Amazon’s The Wheel Of Time Is The Diverse Fantasy Series We’ve Been Waiting For

Photo Courtesy of Amazon Prime.
Right now, everyone has their eyes on Amazon’s The Wheel of Time. Partly because it’s rumoured to be the new Game of Thrones, partly because it’s the biggest series Amazon has ever made but mostly because it stars an actually diverse leading cast – a rarity in big budget, high fantasy shows. Diverse casting in fantasy has seen a greater delay than most genres, with representation appearing as a trickle rather than a flood. Compared to the almost exclusively white Game of Thrones, some diversity in The Witcher and His Dark Materials, and more still in Shadow and Bone, The Wheel of Time is showing its predecessors that diversity need not be an afterthought and can actually propel the storyline in the most enriching way possible.
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Representation in fantasy series typically happens (if it happens at all) on the periphery – side characters included as though they are boxes to be ticked. In The Wheel of Time, people of colour take centre stage in the core cast. Zoë Robins plays Nynaeve, a healer and a fighter. In one of the opening scenes, we learn that in the fictional region of Two Rivers, braiding one’s hair is a mark of maturity, womanhood and strength. "It was really special for me to be able to incorporate my natural hair texture in the braid… We have this really beautiful opportunity to be able to represent in a really loving, careful way," Zoë said in a previous interview. The fact that Nynaeve’s braid is made from the actress' own hair and that these considerations about hair, identity and Black culture find a place in the dialogue so early on alerts the viewer from the start that The Wheel of Time is going to be a different viewing experience altogether. 

White is not the default setting of human so why is it the default setting in fantasy series?

Jen, YouTuber
Egwene, played by Madeleine Madden, is Nynaeve’s protégé, choosing the life of a Wisdom (village healer) over the traditional expectations of becoming a wife and mother. Then there’s Lan, played by Daniel Henney, a Warder and protector. Finally there's Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), whose strong exterior belies the internal turmoil of a man at war with himself. These characters are followed throughout Robert Jordan’s 14-book series so this representative cast is here to stay. Season one also sees two directors of colour, Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Wayne Yip, proving that diversity is not limited to the casting.
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Back in 2018, showrunner Rafe Judkins told us that "race in the world of Wheel of Time is much less defined than in our world. As much as possible, our cast should look like America will in a few hundred years – a beautiful mix of white, brown, black and everything in between." Race doesn’t factor much into the sociopolitical landscape of The Wheel of Time – nationalism is a far bigger concern, with distinct divides between regions – but that doesn’t mean that the showrunners are clueless. In one episode, a white Aes Sedai (a group of women who wield the One Power) named Liandrin greets Nynaeve: "I like your braid… It’s Ninay, isn’t it? Sorry if I’m mispronouncing it, I can’t quite place the accent…" She doesn’t ask to touch the braid or declare Nynaeve’s name to be 'exotic' – but she doesn’t need to. The audience receives the wink loud and clear.
Some fans of The Wheel of Time have already complained that multiracial characters weren’t overtly depicted in the books (as if books are legislation rather than inspiration). Nynaeve, Egwene, Lan and Perrin are characters that many assumed would be white and now, well, aren’t. In the books, Perrin is described as having thick, curly hair and brown eyes, Egwene is short with dark eyes and Nynaeve’s primary physical characteristic is her braid. The casting matches these descriptions; the whiteness was just assumed.
A YouTuber named Jen called into the YouTube channel The Dusty Wheel to share her take on the casting of The Wheel of Time: "My favourite character is Nynaeve and the fact that the character who looked most like me was my favourite character… Unless a movie or story or book is about Black people, it has never happened that my favourite character has looked like me." In her own video on the subject, she says: "White is not the default setting of human so why is it the default setting in fantasy series?"
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Fantasy is a genre where writers – who are mostly white – indulge their imagination and create a world that is mystical, magical, ethereal and fantastic but unfortunately that's not how many of these creators see people of colour in real life, so they can't imagine people like that in a fantasy world… So they end up not being there at all.

Dr Sherri Williams
White is certainly the default setting for Game of Thrones, with the exception of two Black side characters, both of whom are former enslaved people. "Game of Thrones is already light on melanin and all the people of colour have been straight props … but when the only Black woman on your show dies in chains, these are things we notice," wrote The Black Wall Street Times. Then there’s the white saviour figure of Daenerys and the portrayal of the Dothraki as sex-crazed savages. George R.R. Martin has claimed that Westeros is not as diverse as modern-day America and is based on medieval England. But if factual accuracy matters so much, why the dragons? If we can believe in the magic swirling around in high fantasy, surely we can believe in diversity, too. 
Photo Courtesy of Amazon Prime.
"This is a genre that lends itself towards medieval Europe most of the time, so it’s easy to erase people of colour, but this is also a genre where creators can imagine a werewolf but cannot imagine having humans with other skin colours existing in this realm," says Dr Sherri Williams, assistant professor in race, media and communication at American University in Washington, DC. "That’s really telling about where the genre has been in the past and where it still is now."
Improvements in representation have been slow over the past few years. In 2019, Netflix's The Witcher took the world by storm and had some diversity through British-Indian actress Anya Chalotra as disabled character Yennefer. The impact was lessened somewhat by Yennefer’s pursuit of beauty, which seemed to mean not being disabled anymore. BBC One's His Dark Materials had a smattering of diversity but the majority of the cast was white. Netflix's Shadow and Bone was recently acclaimed for its diverse cast (which to a large extent it is) yet there was controversy surrounding the fact that Amita Suman's stunt double was a white woman in brownface. An explanation issued on social media spoke of the lack of diversity in stunt doubles yet the words fell somewhat flat. It’s no wonder that The Wheel of Time is gaining traction.
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Hollywood is starting to think about how they may be complicit in upholding these ideas of excluding other people and understanding what representation really means. We have a group of people who already lack power in society and then we don't represent them, and to not represent them means they don't exist.

DR SHERRI WILLIAMS
Why has it taken so long to see representation on our screens when it comes to fantasy series? "Fantasy is a genre where writers, who are mostly white, indulge their imagination and create a world that is mystical, magical, ethereal and fantastic but unfortunately that’s not how many of these creators see people of colour in real life, so they can’t imagine people like that in a fantasy world… So they end up not being there at all," says Dr Williams. 
"These are issues that have always existed. Growing up, you read books like Beowulf, then you get interested in Lord of the Rings and the whole genre but when you’re a young person of colour growing up, reading this material, then you watch the films… You never see anyone who looks like you," she continues. "Hollywood is starting to think about how they may be complicit in upholding these ideas of excluding other people and understanding what representation really means. We have a group of people who already lack power in society and then we don’t represent them, and to not represent them means they don’t exist. When we act like people don’t exist, then we tend to treat them and their issues and what they care about like it doesn’t matter. And that’s why representation is important."
There is no doubt that The Wheel of Time is one of the most diverse fantasy TV shows we've seen to date. Hopefully it will be a starting point that paves the way to a more representative fantasy future.
The Wheel of Time premieres on 19th November on Prime Video.

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