xenologer: (ooh!)
PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical

Which leads me back to the issue of prejudice: specifically, to the claim that including such characters in SFF stories, by dint of contradicting the model of straight, white, male homogeneity laid down by Tolkien and taken as gospel ever since, is an inherently political – and therefore suspect – act. To which I say: what on Earth makes you think that the classic SWM default is apolitical? If it can reasonably argued that a character’s gender, race and sexual orientation have political implications, then why should that verdict only apply to characters who differ from both yourself and your expectations? Isn’t the assertion that straight white men are narratively neutral itself a political statement, one which seeks to marginalise as exceptional or abnormal the experiences of every other possible type of person on the planet despite the fact that straight white men are themselves a global minority? And even if a particular character was deliberately written to make a political point, why should that threaten you? Why should it matter that people with different beliefs and backgrounds are using fiction to write inspirational wish-fulfillment characters for themselves, but from whose struggle and empowerment you feel personally estranged? That’s not bad writing, and as we’ve established by now, it’s certainly not bad history – and particularly not when you remember (as so many people seem to forget) that fictional cultures are under no obligation whatsoever to conform to historical mores. It just means that someone has managed to write a successful story that doesn’t consider you to be its primary audience – and if the prospect of not being wholly, overwhelmingly catered to is something you find disturbing, threatening, wrong? Then yeah: I’m going to call you a bigot, and I probably won’t be wrong.

I want to enter into a committed long-term relationship with this article.

This is one reason I have a hard time finding fantasy settings that I really click with. Too many writers, worldbuilders, and roleplayers either A: don't want "politics" (read: minorities) in their pretendy funtime games, or B: really think that the only people who've ever led narratively interesting lives were straight white cisgender people, and that for the sake of realism they can have wizards and fairies but cannot have more than a couple token POC in their setting.

I console myself by reminding myself that if that's the level of thought they put into their writing and worldbuilding, they're probably pretty mediocre at both. Odds are I'm not missing much.

It's also worth adding that Tolkien didn't want to create the enormously racially-screwy and gender-backward narrative that he did with Lord of the Rings. When it was pointed out to him (by which I mean, sometime around when the Nazis wrote to him and said, "Dude we love you!"), he went, "Oh no, look what I did," and decided to use his future writings to undermine that a great deal and do better. Sadly, he died before he got to finish that, but the Silmarillion helps and he evidently had more improvement plans in his notes.

So I am kinda both saying I want worldbuilders to be less like Tolkien in how they worldbuild, and more like Tolkien in how they respond to criticism about their worldbuilding. Not all stories have to be about magical straight white people. Frankly, there are only so many stories to be told in identically-"medieval" whitewashed patriarchal fantasy settings.

Date: 2012-12-10 11:09 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] ariseishirou.livejournal.com
If it makes you feel any better, I've been hearing a great deal of "I'm so sick of white medieval fantasy Europe" in geekdom these days, even from the white cis hetero male crowd. And authors who put characters of colour front and center in their writing, like N.K. Jemisin, are extremely popular. It's possible, I think, that GRRM represents the last great gasp of that ilk, and, if YA fantasy is any indication, the future will be much more representative of anyone other than the usual suspects.

Date: 2012-12-11 07:35 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] shery-dewinter.livejournal.com
GRR Martin actually doesn't represent it. There are plenty of POC in his writing, and plenty of people with undefined skinstones that could be whatever the reader wants them to be. However, the loudest GRRM fans (specifically, those who run the official website, and there are entire sites and tumblrs devoted to being against them), are racist and sexist, and throw a fit whenever anyone even hints at the fact that a character in that fandom might not be pale-skinned.

Date: 2012-12-12 04:07 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] ariseishirou.livejournal.com
Hm, I'm not sure I agree. All of the nations outside Westeros either written as ambiguously European themselves (e.g. the Free Cities) or heavily exoticized, through which their White Saviour (Daenerys) must ride with her unabashedly barbarized version of the Mongol horde to save them from their evil ways with her more enlightened ethos.

I love ASoIaF as much as the next fan, but I don't try to tell myself that it doesn't have its own issues re: race.

Date: 2012-12-12 11:35 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] shery-dewinter.livejournal.com
The existence of different races doesn't make it automatically into an issue. Dany gets treated different a lot through out the books; for being a female, for her white hair, for her status as queen over people that are not hers, over every thingand anything. She would not have have been able to survive outside of the Khalasaar if it were not for her dragons, and she would have gotten exactly the same amount of success if her skin was black. She's a "character", not a "white character" (Force I hate this "X character" trope).

As for the Khalasaar, she never treated them in any enlightened way save for forbidding rape, which I find hard to manage to title as 'enlightening'. Everything else, she learned from them. She loved them, she wanted to be part of them. Her brother, on the other hand... I don't think I have to elaborate on that.

The Free Cities are European? I'm going to have to disagree. With descriptions and feel, they feel more like international ports where everyone is welcome and whatever fueds happen tend to focus on those who aren't travelers passing through. We've seen it all from them.

Date: 2012-12-12 02:38 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] ariseishirou.livejournal.com
I disagree wholeheartedly with pretty much all of this. (Also, of course the "existence" of race doesn't make it an issue. I never said nor implied that.)

First, Dany's whiteness is one and the same with her ancestry (her white-haired, fair-skinned ancestors) and this gives her power, both literal and figurative (much the same way it does for white folks today). She absolutely wouldn't have been treated the same as a "black" character, because she wouldn't have been the Mother of Dragons.

Oh I wasn't talking about the Khalasaar, I was talking about her current conquest of the major cities of the East - her quest is absolutely to change their customs, which she considers her own more enlightened.

But many major cities of medieval Europe were international ports, like Venice. Yes, they received many travellers from various regions - that doesn't mean that the predominant culture isn't European mercantilism and the culture distinct from the rest of Essos - it fully is.
Edited Date: 2012-12-12 02:43 pm (UTC)

Date: 2012-12-12 03:34 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] shery-dewinter.livejournal.com
She would still be the mother of dragons if her skin was white, black, yellow, red, or purple. She's not called the mother of dragons because of anything that has to do with her external appearances. You make it sound like she has to apologize for being pale skinned.

Her change to the current cities? (trying to) Abolishing slavery and punishing rapists and thieves. So ~enlightening.
Edited Date: 2012-12-12 03:36 pm (UTC)

Date: 2012-12-12 03:46 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] ariseishirou.livejournal.com
No, she wouldn't be. She's the Mother of Dragons, because she's Targaryen/Valyrian. The Targaryens are white; GRRM's made that explicitly clear. Not just white, extremely pale white (as lofty, ancient, magical races so often are in fantasy, because they're a product of a culture that valorizes those traits). It's possible that GRRM could have made the his ancient, magical race of dragon riders black, yellow, or red - but he didn't. And he's part of a culture that overwhelmingly tends not to.

Er, yes. Overthrowing their culture because she views it as wrong. "But the practice is evil/harmful/wrong!" has been the rallying cry of many European colonizers for centuries. It's still used today to justify things like banning the hijab - obviously, those women are being oppressed and we have to save them!, etc.

Date: 2012-12-12 04:25 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] shery-dewinter.livejournal.com
Again. She's not the Mother of Dragons because she is white, and in this case, not even because of her bloodline. She is Mother of Dragons because of the fact she has three dragons, after dragons have been missing from the realm for centuries. The fact that she is a Targaryen is simply bonus points. If she'd been part Targaryen part Dorne and therefore of darker skin tones, not even then would there have been any change. Her brother was a Targaryen too. Did anyone at any point bother calling him Father of Dragons? Did anyone call their mother the Mother of Dragons (this last one is just an example, I don't even recall right now if their mother was a Targaryen as well)?

And seriously. If overthrowing slavery is wrong because the person doing it is white, people really need to fix their skewered perceptions of reality. This is just looking for something to moan about. People would be moaning that she's a white privileged little princess if she wasn't abolishing slavery. People are whining that she's wrong because she's a white woman trying to abolish slavery from a few parts of the world.

And don't get me started on the hijab please, that piece of crap that happened in France was one of the dumbest thing anyone could have ever turned into a law, the lazyman's way of putting a bandaid over an infection.

Date: 2012-12-12 04:42 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] ariseishirou.livejournal.com
She's the Mother of Dragons because she is Targaryen. These are inseparable. If she was not Targaryen, she would not be able to control those dragons. She would not have been able to survive the fire that birthed them. And because she birthed (and controls) those dragons - she is the Mother of Dragons.

GRRM is a part of the culture that attributes power and greatness to whiteness, and he chose to make the Targaryens (all of them that we ever meet or hear about) and Dany white.

If overthrowing slavery is wrong because the person doing it is white, people really need to fix their skewered perceptions of reality.

No, you've missed the point. Did you not read the part in ADWD where Tyrion realizes that the serfs of Westeros don't live any better than the slaves of Essos do? Their "lords" have the power of life and death over them, restrict their movements, demand their crops at swordpoint to the point that they die en masse during long winters... and yet, nobody is trying to "fix" the "evil culture" of serfdom. Why? Because that change has to come from within, or it won't take. What Dany's doing won't take either, unless she stays there forever.

This is just looking for something to moan about.

No, it isn't.

People would be moaning that she's a white privileged little princess if she wasn't abolishing slavery.

No, they wouldn't. There are host of other princesses in the books - no one is "whining" about them doing things they are not doing. If Dany wasn't doing something, no one would be pointing out that she was doing it. This statement is nonsensical.

People are whining that she's wrong because she's a white woman trying to abolish slavery from a few parts of the world.

No, they are arguing that this is problematic in its representation, not "whining that she's wrong".

But if you're going to continuously mischaracterize your opponents arguments, and belittle those who disagree with you as "moaning" and "whining", there is little point in engaging you in an intellectual discussion - because you clearly aren't interested in holding one. Please respond respectfully, or do not bother, because this conversation will be over.

...And you did not seriously just refer to Islamic practices as an "infection", did you? I hope I'm misunderstanding you, because if I'm not, I retract the above and this conversation is already over.

Date: 2012-12-12 05:02 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] shery-dewinter.livejournal.com
I refer to belittling women as an infection. I refer to mysagony (spellchecker won't let me find the correct spelling for this, apologies for misspellings in advance) as an infection. Locking women up at home, giving them female circumcision, beating them, raping them, and claiming the family's honor is lost of the woman does not wear the hijab... All are symptoms of mysagony, with the hijab being but a teeny tiny part of it. Forbidding it via law does absolutely nothing to help the women it's meant to be helping, it's outright ignoring what the actual problem is, and treats the hijab as a mark of evil suppression (which it is not, was never meant to be, and is worn with pride by more than a few, where it's still legal).

I'm sorry for using words such as moaning and whining, that was out of place and you are correct about their usage.

However, I still have no interest in resuming the conversation regarding the subject. With every response I get a bigger and stronger vibe of "damn if she does damn if she doesn't unless she was born a woman of color" and racism remains racism even when aimed at the color white.

Date: 2012-12-12 05:08 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] ariseishirou.livejournal.com
Okay, I see. You were referring to misogyny as an infection - I agree, honestly, though many Muslim feminists would disagree that the hijab is inherently misogynistic, because Muslim men are commanded to cover themselves too (just not to that extent).

I'm not blaming Dany for anything - she doesn't exist. She's an invention of GRRM, and it's his intentions and representations that are or aren't problematic. I like Dany, as a character. A lot! She's very sympathetic, not to mention brave. But I do think GRRM's representation of race wrt Essos is problematic. Hasn't decreased my enjoyment of the books any, mind.

Agree to disagree?

Date: 2012-12-12 07:29 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] virginia-fell.livejournal.com
Oh dang I missed all kinds of discussion goodness.

I don't think it's a matter of, "Dany is a white woman, therefore nothing she ever does will be right even if she's being the best person she can possibly be given the setting she's in and what's true in their universe."

I get that in the setting she has every reason to look at the people she's trying to civilize and say, "Holy crap. This is barbaric." Her response is compassionate and courageous and demonstrates empathy for people different than she is, which is nice.

I think what is important to note, though, is that she's doing a very predictable thing for a white character to be doing. There are all kinds of perfectly sensible and credible in-setting reasons for the beacon of civilization to be a magical white woman, but the fact is that it's a common way to portray white people. It's a common thing to have a white person do in fiction, and even if every single time there's a sensible narrative justification for why in this world there is a white person faced with foreign barbarians in need of their message of civilization... the fact that it's a trend means that we may have stumbled across an assumption a lot of writers make about whiteness.

I know that racism manifests itself differently in different places, but George R. R. Martin is from a part of the world where for centuries white people considered themselves at the finishing end of a continuum of civilization, with dusky swarthy savages and barbarians at one end and good solid whiteness at the other. The fact that in real life white people have done so much damage and committed so many heinously barbarian crimes by galloping all over the world assuming that everybody else needs their culture replaced with the one white people had underlines rather than undermines how bullshitty this is.

I'm getting the vibe that you feel like the "beacon of civilization characters are white" trope is a coincidence and that nobody can say it's a problematic trend as long as every instance has a completely solid in-world justification. As long as those people really are savages and as long as it makes sense for the beacon of civilization character to be white, it doesn't matter if it happens over and over and over again. It doesn't matter if someone can hear about Dany's crusade against savagery and think, "I bet that character is white, and not just accidentally but pointedly white," because that is how predictable it is, as long as it makes sense in-world.

What bothers me is that people keep creating settings where in-world, scary darkie savages need a white person to show them what a good culture looks like.

Date: 2012-12-12 07:30 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] virginia-fell.livejournal.com

People create lots of settings where the characters that make sense within that setting play to predictable types, which often have a racial component. There are certain kinds of characters that--not coincidentally--tend to come with a color.

I mean, there are a lot of narratives where a wise black person adopts a hapless white person and dispenses wisdom to them because obviously their purpose in life is to make a white person's life better, and there is generally at least some thin justification for why this white person gets a magical negro, but that doesn't make it less of a trope, and that doesn't mean we can't ask, "Why does this keep happening? What is this pervasive idea rooted in?"

Ditto for a dangerous but sexy Asian woman who uses her dangerous exotic sexy sexiness to get along by ensnaring white men. Ditto for the stoic dark-skinned warrior sidekick. Ditto for the white man who makes a better native warrior without training than the natives. Ditto for the big maternal black woman who adopts a white person and takes care of them and centers her life around theirs. Ditto for any female character's gay best friend.

Dany plays to a type. That type says something. She can be a good character and still play to a type, just like I can name characters who play to one of the types I just listed who are not merely reasonably consistent with the world they live in, but actually pretty great characters. But they are types. Those types are not actually a coincidence.

So I don't think that pointing out that Dany's doing a thing white people are commonly cast to do in fiction is anti-white. I think it's an observation of a trend that takes too much cognitive dissonance to pretend is a coincidence every time it happens.

Date: 2012-12-11 04:45 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] afro-dyte.livejournal.com
ext_118625: (Default)
If it makes you feel better, I wrote a fantasy romance about an Afro-Latina pirate who falls in love with a Latina sorceress.

Date: 2012-12-13 03:21 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] motherwell.livejournal.com
I think a major part of the problem is that most fantasy fiction is based on European myths and legends. And when Tolkien revitalized that whole genre, he did it by bringing a compilation of European (mostly English) myths, legends and folktales back to life -- for a mostly white Eurocentric audience who are now the primary audience for all of the fantasy Tolkien inspired. And that led to a self-reinforcing exclusionist tendency: white folktales appeal to a mostly white audience, and neither the folktales nor the audience have that much room for nonwhite characters. (And besides, it doesn't always make perfect sense to bring nonwhite characters into white folktale worlds when: a) nonwhite characters didn't enter into the original folktales, and b) the nonwhites have very different folktale worlds of their own.)

And brings me to my pet peeve about a fundamental contradiction I see in the entire fantasy genre: by freeing themselves from the constraints of fact, history and rationality, fantasy authors seem to think they've expanded their range of possible stories. But in reality, when you cut yourself off from the challenges of realism, you end up locked into a very narrow range of story ideas that have already been accepted into most people's consciousness, because they resonate with the readers' preconceptions, beliefs, and expectations. The fantasy stories that "work" are the ones that people have already heard, in one form or another, and that allude to some lesson or message they'e already found relevant to them. Try going outside that range, and you'll only get a story that makes people scratch their heads, and doesn't leave any kind of lasting impression.

I'm probably fatally biased here, but I find SF far more challenging, and far more diverse in its range of stories, precisely because it has rules that both challenge and offer new avenues of thought. From a storytelling point of view, it's easier to introduce warp-drive in to a SF story than it is to introduce new spells into a fantsty story: the SF reader expects new ideas and new twists, while the fantasy reader expects the established rules of magic, vampires, knights or whatever to be respected. (Note how vampire stories are judged: the ones that adhere to the old rules generally do better in the long term than those that go for whiz-bang modernizations. That (I think) is the main reason why "True Blood" and "Twilight" will have more lasting popularity than "Blade." Vampire stories have certain particular themes and messages, and new innovations tend to obscure and diminish them.)

Date: 2012-12-13 04:57 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] motherwell.livejournal.com
When it was pointed out to him (by which I mean, sometime around when the Nazis wrote to him and said, "Dude we love you!"), he went, "Oh no, look what I did," and decided to use his future writings to undermine that a great deal and do better...

I'd really appreciate a cite for that. I thought Tolkien didn't even start writing LotR until after WW-II, so I'm not sure which Nazis would have written him fan mail then.

Date: 2012-12-16 06:21 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] virginia-fell.livejournal.com
Okay blah here finally. Sorry for the delay.

I checked back with this and I think it was that instance where a Nazi-owned publishing company wanted to do him the great honor of having The Hobbit translated and published by white supremacists, but they wanted to doublecheck to make sure that he was properly "Aryan" by their definitions and wasn't, like, some kind of scary stealth Jew or Romani.

Then his response was, "Ugh Nazis why you gotta be Nazis. Never mind."

Link! (http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/03/i-have-no-ancestors-of-that-gifted.html)

So yeah. I feel like Tolkien had good intentions, but like a lot of people who are writing from a position of privilege, ended up rehashing a lot of tropes that even he didn't like. He just didn't notice he was doing it until it had already happened, and then the easiest thing to do was to try and add nuance to the setting in his future works (which he sadly did not get to finish doing).

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