Commentary

When Dark and Gritty Is Just Exploitation

Daenerys being held aloft by freed slaves.
­Some weeks ago, the makers of the Game of Thrones TV series, Benioff and Weiss, announced their next project. Titled Confederate, it will feature an alternate-history US where the South won the Civil War and slavery is still legal. In response, many social justice advocates called for the upcoming show to be stopped in its tracks. Others were confused by the backlash. The concept is dark, but many stories have meaningful things to say about the darkest aspects of the human experience. What’s so bad about this one?

I’ll explain, but first, I need to tell you about this awesome new story I’m working on.

My Fantastic Story Idea

Called Blogtatorship, my story features an alternate US where bloggers rule the land. People who don’t write any articles online make up a permanent underclass that is treated like chattel. Bloggers take non-bloggers’ children away and sell them. Bloggers can beat non-bloggers anytime they like or simply neglect and starve them. My story is dark and gritty, so it’ll feature some intense scenes of these non-bloggers being tortured, separated from their children, and otherwise abused in horrible ways.

Of course, my main character is above all that. She’ll be a blogger herself, say… a fantasy and science fiction storytelling blogger who writes for a blog called Miscreants. She’s living the high life in a big mansion with comfy chairs and caviar for breakfast, but she still knows torturing non-bloggers is wrong. So she’ll tell the other bloggers that it’s time to set the non-bloggers free. Naturally, many mean bloggers won’t agree, so my main character will have epic battles with other powerful bloggers over the fate of all those poor non-bloggers being tortured.

Since she is only one person, my main character can’t personally save every non-blogger from mistreatment (though I thought about it). Instead, the non-bloggers will rise up on their own, but everyone will agree that she inspired them. They’ll give her all the credit. She’ll even get a badass new title, the Great Liberator. All the poor non-bloggers will praise their Great Liberator and celebrate her coming, and some will be so grateful for her help that they’ll pledge their lives to her. These pledged non-bloggers will do exactly the same things that they would be doing if they were her property. Of course, it’s totally different because, theoretically, if they wanted to leave, they could (but they won’t; I’m writing them to be 100% loyal to her).

My Story Idea Isn’t Unique

My story probably sounds ridiculous, and it should. I’ve created a premise for gratuitous wish-fulfillment. The story is supposedly dark, but nothing terrible happens to the character that represents me. My avatar gets as much glory as possible while the characters I don’t identify with are powerless victims. The suffering of the non-bloggers adds flavor to my fantasy and gives me some people that need saving. It’s for my benefit.

I wish I could say storytellers didn’t make stories like this, but we do – all the time. In fact, I mostly stole my story from Game of Thrones. However, in Game of Thrones and many other gritty stories, it’s even worse. As self-centered as my story is, at least it’s too far from reality to be hurtful. Non-bloggers in this country are treated just fine. I’m not rubbing salt in their wounds because as a group, they don’t have any.

If you want to know what real stories like mine are doing, you have to pause and identify the most horrible thing that’s ever happened to you. Something that made you feel helpless and afraid. Something you’d rather forget. Now imagine instead of non-bloggers, my story features minor characters that remind you of yourself, and my torture scenes show exactly what happened to you in graphic detail. Now say I know these things happened to you, and I’ve chosen to exploit your pain for the sake of embellishing my personal fantasy.

All too often, that’s what our gritty stories are doing.

The Failures of Game of Thrones

One of the Game of Thrones storylines unfolds just like my story does. At the center is Daenerys Targaryen. She’s the heir of a royal bloodline and so white her hair is even… well, white. She gains power by liberating slaves. This is a fantasy realm where slaves could be of any race, but in the show they are black. By liberating black people, or inspiring them to liberate themselves, Daenerys gains the title “Breaker of Chains” and gets some totally willing not-slaves of her own. In the slave-liberation part of her storyline, the black slaves receive all that dark and gritty suffering, and the powerful white woman receives all the glory.

You might point out that Daenerys herself was abused and raped at the start of her storyline. That’s true. But these terrible things didn’t happen because she was white; they happened because she’s a woman. You didn’t think the person who gave her these terrible moments was a woman, did you?

No. The original book series was written by a white guy, and Benioff and Weiss are white guys. Yet the dark and gritty setting heavily features black people who are enslaved and women who are raped, among other forms of real-life oppression the storytellers have not experienced. Sure, many of the privileged white male characters on the show suffer, but they suffer because they’ve chosen to engage in epic battles with other powerful characters. When they suffer, it doesn’t open any wounds for privileged white men.

The wounds opened by these depictions are not trivial. One out of five women in the US has been the target of rape or attempted rape. While slavery is illegal today, black people are given longer prison sentences for minor crimes and then forced into labor during their sentence. Meanwhile, the history of enslavement in this country is frequently erased or glorified.

The Presumption of Confederate

After the popularity of Game of Thrones, Benioff and Weiss realized they could get a green light on any concept they wanted. Of all the possibilities, these white storytellers chose a concept defined by the suffering of black people, in an American setting that is guaranteed to open as many wounds as possible. This is astoundingly arrogant. It would be incredibly difficult for any white storyteller to implement this premise respectfully, much less storytellers who have a poor track record. Benioff and Weiss seem to think that being popular with white audiences makes it okay for them to double down on their mistakes.

And who is getting the glory in this new story of theirs? According to the HBO press release:

The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.

Notice that “slaves” isn’t here. Hopefully many of the freedom fighters or other characters will be slaves, but this makes it look once again like the characters who are suffering will do so in service to characters who are not.

I do think it’s good that Benioff and Weiss brought on the Spellmans, a pair of black storytellers, to be their partners on the project. But naturally, the Spellmans are not the ones that chose the concept that centered on the suffering of their own people. And while they will have influence, Benioff and Weiss are the showrunners. Ultimately it is still white people helming this project, and, almost certainly, black suffering will be exploited to serve a white audience.


Storytellers who want to write dark and gritty stories should start with the tragedies they’ve personally experienced. Otherwise, they aren’t creating a story that’s dark and gritty, not for them. They’re just showing that they can’t take what they dish out.

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Comments

  1. SunlessNick

    The original book series was written by a white guy, and Benioff and Weiss are white guys.

    There’s more. To be sure, there’s not much meaningful consent to be had in the case of a child bride sold to a warlord, but as I understand it, in the books Khal Drogo still took it seriously – and in so doing, showed the most kindness Danaerys had received in her entire life. The series added the rape (and it’s not the only one).

    And on the subject of gritty realism, that’s the usual justification given for the series’ misogynistic streak, but falls flat when you take into account that Westeros society is significantly *more* misogynistic than the real Middle Ages.

    • Cay Reet

      Good point. They added rape in several scenes which have consentual (if, perhaps, rough) sex in the novels, just to ‘spice things up’ or something like that.

      The real middle ages in quite some ways were less mysogynistic than this series, especially the early middle ages before Christianity reached its maximum of influence in Europe.

    • Michael

      How is it more mysoginistic? The status of women seems pretty similar to what I’ve read about in the Middle Ages, at least during some points.

      • SunlessNick

        One example might be when Sansa asks Cersei what happens if she and Joffrey only had daughters. In both Westeros and the real Middles Ages, male heirs were preferred over female and direct primogeniture descent preferred over other relatives – but in the real Middles Ages the latter preference outweighed the former, while in Westeros the former outweighed the latter.

        It’s a bunch of little things, but this article breaks them down pretty well.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Sorry Sunless, your comment got caught in moderation because of the link and I only just got to it.

        • Michael

          Ah, okay, I thought they had different succession systems. I can’t agree wholly on what Shakesville says however. She apparently didn’t know there *are* some all-female religious orders-the septas and the Silent Sisters. I assume Gilly doesn’t go into a convent because the North has a different religion, without them. A fair point that Arya going into the clergy doesn’t come up though (I doubt she’d want that however). Some of these points seem more of the rules exist, but simply are ignored in many cases. Officially Sansa’s consent matters to her marriage, but unofficially she’s forced into it. While not explicitly religious, Margaery *was* popular for her charitable works. I don’t know what counts as fervent piety, but Caetlyn Stark seems quietly religious as well. I am a bit doubtful how supportive the Church was of women in general, though that’s a broad issue. Regardless, it’s true applying “realism” to a fantasy series is problematic at best.

  2. Elizabeth

    I take it you haven’t read the books.

    1) Dany wasn’t raped in the books. There were times when she didn’t want to have sex because she was tired, but did any way. No indication that she felt coerced or raped.

    2) The slaves she freed came from many different backgrounds.

    a) Unsullied. ASOIAF wiki: https://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Unsullied “More than half are of Dothraki stock, while others appear to be from Lys and Qarth and even the same ethnicity as their slavers, while others are from peoples she does not recognize”. The Lysene are Valyrian, meaning they look like Dany. The Qartheen are likewise light-skinned. Yes, more than half of the Unsullied are brown-skinned, but not all, which defeats the point you are trying to make, that a white woman freed black slaves.

    b) Yunkai. She took the city with the Second Sons and the Stormcrows. She wins them over to her side by fighting and by the fact that Daario is in love with her. This is actually a failure, because all Dany does is free the slaves and leave. After she leaves, Yunkai returns to slaving. Also, the “mhysa” moment in the show doesn’t happen the same way in the books. In ASOS, the freed slaves call out “mhysa”, kiss Dany’s feet, and part ways for her. She’s properly overwhelmed and didn’t expect it. I don’t believe it’s noted what the slaves look like, but probably a mixture of different ethnicities based on the descriptions we do get, for example Jorah and Tyrion being sold at a slave market is not considered odd.

    c) Meereen. Won by sending soldiers into the sewers. When Dany hears that Yunkai has returned to its slaving ways, she decides to stay and rule over Meereen. This is a failure in a lot of ways, and shows how difficult it is to suddenly go from one order of things to another in a few years.

    3) You leave out the dragons. People are in awe of the dragons, even when they’re still little. They think it means Dany is someone special.

    4) The slaves don’t really follow Dany after she frees them, other than the Unsullied. In the books, she has huge difficulties with post-slavery issues that aren’t shown at all in the show.

    It’s completely fair to criticize the show for its depiction of color, especially the changes from the source material and the racist implications of those changes, but do yourself a favor and read a series before you criticize it.

    • Cay Reet

      You might have missed this, but this is no post about how good, bad, or mediocre GoT is, but taking part of GoT (the TV series, not the novels) as an example of how to use dark and gritty setting without really making a dark and gritty story. The essence is not ‘Daenerys is a slaver,’ but ‘using a dark and gritty setting like slavery and having a main/viewpoint character who is not influenced by this on a personal level, is just exploiting the setting without giving the main character a bad time.’ Something which, with about 99.99% probablility will be happening in the new show the GoT makers (again: series, not novels) have pitched.

      By pointing out that in the TV series made by the same two white guys (not in the novels written by yet another white guy) the worst which happens to Daenerys is not slavery, but rape (which, as already is pointed out, does not happen to her in the novels, the TV series turned several consentual sex scenes into rape scenes), it is clear that the slavery background of her gaining the trust and loyalty of all the slaves she frees from their masters (who, unlike her, in the TV series all are POC) is not a problem she has ever faced on a personal level. Were she a former slave who has gained power (through the dragons, through magic, through whatever) and freeing others who join her in the fight, it would be a different thing. The series is exploiting dark and gritty (not only slavery, but also the danger of being raped) while keeping it mostly away from the viewpoint characters (male viewpoint characters are neither slaves nor were they ever raped, female ones, as being less like the showrunners on account of being women, run the danger of rape even when their novel counterpart did not). That is the problem the post is all about.

      • Elizabeth

        “You might point out that Daenerys herself was abused and raped at the start of her storyline. That’s true. But these terrible things didn’t happen because she was white; they happened because she’s a woman. You didn’t think the person who gave her these terrible moments was a woman, did you?

        “No. The original book series was written by a white guy,”

        It’s at that point that the book series is brought in. It’s poor writing to bring in the book author without explaining that the books are different and the events described weren’t in the books. Or a lack of reading the source material. Because the Dany rape scene is show-only.

        Frankly, given this topic, a compare and contrast with the ASOIAF books would be very interesting. Why were characters’ races changed in the show version? What does that say about D&D? What does that say about people who typically watch the show? Personally, I was disappointed in these changes, as well as the whole Loras-gay-persecution nonsense for example.

        Oh, and weren’t Jorah and Tyrion slaves in the show, too, or am I misremembering? Because they definitely were in the books. There’s a whole saga about how they managed to escape. Tyrion is a viewpoint character, too.

        • Cay Reet

          You’re still not looking at the point the post is actually making, which is not about GoT as a such, but about the way dark and gritty settings are used without putting the main leads into really dark and gritty situations.

          • Yo

            Sorry, but the commentator is perfectly right. The post includes both the series and the books, as it blames George RR Martin for being a “white guy” writing about the suffering of brown people or women on behalf of white male characters. The thing is that George RR Martin depicts a lot of suffering and slavement of white light-skinned people on the books, not only in Essos but also in the Europe-like Westeros where a lot of abusing over white women is described (including forced marriage and rape). So, the post just blames the whiteness of RR Martin as much as it is patronizing against non-white people.

  3. Sam Victors

    There should be a name for that, like Gritsploitation (similar to Naziploitation or Nunploitation).

    I have a story idea, similar to Game of Thrones, but there mostly modeled after Classic Myths and History. This fictional world of mine has slavery, witch trials, colonialism, crusades, civil wars, revolutions, etc. The cultures of the world are anachronistic, ranging from Ancient Greco-Roman to 18th century Highlander societies. Some of the events are modeled after historical events like the Catholic-Protestant conflicts, the Russian Revolution, Slave Rebellions, and the English Civil War. For the Slavery part, it is practiced in different countries; for example, the British/European expy Country practices racial slavery and indentured servitude for white people, while the Greco-Roman Expy Country practices multiracial debt and criminal slavery (criminals who have been sold as slaves as punishment). These institutions do not go without challenges, as the main characters of the story series make changes when they get in positions of power.

    • Steven

      Tell me more about this setting

      • Sam Victors

        Well, first of all, the setting takes place in an alternate world, but it has no magic or monsters. Most of the sciences and technology is based on alchemy and ancient lost inventions like the proto-submarine that Alexander the Great allegedly traveled in, as well as Greek Fire.

        The countries in this world are expies from Real World places, here are a few examples as follows;

        Westernesse, divided by North and South. It is British Isles based with several anachronistic fashions, cultures, wars, etc. The main religion in Westernesse is Sun-Worship (based on Christianity), but is split into two major sects (similar to Catholicism and Protestantism). The Southern Westernessies are Unaists (Protestant), anti-aristocracy, agrarian, and republican. The Southerners wear plain and simple clothing, and are lead by the Major-General. The Northern Westernessies are Ultramonists (Catholic), monarchists, and believe in a Priest-King (a cross between a King and the Pope). The Northerners dress in gaudy and colorful clothing, along with accessories liked feathers, wigs and jewelry. Makeup is worn by both genders in Northern Westernesse, while in Southern Westernesse it is worn by sex workers.

        Reynes, a country that is based on Greco-Roman and Egyptian culture. The Reynesians are Polytheists and Henotheists. Their country is divided into nine city states, with one Capital City being the highest of them all. Politically, they have City State Kings, with one Emperor ruling them all. Reynesians are said to be a race of warriors, athletes, philosophers, artists, and poets. They are the most sex-positive culture, ranging from monogamy to polyamory, homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, Transgender, Non-binary, asexuality, romantic attractions, friends (of either gender) with benefits, BDSM, homo/heteroflexibility, sexual fluidity, sexual curiosity, etc. Reynesian leisure time is often spent on playing games or competing in sports in the (semi) nude, listening to philosophers, bathing with each other, reading poetry, etc. Reynesian men can wear eyeliner and paint their nails.

  4. Cnamh Sidhe

    Well, i sadly must admit that this article falls a bit below expectations, even in the very first paragraph there are factual errors; “it will feature an alternate-history US where the South won the Civil War” when in fact neither side wins the just form two separate nations, something that is repeated in the line from the press release “both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone,” which you quoted.

    And while im chattering on about the release here’s one other thing… “Notice that ‘slaves’ isn’t here” read that release one more time and i think you’ll find that it is, “the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.” hmmm, “thrall,” a word referring to someone bound into the service of another, typically in reference to stuff akin to slavery. weird right?

    Unfortunately this article comes off as a bit hostile and inflammatory, spending too much time talking about white men writing about the suffering of women and POCs, doing a disservice to its central premise, which i actually do agree with.

    However i think that the idea that if you havent personally experienced something makes writing about some kind of taboo is just ridiculous. to my knowledge Phillip K Dick wasnt jewish and didnt have any family held in a concentration camp, yet he still included allegories to the suffering of the jewish people in many of his books, and even made a very popular alt history book about it.

    not being being a part of a certain group doesnt mean you should avoid writing about it, you just have to be sure that you approach it with the respect it demands, doing your due diligence to research and understand it. thats where exploitation comes from, when something is just thrown in for the sake of being “thematic”; a meaningless rape scene to make the audience hate the bad guy even more, or making all the slaves brown because that’s what western society expects slavery to look like. I think a good case study for dark and gritty done right is in the recent videogame Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice; where the creators had little experience with mental illness and went above and beyond in their research to make sure that it wasnt exploitative or in any way misrepresented people.

    there you have it, my rambling unedited still a little bit tipsy 3am screed, a thousand apologies. Keep on writing the good stuff, friends.

    • Cay Reet

      I think it’s more about ‘if your main characters are not touched by the dark and gritty parts, then you should reconsider your story’ instead of ‘if you have no personal experience.’ At least that’s how I understood the article.

    • American Charioteer

      Two separate nations was the victory condition the south was fighting to achieve and the north was fighting to prevent (which is why the north was called “the Union”).

      • Cnamh Sidhe

        Thank you for correcting my historical faux pas. I guess i was reading to much into the Mason-Dixon DMZ, those typically only show up when a war doesn’t come to a definite conclusion, and one could argue that the war is only on an indefinite hold.

  5. Alverant

    I never got the point of dark and gritty. Batman V Superman was D&G and it was horrible IMHO. Yet D&G is the trend in some movies. Charcoal bits in ice cream are dark and gritty too. It doesn’t make it good.

    • Bronze Dog

      I find dark and gritty can make for more mature stories when done correctly, but all too often the concept is overdone or misunderstood by executives who want a cynical cash-in. It’s often a result of misunderstanding why people enjoyed a particular story, and mimicking it on a superficial level without touching the actual depth that the dark atmosphere served to emphasize.

  6. Michael

    “This is a fantasy realm where slaves could be of any race, but in the show they are black.”

    Actually, most looked Middle Eastern (as they are played by extras in North Africa), not black. Missandei and Grey Worm are played by mixed race actors, though according to US culture they would be considered black.

    In any case, though it can certainly be done poorly (and I agree the Dany storyline here could have been much improved) the old adage “Write what you know” won’t get people far, especially in fantasy. How is anyone capable of writing stories like this if it were applied?

  7. Ashley

    Not only is the show ‘Confederate’ problematic, its premise is ridiculous.

    Are the viewers honestly expected to believe that from the era of the American Civil War (1861-1865) to modern day, absolutely nothing happened to make the Confederate country abolish slavery on its own? That there had been no outcry against it and no sanctions from other countries?

    Did the League of Nations not come into being? If it did exist, did they not create the international ‘Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery’ treaty (1926). If that treaty did exist, did this country just ignore it for 91 years, even while 99 other countries were ratifying it?

    Did the United Nations not come into being? If it does exist, did they not create the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (1948) [which included Article Four which declared that slavery was contrary to human rights]?

    Wouldn’t this country be subjected to the same international scrutiny that South Africa’s apartheid policies were (which started in 1960)?

    Also, @Sam Victors: may I respectfully request that, instead of Gritsploitation, could we call it Grimsploitation instead (as a reference to the Grimdark subgenre)? It rolls off the tongue easier too.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I often wonder about that. Like, with a divided United States, does Germany win WWI? Does WWI even happen? It’s really hard to predict the changes from such a massive shift in history.

      Not that it makes Confederate a good idea. It’s a terrible idea.

      • FortuneWookie

        I like to think about these things too. For instance, what if the American Colonies had lost the Revolutionary War? The implications for slavery and its legacy would be huge. England abolished slavery in 1772, and Canada in 1783. By 1833 slavery was abolished in all English territories not held by the East India Company. I don’t know much about race relations outside of the US, but I don’t hear about as much racial tension in the UK (though I’m sure some exists).

    • Richard

      Back in 1931, J.C. Squire published a collection of alternate histories called “If It Had Happened Otherwise”. One of the stories was “If Lee Had Not Won The Battle of Gettysburg” by the Right Honorable Winston S. Churchill, MP.

      Note the title. Churchill is writing as a book reviewer in a world where Lee *did* win at Gettysburg, and he’s reviewing a book where the author postulates Lee’s defeat. Churchill has to refresh his readers on “history”, and what effect the Confederate victory had on British politics. Disraeli and Gladstone switch parties, for one.

      Other things to consider are the Riel Rebellion in Canada, where a group of Americans crossing the border into Manitoba agitated for that territory to split off from what was becoming the Dominion of Canada (independence achieved in 1867), and France was in the process of trying to take over Mexico. A Confederate victory surely would have had an effect on those.

    • SunlessNick

      The Confederate Constitution prohibited the abolition of slavery at the state or federal level, so getting rid of it on its own is unlikely. However, it also didn’t stand the first chance of winning the war.

  8. jo

    I am so shocked that the team that brought us GoT sat down, thumped their heads together and thought up this incredibly stupid concept. I agree with all the reasons above against this show airing . But th most powerful reason I can think of is the shocking lack of respect for a time in history where human beings lived at the whims and caprices of people who believed one skin color was superior to the other. It also disrespects the memory of people who fought and died rather than let this continue. Nobody’s suffering should be trivialized to make a buck or win an Emmy

    • Cay Reet

      I agree. GoT is no real history, it’s not playing with the suffering of humans in the past. That show definitely is.

  9. jo

    it also shows the inherent racism in the show producers-black people are incapable of successfully fighting and eventually overthrowing their oppressive regimes. If it happened all, it must have been a fluke. What’s next….APARTHEID?

    • Quinte

      Maybe I have misread your comment, but there’s only one case in history (Haiti) where slaves rebelled successfully, that isn’t a case of racism. Haiti was also quite unusual in that 90% of the population were slaves.

  10. Quinte

    Isn’t it communal overreach for people to demand a show to be stopped because they don’t like the message; or am I alone?
    To me it seems wrong to so quickly judge the show as blacksploitation when we still know so little.
    Also I don’t see how stopping the show leads to anything productive, you don’t have to watch the show.

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