Fantasy’s Race Problem and Racism IRL

Hiya, everyone! I hope you’re liking our new look, and if you’re so inclined, feel free to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr. As you can see, we’re planning a full-on takeover of the interwebs. Without further ado, here is our return post!


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

Advertisements

An RPG For the Rest of Us

Are you tired of medieval RPGs reflecting a Eurocentric view of everything? Of how uncreative developers can be with their universe’s cultural mythos? Of having only one humanoid race of non-white people to choose? Of the fact that everyone in the game is presumably heterosexual and cisgendered?

Introducing The Arkh Project. The Arkh Project is a video game whose developers seek “to make a game that focuses on queer people and people of color as main characters, and beyond that, allow people who are tired of mainstream gaming to have something completely off the wall and step into a new role.” The developers also intend to work with queer and/or PoC artists and programmers.

Basically, this is the RPG of my dreams. The concept sounds pretty cool, too:

“Follow the story of a deity bored with life amongst the gods, who leaves to find a purpose in life and seek out a lost love. Reincarnate your deity onto numerous worlds, live through the lives of others and gain life experience…but watch your God Energy, you need a lot of it to continue your astral journey.

Fight monsters only you can see, sometimes around very particular civilians who refuse to get the heck out of your way. Collect world-specific plants to enhance your healing items, and acquire numerous different kinds of weapons and scrolls from all different cultures.

The game draws inspiration from real mythos, from all sorts of different cultures, and each world reflects the culture it draws from.”

The character concept art looks pretty amazing. My favorite is Queen Zahira:

See that fancy dress? It’s made “from ethereal components that she reconstructed to exist in more planes.” She made the cloth herself, meaning she manages to be intelligent, badass-looking, and super pretty all at once. I’m on board.

In case you’re wondering what armor might look like:

The game is still in the development stage, but expect it to be released for the PC at some point.

Though there is more information which I could post, I’m stopping here because frankly I’m tired of navigating the hell that is tumblr. I’ll leave that to you, intrepid reader. In any case, I look forward to following the project’s progress (via their Facebook group), and hopefully playing the finished product.

In other race/fandom news, Racialicious has broken down Comic-Con for us in The Racialicious Guide to San Diego Comic-Con. I’m sure that one day, when I finally get to go to Comic-Con, there won’t be amazing panels that year, like How to Better Understand the Sociology Behind Cosplay or Subaltern Counterculture and the Strengths of the Underdog (which talks about Storm!). Sigh. Or I can be hopeful that talking about these issues at places like Comic-Con will become normal by the time I could go. But that would be optimistic.

-Joanna

Samuel R. Delany and Literate Fantasy

For some reason, unlike science fiction, fantasy (especially high fantasy) is treated like it’s always escapist nonsense without any possibility of having substance. To most people, sword-and-sorcery fantasy will never have depth, and it most certainly will never be literary. Even when fantasy sweeps the nation (see: Game of Thrones fever), it’s because the books are enjoyable, not because they say very much about anything.

Being someone who loves sword-and-sorcery fantasy, “serious” literature, and social justice, the role of high fantasy in literature and in life is sometimes a sticky one. Yes, the majority of fantasy is escapist nonsense that, if it says anything, uses its voice to reinforce the sexist and racist norms of our society. However, that isn’t something inherent in the fantasy genre or in genre writing. You’d certainly have a case for arguing that much of literature, regardless of genre, reinforces all the bad things in inequitable societies like ours.

But for whatever reason, fantasy gets to bear the brunt of this injustice. Perhaps it’s because the covers of books, even ones with interesting things to say, ones you might even be tempted to call literary, often look like this:

I personally find nothing wrong with this cover, but I can understand why an ordinary person might pick this book up and think they know what they’ll find inside. Actually, they have no idea.

The plot synopsis probably doesn’t help: “For Pryn, a young girl fleeing her village on the back of a dragon, Neveryona becomes a shining symbol just out of reach. It leads her to the exotic port city of Kolhari, where she talks with the wealthy merchant Madame Keyne, walks with Gorgik the Liberator as he schemes against the Court of Eagles, and crosses the Bridge of Lost Desire in search of her destiny.” As interesting as I find it, others might read it and just think, oh just another book about dragons and destinies.

Of course, I didn’t choose this book randomly. Samuel R. Delany has a reputation for being one of the more literary-minded fantasy (and science fiction) writers, and for good reason.

Neveryona‘s chapters begin with excerpts from the likes of Susan Sontag, Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt, and Barbara Johnson (all women, as well as dense thinkers, which I think is important to note). If so inclined, you could very easily write a postcolonial analysis of the novel, particularly since the novel spends a lot of time deconstructing the real meanings of civilization and barbarism.

For example, Delany presents the now fairly well known idea that nature is an idea constructed by civilization. At one point, a character (Gorgik the Liberator) notes, “except some of the more primitive shore tribes along those bournes where civilization has not yet inserted its illusory separation of humans from the world which holds them.” This statement is a postcolonial goldmine. Not only does it include the civilized/barbarous dichotomy, but it clearly is nudging at the certainties civilization has invented and imposed on the world. This apparent knowledge is described as “illusory,” or deceptive. Civilization does not know everything it thinks it knows.

Pryn, the main character, is often confused about where the divisions between country, suburb, and city lie. This, for the sake of the story, is because she is new to the area. However, the subtext deals with not only the physical boundaries between the civilized and the barbarous, but also the ways in which it is difficult to tell which is which, without civilization there to explain it to you.

The novel begins with an interesting incident regarding language, one that I think is significant to consider in the context of the definition of civilization. Pryn writes her name in the dirt, but writes it “pryn,” “because she knew something of writing but not of capital letters.” It is important to note that she is a girl of the rural mountains, not of the city. It takes a woman who has traveled to “civilization” to teach her about capitalizing the first letters of names. Civilization bestows this knowledge onto barbarians, who are expected to learn civilization’s ways.

Although she is not from the city, Pryn is also not a “barbarian” as such. There are specific people who are known to be barbarians, namely the tribes to the south. Thankfully, these tribes seem to be white. (I say thankfully, because I’m tired of desert “barbarians” being represented by brown people. Of course, Delany being black himself, it would be strange for such an otherwise self-aware writer to lapse into racism.) These tribes are apparently nomadic, do “barbaric” things like weave copper wire into their ears, and talk with funny accents. I’m interested in whether or not the geographic position of the barbarians was intended to signal back to modern-day America. After all, the Northeast defines its own civility by the perceived barbarity of the Southeast. In both cases, the South is the Other by which civilization defines itself.

I’m also interested in what role sexuality plays in the novel. (Full disclosure: I haven’t actually finished the novel yet.) From what I’ve read about Delany, he has been known to write frankly about sexuality, calling some of his work or parts of his work pornography. Because it’s very clear Delany is a thoughtful writer, I would like to compare this work with the sorts of misogynistic sex scenes of other writers, and figure out what (if anything) makes Delany’s empowering or equitable. I’m also interested in looking at how Delany’s own sexuality (he’s gay) may or may not have influenced his writing of sexuality. I’m hoping that Neveryona delivers in that respect, because otherwise the Bridge of Lost Desire is a bit of a tease.

I also hope to see whether or not race plays a larger role in the deconstructing of civilization and barbarism. So far, Delany seems to be unpacking a general definition of the two loaded terms, but not approaching the racial definitions. There are plenty of people in Kolhari with undisclosed ethnicities, as well as people described as pale or darker, so it’s hard for me to tell right now if he will approach race directly or not.

I can’t imagine that the rest of the novel will disappoint me, however, because not only is the worldbuilding wonderful, but the novel features a well-drawn, dragon-riding, 15-year-old girl protagonist, and I have no gender-related complaints about the characters. Don’t be too surprised if I follow up this post with a more in-depth analysis of the novel.

For now, though, I am confident enough to say that, while Neveryona would probably be enjoyable for your average fantasy reader, it is also a rewarding experience for more academic or literary-minded people. The subtext is rich and thought-provoking, and it lends itself to various kinds of analysis, not just postcolonial. While many people may still deride swords-and-sorcery fantasy for being fluff, Delany’s work makes it clear that fantasy can be so much more than people think.

-Joanna

The Easiest Way to Break My Heart…

… is to misrepresent the books of Tamora Pierce, my all-time favorite young adult writer, with new covers meant to appeal to this post-Twilight generation of young readers.

The cover of the first book of the Song of the Lioness quartet that I read looked like this:

It’s a pretty decent representation of what you’ll find inside the book. A young girl posing as a boy so that she can become a knight. It’s young adult, girl power high fantasy at it’s best. Pierce’s work, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, influenced me enormously when I was young, and I have a place for her in my heart. I will forever and ever have that place in my heart, because Tamora Pierce showed me over and over again (in all her gazillion books) that girls, like me, were multi-faceted, strong, brave, kind, intelligent, capable, loving people (who could also have sex as teenagers, and that was fine).

So, I go into a bookstore a few days ago and happen to see the Song of the Lioness quartet on display. I’m all for new covers, new representations of my beloved books, but not when they look like this:

What? Since when does Alanna wear a cute faux-medieval belted tunic and strike feisty little poses? Alanna doesn’t lean sweetly on her sword, she wields it! But that’s far from the worst.

This is the worst:

Is this a Tamora Pierce book or the latest installment of the Twilight Saga? It looks like the same cute little kohl-eyed heroine (again posing with her sword stuck in the dirt), but this time she’s torn between two brooding young men. I promise this book is so much more than Alanna choosing which boyfriend she wants.

Compare to the cover of the book I read:

This is also an accurate representation of the story inside.

I understand that marketing strategies change. But I also understand that saturating the young adult fantasy market with Twilight knockoffs and supernatural romances does no good for any young adult, female or male. I resent this attempt to market Pierce’s work as a supernatural romance.

What about kids like I was, who needed high fantasy and its swords, sieges, tournaments, and castles? What about the girls like I was, who needed high fantasy that would inspire me, empower me? Maybe some of those girls will, distraught amongst the rows and rows of vampire circus masquerade romances, decide not to trust this cover and give Pierce a try. Maybe some of those girls will ignore Pierce’s work, thinking they’re the only girls on the planet who want to read about knights. It’s not that Pierce’s books are devoid of romance or sensuality; but this is merely a facet of these well-rounded books, with the romance and sex usually taking a backseat to the protagonists’ other accomplishments and conflicts.

The new covers, beyond simply being misrepresentations of the books, diminish the importance that strength and being well-rounded (and frankly, being medieval) have to the series. If there is one thing I’m sick of, it’s how desperate our culture is to tell girls and young women that they aren’t strong, that they’re one-dimensional.

Pierce wrote the Song of the Lioness series in part to prove that swords are for girls, but these new covers tell us that swords, for girls, are only a prop with which to simper.

-Joanna

The Relevance of Tolkien

With the release of the first official trailer for The Hobbit, the nerd and cinema worlds are once again abuzz with Tolkien-related hype. For those of you who haven’t seen the trailer:

It looks like it’s going to be everything I could hope for and more. I’m so excited that I wish they had a specific release date so that I could start planning my December 2012 accordingly. Because a year just isn’t enough time to prepare.

As a fantasy fan, it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile amazing, classic fantasy with the desire for strong female characters. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, fantasy, even classic fantasy, often portrays women as evil, sluts, or both. The subject of women in Tolkien is a little tough, or at least not as simple as I’d like. In The Hobbit there are zero female characters. That’s a pretty low blow, sure, but nothing we twenty-first century people can’t handle; we might actually be more confused as to why Bilbo doesn’t bag some babe at the end. I’m going to make a broad statement I not-so-secretly hate that I feel I have to make: sometimes I’d prefer there not be women in literature and movies, rather than have to deal with a misogynistic or just plain ignorant portrayal of women. This fact contradicts all I feel about inclusion, women, and the fantasy world, but sometimes it’s just easier that way.

In this adaptation of The Hobbit, there are two women on the cast list: Galadriel and Tauriel, a Mirkwood elf invented by Peter Jackson. Interestingly, it appears that Galadriel will play a decently-sized part in the films, despite her absence from the source material. From what I gather, the presence of characters not in the book relates to an attempt to frame The Hobbit in the larger context of its relation to LOTR and the War of the Ring, without being a prequel. I, despite my previous statement about exclusion, can appreciate Jackson’s decisions to add or increase the importance of female characters in his Tolkien adaptations. While sticking in two female characters hardly constitutes a breakdown of traditional gender ideas in modern fantasy, even that little bit helps. It shows that someone is thinking that women should be present in fantasy, that it’s not a stretch to try to be inclusive, even when it means parting a bit from the source material.

We also have no concrete reason to believe that Tolkien didn’t like women, and didn’t want them invading his books. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are basically only three women: Arwen, Eowyn, and Galadriel. In the books, Arwen, the idealized woman in the classical tradition who is more of a goddess than a person, barely exists until Aragorn is set to marry her. People cite Arwen’s strength as lying in her willingness to sacrifice her immortality. These ideas are both obviously problematic. Yet in the context of LOTR, I’d prefer the female lover to be otherworldly, untouchable, and making sacrifices for those she loves, rather than wearing hip-high slits in her skirts and cleavage-squeezing bodices, while not thinking much of anything. While chivalry is dead for good reason, there is a respect in the former view of women that the latter lacks. It shows the reverence with which Tolkien saw women and their love, especially in light of the fact that amongst the elves, women and men were seen as equals, according to the Laws and Customs of the Eldar, published in Morgoth’s Ring.

As for Galadriel, she occupies a strange, gender-neutral place that I can’t really disapprove of. While she is beautiful, it is a distant beauty. In the films, she is portrayed as wise and revered; everyone respects Galadriel. While she is not going on blade-wielding adventures, she is hardly a weak character.

With Eowyn, Shield-Maiden of Rohan, Tolkien could have done what C.S. Lewis liked to do: give girls daggers they are told not to use, with Father Christmas making the admonition that “battles are ugly when women fight.” Though Tolkien wasn’t exactly a destroyer of traditional gender roles, Peter Jackson also wasn’t exaggerating Eowyn’s importance and badassery in the film adaptations.

Sure, at first Eowyn is scared, confronting Angmar. Anyone would be. But then, after her declaration to the Witch-King that she is no man and the ripping off of her helm, this happens:

Indeed, Eowyn’s reply to the Witch-King that, “I am no man” is one of the most empowering statements from a female character that I can think of, regardless of genre. She doesn’t slay Angmar in spite of being female, or because her femaleness wasn’t important right then, but essentially because she is female. Sure, she has some help from Merry, who stabs Angmar in the knee, but even he isn’t exactly a man. He’s a hobbit, a little halfling equally unfit for battle by the standards of the time and place. Besides, it’s not Merry’s wound that kills the Witch-King, but Eowyn’s. The fact that they work together is doubly empowering, proving that to Tolkien you don’t have to be a big, strong tough-guy to kick ass. I would even go so far as to say the moment is more dramatic in the book than in the movie; the movie doesn’t show the Witch-King realizing, oh man I’m about to die, the way that it should. In fact, it should look a little more like Matt Stewart‘s interpretation of the scene:

(Actually, all fantasy art should look like this.)

I suppose I should ask the question of whether having one female badass, who resists the orders of everyone around her not to fight, compensates for the fact that she is just one woman. I would say yes. Characters like Eowyn set the example for women and writers, male and female, to appreciate the sheer awesomeness that all women have within them. It may sound trite, but in a way, all women are Eowyn. And if more people recognized that all women have the capacity to whip off their helms and stab the Witch-King in the face, the world would be that much better.

-Joanna

Pierce and Gaiman: Writing Women as People

I was practically born with a book in my hand. Words, whether the creation of or the internalizing of, have been a constant of my life ever since I could read. This intense love of reading has shaped my character and worldview. From Ray Bradbury to Naomi Wolf, a wide variety of writers, geeky and not geeky, have had their hands in creating the person I am today. Today’s post is, in a way, a love letter to two of those writers, the two most dear to my heart. (It’s also partly to convince anyone who stumbles on this post and has never given either of them a try, to go to the library/bookstore/friend’s house and pick up a copy of one of their books.)

The first, chronologically, is Tamora Pierce. I discovered her Protector of the Small quartet when I was in middle school, at exactly the right time. The series follows Kel, the first girl to go through the process of becoming a knight, after the rule prohibiting women from becoming knights was abolished. (That was due to the brave efforts of Alanna, featured in the Song of the Lioness quartet, who disguised herself as a boy in order to become a knight.) Pierce’s fiction is always empowering to young girls, featuring strong, realistic characters of both genders, and destroying the well-known myth that swords are for boys. From the moment I picked up First Test, I was in love.

Pierce is a pioneer in young adult fantasy. The Song of the Lioness quartet was published in the ’80s, at time when library shelves weren’t exactly bursting with girl-friendly fantasy novels. This has changed to some degree, and certainly when I was in middle school, many of the fantasy/sci-fi/adventure young adult books were about girls and/or featured strong  female characters. Being pretty divorced from young adult fiction right now, I’m not totally qualified to make this statement, but when I do browse the shelves, the post-Twilight young adult fiction world seems to be a pretty dismal one with paranormal romance overshadowing badass girls and women wielding swords and magic. Luckily, Pierce’s novels are still being discovered by generations of young girls in need of empowerment, not a boyfriend. (Although there is nothing wrong with having a boyfriend.)

Tamora Pierce handles it all: magic, battles, romance, even periods. And she does it in a way that made 11-year-old me damn proud to be a girl. In a previous post, I mentioned Pierce’s positive portrayal of “not white” people. While often her books take place in Tortall, a sort of typical European country, not all of her main characters are white. One of my favorite Pierce characters is Daja, the girl in the Circle of Magic who becomes a magic-wielding blacksmith. I don’t know of many other fantasy novels, young adult or adult, that feature a black girl at home both in the forge and amongst magicians.

Unfortunately, I no longer read Pierce’s work. I, being an adult and all, have moved on from young adult literature. (Although I will totally read the Numair series when it comes out. I’ve been waiting way too long.) There is nothing inherently wrong in being an adult who reads (some) young adult fiction, but it’s no longer for me. This is a shame because, frankly, there isn’t much in the adult fantasy world that can compare to Pierce. I’m always looking for something to fill the void in my heart and in my fantasy collection that, at age 12, was filled with badass women but is now filled with princess-babes and evil sorceresses.

One writer who helps ease the pain is Neil Gaiman. In a dismal sea of adult fantasy/sci fi/horror/comics populated with hot chicks and women with power who are inherently evil, there are Neil Gaiman’s works. Gaiman is a cross-genre magician, and has enjoyed increasing mainstream success in the last few years. I couldn’t be happier that Gaiman is getting mainstream attention (he was on Craig Ferguson’s show and will be on The Simpsons!). After all, in addition to being a wizard with words, structure, sheer imagination, his female characters are like actual characters. Real people. Even when men are the main characters of his work, he doesn’t skimp on characterization for the women, like so many male authors do. He even carries on the Alice tradition of the girl heroine in Coraline, which has been adapted into everything short of a TV series (well, a film and a graphic novel, anyway).

My first exposure was Neverwhere, lent to me, in high school, by my Tori Amos-loving older sister. Gaiman and Amos are long-time pals who are constantly mentioning each other in their work. It’s enough to be close friends with a fiercely unapologetic feminist, but Gaiman doesn’t stop there. His work is one of the only mainstream adult fantasy (for lack of an overarching genre) writers who I never have to worry about getting a female character sexual assaulted, marginalized, dismissed, or just unfairly characterized. Gaiman respects women, and his work obviously shows it.

In particular, his groundbreaking Sandman series is pretty remarkable for many reasons, but especially when its women are considered. I’m not sure that today DC (who owns Vertigo) would even want to publish it, given its strong female characters, lesbians who aren’t even hot (why bother being a lesbian if you’re dumpy looking?), total lack of sexual assault, and habit of not drawing women to look like pin-ups.

I’ve become discouraged by adult fantasy after too many novels that absolutely ignore women, or include women only as prostitutes, mothers, and destructive schemers. I left the Piercean world of fantasy and entered a much bleaker, much less welcoming world where women are hot or evil or vapid, but rarely the well-rounded real people of Pierce and Gaiman’s worlds. Thankfully, Pierce’s work has endured, and she continues to write the same girl-empowering books she always has. And Gaiman isn’t going anywhere, so I know that whenever I want a well-written, imaginative story (regardless of genre, or even age level) I’ve got a woman-friendly ally in him.

I will end this by urging all of you to pick up a book written by one of these authors, and swim in the refreshing oasis they each built out of what can be a dry literary desert. (And if you know of a woman-friendly, empowering author, whatever genre, that I should know about, please leave a comment!)

-Joanna

Musings on Fantasy’s “Brown People”

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.

-Joanna