Dear SF&F Fans: A lot of the stuff that you love is racist

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Since last week’s Game of Thrones Season Finale, this particular image has been getting a lot of exposure on the internet. Now I know that most of you recognize this image, but for those who don’t: this is a photo of Daenerys of the House Targaryen, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass sea, The Breaker of Chains and the Great White Hope Mother of Dragons.

And she is body surfing on the hands of the grateful brown slaves that she has freed from the collective yokes of those cruel, cruel masters in Astapor, Yunkai, and all of the other colorfully named city-states outside of Westeros proper.

This image usually accompanies a very well thought out critical review of Game of Thrones handling of race and gender and sex throughout the series. One of my friends wrote a really great post that examines these themes, in which she highlights a couple of  very key points: Game of Thrones frequently handles race and gender incorrectly, even as it makes us examine our notions of what these things are. Also, the nonwhite, non-male, non-hetero people who have to consume these works do so despite much of the imagery and thematic elements being offensive to them.

Yet, in every post or article that posits this view, we have the inevitable anonymous detractors who claim that

maybe your own worldview is wrong,” or

you’re interpreting these things incorrectly,” or

stop being so sensitive,” or

you’re ruining artistic license by making everything about racism/sexism,” or

things are better/different in the original property,”

When the real issue here is simply that a lot of the works/property that SFF culture and curators of that culture produces is extremely racist and/or sexist. In the same vein, a lot of people that consume the works of SFF culture contribute to this racial/sexual bias.

I’m not sorry to have to break this to you, but it’s true.

I mean, we could start with an assortment of wonderfully kitschy quotes from all of the racist grandpas of the SF&F genre…no? Okay.

The article that I linked to above references Klingons. I’m sure that you all have seen the original Klingons.

Original descriptions of Klingons in the script of the episode that they appeared in include “Oriental” and “Hard-Faced”. Of course, this isn’t racist, right? The original use of the Klingon aesthetic was to soothe a populace recently terrorized by Japan in World War II. Star Trek examined some pretty salient and socially conscious themes, but this depiction of Klingons is still a bit offputting, no?

Of course it isn’t.

You all know that I love David Eddings. Reading his work as a young man greatly influenced my decision to write fantasy literature. One of the races in his book is the Morindim, a dark-skinned, illiterate race that uses roots and herbs to summon evil spirits. The heroes of the Belgariad fool these witless magicians by dying themselves and their hair dark. In case you didn’t catch that, they literally fool these stupid, superstitious, dark skinned savages by going into blackface:

 They were all kept quite busy for the next several days while Belgarath radically altered their appearances. Silk set crude traps among the maze of rabbit runs twisting through the tall grass, and Garion roamed the foothills in search of certain tuberous roots and a peculiar smelling white flower. Belgarath sat at the mouth of the cave, fashioning various implements from his saplings. The roots Garion had gathered yielded a dark brown stain, and Belgarath carefully applied it to their skins.

“The Morindim are dark-skinned,” he explained as he sat painting Silk’s arms and back with the stain. “Somewhat darker than Tolnedrans or Nyissans. This will wear off after a few weeks, but it will last long enough to get us through.” After he had stained all their skins into swarthiness, he crushed the odd-smelling flowers to produce a jet black ink.

“Silk’s hair is the right color already,” he said, “and mine will get by, but Garion’s just won’t do.” He diluted some of the ink with water and dyed Garion’s sandy hair black.

“That’s better,” he grunted when he had finished, “and there’s enough left for the tattoos.”

“Tattoos?” Garion asked, startled at the thought.

“The Morindim decorate themselves extensively.”

“Will it hurt?”

“We’re not really going to tattoo ourselves, Garion,” Belgarath told him with a pained look. “They take too long to heal. Besides, I’m afraid your Aunt would go into hysterics if I took you back to her with designs engraved all over you. This ink will last long enough for us to get through Morindland. It will wear off eventually.”

And when our heroes meet the Morindim, this happens:

 The man in the lead of the mounted group was burlier than most of his companions, and the black tattooing on his face had been outlined with red and blue, marking him as a man of some significance in his clan and making the devil mask of his features all the more hideous. He carried a large wooden club, painted with strange symbols and inlaid with rows of sharp teeth taken from various animals. The way he carried it indicated that it was more a badge of office than a weapon. He rode without a saddle and with a single bridle strap.

He pulled his pony to a stop perhaps thirty yards away. “Why have you come into the lands of the Weasel Clan?” he demanded abruptly. His accent was strange and his eyes were flat with hostility. Belgarath drew himself up indignantly.

“Surely the Headman of the Weasel Clan has seen the quest-mark before,” he replied coldly. “We have no interest in the lands of the Weasel Clan, but follow the commands of the Devil-Spirit of the Wolf Clan in the quest he has laid upon us.”

“I have not heard of the Wolf Clan,” the Headman replied. “Where are their lands?”

“To the west,” Belgarath replied. “We have traveled for two waxings and wanings of the Moon-Spirit to reach this place.”

The Headman seemed impressed by that.

But this is just an examination of a fantastical culture, not projecting existing bias onto a nice, safe, socially acceptable canvas, right?

Right.

Defenders of these instances would have you believe that the savage minority/rape as character growth tool/great white savior problems in SF&F are long gone, that these things are relics of a bygone era. But we clearly see that RIGHT NOW, in 2013, we have a group of creators who didn’t even think about the problems that an image of a white person crowdsurfing on the grateful hands of a bunch of uncultured, unwashed, uneducated slaves could create. This is problematic, given the gigantic cluterf*ck of an intersection that is THE EARTH and SLAVERY.

And that’s what’s amazing about the pull of Science Fiction and Fantasy properties…despite the unabashed stupidity or carelessness of the creators of this stuff (in the mainstream, especially), groups categorized as “other” cannot get enough of it (myself included). We support television shows that force feed us savages that slay each other and rape in celebration. We live-tweet book reviews that condone and illustrate in graphic detail rape (why is rape so beloved by these people?) and the idea of gender inferiority for no other reason than that it’s accepted…and it’s accepted alongside the fact that most of these things are just the creations of some person who took it upon themselves to dream up a great story for us.

(By the way, Does the fact that so many creators push their biases and this inequality out into these fictional properties and we all think that it’s cool because it’s fictional bother anyone else? I mean, I can attest to the fact that a lot of my subconscious stuff makes it into my writing. Think about that and apply it to your favorite creators. What does that say about them?)

But these “other” groups are still bothered by this stuff, even as we make jokes about all of it. For a lot of us, the fantasy doesn’t end when we close the book or turn off the television. When we do decide to step out into the world, all those screwed up things that existed in the land of Standard Eurocentric Fantasyshire or the U.S.S. No POC Exist in the Future are still there, waiting to settle back on our shoulders as we go back into our routines. And we call this escapism.

Oh and don’t think that you are off the hook, dear anonymous internet commenter. Lest we forget, a lot of people nearly imploded when The Hunger Games movie revealed that a black actress had been cast to play the tribute from District 11, a girl named Rue. This is INSANE, right? I mean, it wasn’t like Rue was black in the book or anything.

…And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that’s she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor…

Oh.

Hard to believe that the skipping of one little line and the casting of one little girl lead to this:

This illustrates a prime example of many of those who consume the SFF contributing to the problem of racism and sexism extensively. As consumers, by outright refusing to imagine that any of the characters that you see are different than you except by these exhausted social markers (skin tone, radically different cultural norms), you contribute to creators’ unwillingness to move away from tired conventions of character representation.

It’s hard enough to convice creators of mainstream SF&F that PoC, Women, and LGBT characters are worthy of being treated like actual people with actual emotions and value. Throwing a consumer culture that doesn’t value actual these character differences into this mix only continues the flawed system that makes flat, unemotional, ridiculously stupid caricatures of “other” groups the norm instead of the exception.

I know that many people that consume these properties are outright sick of all of the calling out of racism and sexism in these beloved properties. It must be really tough to have to constantly defend the things that you love from unwarranted attacks from people who just refuse to understand what the things you love are all about.

Believe me, I totally get where you’re coming from. I know a lot of other people who understand as well. How about doing all of us a solid and giving that understanding thing a try? We only call out the shortcomings of the genre/culture because we love it just as much as you.

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7 thoughts on “Dear SF&F Fans: A lot of the stuff that you love is racist

  1. Okay, HG fans ranting and raving about a character who was explicitly described as black is one thing, but it really seems like this article is suggesting that fantasy titles should just stay away from slavery, rape and all of the “-isms” altogether. That’s kind of ridiculous. Slavery happens in real life, it gets depicted in stories. Sexism happens in real life, it gets depicted in stories. That doesn’t mean the author condones it. And just because you find an image visually provocative, that doesn’t mean that the artists are “wrong” for creating that image, in fact, I believe a writer’s job IS to bring up conversations like this, so kudos to them for creating a piece of art that forced people to talk. Furthermore, to say that “Game of Thrones frequently handles race and gender incorrectly” suggests a (somewhat naive) assertion that there is a “correct” way to handle race and gender which is just as problematic as the racism, sexism, etc. in the first place. Finally, the assertion immediately following that makes a LOT of generalizations, both about the “non-white, non-male, non-heteros” and about the straight white men left out of it. That said, after reading the linked post, it doesn’t seem like that’s what the OP is saying at all.

    • Joan,

      First, thanks for taking the time to read my post and comment. I greatly appreciate that.

      I’ve read your comment very carefully. I’ve also gone back and re-read my post very carefully. After doing both, I think that I am ready to address your points individually.

      First, you say:

      “it really seems like this article is suggesting that fantasy titles should just stay away from slavery, rape and all of the “-isms” altogether. That’s kind of ridiculous.”

      I am actually not saying that at all. I have absolutely no problem with an author portraying slavery or sexism or things like in their work. All I ask (in real life and in my post) is that authors and creators give a bit of thought to how they portray these things…*if* their intent is to present them somewhat realistically (for speculative fiction, of course) and in an unbiased manner. The Game of Thrones example is one where certain depictions of slavery aren’t handled especially carefully. In both the show and the book, slavery is pointed out as morally wrong and deplorable, which is true. My problem is not with the slavery itself, but with the bias (again, it may be unconscious) that leads a creator to populate a world with so many dark-skinned slaves, only to have a lighter-skinned character come and liberate them…and then the slaves literally put the character that freed them on a pedestal, as if the slaves would have surely died except for this character’s intervention. Something stinks about that whole scenario. The matter is of inclusion, and it is complicated. What would be the issue with having lighter-skinned slaves freed by a dark skinned Savior figure? Does it really matter? To me, it does.

      Secondly, you say:

      “…just because you find an image visually provocative, that doesn’t mean that the artists are “wrong” for creating that image, in fact, I believe a writer’s job IS to bring up conversations like this, so kudos to them for creating a piece of art that forced people to talk.”

      You’re right in this. If an author creates visually provocative images or scenes on purpose, with the intent of sparking dialogue about certain things, then yes, they are being effective. But what if an author creates a group that sticks to established stereotype for none of those reasons? What if they just create their worlds lazily? I don’t think an artist of any kind is wrong for creating anything that they choose…but these things are subjective. And provocative images have to tow the line between being provocative to stimulate conversation or just being provocative for the sake of being so. Dany’s liberation of the slaves of the Free Cities/Essos is provocative, as is the scene depicting her being hailed as a savior by these (again, darker-skinned) slaves. However, this imagery is problematic for many, many reasons that are illustrated throughout the social history of many places (colorism, race-based policy, outright genocide, etc. etc.).

      The most shining example of this from my post is in the parts from The Belgariad that I quoted. Eddings wrote his series of novels as an examination of established conventions of the fantasy genre. For all intents, it contains every kind of plot and thematic element that exists in most fantasy work: wise wizards, noble heroes, farm boys…and superstitious, savage, and laughable (again, dark-skinned) natives. Eddings’ work was kind of satirical, so maybe the Morindim were a panning of how PoC were treated in classical fantasy works. Even considering that, their depiction is problematic.

      Thirdly, you say:

      “Furthermore, to say that “Game of Thrones frequently handles race and gender incorrectly” suggests a (somewhat naive) assertion that there is a “correct” way to handle race and gender which is just as problematic as the racism, sexism, etc. in the first place.”

      There is a correct way to handle conversations and examinations on racism, sexism, and the like. The key is to be thoughtful. So many properties go wrong on these issues because the authors are not thoughtful in their applications of them. A thoughtful male author would not use rape as a character development tool for a woman in their work…yet this is used very frequently in Speculative Fiction, and very, very much in A Song of Ice And Fire. See: Danyerys, Sansa, Brienne, Theon, and women associated with Tyrion, Theon, the Hound…there is a long list.

      Race is a little trickier, because authors usually create their own races…but these races are often rooted in those that exist in reality…which makes them at least, in part, beholden to the laws of this reality. There are very few (fictional or otherwise) black people in the Song of Ice and Fire Series. I can count four, maybe five off the top of my head…there were more black women than that cast to be naked backup dancers during the Dothraki wedding scene on the show. Again, problematic. Thoughtful creators can make POWERFUL statements on social issues without creating offense amongst large groups of people that consume their works.

      I mean, was there *really* any reason for early klingons to be in brownface and sporting Fu Manchu mustaches?

      Lastly, you call to the fore the assertions that I make about the fans and consumers of SF&F. Generalizations are indeed wrong, but I’m only calling out what I see ALL OVER THE PLACE. When I visit fantasy-themed message boards, or Reddit, or twitter, or Facebook, or tumblr, there are so many people who hold on to these statements and beliefs that Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Horror are mostly for white people, with fringe elements of anyone else. Then there are a large number who just don’t care, or don’t notice. Then there are people who do notice, and are offended or put off by things in the culture or seminal works of the culture that, for most people, don’t register as a blip on their collective radar (See: Easterlings and Southrons from LOTR).

      As far as the linked post? Again, subjectivity. When I read the post I found it especially powerful because it made connections to the problematic things that exist IRL and those same problematic things that, for the most part, have not been addressed on the show. Which, again, is cool for the source property, as it makes no claim to examine these things…but people still reserve the right to find the non-address of racism, sexism, rape, and the like difficult to deal with.

      I write posts like these specifically to generate this kind of dialogue, so thank you so much for commenting. I am so sorry to hit you with this gigantic wall of text, lol.

  2. Just read it and literally wanted to snap my fingers at the end.

    As far as the person who commented on your page, I think that most white people out there dont understand what people of color want or need, because they (first of all) refuse to recognize them…

    That is the falacy of the idea of “The Great White Hope” which is constantly being portrayed in the media in various forms not just in sf&f.

    that is why the world is in the state that it is in today.

    I can’t begin to talk about all the ways in which I agree with you.

    I think I’m going to make it my mission to read all of your posts… (or at least try)

    I’m such a fan right now.

    Keep doing what you’re doing!

  3. wait wait wait… how did I miss this last year??? did you go back in time and write this and keep me out of the new time stream? good stuff. and your polite and thoughtful response to Ms. Miller was a beautiful thing of patience.

    • Well, actually…I was told by the Nobel Committee not to do too much time traveling but I couldn’t help it in this instance.

      And re: my response, all I see when I look back over it is TL;DR. I’ve been working on being more concise.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I greatly appreciate it, especially from one of the folks that inspires my own blogging.

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