In fictional worlds of boundless possibility and imagination, why are they so often riddled with the prejudices of the real one?
Fantasy and science fiction have a serious problem where it comes to equal representation… which, from my humble point of view, is offensive first of all but mostly just bizarre. I mean, the definition of fantasy is that anything is possible, and science fiction shows us a world that we can strive towards in the future. So why are we so limited to the thought processes of the modern (and the not-so-modern) world?
The most obvious example of this is that fantasy worlds are commonly very, very white. This is a topic of much discussion all over the Intertubes and beyond, and a pretty prickly issue. It’s also really weird if you think about it. If the world itself is completely made up, you can do whatever you wish with it. You can have floating mountains and creatures with six heads and people turning each other into frogs. Your main characters could live in a world covered in volcanoes or hanging over the cliff to different portals of existence, your fantasy landscape designed with any level of implausible ridiculousness in mind. The same goes for the people who populate it… yet most of them seem to look overtly European.
Well, there is some solid reasoning behind this: first of all, if you make your world and its populace too bizarre it won’t be relatable and it will be more difficult for your audience to connect with, whether through a question of empathy or just them going “This is silly” and tossing the book aside. This, and a combination of the infinite inspiration lying wait in history, leads to the Fantasy Counterpart Culture, fantastical or alien civilisations with traits we can recognise in societies that exist or have existed in the real world.
The most common example is the fantasy landscape based on Medieval Europe. This is basically Tolkien’s doing, when it comes down to it, seeing as The Lord of the Rings and company were the first books to really make the fantasy genre cool, and thus authors that followed have looked to their master for example. The fantasy archetypes that we’re comfortably and stereotypically used to all come from Tolkien, from the landscape to the Orcs to the armour to the big dangerous faceless force of evil.
And that’s okay. Let it never be said that The Lord of the Rings isn’t amazing. However, with everyone following Tolkien’s archetype we’ve ended up with a market swamped in Europe-esque fantasy worlds, leaving things suspended in a rather absurdly Caucasian persuasion.
But hey, non-white races and characters show up all the time in fantasy—however, they’re often (not always, but often) piled in the periphery as an example of the terrifying savagery that can happen in magical worlds. George R. R. Martin’s world is fairly diverse in terms of its inspirations, but you can’t ignore the example of the Dothraki and how creatively terrifying they are in their wild land across the sea, far removed from the civilised grandeur of Westeros.
For a sci-fi example, the Na’vi from Avatar (the one with the blue people) are painfully obviously based on the Native Americans (the same way the entire movie is painfully obviously based on Pocahontas, but bear with me), which has its own set of unfortunate stigmas attached. They’re portrayed as wild, magical creatures intent on chasing the (invading!) entrepreneurs off their land, and only through the eyes of the noble White Dude walking among them do we get to understand their culture and that they aren’t so bad after all, even if they do have a freaky pseudo-spiritual connection to trees. And, in the end, it’s only the White Dude dressing up as one of them that can save the day, after winning over the proud savages in combat and sleeping with the scantily clad warrior princess, of course.
And when you do get a series that actually takes some creative (and inclusive) initiative, it gets muffled as much as possible. Avatar: The Last Airbender (the one with the martial arts) is set in a fascinating fantasy world based on Asia instead of Europe, with a set of interesting and lovingly researched races and cultures within and no Caucasian characters in sight… until the dread scourge of the M Night Shamalamamalan live action movie, which race-lifted the entire cast and tossed all the meticulous cultural design out the window. Hey, there were dark-skinned and Asian people in there, they were just the bad guys. Colour-coded for your convenience!
Ursula Le Guinn’s Earthsea series also features a predominately dark-skinned cast. In their many adaptations, including Sci Fi Channel’s Legend of Earthsea and Studio Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea, this detail is completely ignored. It’s almost as if some great finger of fate is waggling in these series’ directions, going “Alright, you got away with diversity that once, but we’ll let it slide if we can fix it up with the adaptation.”
Even series that do embrace the fact that the world is, shocker, multicultural, get caught up in this weird stigma. Firefly is an example that’s brought up a lot in this case, a gritty colonial sci-fi world saturated with a lot of Asiatic culture. I thought this was a pretty cool thing to look into, acknowledging the fact (like other sci-fis have, think Blade Runner) that Asia is becoming more and more of an influence and would continue to be so in the future. However, despite the characters swearing cutely in mangled Mandarin and decorating their cities and rooms with Indian and Chinese influence, there’s a bizarre lack of actual Asian people in space.
In the case of fantasy, it’s often argued that the large percentage of European heroes is due to it being set in a Medieval and thus culturally racist environment. Well, that’s true, Medieval Europe was pretty racist. But isn’t that the entire point of fantasy, that it isn’t our world? And anyway, it’s not as if the population of the non-fair-skinned world just popped into being one day—they’ve been there the whole time. They did exist, and intermingle. But again, I guess it’s a fantasy world, so the creator can do what they want… and if that’s removing entire races from the universe because they don’t want them there, well.
It’s weird. Weird, I say. And grossly problematic—first of all, you’re alienating a huge chunk of your audience and offending them to boot. Not to say, of course, that people of colour can’t relate to a white hero… but doesn’t that go two ways? Can’t a white viewer relate to a POC hero? Are we as a people really so put off by the superficial? (Don’t answer that. It’s too depressing)
Second of all, we’re losing so much potential for fantastical and sci-fi awesomeness and ignoring half the magic of the genres—the point of these outlandish archetypes is that anything is possible. You could have characters with green skin and white dreadlocks if you wanted. That would be difficult to connect with, you say? Well then an Asiatic or African hero shouldn’t be a problem by comparison. Or are we pressing the message that the world of our fantasies pushes these entire demographics off the map? Is an ideal, magical world free of races that aren’t lily-white? Is that what’s happening here?
One of the reasons Star Trek was so revolutionary and so popular is because it portrayed a future where all the races of the world actually worked together, the central crew including a Russian (gasp! Aren’t they trying to nuke us?) and an African-American woman (who doesn’t play a maid? Huh?). The show actually did something science-fictiony and showed a world that had evolved beyond the one it was written in. Star Trek still has its iffy bits, of course, but it’s proof that you can actually embrace the fact that a) anything is possible in a made-up world and b) humanity can progress beyond its current stigmas in the space-travelling future. Just because it was written in the 1960s, doesn’t mean that’s when it’s mentally set.
This post is merely my two cents and the tip of an irritating iceberg that has been affecting lives and minds for far longer than I have been around. As per usual, it can be argued that they’re all just books and movies in the end and why are we so fretful about how things are portrayed in made-up worlds? And, as per usual, we can point out that media does not exist in a vacuum and every world we see splayed across our screens and pages is, in some way, an allegory for the one we live in and the mindset of its creators and their audience. And in the case of race representation, it leads to some serious questioning of the state of things.
Fantasy and sci-fi should be places we can escape into, no matter what cultural background we come from. Losing oneself in a good book should be a universal human right, yet the freedom of fiction is peppered and plagued with these issues. Come on, people. Have a conscience, or at least some imagination.
17 responses to “Fantastically Racist and Scientifically Offensive”
You make some excellent points. I find myself falling into the same habit with my fantasy novel…There are diverse races, but the main characters are European types characters set in a Tolkienesque world. Not that those stories aren’t just as good or entertaining, as you said, but it is still a stereotype.
I have to say, I didn’t really like Avatar. Sure, they did some amazing things with CGI, but it wasn’t like it was some new story with a stunning new concept.
And Star Trek really was revolutionary – very nice to bring it up. And would you look at that – even with its “radical” thinking and casting – it’s still wildly popular. I wonder if that is because is speaks to such a wide audience?
I very much enjoyed this post, especially this:
This is the thing that always baffles me when people think that a story with non-white characters won’t be popular or that it’s some kind of specialty/niche book that will only appeal to people of the same race as the character. I mean, I read books about characters that are different from me (in race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) all the time, and I really relate to the characters, so I expect that white readers should be able to do the same.
I just read the first book of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, and the portrayal of the Dothraki was one of the things that bothered me, because while we get to know so many of the character from Westeros individually, but the Dothraki are described sort of homogeneously and portrayed as savage, even in a world in which so many people from both Westeros and Essos are killing each other.
Thanks for writing! 🙂
Avatar isn’t fantasy. It’s scifi.
I know, that’s why I included it as a ‘sci-fi example.’
Ooh, excellent point about how it’s fantasy so you can do anything with it. It’s not meant to reflect real life, so do whatever you wish. (Actually, I’m listening to LOTR music on YouTube right now and below the video is a big argument about whether or not Tolkien was racist.)
I read something about fantasy recently that’s not about racism but is about minorities. The point was that if there “can’t be gay characters in fantasy like Lord of the Rings” then there shouldn’t be the “po-tay-toes”, either. If such a story is based on medieval Europe, well, potatoes are American. Whoops. 🙂
…fantasy has some weird things in it already, if one bothers to think about it, so why do people make a big deal about, “Well, that’s not accurate. That shouldn’t be there.”
Exactly (I hadn’t thought about the potatoes…! Oh, wow, in one of my history classes a guy got up and was half-heartedly telling us about pieces of medieval art and for one he said “And those guys in the background are off eating potatoes or something I don’t know” and half the class went into a frenzy of “Potatoes weren’t in Europe until the Elizabethan era” and it made the entire speech twice as hilarious 😛
And Tolkien’s Men and Elves would not be eating Tomatoes (which were widely regarded as poisonous)!
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I think have to write what they’re familiar with, to some degree. I’m writing a fantasy world that takes a lot from european history and mythology, because it’s my history and I’m fascinated by it. Now I could make the characters black (in reality, I’m not going to identify skin color), but some people would take issue with that because I was forcing my culture on another group. When you write about minorities, you always risk offending someone, so I’d rather write about the cultures people aren’t overprotective of: european.
Also, Studio Ghibli is a Japanese company. It’s more likely they were drawing them as asian people (and even if they weren’t, asian people whitewashing? Does that even qualify as racist?)
If you’re not identifying skin color, folks will read it as White. Them’s the rules, and they suck, but they’re still there.
A Mote in God’s Eye doesn’t identify the people, but by the same token — they’re white.
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Truly, truly lovely post. Fantasy is my favorite genre by far, side-by-side with dystopian, but I have noticed this tendency in myself when I write or role-play. I only ever wrote or wrote as Caucasians. I am 100% Korean and very proud and comfortable with my culture, and yet when I write a character he or she must be vaguely white, maybe olive. What is up with that? I’ve recognized this a while ago, and have slowly created characters that are of varied races, but it felt absolutely unnatural in the beginning. After all, that’s all I’ve ever seen in the fiction I grew up with. But that is definitely a problem, and I applaud this well written post.
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We need more people writing science fiction and fantasy. Plain and simple.
Thief the Dark Age drew some of its monsters from Egyptian mythology.
The world is far too varied to simply draw automatically from European myths.
[” And, in the end, it’s only the White Dude dressing up as one of them that can save the day, after winning over the proud savages in combat and sleeping with the scantily clad warrior princess, of course.”]
Although I agree with most of your article, please watch “AVATAR” again. Please. In the end, the noble white dude had to get his ass saved by his “savage” girlfriend. He never would have been able to become part of the Navi without the consent of “savage” girlfriend’s “savage” mother.