It seems that everybody is discussing about elves and mermaids of color these days. Until a few years ago instead, the controversies raising when some nerdish stories would reach mainstream and become a movie or a cartoon, were only confined in some dark corners of the interwebs.
Star Wars fandom was usually the circuit where this would happen, but also Tolkien works have been known for raising flames and fights in fans discussion since the ’70s of last century at least.
But we were just a bunch of weirdos, nobody cared about us.
Then we won.
I mean we as nerd people, antisocial geeks of the 80s that have seen their “stupid stuff” become of interest for everybody else during the years. We won a cultural war, without even noticing we were fighting one. Now we get nostalgia series showing kids playing dungeons and dragons in their basements in the 80s, but nobody is telling you what other guys in football teams and school gangs would think about these kids, and how they were treated. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, I can tell you. I was there.
So the outcasts made it to the main stage, and this is still unbelievable. Seriously, I would love to read a serious analysis about how and why this happened.
This is why I am now following with great interest all the discussions happening every time some part of my culture gets a mainstream treatment. And oh man, we are living in great times: a lot of new Star Wars content, then Lord of the Rings, and Sandman, and Marvel comics made into movies and so much more. I can hear my 15 years old self jumping and screaming from here.
Usually the starting point of these discussions is: they cast a person of color for a role that “originally” was for a white person. As a bonus track, often the discussion is also about the actor becoming an actress, so raising the quota of female presence in the story compared to the “original” one whatever it was. The adding of a female person of color is the perfect storm, adding even more fire to the fight.
I think it is time to tackle this topic of “ficitionary characters played by people of color”, because I happen to stumble upon it more and more. Obviously is a very complicated topic, with a lot of different elements getting together and mixing up (intersectionality, anyone? 😀 ). This is why I guess we should start cleaning up the table a bit, and underlining some differences.
First of all: why should this topic fit in this blog?
This is quite easy: you should already know that nerd culture is one of the trends here, and one of the main sources of inspiration for what I do in education etc. – moreover, the discussion we are talking about is happening almost only online (as if saying the same things in someone else’s face is still too much, at least for some people…) and it is becoming a part of online behavior if not online culture. For this reason I find it relevant and worrying.
But what are we talking about here?
Someone would react in a violent way to people of color casted for playing elf in Lord of the Rings, simply because they are racist. They do not want to see people of color anywhere close to them, so neither in the tv shows they watch; they say “there are no black elves” just like they shouted “there are no black Italians” when a player of color reached the national football team in my country. They are racist and they are being exposed. That’s why they become very vocal against it, organizing to downvote episodes and shows in review sites, writing posts and creating memes against this – and calling this whole attitude “woke” in a denigrating way, as if being attentive, aware of social issue, and even fighting against them was something to be blamed for. In the same way, they often refer to “woke” people as SJW, social justice warriors – as if this was something to be blamed for. I am telling you, I might make myself a SJW t-shirt sooner or later. Only reason not to, is that I don’t want to reinforce their use of these words.
This is a noisy minority.
Not even so noisy (yet) in Europe, a bit more in the US, where racism is a long time issue, and it is not complicated to track back these reactions to white suprematists propaganda and “alt right” extremism; but then it’s just them, it’s the Adversary: the ever changing, ever shifting ghost of fascism always trying to get back in new ways. I am among the ones who think this is a big and underrated problem of our time, it’s a burning problem and we should all take it way more into consideration: how to deal with people which have these points of view and these ideas? and even more, how to prevent this kind of radicalization, so that this problem would not become bigger than it already is?
A lot of people is asking themselves this question, so I would not discuss this here.
Here I would like to talk to a wider number of people. I would like to talk to my people.
To them – to us – the lore and the tales behind these stories, be it Star Wars’ galaxy far far away, fantasy Middle Earth from The lord of the rings, the Marvel universe full of superheroes and heroines, or even the fictionary UK in the Sandman comics – everything of that is present, is alive, it is a part of us. The ownership of these stories is so strong that we connect to them as people used to do with religion, or at least mythology.
Someone wisely noted in a Facebook post recently, that many people do not have Jesus Christ or the holy Virgin statues at home any more, but they have statues and action figures from every kind of fictional universe. Even if with a lower level of commitment (most of the times!) we consider these stories really important for us, as it used to happen with myths, and it is still happening with stories about Jesus, Mohamed etc for a lot of people around the world.
The usual genius of Henry Jenkins noted years ago that the never ending debate about these fictional universes and characters, the passion which drives people to unfold every little detail of them and even to fill in the gaps in the stories (with fan fiction, fan movies etc) is “ a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk“.
For the nerd community, those stories have been, for years and years, one of the very few elements of identity. They were theirs – they were ours. We were the ones spending time and energies on these stories, as medieval monks on their hand-copied books. Now someone comes and changes our stories: I can understand this may feel as an attack. And of course it does not happen by chance.
It is a choice: someone decided to deliberately add more diversity, either in terms of gender, race (whatever this truly means…) and orientation to the stories on which we founded our identity. Maybe this could have been done with a different approach, maybe simply with an explanation, so let’s put this explanation here:
when people react to this saying that this is making the whole thing “political”, they are completely right.
This IS political. But the point is, this has ALWAYS been political. When Tolkien wrote The lord of the rings, after fighting in World War I and loosing friends and loved ones in the war, the world was so very different from now, in terms of attention towards inclusion. He wrote a novel which was deeply rooted in Christianism, as he openly stated, focusing on the fact the the little ones, the last ones, the Hobbits who nobody considered, were able to sacrifice themselves carrying the ring to Mount Fate and saving the world – but it was a white Christianism, in a country that was ruling a worldwide empire based on colonialist conquest. This attention, this sensitivity, was simply not there. Whole “races” described as the enemy were depicted more or less clearly hinting at people of color, because that was in the culture of the times. Now, can we finally say it was wrong?
A few decades later, in the Seventies, when Gary Gygax invented Dungeons & Dragons, bringing the Tolkien universe to (white) kids as a playground, he designed his whole system based on races, using the Alignment to define the characters’ behavior in the game. At that time, someone would start question this “racist” attitude, so he often had to defend his design, and to affirm that simply slaying all the members of a (fictional) race was good, saying that otherwise “nits make lice”.
This was a quote from colonel Chivington, responsible of the Sand Creek massacre where Native American women and children were horribly slaughtered by the US army in 1864. Gygax was still quoting Chivington in his late days, in online posts in 2005. This makes Gygax someone I would not love to spend time with, and his game design in need of some rework. Can we say it openly now?
Well, we are trying to – but simply worshipping the things of old, without questioning them, is not a way to achieve change and to improve the world. I can totally understand that when these are your elements of identity, as a community, you do not want other people to question them. That’s why the community itself should question this stuff.
This is what I would say to my people, to the whole nerd community: you can be a force for change, you can help building a better world EVEN (simply) with changing the rules of the games you play, or accepting the fact that adding a black Elf in a Tolkien-inspired universe will not affect you nor harm the story- at the contrary, this will make our beloved story something which would become relevant and loved by much more people. This IS political, and it is so in a good way.
It can be challenging at the beginning, as change always is, but people, let’s be clear here: the only ones who really cannot stand a black Elf in a Tolkien-based story, should be people who have problem with people of color in general. These people are called racists, full stop – and you don’t want to belong there.
The recent Netflix TV adaptation of my beloved comics series The Sandman suffered the same kind of attacks, even if more focused on gender topics; even an old friend of mine, who I spent years playing D&D with, said “Netflix should stop it” when we discussed the character of Death being of color in the series, and Lucifer being played by an actress.
The point is, Netflix hired the vey author of the comics, Neil Gaiman, to be sure that the adaptation would keep the “original” spirit. So we had this strange situation of people telling the author of a story, what the meaning of that story should be “in origin”.
This should be a point of interest for who is studying interpretation, semiotics etc. – I actually think that users of a story have all the rights to add their own meaning to it, and to feel ownership of the story itself, as we already wrote. But then, if you add your own meaning along the way, talking about “the origin” seems quite pointless to me. Anyway this ownership was never questioned by the author, who instead took time and patience to get to the matter. For instance, this is a replay he twitted to the fact that someone could not stand Lucifer being played by Brianne of Tarth / captain Phasma / Gwendoline Christie:
The Sandman had even more attacks for having changed the character of Death into an actress of color, because “the comic was different” and “you don’t give a fuck about your work anymore because you are getting a lot of money”. Point is Dream / Morpheus, the main character of the comic, is “originally” often depicted changing different colors and shapes, to talk to different kinds of people: he is black to African people, he is a cat to cats, an alien to aliens – even if the appearance of Martian Manhunter in the comics, as well as the one of the preacher John Constantine and other DC characters, has been wiped out the Netflix adaptation, probably for copyright-related cost issues… and nobody complained about this not being faithful to the “original” version. This shapeshifting is told to be in the nature of the whole family of the Endless, which Death is a part of, being Dream’s sister. So once again… are these critics really questioning the “original” material, or are they trying to address something else here?
The Sandman was born as an underground comic in the 80s. He is representing so many aspects of the 80s underground culture during Tatcher’s times, including a number of non-binary characters, dark- and goth-fashioned people, same-sex couples, homeless characters… and a very clear stand against racism and the heritage of slavery: SPOILER ALERT, the only time Dream openly and firmly questions a choice of his (immortal) human English friend Hob Gatling, is when he says he started a slave trade, in the late 18th century.
But The Sandman is still a UK underground comic from the 80s, and that was a mostly white environment for sure – so adding some people of color while re-telling the story on tv nowadays is a way to make it better and even more inclusive, and it should be a choice that Gaiman fans can understand – if they really know him and what he always stood for. The choice of a Death of color is SURELY political in its inclusive approach, as the whole Sandman wanted to be “originally”.
The same controversy arose when Disney announced their live-action reshooting of the cartoon The Mermaid, and said the mermaid would be played by an actress of color. Recently, the first images from the set circulated, and the mermaid of color made a comeback as one of the favorite topics against the “politically correct” approach of the “cancel culture” of the “woke people”, in a worldwide plot against white people.
SPOILER ALERT again: there is no plot against white people. We, white people, are as strongly and firmly as ever in charge of the biggest powers to be on the planet, and surely it is no intent of Amazon or Netflix or Disney to be guiding the “black lives matters” movement, or whatever other worldwide revolution. As someone was singing many years ago: the revolution will not be televised.
We should all learn to cope a bit better with the ambiguity we live into – the ambiguity where white authors struggle to give to their work a more inclusive approach 40 years after their origin, and white capitalists are happy to support this as much as it will bring more audience – and thus more money – to their white purses.
The mermaid of color brought yet another wave of incredible critics to the party: it is scientifically impossible to have black mermaids, because underwater, bodies would not grow melanine.
This is a perfect depiction of what the public debate has become nowadays; factoids, like the scientific reason behind black skin applied to a non-relevant fictionary element, are used to drive the discussion and enflame the social media debate. So please let’s stand up and leave the room, while making it clear that this is a bunch of bullshit, completely irrelevant to the topic and so to be rejected as element of discussion. Since mermaids or elves do not exist among human kind, it is completely pointless to discuss their skin color applying human science to them.
On the other hand, they are a product of imagination; now in Paris during the 1968 uprising at the University, students claimed they wanted imagination in power – but we already have imagination in power, and we always had it. Point is, ask yourselves: whose imagination?
Changing what imagination we have in power is what will help changing the world, and if you believe a change is needed, then you should really care about people of color in tv series or in d&d games, women with superpowers, and all this nerdish stuff… as much as you care about people in the street demanding change, or educational activities designed to improve people’s condition and inclusion.