Dragons as Liberators: White Savior Complex in Media

A white god saved a people of color. However, they told the god – ‘we will need saving again.’ – The god asked ‘from whom?’ – They replied – ‘from you’ ” 

One week ago, Game of Thrones had its season finale. The very last scene of GoT, Dany (a woman), one of the protagonist of series, waited outside the gates of a slave city – far from her home continent/country where slavery is outlawed. As she stood and waited, the people of the city – who has been recently “liberated/conquered” – poured from the gates and approached Dany. As they approached her, the people, who people of color, stood waiting.

Dany’s servant intoruces her and then states that it is to her they owe their freedom. However, Dany interrupts, and says, “You do not owe me your freedom – I cannot give it to you. Your freedom is not mine to give. . . . If you want it back, you must take it for yourselves.”

The people of Yunkai (the slave city) respond by shouting “Mysha”, which translates to mother. Dany goes to the newly liberated slaves and walks amongst them, and as she disappears in the crowd, she is lifted up and elevated, being loved by the ex-slaves/people of Yunkai while her dragons fly above and her army at her back. They chant “Mother”, all wanting to touch her, and Dany smiles as thousands surround her in adoration.

Dany is white. It is not difficult to see the white savior in this scene. Akin to a ‘Messiah Complex’ – white savior complex is the belief that white people must ‘save’ people of color because it is part of their destiny or identity. Many have critiqued it for its underlying racial superiority message, as well as how Dany is portrayed contrast to her darker counterparts, including her newly attained army “the unsullied” – whom all obey her without question (literally). However, there are important things to highlight when speaking about white savior complex, especially in media.

One – Dany makes clear that she cannot give the people of Yunkai their freedom. Contrast to other figures in history, such as the Northern leaders during the American Civil War, it is made clear that it is because of the ‘white man’ that people of color have freedom. Dany does not claim responsibility for the liberation of the city, and is even hesitant to call herself a liberator (she calls herself a conquerer, and does not presume herself to be their liberator because she has no idea how the people feel).

Two – Dany does not retain any agency when it comes to how the people should govern themselves. Though not explicitly stated, the reason Dany tells the people that they must decide for themselves is because she believes in choice, as she did with the Unsullied – she gave them the liberty to leave and be free or fight for her as free men.

Three – The “white man’s burden’ is not so easily read in this episode or the whole series. Dany has a main objective – to go back to her home country and take her throne [back]. Yet, she is governed by morality and justice (from her perspective). She believes that slavery is intrinsically wrong, and while her travels to Astapor (another slave city) is with the intent to gain an army, she does not buy one, but frees the slaves from their masters (who are not white) and, as mentioned, give them a choice. Furthermore, she does not seek to re-educate the people she has interacted with. When she travels w/ the Dothraki, she does not teach the people or her husband her language, rather, she learns theirs. Even now, she has a translator to communicate with others and makes no effort to force on others her language. She doesn’t even require them to dress like her – she dresses like them. (I want to highlight cultural appropriation here). Furthermore, never does she denounce any as savages (unlike her brother) but thinks of many as equals, and even takes her responsibility as protector on more than ruler (though her need to protect her ‘people’ is problematic and part of a white savior complex). 

I am not defending Dany, the producers, or George Martin (creator of the series). There is something to be said about Dany being white and liberating people of color, people who are not her own, and being called “mother” by an entire city. However, it is also important to bring up that Dany is a woman, she gives agency to people – the choice of how they should live their lives, and does not believe her culture – which she has never actually known – is inherently superior to others. When having a conversation about how white people are portrayed as saving people of color in media – which is seen in our world through non-profits, how we learn history (President Lincoln), or when conscious white people learn about their privilege and feel the need to help people of color, it is important to look at whatever is “grey” in the scene(s).

My intention is to highlight that as the conversation about race and racism is not simple, neither is the conversation of how the white savior complex is portrayed in media. Questions arise in the scene, such as  what does this do for breaking down the patriarchy paradigm? Dany is a woman, her confidant is a woman of color, and she has become a Queen in a world where there are only Kings. When thinking about how white people have a savior complex, sometimes, we must also be critical of our immediate assumptions, and see how to break down that complex instead of solely letting everyone know it is there and real. I mean, Dany is as white as can be, and everyone she is freeing is brown. She has “saved” them. White savior right there.

Again, I am not justifying how the producers chose to portray Dany in the final scene, but I must commend them for making Dany a character that does not impose her culture (language, dress, etc.), gives those she liberates a choice, and she is critical of her decisions to free people of color. That is moving in the right direction, though there is still work to be done, and a lot of it. Could the scene been handled better – hell yes. And we need to hold the producers accountable whenever something like this happens in all formats of media. But they tried – or “tried”. Al Cesar lo del Cesar. 


4 thoughts on “Dragons as Liberators: White Savior Complex in Media”

  1. Very true on many different levels. At least the white savior complex is getting better in the sense that culture is respected, and the ex-slaves aren’t re-enslaved. This also reminds me of Avatar where the white man has to come and “save” the “savage” Avatars (who were perfectly happy without him, btw). If you watch the movie again, notice how hair is depicted when the female avatar protagonist, Neytiri, kisses Jake, the white male protagonist. When they “see” each other, or kiss, her hair goes from braids to straight… very subtle but it makes me wonder why she has to have “non-ethnic” hair to have a romantic moment with a white man.

    1. Thanks for that! I need to re-watch Avatar. Even with movies like that, where we are invested in the characters, we need to be critical about the good/evil dichotomy. Even if we decide and say the good character, Jake, is actually the embodiment of something as oppressive as the bad guy, we then come up short with our own alternative – who do we end up rooting for? And that is CRAZY – hair is another issue, when it is used to transition from one state of mind to another, in this case to be even able to be romantic with Jake. Thanks for that!

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