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Escapism vs. Activism, OR: “It’s Just TV!”

“The Klingons are the Dothraki of Star Trek — the scary, warmongering Other from the Heart of Darkness out in deep space. The great thing about imaginary black and brown people is that white sci-fi/ fantasy writers can project their repressed oriental fetishes onto a blank canvas without taking responsibility – “WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT’S RACIST, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS KLINGONS OR DOTHRAKI! How can we be racist towards people WHO DON’T EVEN EXIST??” Funny how it’s always real black and brown people who have to play the role of the imaginary ‘non-existent’ warrior/tribal/primitive/race.” — Aamer Rahman, posting on i09 last June. 

How much do politics matter in storytelling?

I’m not talking about writers’ politics (though I might, next week — I started this post trying to talk about both topics and realized I had plenty to say there too). I’m asking about how much awesome characters, fabulous storytelling and brilliant world-building balance problematic elements in a particular story.

Of course, this is hardly a new topic: it’s even one that I’ve circled around before in this space. But it’s something that seems to be getting a lot of press recently in a couple fandoms to which I’m a proud subscribermost notably A Song of Ice & Fire/Game of Thrones and Doctor Who. Both universes have a lot to love in them: both also have elements that are profoundly problematic, particularly around race and gender.

Most of the grief around Doctor Who seems to be directed at Steven Moffat, primarily for his choice of another white male actor to play the newest Doctor; there’s also no shortage of fan unhappiness with the Doctor’s last few female companions, whose primary jobs seem to be to get into trouble and be rescued by some male person or another.

In the world of Westeros, we could talk about the points Rahman makes in his criticism of Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline, that the Klingons — oops, I mean Luxans — oops, I mean Dothraki — embody just about every stereotype of the “othered” warrior race and don’t get much opportunity to do otherwise, and that they also tend to be played on screen by black and brown people (yes, I know Farscape is an exception that particular trope, but their violent warrior race is still pretty violent-warrior-racey). We could extend it to talk about the fact that there are relatively few black and brown people in ASOIAF overall, and that the argument “but it’s set in quasi-medieval quasi-England, so of course the indigenous people will be white” ignores the fact that GRRM had no apparent problem adding dragons, wargs or zombies to a setting that probably didn’t have those historically, either.

If we wanted to open a whole different can of worms, we could turn to the controversy around sexual violence and misogyny in ASOIAF, a discussion which was already present around the books (summarized well here by Alyssa Rosenberg) and has only gained steam with the TV show (here‘s a discussion from AV Club of the problem as crystallized in the most recent episode of Season 4: possible trigger warning for sexual violence.). The general apologist response to this tends to be “well, life for women in the Middle Ages was really terrible, so…”; people also point to strong female characters like Brienne of Tarth and Asha Greyjoy.

Last summer, while visiting the East Coast, I had a conversation with a beloved friend and mentor about GRRM’s books, which she’d recently made her way through for the first time. She was not only deeply bothered by the sexual violence, but found their overall message deeply disturbing: (spoilers under the break)She argued that the overall message of Martin’s world was that being a good and honorable person (like Ned Stark) gets you killed, and that the ones who survived were the people who were willing to betray their friends and that violence was the way to solve problems. When I pointed to characters like Tyrion Lannister and Samwell Tarly, neither of whom has a traditional Hollywood look and both of whom solve problems with their wits rather than their swords, she raised an eyebrow and asked if I had a guess how many of those reading the books might want to be seen as identifying with Sam Tarly.

My friend’s point was that fiction is our modern way of creating legends, and that legends carry great power in a culture. The conversation left me uncomfortable, not least because it seemed like she was arguing that authors shouldn’t be able to tell cynical stories (and I wouldn’t even necessarily argue that Martin’s story is ultimately cynical — I’m reserving judgment until the end); but almost a year later, the point’s still resonating with me. How much do the kinds of stories we read — and tell — affect us? How important is it to think about the ramifications of your artistic choices?

I talked about this recently with another friend in the context of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (yes, I’m finally watching this series, 15 years after everybody else). About halfway through the series, there’s a major character who goes from dating opposite-gendered people to a same-gendered person, and who matter-of-factly adopts the label “gay” for themselves. My friend and I had a long debate about whether this approach missed a valuable opportunity to display a bisexual identity on-screen, and he surprised me by adopting a version of the “medieval Europe had white people” argument: “If the character wants to call themselves gay, that’s their right!” “…if they were a real person, I’d agree with you, but they aren’t the one who chose that label.”

I read a great essay recently from a blog that sadly appears to be defunct, on being a fan in problematic fandoms (the comments are pretty awesome, too). The author basically argues that readers and viewers should feel free to like what they like, without guilt — but that they should also accept others’ rights to be uncomfortable about what’s depicted, and to want to discuss that discomfort.

Of course, as a writer, this resonates with me on a whole other level as well, as I struggle to figure out how many social issues I want to attempt to tackle in my own fantasy world. I encountered a quote in an interview with author Paul Cornell in the March issue of Locus Magazine that really seemed to speak to this:

“In my work, I believe in deliberate diversity. It doesn’t ‘just happen naturally.’ Everything a writer does is a decision. You can’t leave a manuscript open overnight and have gay men grow in the pages like mustard and cress. If you don’t include diverse characters on purpose, you’re just unconsciously following the prevailing culture, and perpetuating inequality.”

As I’ve said before, I don’t think that any one piece can take a stand for every social issue in the real, modern world. But I do think that we as authors have some obligation to be conscious of our choices. If your hero’s going to be a white, male, cisgender, able-bodied heterosexual between the ages of 16 and 25 (which — spoiler alert — mine is… at least until he ages out of the last category in the later books…) you should at least be aware of what you’re doing in making those choices. Think about it. Because if your work becomes the next Game of Thrones, well, maybe you really are writing legends.

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  1. The Politics of Fandom | Sociologist Novelist

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