Who is the more unrealistic white savior character: Atticus Finch or Daenerys Targaryen?
Let’s start with the favorite and classic, Atticus Finch.
I’m going to summarize the points made in stuff white people do blog:http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/warmly-embrace-racist-novel-to-kill.html
1. Atticus Finch’s heroism has no basis in history
Apparently there is a lot of documentation on lynchings, and not once did a white person stop his neighbors from lynching, particularly not a lone citizen with a rifle and a way with words.
2. Blacks have no agency/character traits in the story
Civil rights allies are very real and white people have been killed by racist organizations, but those people differ from this fictional portrayal, a lot.
Atticus Finch is a white savior rather than a civil rights ally. The reason we call them allies is because no white person has spontaneously supported people who have less rights. Rather, oppressed people have stood up for themselves, and some white people have agreed with them, or acted with them for any number of reasons. It would be difficult to prove that no one has ever stood up for anyone else without witnessing them standing up for themselves, however you must admit it’s much more likely. Why do we need stories where the oppressed are hopeless and mute and those with the power to oppress are uniquely courageous and moral?
There are othered people in the story who have agency and character traits outside of victimhood, but they are both white. The little boy they accuse of lying all the time who bursts into tears at the racist cross examination has his own mind and is probably meant to explain how, being sensitive and different, someone like Atticus can think so differently from all the other adults. And of course the shut-in shows his power and humanity and actually impacts the plot, indirectly suggesting a black person also might, but let us be real, no black person has as much character or agency in this book, or any agency, at all.
Now that we have examined the classic, racistly unrealistic white savior, let’s ask some questions to compare
1. Questions about the plausibility or meaning behind Denny’s heroics
Has a white person ever promised freedom to slaves in order to win a battle or a war against the slave masters?
The answer is probably yes, but even if the answer was no, look at what a different question it is than whether a white man single handedly has stopped racial violence while a black man waits to be killed. A white savior prevents a lynching because he is the only character who knows lynching is wrong. A white character in an unjust setting leverages the power of people who have no hope in order to further her own aims. You can argue that Denny is not unambiguously a white savior and cannot apply that argument to Atticus Finch.
Of course the setting with slavery and with the white woman as the force to instigate slave rebellions is all intentional to the story. A story of spontaneous slave rebellions, initiated by slaves, would be more representative of human history.
The closest figure to Denny is Abraham Lincoln. Depending upon what you read, Abraham Lincoln may be portrayed as a white savior to helpless slaves, or, more rarely, may be portrayed in a more complex, accurate fashion.
I would argue that the depiction of Denny is less rosy than most of our imaginary depictions of Abraham Lincoln. The real Lincoln hanged 38 Dakota prisoners of war, in public. That’s the Lincoln That Daenerys is like, with shades of ugliness rather than simply being a great emancipator, like Lincoln she harbors a hidden disapproval of slavery all her life, and only adopts abolitionism fully when it can advance her own political gain.
Is it unrealistic that a white woman would become a popular figure among impoverished or disenfranchised people of color?
No, this part is upsetting because it is close to reality. Oppressed or powerless people can be very susceptible to strangers who act like they care more than the usual foreigners shitting on them consistently. Mother Teresa is lauded as having helped impoverished people, many of them not white, despite her having a policy against anaesthetic, even during surgery. If she were doing this to a different group of people she would have been remembered as a monster, or at least a terrible hospital administrator.
2. Do any black characters have agency in Game of Thrones?
Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, I can think of more than one black character in Game of Thrones, but like it, I cannot remember their names. Two of them have met Daenerys:
Without names, let’s see if these characters have agency. And yes. Denny kills both of these black characters who have their own power, so I’m not arguing there are no racist implications, but that the picture is of an intentionally flawed character operating in a setting constructed to be racist, rather than a straightforward clean white savior like Atticus Finch.
The first black person Denny saves is not into it. At this point Denny herself is just a very influential pretty piece of property, sold to a warlord and now his queen, she only has power to influence or cajole. She uses that power to stop the literal rape of a city midway through, and takes on a doctor, who solves that husband and baby problem she’d been having for her. Revenge Doctor states in no uncertain terms that saving her life while killing and raping everyone she knew was not something she would be grateful for. She basically gives Denny the outline of her conquering of hearts and gets burned to death for her trouble. It’s Revenge Doctor who gives her an army of her own, who gives her freedom instead of the illusion of freedom through being a great lover to the man who purchased her. When Denny says ‘Some people grow to love their chains,’ she is talking about herself, and it was the revenge of the doctor woman that freed her.
Oddly, the white savior who burns the woman she saved alive in season one is far less criticized than she is for crowd surfing in season two.
This character with a lot of Zs in his name plays on a few different themes. In one sense his race does not determine his character traits, he is just another opportunist, this one portrayed by a black man. He isn’t exactly a picture of positive representation, but you cannot say that Denny only interacts with helpless people of color in order to save them, or even that she only interacts with devious people of color in order to kill them. Although you could describe some story events as either of these extremes, that is arguable, and it is equally arguable that no situation can be reduced to these racist extremes without losing ambiguities and subtleties present in the story. It is arguable that her negative character traits are portrayed as partially winning when similar traits in black characters are damning and lethal, but if we’re contrasting her against Atticus Finch, we can’t, because the black characters he met didn’t have character traits.
Although he is a gracious freed slave, and can’t really forward an argument that Denny isn’t a white savior for that reason, I feel I would be wrong in skipping over Grey Worm, who disagrees with Denny about changing his name to something more flattering. Of course, he only disagrees with her in order to mention that he was grateful to have been freed by her. But the image of a white woman telling oppressed people to throw off the shitty names of their oppressors reminded me of that very thing. Some white woman on Tumblr was yelling about how the identity ‘Latino’ was disrespectful because Central and South American people have indigenous heritage, and shouldn’t value Spanish influence (she was not talking about indigenous people who do not identify as Latino, she was arguing that nobody is Latino, that it is a racist term). Very worldly, but Latino is an identity, you can’t ask people to give up their colonized names and histories to make a more comforting, bloodless world for you. When he said he would keep Grey Worm because it was the name he had when he became free, I heard, ‘I love you, but you have no idea what you are talking about.’ The name is terrible and given by awful people, but (as presented in the show) it is his, the only thing that has ever been his. And hey, I remember his name, maybe because it’s preposterous, maybe because he shows up and gets a few lines every season or so, but fans know who this guy is. Whether any story he is in will be really his is doubtful, but he exists enough to actually have people who can name him and want to see more of him. Forget To Kill a Mockingbird, can you say that about a black character on How I Met Your Mother?
The point of this comparison is not to say that Denny or Game of Thrones are not racist. Instead I am addressing those who would dismiss her as the ‘most unrealistic’ white savior without really thinking about other lauded white characters, or dismiss her as the racist part of a show, a show where the other characters mainly encounter people of color in nice brothels, in a country that imported slaves and abolished slavery only a few decades prior to the events of the story. The events of Essos, where freed slaves are excited, are racist, while the events in Westeros where freed slaves simply ceased to exist face no similar criticism.