Representing heroism

I love fantasy. I love magic and elves and dragons and shit. I’m the girl who would love to spend a weekend watching entire extended edition Lord of the Rings trilogy. I know Red Sonja is a piece of shit but I’ll watch it whenever it’s on TV anyway (when I have access – which is only when I’m visiting my family in Virginia). I love the fuck out of Willow.

Eragon and the D&D movie can kiss my ass for being fantasy movies for people who hate fantasy.

It’s funny that I bring up Willow too, since it touches upon something that, as a fantasy genre buff and a roleplayer, has been a concern of mine for a while: the overwhelming straight White cis maleness of heroes.

Not trying to talk shit about the golden boys Neo Prodigy likes, but isn’t it time for fantasy to diversify our palate for the heroic?

You would think that, in made-up worlds where people can shoot lightning out of wooden sticks or ride winged unicorns or create new species with some candles and mystic mumbling, that there would be a place in those worlds for heroes to rise who have different colors, different genders, different abilities, and so on. In fact, the support for such characters already exists in the framework of these worlds!

Let me limit myself to D&D for a minute. Do you realize that D&D actually had magic item called a girdle of opposite sex? While this was used in a cissexist way – that is, making a joke about gender misalignment – why not assume that a trans male wizard invented this item to make his body reflect the man inside? Imagine what that mean for transgendered people in this world? No hormones. No surgery. No public scrutiny.

Let’s not get started on race. Why is it that, in worlds where every sentient species is fucking every other sentient species and making lots of babies, White people are still at the center of the world? I have nothing against the medieval European aesthetic. Again, remember Willow and Lord of the Rings.

But would seeing Chiwetel Ejiofar play a captain of Gondor really fuck up my suspension of disbelief? Uh, no. Not really. But if he were the only Black guy there, just standing around being Black and shit, all by himself, wondering where to get fried chicken and watermelon in Minas Tirith, yeah, it would.

Shit, they have Angel Coulby as Gwenivere on Merlin! So it’s not like women of color can’t be love interests or (gasp!) heroines in their own right.

But they made her a maid instead of a noblewoman, which is sketchy as all hell. WTF? Would making her a member of the ruling class start giving Black women ideas about our own worth or some shit?

Yet so many games and settings act like the only humans who could conceivably exist in these worlds are White people. OK, maybe they throw in something vaguely Asian over in the corner of the world map. But they have to stay over there on the margins where they can be exotic and mystical and shit.

Er, yeah.

I bring this up because all too often, the straight White cis men who already dominate this hobby seem particularly averse to introducing elements that acknowledge that the rest of us exist and would like to see ourselves reflected in the wonder and magic of other worlds too. Yet the status quo is almost to have to justify the very presence of heroic women, heroes of color, LGBTQ heroes, and disabled heroes. As though what would stand out in a world of gnolls and hobgoblins and bugbears is the fact that someone has more melanin or estrogen than your standard faux medieval fantasy novel hero.

Need I remind you that we’re not talking about historical fiction? These are worlds where magic is real and otherworldly creatures walk around and people’s minds don’t snap upon witnessing these invasion of unreality. If Cthulhu showed up, the denizens of these worlds would shrug and be like, “Another evil god. We need to hire some heroes again. This shit’s breaking my bank. Bob, how many gold pieces do we have in the community fund?”

But a mix of colors and shapes for the regular humans somehow warps the reality of these worlds?

Riiiiiiight.

It would be one thing if these worlds were based on a specific mythology, such as one inspired by the Mahabharata (which has UFO battles and magical creatures – and outdates Shadowrun by some 2,000 years). But most of the time, they’re a weird amalgamation of Tolkienesque fantasy, a mish-mash of various real-world mythologies, and American action films.

In fact, I’ve sometimes argued that, as played, D&D has more in common with westerns than epic fantasy. There’s a sort of frontier mentality about how D&D adventures often work. You have a wide-open world with strange people and creatures wandering around where the boldest and strongest make their way to seek their fortune.  Historically, the Old West was extremely diverse. White settlers, Black cowboys, Native American guides and warriors, Chinese laborers. And that’s just race. I really don’t think Brokeback Mountain was the first time two cowboys fell in love, so why is it such a big deal for adventurers to get some same-gender loving too? And transgendered people have always been with us. Some societies actually created a space for them that honored who they were. So why not include them without the stigma they face in everyday life?

I don’t want to ignore disability either. Really, could you imagine Avatar: The Last Airbender without Toph? Or if she somehow gained sight? Despite what we see as a disability (actually, directly because of it), she’s more able than just about every other character on the show, with the exception of Aang. If I wanted to make a character like her, why should the game penalize me for it? If my character is an amputee (someone similar to, say, Anakin Skywalker), why not have a magical prosthetic limb that is more useful in many cases than one of flesh and blood?

What’s so hard about including the rest of us in your imaginary playground? Why is it that we can imagine worlds filled with people unlike any we’ve encountered before yet somehow can’t imagine the people we see everyday being there too?

18 thoughts on “Representing heroism

  1. Oh god that comic.

    But I agree with the article. People act like it’s so unbelievable for women or black people or anyone else to be part of fantasy (or any kind of fictional) story. As if people of different races, genders, etc don’t interact with each other en masse daily. It’s fairly unusual in real life for situations to be 100% white straight cis men ONLY (it happens, but usually in smaller situations). It actually strikes me as kind of weird that women in particular are so excluded, or at best given one spot in a team of six men or something.

    These are the same people who will probably defend to the death, say, a movie depicting Cleopatra and every citizen of Egypt as freckly and pale with light brown hair.

    • @Syd:

      Exactly. And what also gets me is how they use real-life history to justify homogeneous fantasy worlds. Remember, we are talking about elves, dragons, gods and other shit walking around.

  2. Co-signed on all of this.

    Personally, the only reason I’m giving Angel Coulby’s Guinevere a pass on the maid business is because I know (at least they better be) that they’re setting her up to be the Anti-Morgana.

    Morgana was the rich white girl who has had a privileged life and descends into darkness.

    This Guinevere however is a woman of the people, she’s humble and kind but will check Arthur’s ass and will be the one who tempers his asshole nature and make him a great king and she will be a great queen by his side.

    At least that better be where they’re going with this.

  3. @Neo Prodigy

    I know right!

    But seriously, I should note that I am much more likely to give an RPG product a second look if they act like people like me exist without making them bad guys.

    For real, I picked up Sovereign Stone just because they had civilized Black people as a part of the setting. And I almost did likewise with Pathfinder when I saw her on the cover, but my budget and my hated for 3rd edition would make it a waste of money.

  4. @RVCBard #4,

    And then, in the same breath, yell, “It’s only a ____ (Insert media here)” when a character of color is now made White OR a previously disabled character is now removed (reference Bionic Woman 2007 for this one).

    • @Heavy Armor:

      Yeah, it’s “only a [fill in the blank]” until the “minority” becomes the hero, then it’s all about being accurate and the spirit of the [insert media] or whatever.

  5. Dear Goddess! I need impulse control on my link clicking. The amount of (continuing) fail in that third link has its own gravitational pull on me. =/

    -Ani8

  6. Oh. My goodness. This is wonderfully written. I’m even more honoured that you’ve asked to repost some of my articles. Please do, and take my apologies for it being not quite of the same calibre as this. :D

  7. Let fantasy be fantasy. I have heroes and villains of all races, sexes and colors in my game world. Variety is fun and different and colorful. Just because we are stuck in one body in reality, no reason not to explore other types of them (as well as other personalities) in games.

  8. Sorry to throw a bucket of water over this, but I expect my fantasy to be at least specific/accurate to the time and place it’s derived from. That means, if I set my fantasy novel/movie/TV show/comic book/video game in the European Middle Ages, there will mostly be white people in it, because that’s who was there. If I base a fantasy novel/movie/TV show/comic book/video game on someplace in Asia during the medieval periods of Asian history, most of the cast will be Asian (as was done in Avatar: The Last Airbender.) To be sure, there have been alternate histories where white and black people have coexisted side by side, as in Steven Barnes’s Dar Kush trilogy ( Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart.) However, that’s Mr. Barnes’s universe and characters, and he came up with a great methodology to do so. Having people of color in Middle Earth when there weren’t any in the real-life medieval Europe it’s based on goes beyond illogical to being somewhat dumb, IMHO, and is just as bad as whitewashing the Avatar: The Last Airbender feature film.

    If people really want to see fantasy worlds with people of color in them, it’s time to quit bellyaching and start writing/creating them. Better yet, instead of looking to the past, why not look to the future and write science fiction with people of color in it? Or do what Mr. Barnes did with his trilogy and create alternative hsitorical science fiction with people of color in it?

    • People like to think that Britain was completely white until a few years ago which isn’t the case. It’s something that can be uncovered with just a tiny bit of research but people seem to prefer to remain in ignorance and use it as a justification for racism.

      The first black and Asian people arrived in England along with the Romans. There were enough black people living in England that by the 16th Century, Queen Elizabeth I was complaining there were too many and trying to deport them.

      There’s plenty evidence of people of colour existing in medieval Europe.

      Although really, as if that even matters. If people are willing to believe in magic and dragons why do they start crying “it’s unrealistic” when people want to write about something that’s not a straight white cis-male.

  9. If you say so.

    BTW, in case you might have missed it . . .

    Oh yeah, and if you count things like Journey to the West, the Ramayana, and Sundiata, people of color have been at the fantasy schtick for a while.

    Not to mention, framing the problem as POCs being too dull-minded and lazy to come up with their own shit (as opposed to things like, say, lack of suitable marketing, lack of outreach, and whitewashing the fuck out of anything good that breaks the alabaster mold) is sketchy as hell.

  10. A number of years back there was a made-for-tv version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with a multi-racial cast. (I think Disney had something to do with it?)

    The stepmother (Bernadette Peters) was white, one of her daughters was white and the other was black, Cinderella (Brandi) was black, the King (Victor Garber) was white, the Queen (Whoopi Goldberg) was black, and the Prince (Paolo Montalban) was Filipino.

    And you know what? It was great.

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