How The Rings of Power got diversity wrong (and House of the Dragon got it right)
One of the truly remarkable things about Amazon’s The Rings of Power is not so much its focus on diversity, but the degree to which it managed to botch it. Far from being an example of diversity and representation in television, it stands as a shining example of how not to do it, and even crosses the line at times into accidental racism.
How The Rings of Power does diversity
The Rings of Power uses a specific formula for diversity that appears to be based on the ethnic makeup of Southern California. This formula — or a variation of it — is applied to every single race on a meta level, and every single crowd scene when it comes to the humans or Harfoots. It is even applied in scenes with small numbers of extras.
This formula is applied so consistently, in fact, that it is possible to reverse engineer it (and, once one is aware of it, it becomes impossible to ignore). Based on the first two episodes, the formula is:
- At least 50% white people
- Between 35–40% people with light brown skin (these are optional)
- Between 10–15% black people (at least one black person is mandatory regardless of percentages).
The first time we see any humans, one is white and one is black. When we see the Harfoots for the first time, we see the full deployment of the formula (approximately 50/35/15). When we see the human settlement, strongly implied to be the Easterlings, we see another full deployment of the formula. When Galadriel encounters a ship full of castaways, one is black and the rest are white (one mandatory black person, and at least 50% white people).
On a meta-level, we see a variation of the formula with the percentages having been waived. We see no elves with light brown skin, but there is a token black elf. The same goes for the dwarves.
While there are variations to the details of the formula, its use is universal. Every single culture is either given a token black person, or a mix of skin colours based on the formula, regardless of context.
How diversity actually works
The problem with this is that diversity does not work this way. Because at no point is there ever any indication that the family of anybody with a darker skin colour originally came from somewhere else, massive variations are treated as a form of genetic diversity akin to hair colour among Europeans. But skin colour has never worked this way.
To understand how diversity of skin colour actually works, we need to look at how different skin colours came to exist in the first place. The colour of any person’s skin is a long term adaptation (meaning a population living in a place for tens of thousands of years) based on absorbing the optimal amount of vitamin D from sunlight through the skin. The mechanism for this pigmentation is a substance called melanin — the more that is produced, the darker a person’s skin will be.
The important takeaway here is that any given skin colour has a geographical point of origin. Anybody whose family is originally from this point of origin will have a certain limited range of skin colours (such as what one sees from sub-Saharan Africa, the Far East, etc.).
So, how does one get a multicultural society with a diversity in skin colours? The answer is simple: travel. For a small number of people with very dark skin to live with a group of people with very light skin, at some point the people with dark skin had to have moved there from far away. And so, if you have an empire founded in an area where people have light skin with worldwide reach and trade, it is entirely reasonable for the people living there to have a wide variety of skin colours. The same goes with a port city — trade means travel, which in turn means that people will come and settle in a new place far away from their original home.
This is how real diversity is born.
Where The Rings of Power goes wrong
The problem with The Rings of Power is twofold:
- Instead of establishing that the Easterlings and Harfoots of the first episode have a history of trade with far away places, the show does the exact opposite. The Harfoots may travel, but they are hidden and insular — they all come from the same place, and they are not accepting immigrants. The Easterlings are isolated and begin the series under elven occupation, and are even shunned to a degree for having supported Morgoth during the war. There is therefore no mechanism for people with a diverse array of skin pigmentation to have integrated with either of these ethnic groups.
- The show erases the diversity that was already baked into the setting. While Tolkien fans and scholars may debate what Tolkien meant when he wrote that the Harfoots had browner skin than the other hobbits, the fact remains that Tolkien wrote those words. The text supports an interpretation of Harfoots wherein they are shades of brown. Likewise, the Easterlings are described as having olive or sallow skin, an appearance similar to people from the Middle or Far East.
Tolkien provided entire cultural groups that were arguably not white, and the show transformed all of them into a copy of Southern California without any regards to whether such a result made sense or was even possible within the worldbuilding.
The plunge into accidental racism
It is once one starts to look at the unintended consequences of this universal application of the formula that one starts to see the degree to which The Rings of Power’s presentation of diversity falls into near- or even outright racism.
Assuming that the human community that has taken centre stage in the first two episodes are indeed the Easterlings they are implied to be, and that the Harfoots are indeed to be interpreted as being shades of brown, at least half of these peoples have now been whitewashed. Their ethnicity has been erased to fit the formula.
Even worse, the show has presented people with black or brown skin as only ever existing in cultures with a majority population of white people. They are condemned to be perpetual minorities. This was never a problem in Tolkien’s work. This also means that you never see any crowd scene without white people. The only character of colour who is allowed to stand on their own in this series thus far is a black elf, and to a much lesser degree a brown Easterling — all the others are, for all intents and purposes, decorative window dressing. One could remove almost all of them from the show without changing the story.
How House of the Dragon got diversity right
There is, however, a show that aimed for added diversity and got it exactly right, and that is HBO’s House of the Dragon. One of the key characters among the ensemble is Lord Corlys Velaryon, played by Steve Toussaint. Lord Corlys is the only dark skinned member of the Small Council, and everything Rings of Power did wrong with their characters of colour House of the Dragon did right with him.
It is immediately established that Lord Corlys’ family is Valyrian in origin. He is therefore not from Westrosi stock, and the mechanism by which somebody with his skin colour could be present is clear and makes sense in the worldbuilding. Furthermore, the history of his family makes a difference — there are distinct tensions between his Valyrian house and the Targaryens, who are also Valyrians, due to the power imbalance caused by the fact that the Targaryens have dragons and his house doesn’t.
Lord Corlys is anything but window dressing. He is one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, and fully active in its politics. He has a long history of accomplishment on his own merits before he ever sat on the Small Council. He is a fully developed character who has agency and acts upon it. He is also fallible and makes mistakes (such as misreading how the king will react to an attempt to present Corlys’ 12 year old daughter as a candidate for royal marriage).
Lord Corlys is integral to the story, and his presence in the story makes sense in terms of the worldbuilding. This an exemplar of how diversity is done properly. The Rings of Power, on the other hand, will probably go down as the exemplar of what not to do when attempting to create a diverse cast of characters.