Race Relations in Current Fantasy

Sometimes modern discussion is simply tiresome. At this point, I’m thinking, in particular, of the band of screeching howler monkeys that constitute that ‘Anti-Woke’ crowd, and their endless, brainless war on anything that offends their delicate sensibilities.

Currently, one of the ongoing controversies seems to be black people in fantasy. Or ethnic representation in fantasy. I suppose it’s a good time to have that discussion, since we have four major Fantasy series currently running on television – The Witcher on Netflix, Dance of Dragons on HBO, the Lord of the Rings spin off on Amazon, and Willow on Netflix.

This is pretty unique, I don’t think we’ve ever seen so many fantasy series on at once, or so much money spent so ambitiously. Good thing, I suppose.

But here’s the problem: There are black elves.

I’m almost speechless.

That’s it.

Black actors getting cast as elves? There’s more to it, the whole argument is over multi-racial casting in fantasy, so we have black and Hispanic and Asian actors and actresses being cast randomly with white actors in a multitude of roles, from townsfolk to elves, dwarves, forest dwellers, soldiers, etc.

This apparently, is the ‘worst thing ever’ and a sign of the imminent destruction of our civilization at the hands of intersectional wokism!

Jesus Christ.

I’m going to quote Max Landis, who is in bad odor these days, but said something once that stuck with me.

Question: “How do you kill a Vampire?”

Answer: “Any way you want, because Vampires are imaginary.”

Elves aren’t real. Neither are Dwarves, Orcs, Angels, Goblins, Trolls, Witchers, Wizards, etc. Make your elves any race or ethnicity you want. Make them a rainbow of ethnicities. It’s all fine. It’s all fantasy, so it just doesn’t goddammed matter.

What matters is the quality of the actor and whether they are right for a particular role. If a black or Asian actor can carry off the performance as the Elf King, or Elf Archer, fine, give them the role. It doesn’t matter. There are black actors, there are Asian actors, there are Hispanic actors, arab, east Asian, white, and endless ethnicities of each. They all have the right to go to auditions and compete for parts. And if it’s a fantasy, then fine, it’s up to the actor.

Hey, you remember back when Thor came out back in 2011? So so long ago. Remember when a few nutcase malcontents objected to the Norse God, Heimdall, being played by black actor, Idris Elba? Remember when we all laughed at those nimrods and no one took them seriously?

Remember the Dungeons and Dragons movie from 2000 when black actress Kristen Wilson played an Elf. And no one, not one person, nobody even blinked. It was fine. No one cared. It just didn’t matter. She was an Elf, she was black, she was played by a black actress. Nobody even imagined it was an issue.

How the hell did we all turn into such assholes in twenty-two years that this has all become a serious discussion?

Seriously, I want to know.

When did the race of actors playing fantasy characters go from a total non-issue, to the great civilizational crisis of our time? Who stopped and decided that this was a crisis?

Now to be really fair, there is an argument about race and ethnicity in casting. Or perhaps, there are arguments, some better than others.

There’s the argument that Tolkien only wrote white elves. Yeah, don’t think much of that one. Let’s just sweep that into the dumpster and move on.

Then there’s the argument that all of these mythological or fantasy races are derived from European and particularly North European folklore, and therefore they should follow the skin tones of the culture that what invented them. Because… reasons! Yeah, we’ll just let that sit there and decompose.

The best argument that I can see relates to authenticity in world-building. That having multiple races of actors and actresses randomly playing characters in fantasy violates the principles of authentic world building, because these people are clearly not related or inter-related to each other. This argument presupposes that you can and maybe should have black or Asian characters, but that they should represent and be part of distinct cultural and ethnic groups, that they should have an identity, and relationships, instead of simply sprinkling them randomly through the cast. So it’s a question about authenticity.

Ironically, I’ve seen the issue of authenticity raised by minorities in other contexts. I recall a few instances where black characters in movies and television series were disparaged as ‘dipped in chocolate’ – basically, the characters played by black actors and presented as black were written, spoke and acted white and expressed or portrayed white sensibilities. The characters were literally white people dipped in chocolate, and therefore inauthentic. In the indigenous community, the term is ‘apple’ red on the surface and white inside.

So it’s interesting to see a similar issue raised in this context.

Now, I’m really big on world building and the coherence of world building, so I have a certain degree of sympathy for this approach. It does make sense. Of course if you’re building a fantasy world, there should be clearly identifiable races and ethnicities with their own cultures, their own internal politics and relationships, and their own relationships with other groups.

And in fact, with respect to literary fantasy, you do see that, with varying levels of sophistication, all the way back to Tolkien, and all the way forward to Jemison. I do this myself with my own serious fantasy, and the existence of different ethnicities and communities and their tortured relationships is actually a driving force in the novel’s narratives.

And in fantasy television, there is some of that – races, dwarves, elves, humans, forest-folk, etc. It’s there. It’s just not matching up with the sort of random racial/ethnic sprinkling of actors.

So there’s a theoretical inauthenticity. A break in world building, and ergo our suspension of disbelief. Okay, sure.

But is there really? In a fantasy series peopled with trolls, giants, dragons, elves and wizards, where magic is a real thing, featuring imaginary kingdoms and continents, entire imaginary civilizations, is this really what counts? Is this actually the point where our suspension of disbelief collapses?

I find that hard to believe. It seems to me if you can accept Asgard, you can accept Idris Elba as Heimdall, if you can swallow a Dragon, you can live with Kristen Wilson as an Elf Ranger. It’s not the biggest thing you’re being asked to swallow. And if this is what sticks in your craw… maybe you need to think about that.

But then, I suppose, you’re asking the creators to tell a completely different story than the one they wanted to tell. We want them to address your issues, not the ones they’ve chosen. To write or create a story that suits your interests.

I don’t know. I think they’ve got the right to shape and tell the story they want to tell, and build the world the way they want to.

And on this subject, there’s another issue to consider. The point has been made that the racial and ethnic representation that we are seeing in all these fantasy series is actually representative of the ethnic and racial diversity of Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Montreal and other big urban cities through much of the developed world. It’s all a big multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-coloured, mosaic melting pot of everyone just living together.

So you can have black faces in the Elves or Dwarves or Harfoots, just the way you have black faces sitting next to you on the bus, or walking by you in the mall, employed at your workplace, in your network of friends and neighbors. In a sense, there’s an authenticity there. (There’s actually an issue there, but let me come back to it.)

In this sense, the fantasy world we see on the television screen is pretty reflective of the polyglot, diverse world we live in and see outside our windows and in our culture. In a sense, that feels more authentic, it feels more natural. Fantasy doesn’t exist in a separate dimension, in fundamental ways, it mirrors the character and assumptions of the world we live in. So it’s completely legitimate to pepper or spread our races and ethnicities randomly through the fantasy world.

Indeed, it may be more legitimate – some of those television watchers are black, some are Asian, I think it’s meaningful if they’re watching a community or population in which they’re represented among elves and dwarves. I don’t know that they’d identify as readily with a pure whitebread Nordic race of Elves? Here’s the bottom line – you cater to the audience. The whole audience, which includes everyone.

Frankly, I’m fine with that, and it’s a legitimate argument and approach. It doesn’t invalidate the ‘races and relationships’ argument of the objectors. They kind of both stand apart from each other. But sometimes you just make the choice of one approach versus another approach, and it’s legitimate to choose.

But in its own way, while legitimate, it’s also a little dishonest.

Remember a paragraph or two back where I’d said I’m going to come back to this. Here we are.

We’re not actually a colour blind multi-racial, multi-ethnic society. People drag their ethnicities, their cultural baggage with them. The Korean kid speaks his parents language, they have their cultural traditions. The Irish or German kid has that. People do relate to you on your ethnicity, and the colour of your skin. Racism really is a thing, as anyone who is indigenous or black can tell you. Racism is still a thing, and even as we try to overcome it, to move past it, it’s there in our relationships with the persons we feel are in our group, and the ‘others’ who are outside it. There’s cultural baggage that we can’t escape.

In that sense, these ‘racially/ethnically randomly sprinkled’ fantasy series are deeply inauthentic. Because implicitly, they’re genuinely colour blind, they create and inhabit worlds where racism is not a thing, and anyone can be a Dwarf or a Hobbit or a Princess. Race doesn’t really exist in these worlds, nor does prejudice, nor discrimination. The complexities of identity doesn’t exist.

In a sense, these fantasy societies are post-racial. They’re more like Star Trek’s utopian future where we’ve moved past all that. Except that in fantasy series, we haven’t moved past all that, it just never existed, or is just ‘magicked’ away.

Or perhaps, another word is “inauthentic?” Or even dishonest?

Perhaps if we’re going to address racial issues in fantasy, maybe we shouldn’t be glib and colour blind about it. Maybe we should address it and acknowledge the challenges and struggles of the real world through the metaphorical and distorted lens of fantasy. I think Jemison actually does this quite well. As I’ve pointed out, you can actually find this to varying degrees in literature.

But then, I suppose, we’re asking them to tell a completely different story than the one the producers and writers wanted to tell. We want them to address our issues, not the ones they’ve chosen.

I don’t know. I think they’ve got the right to shape and tell the story they want to tell, and build the world the way they want to. Don’t they?

And here’s another wrinkle. Are those fantasy races really so innocent as naively portrayed.  Tolkien at some point or other described Orcs as being created from mud – ‘mud people.’  Well, if you look at how that phrase is used in white supremacist circles, the overtones are pretty awful. The fact that Orcs are presented as inherently subhuman and evil, and mud-people, raises some awkward issues for discussion.

Or look at the Rings of Power television series, where the Harfoots are literally insanely racist 19th century caricatures of the Irish, complete with rags, barefoot, straw in their hair and celtic accents. It’s utterly cringeworthy. In North America, no big deal, the history of Anti-Irish racism and its legacies are long buried. But I kind of wonder if the Harfoots and their scenes are met with stony silence in Ireland, Northern Ireland or certain homes in London. Is this supposed to be okay? Again, maybe in England. But if you look across the ocean there’s 900 years of rape, murder, systematic subjugation and disenfranchisement and literal famines, and behind that a long English tradition of racism and anti-Irish slurs and caricatures that really is hard to handwave away. Just because Los Angeles doesn’t perceive a particular sort of racism doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t pernicious and toxic.

There’s a particular form of American self absorption that we see when people like Whoopi Goldberg announce that the Holocaust wasn’t about race, because apparently, only American definitions of race matter, and only American issues of racism are real. I’m sure that the Rohingya, the Irish, the Uygher, the Jewish, the Mayans and others will feel much better to be told that their harassment, oppression, and genocide experiences aren’t about race or racism.  Seriously: Fuck off Whoopi Goldberg and any other ‘woke,’ well-meaning, self described progressive who indulges in such blindness.

The fact that the chief of the Harfoots is portrayed by a black actor, that’s just weird – trading a sort of colour blindness for a completely different form of racism.

I’m not the first person, by the way, to note that the Rings of Power perpetuates British racial/ethnic and class stereotypes in its fantasy races. In addition to the Harfoots/Irish, more than a few people have pointed out how the Dwarves seem to be stereotypes of Scots, or the Elves seem to be English upper class.

Then there are criticisms of Avatar, and Avatar: Way of Water which claim that fantasy races are cultural appropriations of indigenous peoples. Hence, the water Navaii are borrowings from Maori with their tongue flicking war-threats, or their tattoos. Except that the water Navaii are literally water adapted with paddle forearms and flat tails, they ride the equivalent of Pandora dolphins, none of which are obviously Maori. I suspect that maybe the Greeks had dolphin riding in their folklore, but don’t quote me.  Tattoos have become utterly ubiquitous in modern society since the first movie – does the second movie borrow from the Maori, or does it just harvest a modern cultural trend.  I think that the case for the Maori-Navaii connection may be a bit overstated.

But even this isn’t new. George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel was criticized for Jar Jar Binks and Watto being thinly disguised Caribbean black and Jewish/Italian stereotypes. Both characters vanished pretty quickly. Watto fulfilled his role and disappeared. Binks ended up hated, more for being odious comic relief than for being a black stereotype.  But I wonder if nowadays, their reception and controversy would revolve more strongly around perceived racial and ethnic stereotypes.

Where do we draw the line? I don’t think that’s really clear. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s a battle line, with different people aggressively taking different positions and arguing, sometimes passionately, for different rules. For what it’s worth, I think the Harfoot are pretty damned blatant. But then again, I don’t think every fictional hunter-gatherer is an analogue for Indigenous Americans. And ‘tongue flick’ aside, I don’t buy the Water Navaii as Maori painted blue.

But setting aside those cases, complexities don’t stop. No one, so far as I know, complained of Game of Thrones, but George R.R. Martin is pretty blunt that his Dothraki are basically cut-price Mongols. I can’t recall the Mongols complaining, or anyone raising issues of cultural appropriation of historical Mongols. Personally, I saw some vague cartoonish allusions to Plains Indians in the Dothraki, but I can’t recall anyone complaining about that. Nevertheless, Martin is pretty naked and honest about appropriating Mongols. How does he get a pass. Or would he? Game of Thrones was ten years ago. Would the Dothraki get a pass today? Have our sensitivities changed that much?

I think that perhaps there are a lot of useful things and thoughtful discussions to be had discussing issues of race in the fantasy television series. But I don’t think anyone is really interested in thoughtful discussions. Mostly, it’s one side shrieking and another side shrieking back.  It feels more like positions taken battling back and forth over contested territory. Well, okay, if that’s what people want to do, fine.

It just seems to me that a particular story, or a particular storyteller has a right to muddle through as best they can any way they want to. Yes, there’s scope to address racial issues, and racial authenticity or inauthenticity issues in a fantasy series, but they’re not required to do so. They have the right to choose how and what stories they tell.

It doesn’t mean that those issues can’t be addressed in some series, in some story, in some other movie or novel. But on one side or the other, if you want it, then feel free to search it out, or to write, or create it as you please. There’s certainly room for those stories. There’s room for all kinds of stories.

For myself, here’s what I come back to: Question – What race is a particular elf? Answer – An Elf is imaginary, he or she or they can be any race you want.