Why I Don’t Care for The Epic-Fantasy Genre

Onyx Contributor:  Johnny Silvercloud (@JohnnySilverclo)


Growing up in America as a Afro-American child is fascinating, looking back on it all as an adult.  In the eighties, we had movies like The NeverEnding Story and The Princess Bride.  Honestly, these two movies are awesome, epic, and any attempt to rehash or reboot them would be, wait for it — inconceivable.  Sure, who doesn’t love following Westley on his quest to, technically, save the Princess?  Who doesn’t love following Atreyu through those deadly statues?  What about the Indigo Montoya?  “My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”  

Fantasy — Epic-Fantasy as a genre — has always been a huge reservoir to pull fictional works from.  Television shows, books, movies and of course, video games have all reached into the epic-fantasy genre.  Epic-fantasy as a genre has even branched off to define other fictional works, such as Star Wars — a sci-fi fantasy, which is different than the regular sci-fi work.  Another example would be pseudo-futuristic settings, such as Final Fantasy 7.

Don’t get me wrong here, I love epic-fantasy like any other hot-blooded American.  Trust me when I tell you, that I’ll still watch these movies and play these video games.  But the new stuff?  I can’t get into it anymore.  Being that I’m sort of trained at analyzing and assessing society, I won’t enjoy epic-fantasy.  There’s too much white supremacy placed in epic-fantasy themed stuff.

I’m tired of people asking me if I watch Game of Thrones, because I don’t.  It’s almost like I refuse to watch it.  I never cared about Lord of the Rings either.  Actually a friend of mine tried to get me into it.  He told me that it’s technically parallel to Star Wars on how epic the saga is.  Sure, I gave it a try.  I feel asleep in his living room.  It doesn’t grasp anymore.

Fantasy While Black

The problem with fantasy works lies in its relatability to a nonwhite person.  You see, as an American it’s almost like you are given a white identity by way of how mainstream entertainment works, and you don’t realize you’re not white until you get your wake-up call.  You never really question these things, such was why are all the knights-in-shining-armor were white.  You never question these things until you, as a child playing, are informed that you can never be Westley, Atreyu, Cloud Strife, Link, or whoever that white guy hero was… because you are black, and they are white.  You never really question these things, until you are attempting to write epic-fantasy fiction yourself, and in doing so you attempt to make the heroes look like yourself.

It gets worse when you factor in the pain that black cosplayers go through.  Black cosplayers are infinitely told that they cannot model as these fictional characters because of their skin color.  The black model featured on the right is supposed to be Tifa Lockhart off of Final Fantasy VII.  Long hair, red gloves, black shorts, white shirt, that’s Tifa.

Cosplay models are very similar to the fantasy writers.  Where the fantasy writers seek to bring characters to life, cosplayers seek to bring these characters to life, literally into our reality.  The amount of black and nonwhite cosplayers is enormous.  One factor of the number of nonwhite cosplayers is the fact that much cosplay deals with representing video game characters, which are written by mostly Asian (and thus nonwhite) people.  The other factor as to why there’s so many black cosplayers is more profound:  it’s easier to represent these characters on your own versus being signed to play them in a television show or movie — and there is a demand for them.  We really want to see ourselves in fantasy work.  How our black cosplayers are received today still points to the problem of the lack of diversity in fantasy.

It’s almost like, you are given a profound load of European identity matter (coined it here) by how Eurocentric and white supremacist our society is, only to have it viciously pulled from you, like, “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids!”  But it’s more like, “Silly darkie, whites are for whites!”

The racism is too real in fantasy.  Is this how white people view the world?

I find a strange irony in how something in “fantasy” can be so realistic.  The racism in the fantasy realm is pretty strong; why do elves, dwarves (and any other fantasy race) always exist with their own pre-existing stereotypes?  For example, dwarves as a race are usually loud and boisterous, and good with their hands.  Elves on the other hand, are usually chill, serene, and are good with nature and magic.  Why?  Ogres are usually chaotically evil.  Why?  Dark Elves always cheat and lie.  For what?  Why?  And in all of this, it’s the “human” race (read:  white race) who has the full spectrum of emotionality and behavioral traits.  Why?

I wonder if there’s more reality in fantasy fiction than intended.  Do white people see the world — see reality — just like they construct the fantasy world?  In my racism/diversity studies, it’s looking more and more like this is on the money.  White people seem to look at people of color as if we are elves (Asian people?), dwarves (Latino people?), dark elves (black people?) and orcs (Muslims?).  Epic-fantasy’s racial attributes tend to dangerously reflect the moral and ethical behaviors of an individual within thier race.  This means that, within fantasy worlds, the goodness or evil of an individual is predetermined by her or his race.  In analyzing epic fantasy, I really do believe white people view the world like this; they see themselves as the norm/default and see everyone else in tropes and stereotypes.  In the fantasy world, terms of good and evil tend to be affixed to the races within that fantasy work, and that’s inherently flawed.  The most dangerous group identity on the planet is the group that thinks they are infinitely the good guys.  The most dangerous group of people are the people who engage in “us versus them” group-naturalized morality, versus behavior/action based morality.

“Of course, the major race that isn’t associated with rigid moral attributes, that is allowed ethical ambiguity and individual alignment, is human.  And human, in most fantasy worlds, isn’t much more than shorthand for “white.” White is seen as the default in storytelling, but it is especially typical of fantasy to create various nations of diverse white people, including other humans and their countries and cultures as background noise or obstacles for the white protagonists to overcome.  The attribution of rigid racial characteristics is especially problematic given the freedom humans have to be good, evil, or neutral as they will.” ~ Joanna, Geekalitarian:  Women of Geek Culture

What’s worse with epic-fantasy, is how European-centralized it is.  We for example, know all about European-type epic fantasy.  But what about Asian fantasy?  African fantasy?  What do these things look like?  In how the Eurocentric fantasy form is, we know what the dragon looks like:  big, relatively fat, may or may not fly, breathes fire.  We know that in East-Asian culture the dragons look radically different; being more slender like a decorated snake with legs.  But we never heard of an epic tale of a Chinese kid having to slay one to save a princess.  I have no idea what African dragons look like.  I have no idea what the epic saga of an African kid dealing with swords and shields, maybe with a little magic, looks like.

When it comes to diverse representation, the epic-fantasy genre sucks.  When these movies and television shows are casting roles, it look like one giant excuse to cast nothing but white people.  The problem I have, is the fringe logic behind it:  how is it acceptable to add fictional races for “false diversity” but not real ones (for real diversity)?  So in this fantasy world, elves and dwarves exist, but African and Asian people don’t?  Why?  You can make a clan of hobbits or a clan of giants which means that their imaginations accounted for height differences, but they continue to fail to account for skin tone differences?  How does this work?

I’ve always pointed out the flaw of this liberalism called “colorblindness”.  When white people say they are colorblind, that will end up meaning that they only see, and thus only picture white people existing.  In attempting to never mention race, they end up excluding everyone except whites, which becomes even more racist.  The side effect in epic-fantasy however, is that the fantasy races end up being parallel to racism in reality.  I can probably further research this, but it seems for example, that the classic “ogre/orc” type of fantasy race is very similar to the hyper-exaggerated black caricatures whites invented of black people to further deny black people of their humanity, and rationalize their racism.  I can probably go on and analyze the rest, but I think the writing’s on the wall here.

Fixing Modern Fantasy

I think it was Chris Rock who pointed out that technically, if acting was just acting, then a black guy can be cast as George Washington.  While casting a black person as George Washington may break the viewers suspension of belief, this logic can totally fly in the fantasy realm.  The thing that irks me the most about modern works of fantasy is the fact that it does not have to be deeply eurocentric in nature.  Fantasy, in the strictest definition of the term, should literally be a fantasy where it’s a very diverse set of people in the story, and it doesn’t even have to be explained.  An example of this would be this movie called Last Knights, where you had Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen in a medieval sword-and-shield setting.  Morgan Freeman’s character was a Lord/King type, with Clive Owen as his top commanding knight.  The movie had numerous black, Asian, latino people in it on top of your standard-issue whites, and it was amazing.  The top bad guy had an Asian commanding knight, and NONE of this diversity was explained or even lampshaded.  That’s precisely what fantasy, or at least modern fantasy should look like.  Black, white, Asian, Polynesian, Amerindian, Middle Eastern, South Asian, Latino, the list goes on.  In a fantasy setting anyone should be able to be cast as anyone, literally.  Modern fantasy blows my mind how they call themselves “fantasy” while adhering to reality so hard.

Marvel Cinematic Universe displays another superb example of this with thier Thor movies.  Instead of making everyone in Asgard white, there’s a diversity with the race/ethnicities of those Nordic gods.  It’s awesome.  That’s what fantasy should look like.  The best thing about how the Thor movies do this, is how everyone can appear as any ethnicity, and it’s not even mentioned why.  They just exist as is.  Many videogames are also catching on.  The Suikoden series is a role-playing game (RPG) who always boasts 108 characters per game, and they always have a diverse set of characters.  The Final Fantasy series tend to have a diverse set of characters as well, especially with their pseudo-futuristic themed settings.

Tomorrow may yield better better times

In short, I guess I’m going to continue to have this general disdain for the epic-fantasy genre.  With movies like Last Knights, and Marvel Cinematic Universe making great strides in correcting this fantastic flaw maybe the best is yet to come.  Today however, is not that day.

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