Fantasy’s Race Problem and Racism IRL

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A problem I’ve always had with high fantasy is the way that entire races of sentient creatures apparently share character traits. I can accept that it’s possible to generalize about people who live in a particular region, because cultures shape our attitudes and behaviors. (As long as those generalizations stop at comments like, “Germans really like being punctual” or “Chinese culture is more collectivist than the US’s individualist culture.” Obviously people can also make pretty harmful generalizations, that dance along or outright cross the border of racism.) These aren’t rules that are set in stone, but rather observations that aren’t necessarily meant to be applied to every single individual within a culture.

However, high fantasy’s racial attributes tend to transcend geographic or cultural location and, perhaps more dangerously, reflect the moral and ethical outlook of an individual within this race. This means that, within fantasy worlds, the goodness or evil of an individual is predetermined by her or his race. Within the context of these fantasy worlds, we accept this, because the rules have been laid out for us. When reading fantasy novels, watching fantasy movies and TV shows, or playing fantasy RPGs, there is a certain level of trust required on our part; we prefer fantasy worlds where things “make sense” given their internal logic. This means that all of us have, at some level, internalized the fact that in some worlds it is possible, even logical, for race to predestine an individual’s morality.

And I have to say, that’s really messed up. As I mentioned in my previous post, I didn’t really start to think about the implications of this until the out-of-character casual racism of certain D&D party members was juxtaposed with the in-game comments NPCs made about specific races. My party encountered a Rakshasa (essentially a tiger person), who was running an orphanage where everyone seemed suspiciously happy. As the DM and various NPCs made clear, the peculiarity of the orphanage was emphasized by the fact it was being run by a Rakshasa, who are typically evil. Despite this apparent racial red flag, I tried my best to have my character ignore the fact that the orphanage owner is a Rakshasa, because I’m pretty tired of racism getting a free pass in fantasy worlds. (That part of the story hasn’t been concluded yet, and I’m hoping that this character turns out to be good.)

Of course, the major race that isn’t associated with rigid moral attributes, that is allowed ethical ambiguity and individual alignment, is human. And human, in most fantasy worlds, isn’t much more than shorthand for “white.” White is seen as the default in storytelling, but it is especially typical of fantasy to create various nations of diverse white people, including other humans and their countries and cultures as background noise or obstacles for the white protagonists to overcome. The attribution of rigid racial characteristics is especially problematic given the freedom humans have to be good, evil, or neutral as they will.

If we allow ourselves to settle for fantasy worlds that dictate behaviors and morality by race, are we settling for a real world that is unconcerned with allowing any individual of any race the opportunity to be as good or as evil as they wish to be? Are we suggesting that race can determine a person’s ethical core? It seems that way. While race, like gender, certainly influences the way that we as individuals see the world, it’s not because it’s encoded that way through our melanin count. It’s because, living in the society we live in, race is still important. Racism and white privilege are constants. But while race may affect our perceptions of the world, it does not provide us with the ethical blueprints that high fantasy provides for its non-human races.

The two casually racist members of my D&D group think they can get away with saying offensive things about Martin Luther King Boulevards and Latinas wearing lipliner, because within the internal logic of their world, that’s fine. It’s not racism if you aren’t wearing a white hood or throwing a brick through someone’s window. While my boyfriend and I use our characters to stop NPCs from making casual comments that reinforce this fantasy world’s racist logic, we are also getting better at trying to get those players to understand that we aren’t going to tolerate out-of-game racism either. We refuse to allow the racism of fantasy worlds to reinforce the racism of real life.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem important, given the pervasiveness and dangerousness of real-life racism. Perhaps it seems frivolous to suggest these instances of RPG racism have lasting consequences in our lives. But I can’t help noticing that my D&D party is equally indifferent to NPCs asking my character “what’s a Kalashtar doing here?” and to someone suggesting that black people are dangerous. The logic of fantasy worlds does not create racism or sexism, but rather reflects the mindset of the society in which it is made. In a society so mired with racism, it is no wonder that our fantasy worlds, the ones we escape to, the ones we dream in, would maintain even stricter racial laws than are possible in real life.

-Joanna

Geekalitarian is back!

This time, with 100% more snark and incisive commentary!

I suppose I should begin by apologizing on behalf of myself and Bat Cat for disappearing for so long without notice. Finishing my thesis on top of, well, trying to get in some sleep and live a normal life and what not, made it nearly impossible to find the time not just to write for the blog, but also to do the required things that give me topics and issues to write about.

I’ve missed the blog. I’d gotten used to having a mouthpiece for my frustrations, a place to articulate and formulate my stances on social issues and more frivolous geeky problems. Although geekalitarian is still a pretty small mouthpiece, writing here has made me feel braver (even as I hide behind only my first name) and more useful. I feel more comfortable calling out problematic things in real life, without worrying about alienating people. The experiences I’ve gained here have helped me to remember that people who are upset or offended when I call out sexism and racism probably aren’t people whose opinions of me should matter very much.

This brings me to the teaser for our first, post-hiatus post: how the attribution of rigid racial characteristics in high fantasy helps to normalize racism in real life. A few months ago, my D&D group started playing with a couple who I now define by their casual racism. At the same time, (presumably by coincidence) our DM has been ascribing more moral/immoral racial traits to NPCs. It’s become common for an NPC to say something like, “Never trust a [member of some 'evil' race].” By responding, in character, with a joking-but-not-joking “That’s racist!” I feel (perhaps absurdly) more able to confront the IRL racism of people I’m supposed to like. But more on that in the coming week or so!

We’re in the process of giving the site a makeover. (And I may even sort through the daunting mess that is the blog’s tags, with the intention of making them actually useful.) Once we’re done with that, expect regular weekly updates!

So, to long-time readers: It’s great to be back! And to new readers: Welcome, and enjoy your stay!

-Joanna

Where’d that 6-year-old get an AK-47?

Seriously. Where.

While the rest of the internet is in a tizzy about Sexy Noun costumes being the only ones available to women in Halloween stores, my Halloween-related moral panic is CHILDREN! WITH GUNS!

As I strolled the aisles of a Halloween store last weekend, I was struck by the sheer volume of military costumes for boys. And not just any military costumes. Military costumes like this:

If that one wasn’t gross enough, I was treated to this gem as well:

I’m sure parents all over the country are thinking: Finally! Now I can teach my young son how to be racially insensitive AND hypermacho at the same time! Yes!!! Spirit is the best Halloween store EVER!

I also saw a toy AK-47 (hence this post’s title) that had a picture of a young boy on the package. I can only assume this is meant to signal that this is an AK-47 meant for children, not adults, thus saving all of us the embarrassment of showing up to a party with a little kid’s gun. (Bullet dodged! ha… ha..)

Now, I’m not saying that a child dressing up as a soldier for Halloween is necessarily a cause for moral panic. As much as it might make me uncomfortable to see a 7-year-old in military fatigues, I can’t say it’s all that much different (to a child) than dressing up as a firefighter or a cop. And if this child has a parent in the military, I can understand why he or she might want to wear a military costume.

What I don’t understand is the two costumes I posted pictures of. However, they make more sense in light of the fact that United States culture seems to be pressing hypermasculinity on boys earlier and earlier. That same weekend, I was in a Game Stop and heard a boy no older than seven ask his father if the new Call of Duty was out yet. He could barely pronounce Call of Duty, he was so young. Of course, the problem of Call of Duty and its effect on other games, and what effects they all have on our society (especially when younger and younger children are playing them) is a complex enough issue for its own post.

As much as we as a country pretend to be concerned with keeping guns off our streets etc etc, where’s all the moral panic about 6-year-olds carrying toy guns and wearing weird dreadlock wigs? What are we teaching little boys about violence? Why does Call of Duty have to ruin every non-fantasy game series I enjoy? Who the hell would let their kid wear a “Dreads Commando” costume?

I can’t answer any of these questions, at least not in so small a space. In any case, deconstructing the hypermasculinity sold to boys is just as important as deconstructing the hyperfemininity being pushed on girls. Both are extremely detrimental to society and to individual boys and girls. So, consider raising hell about these at the same time that you’re complaining about cutesy pink Batgirl and her sidekick cutesy tutu Batgirl.

-Joanna

Costumes, Costumes, Costumes

Regular readers will probably have noticed it’s been a bit of a ghost town recently around here. My excuse is, holy shit my thesis. But I’m back (today, anyway) for the one-year anniversary post about (what else) comics!

Now, after giving up on AvsX, I haven’t been paying too much attention to what Marvel’s been doing lately. (Again, holy fucking thesis). I do know that Marvel is relaunching Uncanny X-Force, and the updated costumes rock. Storm’s mohawk is back, and Psylocke gave up the bathing suit!

Comics Alliance interviewed the writer and artist about the new costumes, and guess what? They thought about practicality and character personalities when designing the new costumes! I thought the day would never come. Artist Kris Anka had this to say: “I felt that every costume should not only highlight the personality of the character it is wrapped around, but also of the function that the costumes will serve towards.” For this reason, Psylocke was given an outfit she wouldn’t be “falling out” in, and they took away her heels. While I’m extremely supportive of this change, I wish it hadn’t just been made with Psylocke. The other female team members also, despite not being ninjas, need “mobility,” so those wedge shoes need to go. It’s disappointing that in a design so heavily focused on functionality, wedge heels still make the cut.

They look great on Storm’s new costume (which I love! someone cosplay it! immediately!), and emphasize her regal posture, but since realism was a factor in the design, it falls a little short. It’s also one of those moments where I wish someone asked a woman what she thought of the design. Aesthetically it’s wonderful, but, again, these costumes were supposed to be more than just pretty.

Interestingly, the female version of Fantomex has smaller wedge heels than Storm:

This means that they considered that two female characters might choose different heel heights, but still decided that they would both choose heels.

Still, there’s a lot to like about the new costumes and the new team, including the 4:2 female-to-male ratio. Kudos to Anka and Humphries for making my week better after it was ruined by seeing this gross chained-up Storm cover of Wolverine and the X-Men. Also, kudos to commenters on the Comics Alliance article for suggesting Storm’s hair be left natural, and even posting this cool picture of a natural mohawk.

And, in case reading about these costume changes is getting you in the mood for making your own costumes, there’s a great site called Take Back Halloween that catalogs really cool costume ideas and how-tos for women who aren’t interested in the generic Sexy Version of Whatever Men are Wearing style of Halloween costumes.

Til next time!

-Joanna

‘Gambit’ and the Female Gaze

So, I banned myself from writing about comics this week, but here we are anyway.

Before I read the first issue of Gambit, I was curious what I would find between its covers. In an interview with Comics Alliance, writer James Asmus said, “Gambit really is one of the few explicitly sexy male characters in mainstream comics, and that’s a major part of how I envision this book. Luckily, our artist on the book is Clay Mann. And he completely taps into the easy cool and good looks that help make Gambit such man-candy to his fans.” (Also, Asmus said he has actually lived in Louisiana and known actual Cajuns, and therefore won’t have to rely on “other fictional portrayals of the culture,” which is amazing for a whole ‘nother set of reasons, fit for a whole ‘nother post.)

The idea of putting Gambit’s sex appeal at the forefront of the book was extremely interesting to me, for a probably fairly obvious reason: superheroines are primarily sexy all the time, regardless of how much sex appeal their characters actually have, but superheroes are rarely sexy first and foremost, even when their characters have a lot of sex appeal. Also, James Asmus thinks that Gambit’s “fans” think he’s man-candy. This means Asmus understands that not every single comics reader is a straight man. Which blows my mind in the most unreasonable way.

And then there were hints of a shower scene! Be still, my beating heart!

Fast forward to the release of issue 1. What do we open with? Naked Gambit in a naked shower! Hurray, world! Four thousand points to feminism, right?

Sort of. What I find most interesting about the way Gambit is drawn is that his sexiness manages to be both overt and subtle at the same time. His character also manages to be sexy without being objectified.

Let’s go back to that shower scene.  In the first panel, we get all of naked Gambit that’s fit to print. (Meaning, he’s positioned so he isn’t facing us, so sorry, but no genitals.) Then we see various body parts of Gambit as he gets out of the shower, all leading up to the panel where he’s toweling off his hair in the buff, with a picture frame covering (just) his crotch. This panel is extremely erotic, I think, and in part because it balances subtlety and overt sexiness so well. The placement of that picture frame at the same time conceals and emphasizes what we all know is there anyway. And then the final panel gives us a gleaming shot of Gambit’s muscley manly-man back.

First page of Gambit #1

This is all pretty hot-and-bother-inducing, yet, does it differ from superheroine shower scenes? Do I find this portrayal sexy, but not creepy, simply because I’m not a man and am unused to seeing naked men in comics?

I don’t think so. One of the major reasons why objectification of women’s bodies is so harmful, is that it teaches us that women are interchangeable. The eroticism associated with a woman’s body is unrelated to her as a person; she is sexy because she has a cis woman’s body, not because she is a sexy person. And yet, in this first page, this snapshot of Gambit is very intimate, in every sense of the word. It’s not just that we’re seeing him naked, it’s that we’re being introduced to him as naked, and, while he is naked, we are putting together pieces of his life. In the panel with the picture frames, we’re looking at Gambit’s not-penis while also looking at the picture in the foreground of Gambit and Rogue. These things are associated directly. We’re not just looking at a naked attractive man; we’re looking a specific naked attractive man, one who we are trying to get to know. His naked shower scene is actually advancing story and character. This is inherently different to the idea of objectification, which, in addition to being gratuitous, teaches us that women (or men, but usually women) are sexual objects, not sexual people.

Throughout the first two issues, most of the time Gambit keeps his clothes on, and leaves his sex appeal to be channeled through his words and actions. However, even when clothed, Gambit’s posture and placement are much sexier than that of most male comics characters. He’ll lounge topless, looking devil-may-care, while having a conversation about that thing that got stuck in his chest (long story). Which brings me to another distinction between the sexiness of Gambit and the traditional sexiness of women in media, particularly when catering to the male gaze. Women’s sex appeal usually slows down the plot, allows for a pause in the story, and is never used for the advancement of anything, really. But Gambit’s sex appeal functions as part of the story. It keeps pace with the story, rather than slowing it down. Consequently, it seems natural and necessary. I can hardly imagine this book being the same without these poses and angles.

The one reservation, sex appeal-wise, I have about this series is actually his female antagonist/partner. In the first issue, I actually liked how she looked. She had a cute, rockabilly sort of style, and she wasn’t drawn in gratuitously sexy poses or angles.

But, I’m not sure that’s going to stay that way. Issue 2 had a cover which, though hardly the creepiest cover I’ve ever seen, was still somewhat problematic, with the shot of Gambit surrounded by the cut-out silhouette of a sexy woman, presumably his new acquaintance.

Cover of Gambit #2

When we met this woman, she had personality and style, but now that’s she’s on the cover, she’s just a hot body. Next week’s #3 isn’t looking too much better, considering that apparently she decides to wear short-shorts and a belly shirt when they go do secret-adventurey things in Guatemala.

While the objectification of the female character in the series is tremendously less bad than in most mainstream comics, it’s still objectification to some degree. The series manages to make their male character a sexy person, yet fails to emphasize that the sexy woman is a sexy person. It leaves me to feel disappointed and strangely apologetic at the same time. I’m forced to say, “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, because it’s not that bad, but it’s still noticeable!” Which is an annoying thing to have to say.

My theory is that they excel at keeping Gambit’s sex appeal without objectifying him precisely because he is male. When female objectification is the norm, it’s difficult to make a specifically sexy character without falling back to the same old tropes. And when you’re a man, I imagine it might be more difficult to spot the difference between mild objectification and sex appeal.

I’m not opposed to sex appeal in comics, especially when that seems to be at the heart of the series. And I really am enjoying the “man-candy.” But objectification, male or female, is something comics needs to learn to avoid. My suggestion? Do what you’re doing with Gambit, but do it with the female character, too. Include her sex appeal in ways that are interesting and advance the story or character. Cater equally to the male and female gazes, so that sexiness seems natural.

Or, at least, put Gambit in booty shorts and we can call it even.

-Joanna

Follow-Up Time!

This week’s lazy post is brought to you by A Couple Things I’ve Posted About in the Past Have Updates I’d Like to Share.

First off, remember when I told every single one of you to see the documentary The Invisible War? Well, now no one has any excuse not to, unless they don’t have internet access or $4.99.  The filmmakers are doing a special online screening of the film, with a live chat with director Kirby Dick to follow. Unfortunately I think you have to sign up to watch it by using their Facebook app (so that might be another obstacle), but it’s worth creating a Facebook account just to see this movie. I’m not entirely sure how they’re streaming it, but in any case, head on over to the film’s Facebook page for more info.

I also reposted an article about superhero body diversity. The artists who, in the article, were ranking and discussing the bodies of all the superheroes were male. Andrew Wheeler did a second one, this time with female artists.  It’s interesting to see the differences and similarities in the perception of superhero bodies between male and female artists. I would also say that, overall, the female artists were more unified in their understanding of the superheroine bodies, and more willing to actually think about things like bust/butt sizes based on the characters’ athletic training. I’m really glad that both of these articles happened.

Also by Andrew Wheeler (can you tell he’s my favorite Comics Alliance writer?), is this great look at diversity in comics and why it matters. That’s not really a follow-up, but it’s still great and you should read it.

That’s all, folks! Hopefully next week I’ll have a real post. Til then!

-Joanna

An Unsurprisingly Insensitive Superhero Fight, Domestic Violence-Style

Apologies to the world for my spotty posting as of late. My non-internet life has been pretty busy recently with various things, not least of which is my sister’s conversion to Islam, decision to wear hijab, and the inevitable fragmentation of my family as a result. (Other events include: a planned vacation, an attempt to rid myself of internet addiction, an upcoming concert, the first week of classes, video games, and being really poor all the time.)

My return post is, surprise surprise, about Storm and Black Panther. Specifically, Why It Makes Me Feel Skeevy That Storm and Black Panther Are Going to Fisticuffs.

For those of you who aren’t following the Avengers vs. X-Men, Marvel’s giant summer money-making scheme tie-in event, Black Panther and Storm broke up. By that I mean, BP acted like a jerk and annulled the marriage behind Storm’s back. So now, in the tie-in to the tie-in, Vs., a limited series that showcases plotless superhero fights, BP and Storm are hashing it out.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the underlying reason why this makes me uncomfortable: they’re a recently-divorced couple who are physically fighting each other to deal with their marital issues.

Seriously, Marvel?

I’m not going to say that there’s no way that a comic could use what is essentially domestic violence in a way that is meaningful, insightful, and interesting. But this is AvsX: VS, and that was just never going to happen.

The first thing that could have made this less skeevy-feeling is not allowing Black Panther to prevent Storm from using her weather powers. Without those powers, they’re forced to go to actual fisticuffs, rather than allowing the melee/ranged difference between the character’s fighting styles as a buffer to prevent it from devolving into a husband/wife fistfight disguised as emotional depth.

Another mistake: making it about their marriage rather than about the big superhero war that enabled the divorce.


When Storm says, “this is about you and me,” this issue abandons any hope of not making me feel skeevy.  At that point, we really are watching a husband and wife beat each other up over their relationship. What’s worse, that last panel just looks like Marvel isn’t taking this very seriously. Maybe it’s the art, but to me that punch looks a lot like a punchline, or at the very least an invitation to snicker, or to enthusiastically take a side. I don’t want to cheer on either of these fighters. The whole fight just makes me sad.

Later we get a thought from Storm: “If we’d only had children, maybe things would’ve been different.” Really? Really? This is how the writers are exploring the emotional depths of a woman who just got her marriage annulled behind her back and is now fighting her ex-husband?

And then there’s this page:

I hate how Wakandans show up, just so they can make Storm feel guilty for leaving. As if Storm didn’t look enough like a bully in this issue.

At the very least, there is no winner in this fight. (Vs. normally declares a winner after every fight.) Still, Marvel screwed up an opportunity with a lot of potential to show that it prints writing that actually has emotional depth and sensitivity.

The only way to make this worse is to bring them back together at the end of AvsX. I don’t want two people to get together after they felt the need to go to physical violence to properly end their marriage. That is an unhealthy relationship. So unhealthy that if Marvel glosses over this, should they choose to bring them back together, I will be very upset. If we’re supposed to celebrate their getting back together, expect an angry rant to appear on the blog.

Also, I think it needs to be said that Marvel needs to be careful what stereotypes about black people it reinforces with things like this. Again, not something you need to be a genius to understand. Or, at least, you only need to have a modicum of emotional sensibility to understand.

So, this final death knell for Storm and Black Panther’s relationship hammered the last nail in the coffin for my interest in this series. Fuck this noise, Marvel. Seriously.

-Joanna