with women at its heart is rare, I’d like to see some depiction of the stories of black and Asian soldiers, too.

Missandei, with her 19 languages, provides hope. Sky Atlantic

But what of the fantastical narratives? Surely here, where we are less constrained by historical inequalities, we should see more racial diversity on our screens?

Game of Thrones may introduce us to new claimants for the Iron Throne each season, but we are yet to see a serious contender of colour. Westeros under the Lannisters is overall a white place with little cultural diversity. And up at the wall, The Nights Watch doesn’t fare much better. Ironically, it seems that to “take the black”, you can be a former criminal, a bastard son, anything – as long as you are white.

But surely over the sea in the world of the “feminist icon” Daenerys Targaryen we can find a strong ethnic minority character? It has been argued that she saves the Dothraki brethren from racism, and frees slaves, but these are story arcs that reinforce cultural stereotypes.

The Dothraki are a nomadic horse-riding clan who George Martin acknowledges are based upon amongst others on the Mongols and the Huns. In both the books and the series (where they have a Middle Eastern colouring) they are seen by those in Westeros as savages, and portrayed as such. Their wedding celebrations include public killings, and unlike those from Westeros and the North have no evidence of high learning, as in the Maesters of Westeros. This is of course contrasted by the history of the regions of Asia from which the clans that they are based on emerge, whose seats of learning provided the base for modern philosophy.

After the death of Khal Drago, Daenerys is abandoned by the Khalsar, but with dragons in tow, she seeks to conquer her own kingdom. And so we come to the sight of Daenerys freeing the black slaves of Astapor. And now Daenerys is surrounded by a sea of “freed men” who refer to her as mother.

But freedom under Daenerys does not equal empowerment. They are portrayed as nameless and incapable of decision – it is only Daenerys’s action that allows them to break out of their chains.

But Game of Thrones has only just begun its latest season, and The Crimson Field its first ever episode. There’s still hope, right?

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