members of house velaryon in house of the dragon

Ollie Upton/HBO

‘It’s important for people to stop forgiving and forgetting her blatant racism’: Fans are resurfacing problematic comments from one of George R.R. Martin’s collaborators

'Game of Thrones' fans have been trying to get people to pay attention to her comments for more than a decade.

 

Michelle Jaworski

Internet Culture

Posted on Oct 4, 2022   Updated on Oct 4, 2022, 9:19 am CDT

HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel series House of the Dragon, by most metrics, is a hit: Critics dig it, viewers love it, and the ratings are increasing week-to-week. But, like so many other shows on TV right now, it’s also among the many shows currently facing pushback over casting decisions to depict a more inclusive Westeros, mainly with Corlys Velaryon, who’s portrayed by veteran British actor Steve Toussaint. 

Among the detractors, who often speak of book accuracy amid their complaints and claim that racism has no part to play in their objection to non-white actors playing fictional characters originally written as white, is the co-founder of one of the most influential A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) websites on the internet and one of George R.R. Martin’s frequent collaborators. And according to several people who’ve participated in the sprawling online fandoms for HBO’s shows and Martin’s books, it’s part of a well-documented pattern of bullying and disparaging comments that goes back at least a decade.

A fraught and combative relationship with fans

Many fans might not know who Linda Antonsson is by name. But chances are if they tried delving into Game of Thrones or ASOIAF lore or wanted to find out how a plot point differed in Martin’s series from what HBO did in one of its shows, they might be familiar with her work. In 1999, Antonsson, who has worked as an English-to-Swedish translator, along with her now-husband Elio García, founded Westeros.org, a collection of ASOIAF fan sites that keep fans up to date on news about the shows and books, including a vastly detailed Wiki that, for many of the people who’ve covered Game of Thrones or HOTD for more than a decade (including this writer), is an indispensable resource.

Antonsson and García are credited as co-authors with Martin on the world-building encyclopedia The World of Ice and Fire and The Rise of the Dragon (a version of Fire & Blood with more illustrations) that’s set to be published in October; in a blog post announcing the book, Martin noted that his “friends Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson of WORLD OF ICE & FIRE fame handled the abridgment;” they also helped Martin fact-check some of his later ASOIAF books. Martin calls them “lords of Westeros” on the dedication page for A Dance With Dragons, and in the Acknowledgments section of A Feast For Crows, he says that Antonsson and García “seem to know the Seven Kingdoms better than I do.”

A relationship and correspondences with Martin are well-known among certain parts of the ASOIAF fandom. But the interactions between Antonsson and many people who consider themselves part of the fandom have long been fraught and combative. With House of the Dragon now on the air—and a high-profile casting of a Black actor to play a character whose ancestors and descendants are described in ASOIAF and other Martin works as white—fans are resurfacing years of comments from Antonsson they feel are offensive amid more recent complaints about casting Black actors to play members of House Velaryon.

In a response to a request for comment, Antonsson and García sent a lengthy email addressing several points, annotating which responses are from Antonsson and which are from García. They emphasized that “all of our opinions are ours and ours alone. They are not dictated by anyone, and do not reflect on the thoughts or opinions of anyone we associate with.”

They both also stated they believe that their responses are “entirely consistent with the entirety of what we’ve said online on these topics over the years. We stand by the facts we’ve stated concerning the books and the world-building.” We’ve included those responses when applicable.

A Twitter thread from Claire, who posts on Twitter at @CNymerosMartell, that went viral last month shortly after HOTD’s debut included several screenshots from Antonsson’s social media posts; some are more recent, but some of the Tumblr posts went back at least a decade. Some of the archived posts and screengrabbed tweets featured Antonsson complaining about rumored and confirmed casting choices (particularly around how the show handled Dorne), along with comments attacking female fans and involving gender. And regardless of what led to the responses, many of the posts Antonsson dishes out to people (sometimes named directly) involve name-calling. “If someone attacks me, I don’t hold back,” Antonsson wrote in a 2012 Tumblr post. “Any form of verbal retaliation is fair game.” Although Claire’s thread uses archived links, many of Antonsson’s Tumblr posts are still live today.

“I joined Tumblr to fire off a few rants about the fans who had been ranting about us,” Antonsson explained. “That essentially started a long flame war where any comments we (and especially I) made about the books or the show would lead to more abuse which I then responded to in kind. Along the way, this flame war ended up including arguments about characters who had their race changed on Game of Thrones and this is what started people labeling me racist. Despite the fact that I also complained that GOT left out characters of colour as well, and despite my praising castings of actors of colour such as Indira Varma [Ellaria Sand] and Alexander Siddig [Doran Martell].”

She also believes that part of what drew her and García ire from some Tumblr users as Game of Thrones led to the fandom growing and diversifying was that they, in respecting Martin’s wishes, did not allow fanfiction to be posted or discussed on Westeros.org. (Martin is famously not a fan of fanfiction, he believes that it infringes on his creations and copyright, and he doesn’t feel that it falls under fair use.)

On Twitter, Antonsson has said she sees a big difference between speaking about her complaints with Black Velaryons publicly and directing her comments toward the actors, and she’s only done the former. A recent reply to a tweet discouraging people from purchasing The Rise of the Dragon that explains her stance on how it’s OK to disagree with changing the race of a character “when it impacts the lore” includes Toussaint’s Twitter handle, although it appears to be a result of the person she’s replying to mentioning the handle first.

Fans speak out on Twitter

Claire, the Twitter user, emphasized to the Daily Dot that this isn’t a situation where fans are only just unearthing older comments made by a person who’s well-known among some fans. It’s to highlight a long pattern—one well-known to older fans, at least in the general sense—of similar behavior in lieu of more recent comments regarding how HOTD cast House Velaryon.

“I had to, I simply had to,” Claire explained via email on why she posted the thread. “Linda had been ranting against some people defending the casting of people of color for House Velaryon and I fell down a rabbit hole of posts and comments from her, going back years. I felt like I needed to compile that for people to see and understand that she had been like that for a long time and the fandom didn’t seem to know.”

Lo, a Swedish fan who offered their perspective when a screenshot of a Tumblr post where Antonsson called a critic a “black supremacist” and used an outdated term for a Swedish pastry that roughly translates to “n-word ball” in Google Translate was shared, felt a similar duty to explain to people who might not know Swedish. When that context was shared, Antonsson tweeted that she “picked something I knew skirted the edge for someone unfamiliar with the term. She noted that she used a food item to counter the word “cracker,” which had been directed at her, and “made a point of not using it as a slur.”

Antonsson told the Daily Dot that the original 2015 post was in response to someone who called her a white supremacist and that, at the time of the post, it wasn’t “largely seen as offensive.” She picked that word because it was also a food item and “in my mind, it was a kind of linguistic opposite of ‘cracker’ in the sense that ‘cracker’ was a purposeful insult that didn’t work for a Swede” while the pastry name was “something not really insulting.” She also provided a link to the 2021 Swedish Academic dictionary page for the word that includes the note, “kan upp­fattas som stötande; något ålderdomligt”, which roughly translates to “may be perceived as offensive; something archaic.”

“Ultimately, my intended rudeness was ‘I bet you’re too stupid to get that it isn’t an insult,’ not ‘This way I can get away with using the n-word without using it,'” Antonsson said.

“In my experience, people nowadays only use that if they’re very traditional/conservative or if they’re deliberately trying to provoke someone,” Lo explained. “I would compare the debate surrounding this name to the debate in the U.S. about the Washington football team’s name, which eventually resulted in them changing their name from one that was deeply racist and offensive to Native Americans. Reasonable Swedish people know that calling something ‘n-word ball’ is racist and offensive.”

Fans are also using Martin’s recent tweet about the release of The Rise of the Dragon to alert people (through both quote-retweets and replies) to discourage them from purchasing the book because Antonsson could profit off of it. People also shared screenshots of another tweet in which Antonsson said that “pretty much all GRRM wrote for that was his name on a contract” to indicate they didn’t need to buy it.

https://www.twitter.com/AegonNo/status/1574469442050084864

Ten Speed Press, the publisher of The Rise of the Dragon, and Martin did not respond to requests for comment.

The attempt to make Westeros more diverse onscreen

The decision to bring more inclusivity to Westeros, like many shows and movies that have made similar moves lately, was a conscious one. As HOTD co-creator Ryan Condal explained it to Entertainment Weekly ahead of the show’s premiere, the casting choice was an attempt to inject meaningful diversity into a universe that, until then, had been overly white. He even added that Martin had, at one point, considered making the Velaryons Black. (There is also an oft-cited 2013 LiveJournal comment from Martin about how he had once considered making the dragonlords of Old Valyria—including their descendants in House Targaryen—Black, which has been used to support HOTD‘s casting choices as well as to argue against it.)

“It was very important for Miguel [Sapochnik] and I to create a show that was not another bunch of white people on the screen,” co-creator Ryan Condal told Entertainment Weekly of the choice in July. “We wanted to find a way to put diversity in the show, but we didn’t want to do it in a way that felt like it was an afterthought or, worse, tokenism.”

Antonsson saw the more inclusive casting of House Velaryon in a different light. In December 2020, days after Deadline reported that Danny Sapani was in talks to portray Corlys (and before Toussaint’s name came up), she noted that casting a Black character to play Valyrian characters would be “fucking with the lore.” When the show’s primary cast, including Toussaint, was confirmed in February 2021, Antonsson called it a case of pandering. “And there we go throwing consistency and worldbuilding in House of the Dragon out the window on the altar of political correctness,” she tweeted at the time.

A Westeros.org post by García (that also includes Antonsson’s input) that gives an overview of the show’s first six episodes also mentions the House Velaryon casting as an issue. There, García notes a distinction between racists and criticism that “comes, quite fairly, from fans who love George’s worldbuilding and don’t want it compromised unnecessarily.”

For García and Antonsson, who see themselves as the latter type of fan, complaining about the skin color of the Velaryon characters is no different than their complaints about the show’s interpretation of House Velaryon’s seahorse sigil; he also suggests other characters in the show could’ve potentially racebent over House Velaryon such as Ser Criston Cole, the Hightowers, or some of the Targaryen bastards (also known as “Dragonseeds”) who show up in later seasons. García also tells critics who disagree and lump them in with the racists for their stance to “stop being so online, go outside, touch grass, and get a sense of proportion.”

In an email, García described the Valyrians (citizens of the ancient civilization from where ancestors Houses Targaryen and Velaryon hailed) as “racial supremacists” in their devotion to ensuring their bloodline was pure, including sanctioned incest.

“Martin has noted that [the Valyrians’] obsession with their blood related to their recognition that one’s bloodline seemed to have an impact on the ability to tame dragons or practice bloodmagic,” García said. “The monolithic nature of their race and those who claim pure Valyrian blood is actually part of the world-building, whether George had decided to depict them as white, black, red, brown, or purple.”

While García and Antonsson have quibbles with HOTD, they both “are enjoying the show very much.” And they don’t seem to have issues with other characters who aren’t portrayed exactly as they are in the book.

For example, Antonsson doesn’t seem to object to the show portraying Rhaenys (Eve Best) with traditional Targaryen silver-blonde hair when Fire & Blood described the character as having “black hair streaked with white,” which is an indicator of Rhaenys’ Baratheon heritage on her mother’s side; Rhaenys had the standard Targaryen hair in Martin’s novella The Princess and the Queen that predates Fire & Blood, but it was a detail changed in the expanded story. One of Antonsson’s few comments on Rhaenys only mentions that she had a “very nebulous” image of the character in her head. García cited Grand Maester Orwyle (one of his and Antonsson’s favorite minor characters), as someone who is white in Fire & Blood but is played by Kurt Egyiawan on the show, as a change of a character’s race that does not bother them.

HOTD is far from the only property that’s seen backlash over inclusive casting in recent months. Those arguing against inclusive casting often apply flawed (and disproven) perceptions about the makeup of medieval Europe to fictional fantasy worlds or speak of book accuracy to justify an objection; those complaints are often paired with personal attacks directed toward actors, one of them as young as 12. Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Sandman, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Rings of Power, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid remake have all faced variations of this backlash, and these shows and films are launching larger conversations (and not always in good faith) about author intent, realism in fantasy universes based on European geography and history, just who is allowed to play fantasy characters (both human and non-human), and real-world politics. Among the more incisive statements that called out that harassment came from children’s author Rick Riordan, who directly addressed people who were upset about Percy Jackson casting a character he originally wrote as white with a Black actor solely because it didn’t match the book description and noted that “Friends, that is racism.”

While the cast and creative team of several of those projects have spoken in support of their BIPOC cast members, HOTD has yet to do so with its own show. However, Toussaint has addressed it across multiple interviews, including on HOTD’s official podcast before the series premiere.

HBO did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘She couldn’t stand that fandom was diversifying’

“In my opinion, the idea that black people can’t exist in fantasy stories like ASOIAF comes from a misguided idea of The Middle Ages as this time era of social cohesion; everyone was of the same race, religion, etc. and everyone sort of knew their place,” Lo said. “No pesky women or LGBTQ+ people tried to fight for equality or whatnot. And that’s just not true.”

Bex, a longtime ASOIAF and Game of Thrones fan who went viral nearly a decade ago with a lengthy (and archived) post detailing Antonsson’s antagonistic relationship with fans—including, sometimes, herself—isn’t keeping up with HOTD these days because of her sobriety; she felt it was awkward to continue participating in the fandom given that her vice was so closely linked to it. But she also wasn’t surprised after hearing that parts of her post recently went viral again. (Full disclosure: Bex and I appeared on a couple of panels together at Con of Thrones, an unofficial Game of Thrones, in 2017 and 2018.)

“Zebras can’t change their stripes,” Bex told the Daily Dot in an email. “There’s no one more righteous than a racist in fandom who has the first opportunity to point out that a character is canonically light skinned and DIDN’T YOU READ THE SOURCE MATERIAL?!?!?!?!?”

For Bex, Westeros.org wasn’t the end-all, be-all home of early ASOIAF fandom. She came up through the now-defunct forum Is Winter Coming?, LiveJournal, and Tumblr, online spaces that were often more welcoming to female fans, particularly as Game of Thrones became the latest gateway that introduced show fans to the books. But with a diversifying fanbase with a wide spread of opinions, it also meant clashing with the old guard; of Antonsson, Bex noted that  “She couldn’t stand that fandom was diversifying, that suddenly there was representation. So she popped off and we fired back.”

The viral post was the result of nobody having called Antonsson out before and a shorthand to explain who she was because Bex was tired of repeatedly doing it. But the post, which includes a mix of inside fandom references and a lengthy list of old Antonsson posts regarding comments on race and gender, traveled beyond her circle: One Reddit moderator told her that it was submitted multiple times a day; Bex eventually took it down.

Antonsson pointed to Bex removing the post as an indication that “she has made an effort to clean up her Internet past” and that Bex’s post included unrelated insults and memes directed toward Antonsson herself. Antonsson also provided a link to a 2014 Tumblr post where she addressed Bex’s post in general, writing that “Beyond the fact that I have no qualms about using language that apparently offends certain delicate flowers, that post is a nice bundle of lies and/or distortions of the truth.”

“To take the word of someone who would post caricatures, attack people for their hobbies, and so on seems very peculiar to me,” Antonsson told the Daily Dot. “It does, however, highlight what this ultimately was: a flame war about differences in opinions about the books and about the adaptation where there were plenty of insults and abuse from both sides. I do not consider myself as having started it, except by expressing my opinions, but when attacked I do respond in kind.”

“Rather than talk to us individually and doing so thoughtfully, people more interested in social media clout have been repeatedly grandstanding online and refusing to acknowledge any nuance in our statements or any attempt to actually understand our meaning,” García added. “It is immensely frustrating, but we will not be browbeaten or silenced by people who are happy to lie about us or exaggerate our alleged faults so that they can feel good about themselves or gain likes on social media.”

There have been several attempts to bring attention to Antonsson’s comments and treatment of other fans over the years. For instance, there’s a Change.org petition from a decade ago called for Martin to publicly denounced Antonsson because she “has perpetuated racism and misogyny and harassed specific parts of the fandom,” mainly through her Tumblr account. (The petition received 346 signatures before it closed.) But it remains little-known outside of ASOIAF fandom. Bex believes that the fandom has gotten too big, so most people have no idea who Antonsson is, while Lo contributes it partly to people being willing to ignore racism.

On Twitter, Antonsson downplayed her influence, pointing to the number of Twitter followers she has (2,449 at the time, which has gone up to over 2,500) while García told the Daily Dot that “we have never attempted to use our own social media following to hound anyone, which can’t be said for those who decided they wanted to be our antagonists.” Westeros.org’s official Twitter has over 52,000 followers, and according to Similar Web, Westeros.org had 8.3 million visits in July 2022. When Martin tweets about The Rise of the Dragon, he does so to over 1.4 million Twitter followers.

In an article aggregating Claire’s thread, Antonsson defended her “irritation” with changes from Martin’s canon, equating her dislike of the number of legs a dragon has to the race of the Velaryons, and added that “some of my statements are very vitriolic, but the context is that they were my responses to rudeness and abuse against myself which I returned in kind.”

Antonsson also said the screenshots being shared were taken out of context. To that statement, Bex responded, “The only way anything was ever out of context was because I had to wade through the racism, and it was all kinds racist, and pluck out the tidbits that I felt were educational or particularly egregious.”

To many people looking in, the interactions between Antonsson and fans of ASOIAF, Game of Thrones, and HOTD might appear to be something like fandom in-fighting. But for the people who’ve spoken out both years ago and more recently, they believe that there is bigger importance to highlighting what she’s said: Antonsson has a professional relationship with Martin, and that association comes with influence and power in ASOIAF fandom, especially when attacks are directed at female and BIPOC fans. She runs one of the most influential ASOIAF websites on the internet. And they see Martin’s silence on Antonsson as ignorance at best and his being complicit at worst.

“It’s important for people to stop forgiving and forgetting her blatant racism disguised as ‘book purism,’” Claire, who hopes that the new focus might lead people on HOTD or Martin to speak out on it, explained. “It’s important to acknowledge that she has used the context of ASOIAF and the position she has as co-co-writer (of one book, in 2014) to attack and abuse all sorts of minorities, not only POC.”

Bex, who doesn’t see anything changing even with Antonsson’s comments resurfacing again because nothing changed nearly a decade ago when the fandom was more concentrated, put it more bluntly: “LINDA ANTONSSON DIRECTLY AND FINANCIALLY PROFITS OFF OF ASOIAF FANDOM. And for some reason, we all seem to be OK with that.”

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*First Published: Oct 4, 2022, 9:13 am CDT