He’s just such a white guy (w4rgoddess on tumblr)

(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.

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3 thoughts on “He’s just such a white guy (w4rgoddess on tumblr)

  1. So I’ve been rolling this around for like a WEEK, so… amazing post, first off. A couple things I wanted to comment on, but first: I’m not trying to change your mind on Dorian. I love him for a lot of out-of-game reasons, have a lot of issues with him for the same reasons, and just generally have a Lot of Thinks. This added a lot more.

    I read Dorian as being very much in progress. I’ve known a lot of men like him, so I take his snarky defensiveness on the issues of class and slavery not as rejections of the arguments but as tacit acknowledgements that it :really bothers him:. Dorian undergoes, through the course of the story *Spoilers for the not-finished* a long disillusionment with the Imperium.
    Yes, he starts as the spoiled rich boy. Yes, he doesn’t even bother with looking at any of this until his own oppression actually costs him something. But that’s just the first of a long series of eye openings, that he both acknowledges (IE when he talks about being horrified to discover that Tevinters actually did start the Blights) and doesn’t openly discuss. I read his response about Alienages not as a SOMALIA! argument but as something else, and that’s what I wanted to point out here.

    Tevinter slavery is heavily based on Greco-Roman slavery (because Tevinter is Rome in everything except names and dragons). One of the most notable features of that model to Americans is that people could and did sell themselves and their families into slavery. So the reason slaves are so plentiful in Tevinter is that the model is self-sustaining. When the poor get desperate, they sell themselves to eliminate their debts, as Krem’s family did when his father’s business went under. In short, slavery in that system functions as the one and only social safety net.

    How’s that for a stomach-churning idea.

    Dorian’s response in that context isn’t “No irish need apply!!” He’s saying “Well, look. We turn our desperately poor into property and make them someone’s legal responsibility and if they suffer someone is at least losing money on it. Is locking them up in an alienage where they starve with no one watching really morally superior?” It’s still a bullshit equivocation, but a slightly different one. I didn’t read it as him denying the existence of a problem but as him denying the possibility of a solution. Early Dorian is deeply cynical, lacking any belief that things can change in any meaningful way. He starts out just wanting to stop his mentor from blowing up the world and decides to stick around.

    But by the end, depending on various choices, he announces an intention to go back to Tevinter and work for reform. I had believed (ah, the comfort of head canon) that Tevinter’s class inequalities were one of the things he wanted to work on.

    I also think your reading is perfectly valid. And from an out of game perspective, that’s precisely the problem. We don’t get to see the evolution in Dorian, and we don’t get a strong sense of his viewpoints as they change. You can read that they do, via his decision to return and his banter with Sera. You can also read it the way you have, as an unexamined issue that he’s so privilege blind to that he can’t evne look at it. It’s a failure in the writing and a painfully lost opportunity, and one of several problems with Dorian’s characterization. Show don’t tell is great in theory but you still have to let the audience get a real look.

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  2. Or to put it far more succinctly (Academia. I ramble, then realize two days later I could have sad it far better far more quickly): I can forgive Dorian for struggling with an issue. I can certainly understand other gamers having zero fucks to give and not wanting to give him the time of day. I CAN’T forgive bioware for A) wanting to inject NUANCE into slavery in this time and place without any effort AND THEN B) Failing to deliver any real follow through on it.

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  3. Thanks for the thoughts, thank w4rgoddess for the tasty meta! 😀 Yeah I’ve got lots of thinky thoughts on Serah Pavus, but alas work has eaten most of my free time this week. More thoughts once I get like ten minutes to get some more jotted down. So many half done drafts, not enough time.

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