Fantasy has a privilege problem.
It’s a problem that has been cited time and time again, and it is no one specific privilege. It is multiple privileges – white, male, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied, mentally normative, colonial – working together that culminate in the result of mainstream fantasy media.
As somebody who has a fair few “problematic faves”, no small number of those belonging to the fantasy genre, I have recently started trying to think of examples where fantasy is used as an opportunity to subvert these kinds of ideological norms – taking the post-Tolkien sediment of the genre and planting there some fluorescent pink seaweed. Ultimately, though, it’s a lot easier to find reinforcements of this privileged ideology than challenges to it.
Thus, because fantasy is the genre (or was) of symbolism, metaphor and allegory, I’m gonna use a couple of examples of fantasy character who can give us some insights into how privilege works.
Let’s start with one of my favourite fantasy characters: Rubeus Hagrid from Harry Potter.
- It’s just a scratch
Hagrid was originally a character who I thought of a an example of a “good ally”, somebody who was privileged (symbolised by his incredible physical strength) but was aware of it and did their utmost to minimise its harmful effects on the less privileged people around them. I had to cancel those plans though, because Hagrid is a good example of privilege, but not in a good way.
He is constantly belittling and dismissing the lived experiences of people who do not have his experience of privilege. We can see this in practically every part of the saga where he’s involved with some kind of magical creature, in which he invariably completely overlooks or downplays the very real threat that said creatures – Aragog, Fluffy, Norbert, even his brother Grawp – pose to not just the Golden Trio but every one of his students. He is incapable of seeing things from their perspective; his physical power is invisible to him, and as such he cannot account for it when trying to relate to the experiences of those who are smaller than he is.
However, that doesn’t make him a bad guy or anything – it makes him perhaps an even more pertinent example of privilege than if he were, because most of the time privilege manifests itself in exactly this way: unintentionally. The reason people remember Hagrid with fondness as a “gentle giant” is because that’s his intention. Hagrid would never knowing harm anybody or put them in harm’s way. But because he has a different understand of what “harm” is, due to his “strength privilege” I guess, he constantly does put others in dangerous situations, and then dismisses their concerns as though it’s no big deal, because it’s not a big deal to him. Not because he’s trying to make them feel bad.
Nevertheless, intentions only get you so many merit points, and the worst part about Hagrid’s privilege is not only that it never goes away, but that he has all of these other people there who can see it – most notably Dumbledore and McGonagall – who never really call him out on it, either. Privilege does not exist in a vacuum, and when his peers (and employer) validate his attitudes by not drawing attention to them, we can see how his privilege is fostered by the complicity of others.
So what about the most unlikely hero in the fantasy canon, Frodo Baggins? How does he fare?
- Frodo Bourgeoisie and the Ring of Privilege
The example of Frodo is a fairly good one in terms of looking for a “good ally” allegory: Frodo has the Ring given to him and must deal with its damaging consequences, whether he wants the Ring or not. Lots of people who have their privilege pointed out to them will respond with something along the lines of: “I do not want that power. I have never wanted it!” Having privilege is not something you can really choose; you get it from society’s attitudes towards your very existence, whether you want it or not. You actually do not have a say in the matter, and yes, that is shitty.
But it doesn’t make it any less your responsibility, just as if you contract a contagious disease, it’s still your responsibility to let others know that you have it and take every precaution possible to prevent others from catching it, including getting medical attention to treat it if at all possible. The only difference here is that treating an illness is a matter of your life and death, as well as that of others, whereas with privilege it’s not your welfare on the line if you’re the one who has it.
Which is a similar situation to Frodo and the Ring’s relationship: Frodo would get “unnatural long life” and the power to turn invisible, yes, but the freedom of Middle Earth depends on him giving up that privilege. It is not just the Shire or the Fellowship at stake, it is the entire world. This is a little grandiose for an instance of individual privilege as an allegory, but privilege is never truly individual.
The part where the Ring drives him mad is where the allegory starts to fall apart, but you can see it as becoming a wilfully ignorant asshole who had their privilege called out and did nothing to change. Kind of. The fact that Sauron has power over the Ring also throws a spanner into the metaphorical works, but it’s kind of like the difference between a man and the patriarchy: one is a person who benefits from a system of privilege (again, whether or not they want to), and the other is that system of privilege itself. And just like throwing the One Ring into Mt Doom destroys Sauron, only by recognising and then giving up privilege entirely can ideological systems like patriarchy ever be truly erased.
But the thing with Frodo is that the Ring is far from his only privilege.
Frodo – and Bilbo – are as close to bourgeois as hobbits can get; they’re rich, they’re educated, their mannerisms are more ‘refined’ (or Frodo’s are anyway) than those of other people in their community; and the fact that Frodo and Sam are BFFs does not change the fact that Sam is Frodo’s fucking servant.
Yes, ostensibly he is merely Frodo’s gardener. But in both the books and the film, it is Sam who is constantly doting on and looking out for Frodo while he angsts about with the Ring; to be fair, the ring does have a rather debilitating effect on people, but particularly in the films there is no getting away from the fact that Frodo is pretty lazy. Sam cooks, Sam carries shit, Sam provides the emotional labour – he’s there for Frodo to fall back on. Who does Sam fall back on? And while Frodo is obviously grateful that Sam chases after him at the Falls of Rauros, this master-servant dynamic is always implicitly taken for granted with the two of them, because it is never mentioned and it also never changes. There is never a point at which their roles change; Sam always does the work, and in return, Frodo is grateful – though sometimes that’s to be taken for granted rather than actually expressed as well.
Which is actually another good example of privilege: if you have one kind of privilege, you generally have others as well. Frodo manages to confront his “Ring-bearer privilege” if you like, but never even realises his “employer-of-Sam-Gamgee” privilege. It is, sadly, entirely possible to be aware of certain privileges and remain ignorant of others at the same time, and Frodo gives us a pretty stellar example of that.
And since I have a teensy bit of imagination now – I didn’t really get a chance to talk about the racism in Beautiful Creatures since I was so busy talking about how Ethan is written poorly given his intended gender expression.
Let’s rectify that, shall we?
- Sweet Home Alabama
Beautiful Creatures is actually set in South Carolina, but whatever.
You may have heard of “fantastic racism“. Fantasy being the genre of allegory and metaphor and other substitutions, we’re all quite capable of drawing parallels between the age-old Elf-Dwarf conflict and real-world tensions between Black and White people, or looking at the Human-Orc turf war and seeing … well, exactly the same thing.
This works when you’re dealing with an entirely fictional world that has no real-world connections within the story itself. But it starts to break down when you’re dealing with a “portal fantasy”, wherein there is “another world” connected in some way to our own, or the world that stands in for our own. This is what happens in Harry Potter, and it’s also what happens in Beautiful Creatures, only instead of another world it’s just a hidden society.
And because this book is set in South Carolina …
Well, Ethan and Lena are out together on Halloween, and Ethan has the audacity to ask Lena why she hasn’t dressed up. She goes on to tell him about how Halloween represents a time of great oppression for the Caster community: “‘The Salem Witch Trials are just the ones your textbooks mention.’ She said ‘your’ like it was a dirty word, and today of all days, maybe it was.” (249)
It’s an interesting idea, insofar as taking real-world history and events and re-inscribing them with fictional significance, such as making it Hydra’s fault that every bad thing ever happened at all instead of the actual people responsible in real fucking life … where was I …
Yes, racism: there’s this character called Marian in the book (combined with the character of Amma in the film, which was honestly a good move), and she’s described as having … coffee? Mocha? Caramel? Well, a skin pigmentation that can apparently only be accurately described as an edible substance, which signifies that she’s a mixture of cultures and thus possesses exotic multicultural beauty excuse my vomiting etc. When Ethan and Lena go to her for help uncovering the mystery of the enchanted locket that serves as the catalyst for what little plot this book contains, she – a friend of Ethan’s dead mother and historian – starts waxing lyrical about the story of Ethan and Lena’s ancestors who were, respectively, a Confederate soldier and the daughter of a plantation-owner. Marian goes full fangirl on this shit, and does not once mention that Lena’s Caster ancestor had a slave named Ivy …
Who was the ancestor of Amma, Ethan’s current housemaid.
This is not mentioned once, by the sole other PoC character in the entire fucking book, who will later on quote Martin Luther King Jr. – in defence of Lena, a conventionally attractive white girl whose uncle owns half the fucking town and both of whom have magic powers. Can’t you feel how oppressed Lena is? All of these small-minded, also-white Southern hicks try to pick on her because she’s different to the other girls and wears skirts that cover her ankles and reads books? Don’t you think MLK would be so proud if he could have lived to see his words on justice for Black Americans being appropriated in the defence of a fictional white girl with no means by which to defend herself from being called names at school other than her supernatural fucking powers and the fact that her uncle owns the fucking town she’s being discriminated against in, AND ALSO HAS SUPERNATURAL FUCKING POWERS, WHICH HE THREATENS TO UNLEASH UPON THE ENTIRE TOWN IF THEY WON’T LEAVE HIS PRECIOUS OPPRESSED NIECE ALONE???
If you can’t tell, I’m not exactly a fan of the idea of “reverse racism”.
Or, in this case, reverse fantastic racism, and it makes the actual racism in the book so much worse.
Because the only injustice talked about in terms of race is how the Casters are scorned and demonised by the humans of Gatlin County; the only grand proclamations of how bigotry is wrong comes with reference to how it affects Casters, while totally-not-a-slave-Amma washes the dishes at Ethan’s place and only goes back to her house – which is in a fucking swamp – around midnight.
This is an example of “but what about me?” privilege. If you’re familiar with the “not all men” derailment of any feminist debate ever, the same kind of logic applies to the deployment of fantastic racism in Beautiful Creatures. It is slightly different: a privileged party (Casters) ignores blatant injustice against non-privileged people and communities (Amma and Marian seem to be the sole representatives of the non-white community of Gatlin County) and yet demands that their own struggles be validated, even though they’re absolutely trivial compared to that of non-privileged people and communities (Marian using MLK to defend Lena while erasing Ivy’s presence from her retelling of Ethan and Lena’s ancestors’ Confederate romance). It’s the narrative doing this rather than the actual characters, and rather than a derailment it’s an act of simple ignorance.
Ignorance of the suffering of others is a privilege.
Which brings us back around to the Hagrid example. Beautiful Creatures is trying to make a statement (I’m being very generous in saying that) through its allegorical racial tensions but doesn’t realise it’s being extremely racist for real in the process, much like how Hagrid tries to make his Care of Magical Creatures classes really fun for his students by bringing in the most dangerous fucking animals he can find without realising that they’re, well, dangerous. But where the Hagrid example is limited to the realms of allegory, Beautiful Creatures crosses the line completely and becomes all too literal.
BC also deviates from the Hagrid example by not just ignoring the injustices heaped upon less-privileged folks, but by getting upset over its own “struggles”, to the point of appropriating political rhetoric that was intended to bring attention (and justice) to a less-privileged group for use in self-defence against petty, trivial, immaterial discomforts that are blown up to astronomical proportions by the privileged party, such as Lena being threatened with expulsion by the school board, a process that for some reason necessitates having the entire town sit in on the proceedings as though she’s on trial – a witch trial if you FUCK THIS FUCKING FUCKBOOK ALL THE FUCKWAY TO FUCKING FUCKHELL, GODFUCKIT.
I don’t think this problem is specific to fantasy, by any means. But it certainly is a glaring issue within fantasy, one that is seemingly inescapable, and one that needs to go away.
I also need to go away and do some more studying because otherwise it’ll all snowball and I’ll hate myself and I’d rather like to avoid that actually after three years of panicked last-minute submissions and then six months of too-late submissions that I couldn’t bring myself to care about anymore for fear of an emotional breakdown.
I also have a bunch of books waiting for me to read them, one of which is my own, so I’d better get on that. Over halfway through! So that’s something.