Here at geekalitarian, the question about fantasy that most perplexes us is: why, when you can create absolutely anything you want to, would you simply reinforce the inequities in race and gender we see in real life? Especially in high fantasy, where many simply stick a few magical things in the Dark Ages and call it a fantasy world?
In grappling with this question, I have begun to write a story based in the world Bat Cat here and I created. The two countries present in the story are not white; they were not based on medieval European cultures. I’m having a hard time conveying this without saying things like, “half-circle headdress that looks like a sun — it’s like an Incan headdress, get it?” Apparently, I’m not doing the best job.
I presented this story to my fiction-writing workshop. No one seemed to realize none of these characters were supposed to be white, despite all the brown skin I mention. Someone suggested I not simply stick to old Eurocentric fantasy tropes (though not quite in those words), particularly in the way that characters talk. I find the idea of changing dialects to reflect different regions to be an interesting idea, but I don’t really know how to accomplish that without making up a language or using ethnic stereotypes. Part of that problem probably has to do with the fact that there aren’t really examples of that for me to follow. Rarely are “brown people” given a large enough speaking part in high fantasy to warrant the genuine creation of a dialect.
Most of my classmates admitted they don’t read much, or any, fantasy. So their assumption that, “it’s a fantasy world, obviously everyone is white, even when their skin is brown” can be forgiven to some degree. Fantasy is definitely painted as a white man’s genre in the mainstream consciousness. It’s a real challenge for fantasy writers to break these stereotypes, not only because it’s so easy to fall back into the old Eurocentric modes, but also because of the necessary cultural sensitivity. How do you describe a fictional people based loosely on a real-life culture without becoming stereotypical, yet while making sure everyone knows it isn’t just more and more whitey?
One way to avoid racism and caricature is by not making the generic “brown people” that appear in HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones. This isn’t, of course, the only place “brown people” like this exist, but it is the most relevant right now, in part because of the crossover popularity of both the TV show and book series. Amidst all the other things to be offended about while watching GOT, Bat Cat and I couldn’t get over the barbarian treatment the Dothraki people were given. Think of any stereotype of “brown fantasy people” (nomadic, libidinous, half-naked, violent, etc.) and you have the Dothraki. Some cite Tolkien himself as the father of fantasy’s “brown people.” Sure, they were evil, and on the periphery. And he introduced the amalgamation of Persian, Hun, and general African that defines “brown people” in fantasy to this day. But Tolkien helped to invent modern fantasy, in the early twentieth century. That doesn’t mean we have to continue his outmoded tropes into the twenty-first century.
A typical fantasy racial breakdown, as seen through Game of Thrones:
“Brown people” look like this:
They’re sorta dirty looking, live in tents and have mustered up enough technology to weave baskets.
White people look like this:
They ride horses, make real metal armor, and seem to be going somewhere important, rather than mucking around in the dirt.
One of the most striking things about HBO’s Dothrakis is that they stripped from them the palace and mosaics (hints of civilization) the book’s Dothraki have. When Bat Cat began to read the book, we were stunned at the (rather offensive) changes HBO’s series makes to the novel. Khal Drogo and The Dragon’s marriage consummation was consensual, for one. For some reason, HBO decided to take a decent (though far from equitable) portrayal of non-whites in fantasy and make it offensive. (This was probably the same board meeting where they realized there weren’t enough breasts or prostitutes, and people didn’t say the word “whore” nearly enough.) I would hardly consider HBO to be a progressive, egalitarian channel, but it would have been nice if they hadn’t downgraded the Dothraki people the way they did.
It’s difficult to think of a portrayal of “brown people” in fantasy that’s not of an uncivilized, “less-than” nation. Only Tamora Pierce’s worlds come to mind, where the non-whites weren’t all confined vaguely to one group of people. She actually bothered to create separate nations for different kinds of “brown people,” like she did for the white people. Pierce has even written books that focus mainly on non-white people! Crazy, I know! I can’t imagine what fantasy would be without racism and sexism! A little better, a little more welcoming? …No, of course not. Everyone knows only white guys read fantasy books.