Emilia Clarke does not have purple eyes. Her character in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Daenerys Targaryen, is described in the source novel by George R.R. Martin as having “violet” eyes, a distinctive feature of her family. The producers decided against using colored contact lenses. Somehow, millions of viewers were able to suspend disbelief.
HBO’s prequel series, “House of the Dragon,” is full of Targaryens and other nobles hailing from their home region of Valyria. Again, there has been no particular outcry about the dearth of purple peepers.
The outrage has been reserved, among a loud subset of fans, for the casting of Steve Toussaint, a Black actor, as the wealthy Valyrian Lord Corlys Velaryon. This, Toussaint says, brought him blowback from viewers who see his appearance as a betrayal of the source material.
You can probably guess the reason for the different reaction. If not, see also the attacks on Disney’s upcoming remake of “The Little Mermaid,” starring the Black singer and actress Halle Bailey. Using the hashtags #notmyariel and #gowokegobroke, social-media users have denounced the new depiction of Ariel, whom they apparently found more plausible as a red-haired, white cartoon serenaded by a crab.
The screams have been especially loud over the diverse casting of Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” which — unlike the lily-white Peter Jackson movies — cast actors of color as elves and dwarves, humans and diminutive Harfoots. For weeks, disgruntled viewers have swarmed the series’s review pages, published disdainful thinkpieces and even made threats.
The sudden interest in the ethnic integrity of dragonriders, elves and fish women is part of a broader reaction in pop culture against inclusive casting of stories that were once largely white, from “Star Wars” to “Bridgerton.”
You could explain this in one word — racism — and that would get you a long way. (There is, in the “Rings” discourse, a lot of pejorative use of “woke” as adjective, noun and euphemism.) Many fantasy culture warriors, on the other hand, insist that they are simply defending authorial intent.
In their view, J.R.R. Tolkien created a specific world and narrative, rooted in northern European mythology, whose themes are undercut by casting an adaptation to look like multicultural 21st-century society. “Diversity isn’t a bad thing by itself,” Brandon Morse wrote in Red State, “but when it becomes a major focus it means the story is being shoved further back in terms of importance.”
You would think that a society that was fine with depicting the Middle Eastern Jew Jesus of Nazareth as a flaxen-haired white European would be a little more flexible. At minimum, it’s suffocatingly literalistic to argue that Tolkien’s themes can’t survive casting a Black actress as a dwarf princess.