House of the Dragon, the prequel series set 200 years before the events in Game of Thrones, diverges from its predecessor in a number of ways—namely that it has an entirely new cast of characters. But the show is also casting its characters differently, seemingly taking a more race-neutral approach in the vein of recent shows like Bridgerton or Hamilton. Audience reaction has thus far focused largely on Corlys Velaryon, a member of King Viserys’ council portrayed by Steve Toussaint, a Black actor. As of this week’s episode, it seems we should also be discussing the casting of Daemon Targaryen’s, err, mistress, a sex worker named Mysaria.
In George R.R. Martin’s books about the Targaryen dynasty, Mysaria is described as having almost albino-like features: white hair and white skin. Her hauntingly pale coloring is the inspiration for her eventual nicknames, “Misery” or “Lady Misery.” To that end, it definitely raises a few eyebrows that Sonoya Mizuno, who plays Mysaria, is currently the only Asian woman cast in the show—and she portrays a distinctly foreign sex worker.
“Who is Lady Mysaria?” Corlys asks the council after Daemon’s wedding invitation is read aloud; the king’s Hand, Otto Hightower, answers, “His whore.” Exchanges like this abound throughout the episode, as one white man after another flippantly refers to Mysaria as Daemon’s “whore.”
If you remove the context of racism, none of this is all that jarring. “Whore” and “mistress” are used interchangeably in the apparently very historically accurate, yet notably entirely fictional world of Westeros. But the fact that the show’s creators seem to have gone out of their way to cast an Asian woman as a character who is decisively extremely white in the books, whose identity is grounded in her status as a sex worker, and who’s called a whore by an endless stream of the show’s most powerful white men, is certainly...a choice.
Mysaria’s utter powerlessness is also notable, at least in this episode. Earlier this year, Carol Park, a researcher at UC Riverside’s Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies and Asian American Studies, told Jezebel how movies that portray Asian women as “voiceless” or “lacking agency” can “contribute to how people feel emboldened to enact violence upon others, if they think that that person isn’t going to fight back, and have this preconception that Asian women are quiet, not going to do anything.”
Acts of anti-Asian racism have been on the rise since the start of the covid pandemic, sparking important conversations about how deeply embedded anti-Asian racism is in American and western culture. In particular, Asian women—who accounted for about two-thirds of victims of anti-Asian hate incidents in 2021—are frequently dehumanized by racist, sexist stereotypes and hypersexualization. Also in 2021, a white man perpetrated a shooting in an Atlanta massage parlor that killed eight—six of whom were Asian women. The shooter told police he had a “sex addiction” and carried out the attack because he saw massage parlors run by Asian women as a sexual “temptation.” Atlanta police essentially took the shooter at his word, telling reporters that his own admission of being motivated by sex and gender meant the attack couldn’t have been an anti-Asian hate crime—as if Asian women and specific race-gendered stereotypes about us simply don’t exist.
It didn’t come from out of nowhere. The perverted sexualization of Asian women, particularly under the white male gaze, is deeply rooted in centuries of western imperialism and the well-documented sexual enslavement of colonized Asian women by the U.S. military. The sexual fetishization of Asian women in the west isn’t a compliment—it’s about colonial power and dominance, rendering the numerous times the white men call Mysaria a “whore” particularly frustrating.
That said, I can already hear the excuses over how the show treated its sole character portrayed by an Asian woman: that Mysaria’s casting was race-neutral, that we should be grateful for her inclusion, that all women characters are mistreated in the patriarchal world of House of the Dragon, that her character eventually becomes powerful in her own right as the Mistress of Whispers (the female version of the role Varys assumed in GoT) and a leader of the kingdom’s criminal underbelly. I’m excited to see where Mysaria’s story goes. But if we neglect to have a meaningful conversation about the impacts of reinforcing harmful stereotypes about Asian women in the most watched television franchise in the world and claim all of this is merely race-neutral, we’re taking cues from the Atlanta police department. We can’t pretend that these racist, sexist ideas don’t exist—and we certainly can’t pretend they don’t have violent, real-world implications.