Race and Fantasy

Starting the year off right with a reactionary screed.

One thing that regularly causes internet squabbles is casting of fantasy and sci-fi characters with non-white actors/actresses. There was a bit of that for the Lord of the Rings show on Amazon, a bit of that when Boyega was cast as Finn in Star Wars, and even (ok it's not really fantasy but whatever) with a recent adaptation of the Famous Five. Since I am a huge nerd these often revolve around worlds or settings that I am interested in. So in this blog post I will try and classify the different kind of settings that this sort of thing can happen in and my broad attitude to what's going on in these cases. Now, of course, anything can be done well and anything can be done poorly, so ultimately a lot will depend on skill of the person doing the adaptation. Still though I think there are facts about how settings work that push in certain directions, and these should at least be taken into account. Still unclear what I mean? Well read on!

So divide settings up along two axis. The first is Gritty vs Fluffy. I think we're all familiar with examples of gritty sci-fi and fantasy since that has been more the fashion in recent years: for examples take Game of Thrones and The Expanse tv shows. Whereas fluffy I think of as places where a things are a bit more obviously... story book. Settings that might be very detailed and well-worked out, but which are not trying to be realistic so much as clearly embody important-to-their-genre narrative elements. Lord of the Rings and Star Trek would be my examples here: both extremely well worked out, and not lacking in tragedy and pathos, but where somehow the sort of random violence of Game of Thrones would be deeply out of place. (Note that by Gritty I do not mean Grim - in this taxonomy the iconic grimdark setting of Warhammer 40k would still be fluffy, since rule of cool governs so much of how it works. It also relates to the high vs low fantasy distinction but I can't be bothered to work out how exactly.)

The next concerns how ethnicity works. Let's say something like... Race/Ethnicity is Informative vs Race/Ethnicity is Uninformative. So what I have in mind here is that in some settings the distribution of ethnicities one finds in a given place is meant to be informative about that place, it plays a role in the setting by telling us about the character of a place or people. Whereas in other stories it just doesn't really arise as a concern for people in the setting and nor would it tell you much about people therein to learn about their race/ethnicity. 

(A couple of clarifications: I mean real world races/ethnicities here - it might of course be very important in universe to learn that someone is a Tallarn rather than a Catachan, but those are fake ethnicities, and it could well be that Tallarns and Catachans are themselves what we would think of ethnically mixed. Second, in cases where something is ethnically homogenous I will tend to think of that as importantly world-building. Sometimes it isn't and it happens just due to thoughtless casting. E.g. I think Lando Calrissian was written into Star Wars when it was pointed out that it was odd that all the humans in A New Hope were white and there didn't seem to be any in-universe reason for that; Lucas agreed, and hence a character was born. But I am gonna assume that most cases are not mistakes like this.)

Gritty and R/E is Important: think of the show Game of Thrones or the film Princess Mononoke. These are settings which play race and ethnicity as genuinely informative about the world or the characters' perspectives. In GoT if a place is cosmopolitan in its demographic make up that tells you something - it is a port town commercial hub or there has recently been a wave of refugees, for instance. In Princess Mononoke the fact that the central character Ashitaka is of Ainu heritage, an indigenous population within Japan and considered ethnically distinct from the warring groups he later encounters, is part of what explains his outsider perspective and very different relation to the conflict that most others have.

Gritty and R/E is Unimportant: for example think of shows Arcane or Wheel of Time. These are settings where there do seem to be ethnic differences that mean something to the characters in some sense. But they are never the differences that matter to the characters, the conflicts and identities people are invested in in-universe do not map onto anything like our notions of race and identity. So while the slightly more gritty edge to the stories told tends to mean its not just entirely handwaved, nor does it become a focus or point of interest.

Fluffy and R/E is Important: I think here you might have the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films, the Avatar cartoon show, or the Chinese drama Untamed. In LotR and Untamed the settings are largely ethnically homogenous but I think that is meant to be telling us something about the setting, that it is a fantasy Medieval North Europe or the sort of hazily-dated classical China world of xianxia respectively. And in Avatar ethnic diversity is a very key plot point, since you basically have ethnic conflict -- which admittedly only loosely map on to real world ethnicities -- as a central source of drama in the original show (this mostly goes away in the sequel series Korra, but arguably returns in the last series thereof).

Fluffy and R/E is Unimportant: for example think of various Star Trek series, the recent Dungeons and Dragons film, or on Netflix one could think of Dragon Prince, or One-Piece or the She-Ra remake show. In these settings they just pay no attention to ethnic differences, none of the characters care or indicate that in-universe there would be any reason to care, and so on the whole questions of race and ethnicity simply never arise. 

So already I think that just having these distinctions allows us to say something about the various controversies that arise on social media. First, I think there is basically never any reason to get angry about any particular casting in a Fluffy and R/E is Unimportant setting. So, for example, even though the claim that there was a racist backlash to Boyega's casting in Star Wars is somewhat overhyped, there was debate about how a black storm trooper could fit into the canon. And I think that was always silly. The Star Wars universe is not the sort of setting where it matters, it was immediately obvious you can just handwave any issues away (which they did! He's not a clone trooper he's from a batch of kidnapped child soldiers... which ok then raised other issues they dealt with very poorly but that's a separate matter), and everyone should just chill. In those sort of settings anyone can look like anything and if an explanation is needed you can more or less make one up on the spot (probs don't go for brainwashed child soldier tho) because it almost certainly won't matter. 

Whereas for Gritty and R/E is Important you can't complain if people start to take the real-world racial analogues of issues that arise due to casting or portrayal. So, like, if people found this imagery uncomfortable...

Definitely not a white saviour fantasy. Something else entirely probably maybe for sure.

... you're kind of on the hook for that. You made the setting such that the ethnicities of the characters were informative so the audience were primed to think about it and what it was telling us! Don't blame us if they conclude it's telling us a bad thing, that's on you for writing it that way.

The difficult cases, though, I think really occur for Fluffy and R/E is important. Note, for instance, that I put Lord of the Rings in that category. Now the recent Lord of the Rings tv show on Amazon did end up with a bunch of fan controversy about the ethnicities of the cast. And in return I think lots of people have the attitude that race does not actually matter here - if you can accept dragons why not accept that some elves are black? And I think I am somewhat in between those -- I don't think it matters so much to the central story that the characters be any particular ethnicity. As it stands Tolkien wrote a mythos clearly based on a certain kind of North European cultural background and so the default is to cast as if that is the setting. But if you wanted to say "actually in Middle Earth all the people who live in this region are black" then it wouldn't make any serious difference; if there can be dragons there can be black people in a North European climate, I grant that.

But I do think it is a bit universe breaking for the setting to evince cosmopolitan diversity. Which particular ethnicity they are does not matter. But that long distance travel is difficult is, you know, a very significant plot point in this universe. And we get no indication that children do not generally resemble their parents. So it really seems like actually people should generally look alike, with whatever variation only local travel admits of! So it's not so much there being black elves which strikes me as odd, as there being some black elves and some white elves. What is up with that!?

I think the Fluffy and R/E is important settings end up crossing the streams a bit and that's why they tend to be the places where trouble brews. We're being told to handwave a lot and significantly suspend our disbelief. But something about the nature of the setting does suggest that the ethnic background or cultural groupings we see and recognise are familiar. The first of these facts makes it tempting, especially given a certain kind of antecedent liberal political commitment, to think that one can freely diversify the cast without worry. But then the second thing kicks in, the audience actually think about it, and there is some trouble. 

(And of course some people are just haters and bigots who will never be satisfied - they then exacerbate the problem because to appear reasonable they will phrase arguments about the setting in one breath, while sending hate-mail to the actors in the next. They thus persuade some people to be concerned while also counter-polarising their opposition.)

Finally for Gritty and R/E is Unimportant I think it's basically just a skill issue. How much the audience will be persuaded to set aside or embrace any concerns depends on how well you immerse them in the universe you have invented such that the concerns of people in that universe come to seem more important than real world ones. In my opinion, for instance, Arcane did this really well, such that in the end the struggle between the Undercity and Piltover came to seem much more important than characters real-world-analogue demographic traits. Whereas the Wheel of Time did not, and I did sometimes find myself wondering about how the ethnicities in the universe worked in a way that I am sure was not intended - I was just not invested enough in the show's portrayal of the central conflicts to have them override and stop my mind wandering.

As a last note I think there is an interesting contemporary phenomenon in fantasy to trend towards the right side of the graph (race/ethnicity is unimportant) and maybe especially bottom right, fluffy and r/e is unimportant. Because it achieves two things at once. You want to get some points for Diversity and that means multi-ethnic casting, but not just out of colourblind casting - we are not meant to just pretend the black actors are playing white people, they are meant to be genuinely black and exist in a diverse setting. But also you don't have to do the world building to explain what is going on because the setting is fluffy and the ethnicities are not actually playing any serious role so that allows for a lot of hand waving. I think this ends up being rather shallow. They are diverse but not in a way that matters, and not in a way that even allows you to explore actual issues relating to race and ethnicity. There's no free lunch here, you gotta earn the diversity by actually seriously writing stories and settings that make sense of that.

So ok that is the first of my baby's first steps into thinking about race and fantasy series. Just a little taxonomy that I find helps me think about when I care about culture war flashpoints surrounding race and ethnicity in this genre I am interested in. Since I have written before about how we should try and come up with our own standards for when these things matter and when they don't rather than just being swept along by the culture war's enthusiasm and mass participation, I guess in a tiny little way this is me trying to make good on that ideal.


  1. I really enjoyed this post, Liam! It got me thinking (here are some unstructured rambling thoughts).

    First, for Lord of the Rings, we can clearly see that race and ethnicity matters a great deal for Tolkien. It matters descriptively and even morally in ways that many contemporary readers (including me as I'm rereading LOTR to my son) sometimes find rather uncomfortable. The way the elves are described, they way they behave, in particular makes one cringe. I'm currently in a passage where you have Uruk-hai and the other orcs bickering it out with lots of attention for what they look and sound like. And you have of course in the Prologue of the first book this description of Hobbit ethnicities which sounds straight out of anthropology from the 1920s

    "The Harfoots were browner of skin, smaller, and shorter, and they were beardless and bootless; their hands and feet were neat and nimble; and they preferred highlands and hillsides. The Stoors were broader, heavier in build; their feet and hands were larger; and they preferred flat lands and riversides. The Fallohides were fairer of skin and also of hair, and they were taller and slimmer than the others; they were lovers of trees and of woodlands."

    Discussions as to "Was Tolkien racist" flatten a lot of the complexity here. But ethnicity and race did matter to him. I cannot speak adequately on how Rings of Power handled this material, as I did not watch Rings of Power. I am a Tolkien fan and I always find Tolkien media disappointing (I barely got through the three LOTR movies and I thought the Hobbit adaptations really terrible and awful).

    Anyway, because we have a lot of discomfort thinking about race these days and there's so much psychodrama (as you pointed out in other works) surrounding it, many fantasy and SF authors are pushed to try to make race unimportant. Also, it's a welcome way to counter essentializing trends of e.g., giving a Japanese character a kimono just in everyday life as opposed to a pair of jeans (there was a picture book doing this recently, if I recall, creating a whole stir).

    But I like it when race and ethnicity are done well in books. Growing up where being a POC felt very salient to me in a homogeneous environment (culturally Catholic, ethnically Flemish, racially white), and it remains a salient feature of fantasy and SF worlds I explore. Ursula Le Guin did it thoughtfully in Earthsea. Joe Abercrombie makes a good gritty (and grimdark) universe where you have geography and people of different ethnicities and skin color in the First Law universe. And I think by and large (elves excepted, but then I really dislike elves) Tolkien does a thoughtful job in LOTR.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

How I Am A Marxist

On Not Believing In One's Work

Arguments in Philosophy