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Social Issues in Fantasy (Part 1)

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Feb. 3, 2024

During times of censorship, or times where exploring issues in the real world might be tricky, using fantasy or science fiction to do it is a real and viable solution. Dressing up the thing you want to explore into something cute and fuzzy might be just the way to go without immediately getting the hackles up from the left or the right or the government or some extremist loon or anyone else.

…but there's a problem.

It's something I often see in Hollywood attempts at least, and something that always rubs me the wrong way, especially when the issue tackled is racism.

To explore a problem in a fictional world it isn't enough to simply ape the behaviors that code for racism in our world in the fictional one: it's not enough to put orcs in ghettos and give them a basketball and angry expressions when cops show up.

I'm using the two movies Bright and Zootopia because a) one is terrible and one is good and b) they both make terrible work of exploring racism, in my opinion at least. Together they illustrate perfectly that the problem isn't in the writing or the script, but in the worldbuilding and the setup.

The message of both these movies was, in broad strokes, that racism is bad and should be abandoned. In both movies one fantasy group is being discriminated against by the rest. In Bright it's orcs and in Zootopia it's carnivores/predator animals.

In Bright, the racism occurs because several centuries back the orcs were pretty much evil and nearly destroyed the world or some such thing (it's been a while since I watched it). Despite the fact that a messiah like orc emerged from them, they are regarded as inherently evil as a race and even eons later in the ‘modern’ fantasy world they're discriminated against.

In Zootopia, the racism occurs because several centuries back the predators were eating the herbivores. They stopped after a specific era and don't eat herbivores anymore BUT the urge can still be awoken in a predator to eat his/her/their fellow citizen and as such, herbivores are wary of them.

In my eyes the orcs in Bright code as black or POC. The mannerisms and the ghetto-style look is pretty unmistakable. The predators in Zootopia could be coding for black people, but also Jewish people, Roma, immigrants, other nationalities, etc. It's not as stereotypical as in Bright but it's clearly there.

And thus the problem arises: in these fantasy worlds, the prejudice stems from someplace valid and real. The orcs did nearly annihilate the world. The predators did eat the herbivores. It has been several years/centuries since, but the fact is commonly acknowledged as true and historical.

In real life racism rarely stems from that. In fact, racism doesn't stem from something that the discriminated against did. On the contrary, it stems from scapegoating by society to explain away a social problem that emerged from different reasons than the existence of the discriminated group. Black people didn't nearly destroy the world. Roma or Jewish people didn't prey on their fellow citizens wherever they were living. Immigrants aren't the cause of social problems but the symptom (when there's a connection at all; often there isn't).

But when in fantasy the problem is dressed as in Bright or Zootopia, the analogy is flawed. People get the ‘coding’ of the movie and can apply it to real life, but together with the A plot, they also apply the worldbuilding. “If they're discriminated against now, their ancestors did something in the past.” That's the worldbuilding's message. And it's wrong. It makes the movie look shallow and/ or that its creators didn't understand the problem they're exploring.

So how does one properly dress a social issue from the real world in the fantasy one?

I'll tackle that in the next part.

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PaulEberhardt at 10:58AM, Feb. 5, 2024

Well said, especially Oz and Marcorossi! I'm very much with Kingy on this one: why can't we just let the orcs be orcs and see where it takes us? Tolkien was very emphatically against reading anything he wrote as an allegory for possibly similar reasons. I instantly remembered a Star Trek TOS episode where the crew was baffled at two alien factions battling each other in an all-out war, because they don't have the black and white parts of their faces on the same side. That kind of thing is way too clumsy and preachy for my tastes, and the innocent astonishment the human show looks hypocritical, even if it makes sense in the utopian framework. It may have been a good idea in its own time, though. What we'd consider racist today was much more socially acceptable and much less thought of, so to get the message across at all you probably did have to rub it in. If so, this is why it isn't as timeless as it should be.

Ozoneocean at 7:04PM, Feb. 4, 2024

Two other movies that do the racial thing very badly are Avatar and Hans Solo. Avatar is bad at it because they just make the Navi into an idiot fantasy version of native Americans. Hans Solo literally makes African people into a persecuted and exploited "native" race- This in a world where humans are all the very SAME race (no matter what their skin tone), VS all the other alien races, that sort of creative segregation is pretty horrible.

Ozoneocean at 6:57PM, Feb. 4, 2024

@EssayBee - Alien Nation did it very well. I think District Nine did something very similar but from a different direction: the set up of the aliens being a poor slum liming underclass is the same but instead of having one of them as a fellow cop, the protagonist is a racist abuser who is forced to transform into one of them.

EssayBee at 11:05AM, Feb. 4, 2024

From what I remember, Alien Nation (both the movie and the TV series) treated social/racial aspects pretty well. (Keep in mind, I haven't seen either the TV show or movie in 25-30 years, so I'm not sure how well they stand up today, but from what I remember, it still seems relevant.) The aliens had integrated into society and worked along side humans, but there was always all sorts of racial issues concerning them. There were also bad-guy aliens who were driven by greed, showing that bad guys were essentially the same whether human or alien.

bravo1102 at 2:05AM, Feb. 4, 2024

It's a matter of context. If you're going to have prejudice it should have a reason in the created world. Takes a bit of research to find out the core foundations of prejudice and how it has evolved. It has come about more than once and isn't always a matter of "us" versus "not us". (It's not always "them". The tribalism can just be that they're not a part of our group, not that they're another group)

Kou the Mad at 9:23PM, Feb. 3, 2024

Any Fantasy setting that injects Earth Cultures into it without massive changes and the world making up the variables for said cultures to make sense are creatively bankrupt or just weren't trying to make coherent sense to begin with.

Kou the Mad at 9:19PM, Feb. 3, 2024

And Given Shamanism, Animism, and Totemism were all proven to be correct (Other faiths uncertain.), the Shamans of those faiths (Primarily Native American Shamans.) all started developing Magic Powers. Needless to Say, the Native Americans straight up took back a Chunk of North America and formed their own Nation, A Dragon became President of what Remained, Mexico took some of it's former Territory back and formed New Aztlan, the Caribbean all joined together to form the Caribbean Empire. And that's just off the top of me head. But my point is Shadowrun BEAUTIFULLY took it's setting and utilized it damn near perfectly, all while making the changes of the world make sense. The Cultures changed, and they changed in ways that made Sense to the setting.

Kou the Mad at 9:16PM, Feb. 3, 2024

It bothers me as well, It has to do with Culture in general. In That Culture is influenced by so many tiny variables, some of which so insignificant we aren't even aware of them. To use Bright there are Several Races and Magic, that would drastically change how Earth Devolped. The Dark Lord that existed in it (Who the Orcs served.) Yeah, that would change Basically EVERYTHING drastically. Borders, Religions, Culture Groups, and given the Other races ETHNIC groups. This Earth would not look like ours. In Contrast to the Setting it probably ripped off, Shadowrun, it explains why it's not as diffent as it could be. That being up til 2012 (The Mayan Calendar thing.) That Earth was Literally the same as ours, no changes at all.........Then Magic Came back, Elves and Dwarves were born on Human mothers, Children and Teenagers Goblinized and turned into Orcs and Trolls (Not to mention the Variants/Sub-species of each race, Humans included.).

Furwerk studio at 8:26PM, Feb. 3, 2024

Something that bugs me about furry settings is a lot of times it is set up as automatically "Herbivores vs Carnivores" and there's no real grey areas between them. I try to make some kind of sense out of the social issues in my setting, like in Nakamura Rex the Tigers of the China equivalent (I honest forgot what I call it) vs Wa, the Japan stand in, because it mirrors the history of our Earth, which is generational racism between the two countries and cultures. I also threw in a major wrinkle of having the China stand in invade another country after Magic was revealed and caused so much havok it left younger generations with a rage and hate toward them. It is not so simple as "you eat plants/meat so you are my enemy", it can be something like "you came over here, burned down my village and ran off with our women and treasures for centuries, up yours!"

Kingy at 1:15PM, Feb. 3, 2024

A big problem with these two examples especially Bright is that they're extremely unimaginative. The concept of your world having a race that is persecuted by others due to them being some titanic threat in the past has a lot of potential. But because the writers of these two stories NEED their fictional racism to be allegorical to a real world counterpart, its execution is hamfisted. The writers have an end point on how they want the Orcs / the Carnivores to be treated, but they aren't willing to put the work into getting to that point in the writing because they believe just copying the real world's homework but adding in a bunch of fictional bullshit (that would completely recontextualize the real world counterpart) will suffice.

Corruption at 9:27AM, Feb. 3, 2024

To me one series that dealt with discrimination right, was X-men. In it the mutants are hated and hunted not because of something they all did, but because of people fearing them for being different, or their powers, even if their mutant traits were not powers at all. Yes, some were evil, but all groups have evil members. Even among those ones, it was most often as a response to the normal humans discriminating and even outright slaughtering them. Their actions turn cases more normal humans to turn against them, thus continuing the cycle of hate and bloodshed. Are their flaws with this method? Yes. However, it is over all very good in delivering its message of not to discriminate. By being vague it can apply to other types of discrimination as well.

dragonsong12 at 8:55AM, Feb. 3, 2024

Yeeeeaaahhh...I did this myself in one of my's a bit of an old shame and a big reason I don't recommend anyone read them... -_-

Ozoneocean at 6:04AM, Feb. 3, 2024

The Bright issue is also that while the Orcs are coded as black people, there are ACTUAL REAL black people in that world too. It just doesn't work XD You can't have both at the same time. You have to either code the Orcs as their own unique thing or you have to make the black people in the world have to have a different history where they weren't brutualised and maginalised and didn't develop all that "urban" culture because you want to give it to the Orcs instead... That would be a pretty racist way of doing things though. :(

JohnCelestri at 4:17AM, Feb. 3, 2024

Hollywood will ALWAYS sugarcoat their movies. The Money People (Suits) don't want to offend anyone who believes in racism; thus, a story can't tell the unvarnished truth that racism is caused by one class feeling threatened by a lower class. That's why those who have managed to make headway up the social ladder of their "new" country/society look upon those immigrating into "their" country as invaders. To them, the new immigrants are to be feared as replacements for their jobs and security. That's why political demagogues always try to seek support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.

Tantz_Aerine at 3:30AM, Feb. 3, 2024

Well said Marcorossi!

marcorossi at 12:11AM, Feb. 3, 2024

There is also the problem that "race" doesn't really exist, it is mostly a cultural phenomenon. Skin color is not more important than hair color or nose size, however because of european colonialism it correlates with social class, in particolar in the USA, and this creates "racism" as we know it.

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