Fantasy’s Othering Fetish, Part 1

By Phenderson Djeli Clark

This is Part 1 of a three-part series.

Over the years demands for more meaningful diversity in our fantasy realms have grown increasingly louder–a clarion call that echoes from the mundane world to haunt our usual lands of elves, dragons, orcs and whatnot. Back in 2010 when local New Zealanders were told they were “too dark to be a Hobbit” (no one’s ever too dark to be an Orc, it seems) in the new Peter Jackson films it caused a stir, highlighting the at times “unbearable whiteness” of the heroes of Tolkien’s masterpiece. Both Pixar’s Brave and Disney’s Frozen were criticized for their similar ode to all things vanilla, without even attempting a hint at color.

Diversity in fantasy has been thrust into the spotlight due to author George RR Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire saga, which has been adapted as the mega-hit HBO Game of Thrones. Just last July on GRRM’s blog a commenter who described herself as “an african-american female” and “a devoted fan of GoT,” noted that “the lack of diversity in both the show and books” had become “troubling.” While there were a few PoC sprinkled here and there, she noticed none of them held prominent roles. “Must all black people in the series be servants, guards, or charlatans?” she asked. Before that, a commenter who self-described as an “Asian fan” wanted to know why there were no Asians in GRRM’s world. It “would be awesome,” the fan said, “to meet a character who would inspire Asians as much as Daenerys or Jon Snow.”

Known for his interaction with his fan base, GRRM actually gave responses to both queries–though they left more frustration than resolution. In one reply he began with what appeared to be a history lesson: “Westeros around 300 AC is nowhere near as diverse as 21st century America, of course….” In another he seemed to give a geography lesson: “Well, Westeros is the fantasy analogue of the British Isles in its world, so it is a long long way from the Asia analogue. There weren’t a lot of Asians in Yorkish England either.”

Of course I’ve been hearing these same excuses since I was a kid. There are no black people in fantasy lands of ladies, horse lords and knights–because there were no black people there. Only there are two really convenient replies. (1) Well, there were no dragons, hobbits or elves either. You made that sh*t up. That’s what fantasy is you know–sh*t we make up. So if you can toss in a talking dragon, you can toss in PoC. Easy peasy. And (2), what has become an increasingly stronger reply, “you don’t know history or geography as well as you think you do.” Turns out, none of these Euro-spaces in our reality were ever racially monolithic. The fantastic site People of Color in European Art History has been destroying this hallowed myth one painting and statue at a time. Oh, and George, that African noblewoman found in Roman-era York might just beg to differ on just who was and was not in that space.

Still, it’s actually incorrect to say that popular literary fantasy is all lily-white. On the contrary, some of them feature a great deal of diversity. But… as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. From black-veiled Haradrim to the Ever Victorious Seanchan to the slavers of Yunkai, the genre has had a long love affair with non-whites—cast often in the role of exotic and dangerous “others.”

I’m a SFF writer myself. No novels and no notoriety. Just some published short stories under my belt. A few years back I decided to create a blog where I go by the name The Disgruntled Haradrim. The purpose was to talk about my experiences writing SFF and discuss issues of race and diversity in the genre. I included a page called Who Am I?, explaining the meaning of my moniker:

In the beginning there was Eru Illuvatar, who brought the Ainur into being, and through their song all into existence. Somehow, millennia later, I, along with much of the swarthier side of Arda, ended up on the wrong side of a spat about mystical jewelry. Disgruntled about the whole affair, I decided to start penning my own stories that perhaps could tell new, diverse tales from differing perspectives. And naturally, like everyone does in this age, I started a blog…

Anyone with enough geek-knowledge likely recognizes my snarky references, culled from the expansive world of Middle Earth (and realms beyond) created by the great godfather of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. While Aragorn and his fair-haired Elven allies had their fill of sub-human chaotic evil Orcs to contend with, there were also more than a few humans who marched beneath the banner of Ol’ One Eye. Yes, some were just wild “Hill-Men,” the less fortunate white cousins of the good men of the West. But most were various people from the East and South named (conveniently enough) Easterlings and Southrons. All were described as “swarthy men,” with fantastic exotic dress and customs, prone to raiding and slavery, and who for varied reasons were easily lulled into working for Morgoth (the closest Middle Earth has to the Devil) and Sauron. At the Battle of Pelennor Fields during the War of the One Ring, the Southron Haradrim even begin to lose their humanity, described as “black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues.”

Scene from Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, where the Haradrim Mûmakil Mahûd leads his veiled armies into battle atop his monstrous war beast.

Scene from Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, where the Haradrim Mûmakil Mahûd leads his veiled armies into battle atop his monstrous war beast.

If you were a PoC kid fascinated with fantasy, like me you probably spent a great deal of time searching for yourself in the literary genre. Any mention of the word “swarthy” or “dark” would do. Even if it was a Drow, the D&D black-skinned evil cousins to the fairer Elves. Yep. That happened. And what did you do if like me you also happened to have black skin? You sucked it up and rooted for the “good one.”
In the case of Tolkien, there I was in Far Harad, riding a Mûmakil with my black veil. Great! Someone who looked like me made it into one of the most well known fantasy stories in the genre. The screwed up part–I had a penchant for bizarre customs, cruelty, tyranny and all-around pretty anti-social behavior. Bummer. Back then I knew something was wrong, much like Frodo seemed to be discomforted by that dead Haradrim he witnessed. But I didn’t fully understand why.

Much later in life, like every other college student in the social sciences, I read Edward Said’s groundbreaking work Orientalism. To condense his multi-layered argument, Said noted that Western art, literature and even academic disciplines were immersed in the colonial act of creating the non-Western world as the exotic “other.” This “other” was often imbued with such descriptors as primitive, static, irrational, superstitious or tyrannical. It was the opposite of the Occidental (European/white) West, defined as modern, progressive, reasoned, scientific and free. These ideas flowed into popular western culture of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as European travelers sought to portray and define the Near East–including what is today Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa and lands beyond.

Some of these ideas came from travelogues and the writings of soldiers; others came directly from artists and writers who journeyed to capture their own imagery. Many of these works operated as distinct imperial propaganda, meant to display the enlightened benevolence of Western conquerors in contrast to the despotic, barbaric, lawless, decaying regimes of the lands they now colonized. Others fulfilled romantic notions of an exoticized, often sexualized, non-Western world filled with slave markets, nude harems and noble warrior savages–more indicative of a European gaze than anything approaching reality. As Said noted, Orientalism in the end was a study of the West alone (as it was a creation of the West) and tells us little of the East as it actually existed.

Said’s thesis has been argued and counter-argued for decades, with some criticizing his views of Western explorations of the East as overly simplistic. Detractors claim that some of the research done by Westerners was well-meaning and not part of any imperial project–though how you discern that exactly (as if one negates the other) remains unexplained. At any rate, I don’t intend to get into that now. Certainly any theoretical model remains open to debate, and one as expansive as Said’s provokes diverse opinions. However, what Said introduced me to was an answer for what had so long bothered me in the fantasy genre–the act of “othering” of non-Western (more aptly put, non-white) peoples. I’d later explore this notion of the “other” and alterity through numerous other thinkers, part of postcolonial critical theory since the mid 20th century.

When we speak of this idea of “othering,” we’re not talking about something a few bad people did. There wasn’t one nefarious guy who created it and set it into being. It existed at the very heart of Empire and the colonial project; it became the founding ethos of entire academic disciplines and social science, pervading everything from research methodologies to literature to popular art. It is institutionalized and, in some ways, inescapable. It can also be quite conflicting, where even well-meaning explorers or researchers in the West may still end up creating “othering” memes in their attempts to study non-Western people; simultaneously, those who are “studied” can themselves institutionalize some of these same “othering” notions about themselves. For instance, how does one fully evaluate Orientalist art, which at once introduces us to startling and informative picturesque settings of the non-Western world–yet is in the end a type of fabrication borne of the Western gaze? No simple answers.

 

Part 2 of this series explores the historical background of this “othering” and its manifestations in contemporary SFF.

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Read more by Phenderson Djeli Clark Find him on Twitter @pdjeliclark

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7 replies

  1. “Too dark to be a Hobbit” is not racism. The part calls for specific features, and if you don’t fit the role, you don’t fit the role. Find other battles to fight instead of one’s not worth fighting.

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  2. Yep, there sure is a poor grasp of history. The Vikings traded with Arabs often, but in the History Channel’s Vikings show, there are only white people as far as the eye can see. That show is not even billed as fantasy, but it is in a lot of ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This on top. A lot of what is peddled as “medievalist fantasy” fails badly at the “medieval” part, making those times whiter and more masculine than they every were, often translating the Victorian invention of the upper class housewife into the context of an agrarian society where everybody was economically active because if you didn’t, you starved.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Indeed. A lot of fantasy, especially the ones that imagine a lily white medieval world, are based more on our false *perceptions* of that era than the era as it actually existed. So you have key fantasy writers who will say with a straight face, “but there were no PoC in medieval Europe,” when historical manuscripts speak of 30 Ethiopian diplomats visiting Western Europe as part of an expedition in 1305. Our visions of the past are as much part of our imagination.

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    • Great point. The Vikings were known for their seafaring, and were fundamental in trade (including a slave trade in Celts and Slavs) that reached much of the Eastern world–including the famed Black Sea ports. It’s very easy to diversify much of our ideas of the past, if we bother to actually apply the history we already know.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fantasy is and has always been my most favourite genre and also the one I’ve become very disenchanted with. Being a woman I share your experiences of being erased from the stories as a meaningful character, though not those experiences of being the eternal evil Other. At least I had Eowyn to desperately cling to.
    I find it tells you a lot about people if their limit of imagination is “marginalised people actually having lives, characters and roles.”

    BTW, there are actually PoC in Frozen. Watching it the umpteenth time with my kids I discovered that in the ballroom scene there are several people of colour among the guests. Which kind of makes it even worse: The makers realized that the world is not only populated with people who need SPF 50 but they also didn’t think it acceptable to give one of them the role of one of the foreign emmisaries.

    Liked by 1 person

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