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Social Issues in Fantasy (Part 2)

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Feb. 10, 2024

Last time I'd talked about rather superficial and/or inappropriate attempts to weave commentary on real world social issues into a fantasy or scifi world. The discussion in the comments was FANTASTIC! I urge everyone to have a look if you haven't already.

The general consensus was that attempting to drop an analogy for social issues in a fantasy world that match those of the real world can be pretty clumsy and full of pitfalls. The main pitfall of that being an inadequate grasp of how social issues arise and develop sociologically and politically in any society and culture, or societies and cultures. Often a big faux pas is to give justification for racism (or any other issue) in the fantasy counterpart that doesn't exist in reality, thus in a way strengthening the validity of stereotypical/racist (or any other -ist) behavior in real life.

But how can one do that while avoiding the pitfall? Again, the general consensus was that the creator would have to do their homework and create the social issue organically in that world. That means the fantasy/ scifi world's history and sociopolitical interactions of different groups within and across cultures should be such that social friction will give rise to the problem the creator wants to exist. And to do that correctly (rather than sloppily as described above), in a way there should be no bad race.

If you have an “evil race”,

or an evil “school”

then this becomes justified:

Genocide does have a Disney song, who'd have thought.

Of course in Pocahontas, there has been clear demonstration that the Native Americans aren't an evil race and neither are the whites (though they have the most malicious instigators). Though I generally don't like Pocahontas for a gazillion reasons, I have to hand it to the movie that it doesn't villify any group as a lump sum.

In the same token, to have racism (or any such social issue) in fantasy, it has to be racism that makes sense within this fantasy world and without that being justified by any “inherently evil” group or race. Tolkien does it really well in Lord of the Rings, where there is clear enmity between the dwarves and the elves, solely because of their cultures and a sense of territorialism and ‘otherness’.

There's little that will change your opinion if you get to know an orc (as any hobbit can tell you), but when an elf and a dwarf getting to know each other better makes for one of the coolest bromances put on film- and a solid indication that the discrimination and enmity between these two races/cultures isn't based much on anything factual.

Social frictions all have a root in that “otherness” together with threat. A fear that these “others” will disrupt their norms, lives, security of livelihood, integrity, and more. This fear breeds enmity and hostility which can then be further cultivated by a society's nodes of power that use such enmity as a way to channel social discontent that stems from different issues into that one: poverty makes people angry? It's the Others' fault, not our shoddy management of resources. Disease makes people angry and terrified? It's the Others' fault, not our complete lack of precautions or preventions or ignorance. Drought? The Others did it! War? Definitely the Others made us do it. Etc.

This of course happens on both sides, because it's human nature to blame someone other than yourself. And in macro levels, yourself is your group where you feel you belong, and the “others” are someone that don't belong with you. And that goes for anything/anyone that can be “othered”. Women (or men) can be “othered” as lesser of the species. People with blue eyes can be “othered” as cursed within a group or those that have moles or anything that could (and should) sound ridiculous, from outward appearance to sexual orientation or special needs, not just people that are foreign one way or the other.

The point is that to depict such an issue, the fantasy world's discrimination must be just as baseless and frivolous as the one in real life, rather than an aping that looks more like the fantasy world wearing the real world's skin really badly than anything else.

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PaulEberhardt at 7:46AM, Feb. 12, 2024

I've always liked how fantasy as a genre can play with the fear of the other people have always had (I think it goes right back to the stone age, when strange hunter-gatherer tribes were dangerous competition.) You have a setting that is deliberately "other" already, so you contrast it with another "other" that is even "otherer" to make the first "other" look normal in comparison. There is a huge variety of other "others" that can all be contrasted against each other, as well as the not-so other "other". I hope these sentences make sense. What I mean to say is that to do it right an author has to hit a sweet spot that always just stays one step away from confusing readers by taking them too far out of their comfort zone. No wonder Hollywood screenwriters who aren't paid for being imaginative just focus on the sensational aspects of this that invariably make it all too simplistic.

PaulEberhardt at 7:28AM, Feb. 12, 2024

As Mr Freud didn't but should have said: sometimes an orc is only an orc. :) I still think that how well addressing social issues like racism in fantasy works has a lot to do with how preachy it is made, as a close second to oversimplification, as everywhere else. As a positive example I'd like to mention the late Sir Terry's approach in the Discworld novels: "Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because - what with trolls and dwarfs and so on - speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green." Which of course directly lampoons the clumsy, insensitive way of addressing racism in fantasy that we discussed here.

TroyVS at 5:36AM, Feb. 10, 2024

Shout out to modern high fantasy settings where dwarves and elves have learned to stop being so overtly racist ALL the time

marcorossi at 3:36AM, Feb. 10, 2024

The problem is, IMHO, that while we can argue whether in the real world "good" and "evil" exist or it is just a matter of points of view, a narrative world is created by a human mind, so inside it "good" and "evil" will allways be objective. Tolkien is an extreme case, but in genral if I write a story and I have an antagonost that has to be defeated, I'll have to mark him/her as objective evil for the story to work, or if not the antagonist proper he or she will be influenced by someone else who is the objective evil.

bravo1102 at 1:41AM, Feb. 10, 2024

And stories are told making the otherness evil and an entire mythology can grow making any attempt at living side by side appear impossible. Furthermore, genocide becomes reasonable because of how much more "other" the mythology paints them. And the mythology can change generation to generation as some try to camouflage it because it was called out previously. It's like how nearly every conspiracy theory today has some aspect from antisemitism within it and that dig deep enough in the rabbit hole that is conspiratorial thinking you always find antisemitism. Nazism was only one expression of a much larger belief system and one that is growing stronger once more.

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