Fantasy’s “Othering” Fetish

300_immortalsA minor kerfuffle on race and representation was kicked up following last Sunday’s season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Most noticeably, the barely restrained tilt towards Orientalism and the “great white emancipator” finally crossed the red line with the episode “Mhysa.” By week’s end, more than a few articles appeared in criticism, most noticeably comedian Aamer Rahman who pointed out why the Khaleesi’s entire storyline has been “messed up” from the jump. The reactions to this were typical: Denials. Charges of political correctness run amok. And of course, lots’ o’ geek-splainin’. But anyone barely acquainted with modern fantasy literature knows that from black-veiled Haradrim to the Ever Victorious Seanchan to the slavers of Yunkai, the genre has had a long love affair with exotic and dangerous “others.”

When I started this blog, I created a page called Who Am I?, explaining the meaning of my moniker, The Disgruntled Haradrim:

In the beginning there was Eru Illuvatar, who brought the Ainur into being, and through their song all into existence. Somehow, millennia later, I, along with much of the swarthier side of Arda, ended up on the wrong side of a spat about mystical jewelry. Disgruntled about the whole affair, I decided to start penning my own stories, that perhaps could tell new, diverse tales from differing perspectives. And naturally, like everyone does in this age, I started a blog…

Anyone with enough geek-knowledge recognized my snarky references, culled from the expansive world of Middle Earth (and realms beyond) created by the great fantasy godfather J.R.R. Tolkien. While Aragorn and his fair-haired Elven allies had their fill of sub-human chaotic evil Orcs to contend with, there were also more than a few humans who marched beneath the banner of Ol’ One Eye. Yes, some were just wild “Hill-Men,” the less fortunate white cousins of the good men of the West. But most were various people from the East and South, named (conveniently enough), Easterlings and Southrons. All were described as “swarthy men,” dark and broad, with fantastic exotic dress and customs, prone to raiding and slavery, and who for varied reasons were easily lulled (deceived) to work for Morgoth (the closest Middle Earth has to the Devil) and Sauron. At the Battle of Pelennor Fields, during the War of the One Ring, the Southron Haradrim even begin to lose their humanity, described as “black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues.”

HaradrimIf you grew up like me, a PoC kid fascinated with fantasy, you likely spent a great deal of time searching for yourself in the literary genre. Any mention of the word “swarthy” or “dark” would do. Even if it was a Drow, the D&D black-skinned evil cousins to the fairer Elves. Yep. That happened. And what did you do if like me you also happened to have black skin? You sucked it up and rooted for the “good one.”

In the case of Tolkien, there I was in Far Harad, riding a Mûmakil with my black veil. Great thing, someone who looked like me made it into one of the most well-known fantasy stories. The screwed up part–I had a penchant for bizarre customs, slave raiding, cruelty, tyranny and all-around pretty anti-social behavior. Bummer. I knew something was wrong back then, much like Frodo seemed to be discomforted by that dead Haradrim he witnessed. But I didn’t fully understand why.

Much later in life, like every other graduate student in the social sciences, I read Edward Said’s groundbreaking work, Orientalism. To condense his multi-layered argument, Said noted that Western art, literature and even academic disciplines, were immersed in the colonial act of creating the non-Western world as the exotic “other.” This “other,” often imbued with such descriptors as primitive, static, irrational, superstitious or tyrannical, was the opposite of the Occidental (European/white) West, defined as modern, progressive, reasoned, scientific and free. These ideas flowed into Western art and literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as European travelers sought to portray and define the Near East–including what is today Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa and lands beyond.

Some of these ideas came from travelogues and the writings of soldiers; others came directly from artists and writers who journeyed to capture their own imagery. Many of these works operated as distinct imperial propaganda, meant to display the enlightened benevolence of Western conquerors in contrast to the despotic, barbaric, lawless, decaying regimes of the lands they now colonized. Others fulfilled romantic notions of an exoticized, often sexualized, non-Western world filled with slave markets, nude harems and noble warrior savages–more so indicative of a European gaze than anything approaching reality. As Said noted, Orientalism in the end was a study of the West alone (as it was a creation of the West) and tells us little of the East as it actually existed.

Said’s thesis has been argued and counter-argued for decades, with some criticizing his views of Western explorations of the East as overly simplistic. Detractors claim that some of the research done by Westerners was well-meaning and not part of any imperial project–though how you discern that exactly (as if one negates the other ) remains contentious. At any rate, I don’t intend to get into that now. Certainly any theoretical model remains open to debate, and one as expansive as Said’s provokes diverse opinions. The entire matter remains discursive. However, what Said introduced me to was an answer for what had so long bothered me in the fantasy genre–the act of “othering” of non-Western (more aptly put, non-white) peoples. I’d later explore this notion of the “other” and alterity through numerous other thinkers, part of postcolonial critical theory since the mid 20th century.

When we speak of this idea of “othering,” we’re not talking about something a few bad people did. There wasn’t one nefarious guy who created it and set it into being. It existed at the very heart of Empire and the colonial project, it became the founding ethos of entire academic disciplines and social science, pervading everything from research methodologies to literature to popular art. It is institutionalized and, in some ways, inescapable. It can also be quite conflicting, where even well-meaning explorers or researchers in the West may still end up creating “othering” memes in their attempts to study non-Western people; simultaneously, those who are “studied” can themselves institutionalize some of these same “othering” notions about themselves. For instance, how does one fully evaluate Orientalist art, which at once introduces us to startling and informative picturesque settings of the non-Western world–yet is in the end a type of fabrication borne of the Western gaze? No simple answers.

In modern fantasy, with its fascination with medieval Europe, it seemed almost fated that acts of “othering” would take root. Some of Western Europe’s founding notions of non-Westerners took root long before colonialism, as early as the medieval era, where xenophobic fears (rational and irrational) of Muslim, Tartar or Mongol enemies were part of popular, religious, state and academic culture. We know some of this in part from the literature of the time, where non-Europeans (and non-Christians) are depicted as less than human and prone to wickedness. The 12th century Frankish Epic, The Song of Roland describes the Saracen king Marsile as “cankered with guile and every felony” and who “loves murder and treachery.” As a Muslim he is accused as one who “fears not God, the Son of Saint Mary” and is described as “black…as molten pitch that seethes.”

The epic goes on to describe Marsile’s army: “Ethiope, a cursed land indeed; the blackamoors from there are in his keep, Broad in the nose they are and flat in ear, Fifty thousand and more in his company… When Roland sees those misbegotten men, Who are more black than ink is on the pen, With no part white, only their teeth….” Similarly, in the 12th century Sowdone of Babylone the Christian Duke Savaris is slain in battle by Astrogot a black giant of Ethiopia, a “king of great strength” who was “the devil’s son of Bezelbubb’s line.” In his command is another giant named Alagolafore, born of Ethiopia with skin both “black and hard.”

Ideas of exotic and dangerous “others” that lay poised to destroy Western Christendom continued beyond the era of the Crusades. And after 1453, with the fall of Constantinople to Muslim Ottomans, notions of the “dread Turk” haunted the minds of Europeans for generations, as these Eastern enemies rolled through the Balkans and reached the outskirts of Vienna. These fears of “enemies at the gates” would finally subside with the end of the Habsburg-Ottoman rivalry in the 18th century, coinciding in the political and economic ascendency of Western Europe.

Tolkien’s Southrons and Easterlings bear some interesting similarities with such medieval xenophobia. Tolkien was after all a medievalist. And his fans often point out that the uncomfortable racialisms in his literature mirror the perceptions of the Europeans he studied. At least that’s the excuse given. But Tolkien didn’t live in medieval Castile or 17th century Vienna. He lived in the 20th century. By this time the non-Western world had become the domain of European Empire, now recast as a region to be studied, analyzed and categorized: the home to crumbling tyrannical Empires with outmoded ideas and exotic (though inferior) cultures. It is hard not to think that Tolkien was as influenced by such popular colonial notions of race and Empire as he was by WWI and industrialization. What we then get from his works are a melding of the old “threatening” East, mingled with many of the modern “othering” elements of exoticism and inferiority. It is a fetish that has become emulated in other works of modern popular fantasy, to varying degrees.

In one extreme, we have works like Frank Miller’s 300, which purports to tell the tale of the ancient Greek conflict with the Persian King Xerxes, recast as a didactic Orientalist fantasy. In Miller’s graphic novel, the Persians are made over as near monsters and tyrants–the opposite of the noble, freedom-loving and hyper-masculine Spartans. The moral of the story is clear: had the “democratic” Spartans fallen to the enslaving Persians, what we know as the modern “free” Western world may not exist. Never mind that the Spartans of history were hardly models of liberty; or that the Achaemenid kings of Persia were less than tyrannical monsters. What was necessary was to cast the Greeks in the role of the West, and the Persians as nightmarish “others.”

As if to emphasize these differences, Miller goes as far as to make many of the Persians “black.” No less than the Persian king Xerxes in the comic is depicted as an ominous black giant, decked out in piercings and bling. The film adaptation only carries forward this extreme racialization in part; some of the Persians remain black; most are merely swarthy; nearly all are deformed and monstrous, with veils and other exotic forms of dress. Xerxes however is reduced to a towering bronze non-distinct “other,” and a gender-bending effeminate deviant.

xerxes-300Long before Miller’s 300, The Battle of Thermopylae, on which the film is based, was translated from the fantastic into the real world, becoming a metaphorical rallying cry for European colonizers as they fought against “hordes” of swarthy “others” in the varied lands they conquered. This theme of the “few” brave white men (symbolizing Western civilization and progress) standing against backwardness and primitivism, served as the basis for Victorian writings on such historical events like the Anglo-Zulu War. And it became a staple of white heroic romanticism in later films, from John Wayne in Fort Apache (1948) to Michael Caine in Zulu (1964). There is a 300 sequel due in theaters next year; and if the trailer is any example, this cinematic trend in colonialist racialized “othering” is far from over.

But as I said before, this matter is complicated. And not every attempt to portray non-Westerners in fantasy settings fits this extreme.

In a more nuanced approach, there is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. In the expansive series we have the Aiel, who by description appear white (with blonde or red hair) but whose culture pulls on everything from Native American to Zulu to Bedouin customs. As desert people they are exotic and nobly savage to a fault, even following codes of honor that appear to have origins in the Japanese Samurai. Most of the cultures in the book of what passes for the “West” appear built on Eurocentric norms, even though adopting (or appropriating) varied aspects of non-European culture, making for an interesting mix. Picture white women in medieval European dress adorning their foreheads with the Bindi. The most swarthy Westerners, the coppery-skinned Domani, are also the most sexualized–with their women making seduction an art form and prone to wearing see-through clothing. Much the same can be said for the dark-skinned Sea Folk, whose work as traders is only equaled by the “graceful” nature of their women, their normalized semi-nudity, and the harshness with which they treat subordinates.

The most pronounced exotic “others” in the series appear in the form of the Seanchan–a mysterious empire from across the sea. Though multiracial in composition, their culture is unmistakably Eastern–bearing clear hints of Japanese, Chinese and Ottoman influences. Of particular interest, they are even ruled by a “black” Empress. True to their Orientalist nature, the Seanchan are conquerors; engage in slavery; have bizarre customs; are controlled by tyrannical rulers; and practice harsh codes of honor and status that overemphasize their exotic “difference.”

Seanchan_and_TormUnlike Tolkien and Miller however, none of these “others” are really the bad guys in the larger plot of Jordan’s work; even the conquering Seanchan view the requisite chaotic-evil mooks following a Dark Lord as the real enemies. In a stark difference, we also get the varying perspectives of these “others” through their own voices.They talk amongst themselves and share their innermost thoughts, giving meaning and depth to their customs and beliefs. Turns out, they don’t even all think alike! Sure, there’s a bit of “racial ventriloquism” going on, but this level of nuance is certainly a step in the right direction.

And then of course, there’s George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. If you’re acquainted with the book, you got that uneasy feeling of “otherness” upon first reading about the lands beyond Westeros, coming upon Dothraki, the people of Quarth, and elsewhere in Essos. Certainly in this grim dark fantasy, the citizens of Westeros are no saints: they can be terribly backwards, ignoble and prone to all sorts of nefarious deeds. But even they seem to pale in comparison (pardon the pun) to the sheer savagery of the Dothraki (who kill for pleasure and rape anything that moves) or the utter brutality practiced in Slaver’s Bay, where those in bondage are treated less than animals, and killed at a whim. Westeros has its share of religious septons and drowned gods, but it is the East that is filled with wizards and a Red God who demands human sacrifices. For all its faults, at the least in Westeros slavery is outlawed. And it is again in the East where Varys is castrated and entire armies of eunuchs can be found in The Unsullied.

Even more troublesome, unlike Jordan’s Seanchan, nearly every perception of this Eastern world is told through the storyline of the pale-haired young innocent heroine Daenerys Targaryen. It is her tale we’re following, as she is sold by her brother to the Central Asian-Mongolian derived Dothraki as a bride for their leader. We are treated to barbaric Dothraki customs and the eventual marriage consummation (which takes on an aura of rape) where a young pale Daenerys is literally “mounted” by her hulking swarthy husband–the ultimate noble savage. From there on, we follow along as Daenerys makes her way from one exotic locale to the other. And we immediately become aware of one thing: even if these Eastern lands are more wealthy and perhaps even much more learned, she’s still somehow better than the people and cultures she encounters.

Like a 19th century colonizer carrying the White Man’s Burden, Daenerys is aghast at the customs she encounters–and is determined to do something about it. She tries to put a stop to the Dothraki’s use of rape as a weapon of war. She destroys the despotic wizards of Quarth. And when she comes across Slaver’s Bay, she burns up the “Middle Eastern-ish” slave traders and sets upon a crusade as the “great white emancipator”–freeing city after city and breaking the bonds of the enslaved through blood and fire.

If reading all of this in the books was discomforting, it was only magnified by HBO’s adaptation–which made the exotic Essos more “othered” than we had possibly imagined. As Aamer Rahman points out, the visual image of a dark-skinned savage Khal Drogo raping the pale-haired innocent Daenerys every night “like a hound takes a bitch” is a lasting image. And of course, let’s not forget that Dothraki Twerk Team.

mhysaDaenerys’s role as the “great emancipator” is also played up to great effect, reaching its climax in the season finale. In this cinematic version of events, Daenerys curiously remains so pale she never seems to tan under the scorching sun, and is hailed like Lincoln entering Richmond by throngs of slaves. In the books, the slaves of Yunkai are actually described as quite diverse; but being filmed in Morocco, they mostly appear as swarthy extras with skin-tones ranging from brown to black. The producers blatantly play up this contrast in a way that seems hardly unintentional, giving us a shot of a milk pale Daenerys that stands out so much in this swarthy crowd, that as the camera pans high into the sky she becomes a white dot–a sharp bit of light in a sea of dark bodies. It’s a full frontal dose of “othering”: all the traits common to the exotic, backwards tyrannical East, with a white savior figure to boot, who sets about the task of colonization for the betterment of the swarthy locals.

Now the books present these events without hammering you over the head with it. And (don’t want to give away any spoilers), these colonial ventures eventually run into a few snags. But the main themes remain the same. And the depictions of the East, even compared to less-than-flattering Westeros, are still filled with Orientalist tropes and imagery. As these “others” never speak for themselves, what we get is a Fodor’s guide to Essos narrated through the storyline of the fair-haired Westerner; and thus her gaze becomes our own.

Last Spring a roundtable at the World SF blog focusing on non-Western cultures in speculative fiction asked the following question: What are the problematics of some Western writers tackling non-Western settings for their novels, and do they result in exoticism?

One of the panelists, Joyce Chng (Singapore), spoke on these issues of “othering” and the Western gaze:

People in the West tend to have fixed ideas of how and what we should look like or behave. The East is exotic.The East is mysterious…. The East is scary, but exhilarating….. These “Western narratives” hurt us at the end and have damaged perspectives regarding non-Western narratives. The dominance of Western narratives has silenced non-Western voices, reducing us to nothing else but something out of a travel guide.”

This is about the part where someone asks, “So are you saying that Westerners can’t or shouldn’t write about non-Western cultures or people in fantasy?” And the answer is one big eye rolling, of course not. Writers and creators should explore the full breadth of human culture in fantasy, if simply to break the Eurocentric norm. Does this come with risks? Yes. You may go out and create more diversity in your fantasy with the best of intentions, and find yourself being criticized for such things as “othering.” Yeah. Thems the breaks. About to throw up your hands and declare, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?” Don’t give up so easy.

Making your fantasy world more diverse doesn’t have to mean adding in PoC and distant cultures as monstrous “baddies.” They don’t have to be noble savages, become hyper-sexualized or fulfill all your exotic fantasies. They don’t have to have white heroes or heroines give us a Marco Polo type travel narrative, or play the part of civilizer and savior. Writers like Saladin Ahmed, Cindy Pon and Shveta Thakrar show that non-Western worlds can be fantastic, magical and unique, without resorting to common exoticizing tropes.

That all three writers are also persons of color certainly helps, but that shouldn’t limit anyone–of any background–from trying to do better. I do not subscribe to the school of thought that it is solely up to PoC to write diverse stories. It’s certainly relevant that we “write our own stories,” yes. But I should be able to write stories that aren’t about my particular ethnic-racial background. And so should everyone else. That argument in my opinion is a cop-out, that conveniently leaves PoC holding the responsibility bag. It lets white-dominated speculative fiction continue on doing what they do–while PoC are relegated to smaller enclaves that get little to no popular visibility. We’re all responsible for creating not only more diverse worlds, but ones that challenge our past (and modern) stereotypical tropes.

For what it’s worth, some pointers:

(1) Read the greats like Tolkien, Miller, GRRM and other traditional Eurocentric writers. Watch Game of Thrones. Count the stereotypes, “othering” and moments of wince-worthy racialization. Catalog and study them. When you see your writing drifting in that direction, change course.

(2) Read the guys who seem to get it right. Read fantasy works by PoC and non-Westerners, set in non-Western cultures. Notice the difference between depicting varied cultures and people as different versus exotic. It’s tricky, takes some serious research, but eventually you begin to see it.

(3) Can you stand by your creation? I’m not about censorship. If you feel you really need to make one of your characters in the mold of the noble savage, go right ahead. But ask yourself if your reasons are really valid for your storyline, of if you’re just falling back on an easy stereotype. Because when the criticism comes down, those reasons are going to be put to the test.

(4) Spend a brief bit of time brushing up on some postcolonial theory, or at least a bit of critical race theory. Sometimes simply “not knowing” is a big reason for some well-meaning blunders. But in this information age, ignorance makes for a poor excuse. Jaymee Goh’s Rules Before Engaging is a great start.

(5) Being a PoC doesn’t grant an automatic pass. Many of these “othering” notions are transnational and no respecters of borders. And if you’re a PoC in the West, your “gaze” may come with Western-tinged goggles. I’ve read fantasy by PoC that skirts the line, or goes trudging headlong into exoticism, “othering” and other disturbing tropes. Your story about a black American rescuing Africans from other “savage Africans” is as all kinds of messed up as any white savior trope–and several parts just sad.

(6) Beyond issues of race and ethnicity, there are ways of mishandling or stereotyping numerous types of differences, not limited to gender, sexuality, religion, (dis) abilities, etc. It wouldn’t hurt to examine when and where you’re going down the stereotype hole in addressing any of these.

(7) Even if you try your best, you might still “Do It Wrong.” Sorry. Life ain’t fair. You can minimize your risk of doing it wrong, by thinking about what you’re doing–or as a friend of mine likes to say, just deciding to give a f*ck. This might mean you look for friends, beta readers and writer’s groups with some diversity–that might pick up on troubling things you may have missed. But criticism may still fly your way, warranted or not. Don’t get defensive. Remember, people are placing whatever you wrote into a much larger historical context. It’s bigger than you. See it as a teaching moment, and next time just strive to do better. The decent act of actually “giving a f*ck” will inevitably earn you some praise.

In the meantime, there’s no escaping the “othering” fetish that permeates mainstream popular fantasy. All the new literary creations in the world aren’t going to make veiled Haradrim or Daenerys body surfing a crowd of slaves go away–not any time soon. They’re not likely to stop a few more sequels to 300. All the rest of us can do is make certain to point out, address and deconstruct these troubling tropes when we see them. And strive to create countering visions.

17 thoughts on “Fantasy’s “Othering” Fetish

  1. I’m not really familiar with most of the books/films you commented on (I’ve only seen the Lord of the Rings films, and read The Two Towers) but I liked reading this, as a white person who wants to include non-white characters in speculative fiction in a better, more respectable way. In some respects I am able to present them as having equal footing, though interestingly enough, since I am focused on 17th century predominantly English pirates, in some cases I’m actually presenting white people as more savage. Especially when I also include the mention of the English enslaving Africans. I actually didn’t even think about it in those terms until I read this. I was, however, conscious about having one of my white characters “other” Africans.

    I suspect I will still be met with criticism, but I think criticism can still be healthy, because it at least gets people talking about the issues. Without discussion, we can’t understand them.

    • Dominica, thanks for the read and the comments. It’s great that as a writer you’re including more diversity in your work. Criticism may come, but as you say, it’s a teaching moment. Good luck! Also, somewhere on this blog, there’s a write up on pirates…including a few black ones. Aaargh!

      • Excellent! Thanks. I shall have to look for it when I get the chance. I’m in the midst of trying to write a final few scenes that I decided were needed in my novel before I get on a plane in less than 11 hours, so my editor/proofreaders can start going over it while I’m travelling. If you’ve got an exact link, though, feel free to send it my way!

  2. Hello! I’m doing a panel at Geek Girl Con about how the Victorian predilection for making up boxes and then stuffing whoever they found into those boxes has influenced the modern American ideas of “how people dressed then/there” and how that impacts a) costuming and b) really terribly incorrect period-policing. Do you mind if I reference and/or quote this post? It seems particularly applicable since I’m most familiar with costumes in larping, which is hugely influenced by fantasy works and largely done by amateurs/hobbyists.

    Feel free to email me, too, if you’ve got questions; I realize this is something of a summary and you might want to make sure I’m not going to stitch together something crazy, magazine cut-out ransom letter style 🙂

  3. Thank you for posting this! It might be just the push I need to write a future romance novel starring the POC secondary character I established in my first book. I’ve been wanting her to take a starring role for a year now, but I’ve never quite had the courage.

  4. Fantastic article! Reading stuff like this always gets me thinking and helps me better analyze my writing so I can better add diversity. (Also, it gave me some new authors to look up!)

  5. So, I know this is probably going to be shot down, but I know that as a white guy who knows few people at all, let alone POC, I should avoid writing POC. But on the other hand, if I had an idea for a post-apocalyptic USA story, I feel it would be dishonest for me to ignore the race question altogether. Would you mind if I told you the idea, or perhaps sent it to you as an outline. Then you could tell me where I went wrong. (I assume it would be in more than a few places.)
    If not, simply say no. If yes, I can at least try to be the next Gene Roddenberry, and get an Uhura into fantasy. (It won’t be much, but it might get roles for POC actors, and I might be able to plug minority writers once I’m in.) Sorry I can’t do more.

    • Hey Lord Hellscream, you shouldn’t at all be afraid to write PoC. I think admitting you may not have the experience necessary to do so accurately and honesty is the best step possible. That doesn’t mean you–or any of us–shouldn’t try to step outside our niche. Also, you might try and do it wrong. But this is writing–we get critiqued on dozens of things, why not also this? I’d like to tell you I’d have time to look at your story/outline idea and give you feedback in a reasonable time–but I’d be lying. My to-do list is the height of Mt Doom. However, there are numerous online sites and blogs you can find for steps in writing diversity. Even better, there are online and RL writing workshops frequented by people of diverse backgrounds. For me, these have helped. Even better, have been reading works by authors from diverse backgrounds representing themselves. I’ve learned so much either just listening or reading and picking up insights. And it continues to be a learning process. So don’t be afraid of diversity–just do the same due diligence you’d do in your world building or science or Elvish! Provided the apocalypse has elves…of course. Good luck!

  6. Pingback: Diversity in Fantasy - Part 1 | A. E. Wasp

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