Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On Discrimination In Fantastic Settings

This applies to both RP worldbuilding and story-writing, and has already been done (probably better) here.

So incredibly often I see settings that are clearly not historical, but set in some romanticize, fantasticized past, a "here there be dragons" sort of a place, with corrupted, vaguely rose-tinted versions of the sexism, racism, ablism, homophobia, and other discrimination that ruled in the corresponding time period of world history. "It's historical," creators too often shrug when asked why. "To omit those aspects would be unrealistic." Or sometimes, slightly more justified but wait no not really, "Utopian societies are unrealistic." News flash: If we do ever get rid of discrimination, there will still be societal strife from different sources.

"Unrealistic." Your main character's dating an elf, he has a magic sword and a hyper-intelligent flying horse that doesn't need to eat and you're saying you can't cut the discrimination of the time period you're supposedly emulating-- because it would be unrealistic.

Bullshit. Is it really that hard to imagine a society without those issues?

Now, plenty of good writers do include discrimination in their societies, but they treat it realistically, as the complex problem that it is, and show its effects. They show how it gets into all facets of society, not just as a few jokes made by less savory characters, or a few incidents of ill-treatment. They don't just treat it as an excuse to have characters be horrible to whatever group. They show that no group is perfect, depict everyone (not just the good guys) as people, and don't use the tired, rotten trope of the hero high on the societal privilege ladder saving his poor simple minority friends who can't help themselves. They don't apply the rosy filter of "but it was the good old days" to it. And of course if the setting is actually historical and properly researched-- medieval Europe or imperial China, for example-- historical accuracy is a legitimate answer. "Alternate timeline" settings may also pass, depending on what ways they are alternate in. But if it's not portrayed as a complex problem, and hasn't got any real basis in history to be true to, I really don't see why it's necessary. 

This is probably not the last you'll hear from me on the subject; future posts may go more in-depth.

Writing rant disclaimer:
Some of you may have read some of my fiction or participate in an RP I am part of. If you notice that something in my writing has something I have labeled as a problem in my rant, go ahead and tell me so! I may not have noticed that I'm doing whatever it is, so that can help me! However, I do want to keep this place polite, so please no unnecessary bashing of my characters, or, for that matter, anyone else's, be it a fellow commenter or a fellow RP'er.

Blog note: You might notice the "Frustrations" label. "Frustrations" posts are usually going to involve a fair helping of my opinion and social commentary. Keep this in mind, and feel free to disagree in comments, but do so civilly, please.


  1. While I agree that it is not necessary for a society to discriminate against a particular group for historical reasons, to have no discrimination whatsoever strikes me as unrealistic. I cannot think of any historical societies that did not have individuals that held views that were sexist, racist, homophobic etc. (more than likely all of the above).

    It seems to be a natural social phenomenon that when there are groups, some people in a group will consider themselves superior to members of other groups. That does not mean that the laws or the rest of society need to reflect this, but a society in which everyone considers everyone else equal does seem a utopian ideal to me. Perhaps one aspect of discrimination could be eliminated entirely, but unless the entire society is homogenized as some sort of collective, total perceived equality among all members does seem unrealistic.

    I actually find the issue of possible discrimination skirted over in a lot of cases. The elf and dwarf make a few good-natured jabs at each other and that's the extent of discussing any possible differences within the group.

  2. My only problem with this is that people seem to naturally discriminate against others; if for no reason than that they talk funny. Go people-watching sometime and I guarantee that, eventually, you will find people whom discriminate against others for no reason. I've gotten people to dislike me for simply saying 'I disagree with Obama on X'. Now obviously a political difference does not constitute discrimination. What does constitute it is when they don't even bother finding out why I disagree with Obama (in the example) or so forth.

    Discrimination is part of our world, of any world, and it will always be so. It strikes me as odder that people in roleplays seem to try to avoid it entirely, making characters whom have the will to accept people without regards to race/gender/whathaveyou instead of trying to make characters whom start out as a discriminator and then either are forced to grow out of it or try to overcome it and fail; both of which in my mind would be more interesting than some magic hippie saying 'Oh hey! I don't agree with those people who think all kingons/gnomes/gangsters/donkeymen are evil! Let's be friends! Pass the pipeweed!'.

    This is doubly true in fantasy/scifi (more the former than the latter) settings where an entire race may very well be either evil or pre-disposed to traits considered evil by society. I remember one very good webcomic I read a long time ago (that I can't remember the name of. Inver-something. Had a wolf-man hunter thingy, a elf thief-catcher, and... some other people) that dealt with the issue rather well.

  3. I agree that a complete lack of discrimination is unrealistic (even in a utopian sci-fi setting there will be some sort of social class); my argument is that "because it's historical" is not a valid reason to include poorly-handled discrimination (usually misogyny or racism). I'd rather see a brand of discrimination just not be there than be present only as jokes or an excuse to treat group X horribly. I'm fine with seeing a discrimination-riddled society /if/ it is handled properly, but if it's handled properly, then it's generally there for a reason other than "because it's historical". Throwing in a few misogynist jokes or showing one race being treated as inferior without showing the full impact "because it's historical" is not treating the topic properly.

    For example, in a lot of fantasy work, sexism is rampant in the setting. However, only a subset of that shows how that hurts society, or how sexism /really/ affected people in, say, the middle ages; the rest tends to be a vehicle of the author that handwaves its extra sex/rape/abuse/etc scenes with a "well, it's X time period, and there was sexism." In a fantasy work where you've got a badass action girl killing dragons, I don't see a reason why sexism should be the same institution it was in the Middle Ages. It may still be present, in different ways, in which case I want to see its actual effects, not just as an excuse for male characters to go whoring. Or there might be some other social issue at work instead. Basically, while it's something humans do, there is NO REASON that a given form of discrimination is strictly necessary, to the same (often ill-researched) degree that it was present in an arbitrary historical period.

    @Cynthia's bit about glossing over: Exactly. If discrimination is present, I want to see it shown /as discrimination/, not just "ha elves and dwarves don't like each other, moving on whee". Discrimination affects everyone, it breeds resentment, people have different ways of coping with it. I want that present.

    @Always Chaotic Evil: That trope bothers me for a number of reasons, and just because it's an option doesn't make it good writing. It's easy to go straight into unfortunate territory if your ACE species too closely resembles a real-life race, and even beside that, there don't tend to be more than flimsy justifications for /why/ the species is predisposed to evil.

    @Inverloch: I actually did read that, albeit a while ago, and I do not recall there being an ACE species. I remember the dakor (wolf guys) being generally warlike, but they weren't all bad; while it did turn out that the "best" of them was actually an elf in the wrong body, there were a few decent sorts in there. Which is kind of the point.

    TL;DR I'm not protesting the inclusion of discrimination in fantasy settings SO LONG as it is handled properly and shown /as discrimination/, instead of a "because it's historical" excuse to abuse Group X in the story.


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