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.