(And before anyone gets started, I know Dorian is superficially a person of color. This is meaningful in the representational sense for players, simply because people with brown skin are so damn rare in video games. In-universe, though, it’s pretty much irrelevant, since it’s not like Tevinters are a marginalized group, nor do they [or the Rivaini, or any other dark-skinned set of people in Thedas] suffer in any systemic way due to colorism. His identity as a Tevinter mage isn’t even visible, ‘til he opens his mouth or does magic.)
I’ve been noodling my aversion to Dorian in Inquisition. He’s pretty, charming, fun; I was tempted to romance him because it seemed like the romance might be more satisfying than others in the game. But he’s got one character trait that just stops me cold: he’s a slaver. I can’t overlook that. It’s literally repulsive to me.
See, Tevinter slavery is worse than even the American slave system. At least historically, US slave owners were constrained against just slaughtering their slaves wholesale because of the investment loss. (Not that it didn’t happen, sometimes for the investment loss.) Tevinter has so many, apparently, that its magisters can just throw them away for blood magic. Those slaves who survive can’t even expect to have full ownership of their own thoughts, in a society full of mind-controlling blood-mages, and on top of that, those slaves face all the usual horrors: mutilation, torture, rape, family destruction, cultural destruction. Dorian insists his family’s slaves were well-treated — but then in the next breath he admits he never thought about them. So how the fuck would he know if they were well-treated? And this is in a society in which homosexual rape of slaves is “actively encouraged”. I know full well that “gay” does not equal “rapist”, but how do we know he would even consider that rape? He never thought about it.
Slave-owners in the American Deep South used to insist that they treated their slaves well, too. (Massive trigger warning for torture, murder, cruelty… slavery.) And when slave-owners used their slaves for sex, it wasn’t considered rape because slaves were unrapeable. Rape was something that only happened to well-off white women.
Yes, as a gay nobleman in Tevinter Dorian is part of an oppressed group himself. He suffers terribly for that, and I genuinely feel for his struggles to find acceptance somewhere, anywhere. But his empathy, apparently, ends where other people’s suffering begins. He approves if the Inquisitor sides with the rebel mages, but warns him that Tevinter started the same way — effectively buying in to the Chantry bigots’ implications that mages as a class are inclined toward blood magic and dominating their fellow human beings. That’s the equivalent of abolitionists who advocated to free black slaves because they thought of it as animal cruelty, or white feminists who favor sterilization of “deficient” (poor & PoC) women; Dorian might be pro-mage-freedom, but he expresses an awful lot of bigoted assumptions about the inherent moral inferiority of his own kind, for someone who grew up in a mage-centric society. On top of that, he condescends to nearly every other member of the party whom he perceives to be “beneath” him socially, at least at first, and when they call him on it (e.g. Blackwall in that “common man” exchange), he just gets snarky. He says he wants to make Tevinter better, but he dismisses out of hand one of the most obvious possible improvements:
- Solas: If you wish to make amends for past transgressions, free the slaves of all races who live in Tevinter today.
- Dorian: I… don’t know that I can do that.
- Solas: Then how sorry are you?
He probably couldn’t do it, not in any practical sense — not on his own, and certainly not as the pariah that he so prides himself on being. According to Fenris in DA2, Archons have tried it and been deposed for their trouble. But the problem here isn’t the difficulty of making the change happen; the real problem is that he doesn’t see it as a problem. When pressed to think about it, he deflects and gets angry, pointing at southern society’s Alienages and poorest class — basically pulling the equivalent of “Irish Americans were oppressed too!” and “SOMALIA” arguments. Never thought about it, doesn’t want to think about it, gets mad when you try to make him think about it. He’s comfortable with the status quo of slavery, and clearly doesn’t think that aspect of his society should even be questioned.
We see this kind of behavior in our own world, of course — particularly in people who are oppressed in one way but privileged in others, and who haven’t yet grasped the concept of intersectionality. Cis feminists who are transphobic, poor white Americans who hate poor PoC Americans or poorer immigrants from other countries, etc.; being oppressed in one way doesn’t guarantee a person can make the leap to empathizing with other people’s oppression. Dorian in this respect reads to me very much like a typical well-off cis white gay man — privileged in every aspect of his identity except one — who hasn’t done a lot of self-examination. And the game doesn’t make him any better, as far as I can tell. He doesn’t start thinking about it, or commit to changing whatever aspects of his life that he can. We’re asked to feel sympathy for his oppression — and to ignore the many, many ways he perpetuates others’ oppression. Because he’s charming. Well, hell, Rhett Butler was charming. He was also a white supremacist, a rapist, an abuser, and a ginormous violent dick. I need more than charm to overlook the rest.