You know how they say that generally Fantasy stories are set in the past and Sci-Fi stories in the future?
I’ve been wondering though, if we want to create a Fantasy world set vaguely in the past, then how should we represent the past? Because the past isn’t sunshine and rainbows. Do we sanitize the past and remove all the bigotry? Or do we create the ideal world we would like our fantasy to be?
Of course both are valid. We have the example of Game of Thrones / A Song and Ice and Fire which take the first route and creates a world with dirty politics, power grabs, religious persecution, and racial discrimination. And we also have the perfect worlds of Disney where there are very few conflicts of such nature, unless they are relevant to the plot. And of course there are all sorts of variations in-between.
Whichever route we consider, nothing is ever 100% historically accurate. In many adaptations, the characters speak modern (Tangled, Frozen, The Shannara Chronicles). In many adaptations that characters look modern (perfectly shaped eyebrows and perfectly maintained teeth, better body hygiene, etc.)
I am particularly interested, however, on the issue of race. Do we want racial discrimination present in the Fantasy world (even if it’s not relevant to the plot)? Do we want to reflect race relations in a similar manner as in our own world?
Let’s take the example of Once Upon A Time. While part of the show is set in modern-day Maine, parts of the show are set in various other realms such as The Enchanted Forest, Neverland, Wonderland, etc. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s stick to the E.F.
The E.F. is clearly a post-racial place. There’s an East Asian warrior who has never been viewed as a foreigner. There’s a black royal family, a black knight. (There are some Latino cast members, but I think their characters are probably considered white. I mean, Latinos can be white too, many of their ancestors were European.) And it’s also pretty modern. The characters talk modern, they act modern, and have a modern view of life (for example the characters behave in a very modern way with each other, especially characters of the opposite gender. Their behavior would have been considered inappropriate less than a 100 years ago).
Given the modern feel of the E.F., it makes sense that we don’t see characters sporting European sensibilities about race from the nineteenth century. But I still wonder, is it still worth trying to establish if the characters from different races and ethnicity originate in different parts of the world? Is travel and racial mixing common within that world? Is this why everyone is so accepting of other races?
However, the choice that surprises me is that all these “characters of color” are portrayed in a decidedly Western way. They dress in a Western fashion. Mulan doesn’t seem to have anything Chinese about her. (Think about that for a second. Mulan, a character from a Chinese legend, and even in the Disney movie hailed as a legendary Chinese hero, isn’t particularly Chinese in this show.) Rapunzel’s entire family is black, yet they seem to be part of a Western monarchy. (The E.F. appears to be vaguely European. If there is a black royal family – one where everyone is black, it’s pretty valid to wonder where that small community came from. Their culture and mannerisms also seem to fit in with the European-ish society established here, so we can’t imagine a community moved from somewhere equivalent to Africa and settled there. How could immigrants form a royal family then? The only possible explanation is that Rapunzel’s family also originated in the E.F. We can stop short of asking then why do they have a different skin color. Maybe in this fantasy world anyone can have any skin color.)
This is again the issue that arises when considering representation in media, taking into account that Western societies are becoming racially diverse. When casting people of color in your Fantasy world that’s set in the past, should you Westernize them (since your audience is likely largely Western) or should you try to honor their ancestry?
This may be why when Disney decided to make its first black princess, they specifically made her African American. Note that they did not make an African princess, who would have had to be in Africa and would have worn African clothes, and I don’t know how marketable those are. But really, the creation of Tiana likely had the most to do with the recognition of the black community in America and hence to have an African American princess. And in order to have an African American princess, they set Tiana’s story in the 1920s – she is by far the most modern Disney Princess (era-wise). If you set a story a few decades back (which may match the time period of other Disney Princesses), then Tiana would be either a slave or a freed slave. And that would be murky territory to step into. In fact, in the entire movie The Princess and The Frog, Disney was very careful to lay on the racism very lightly, and unless you’re paying attention, you might miss it. But given that TPatF was set in 1920s New Orleans, there is no way we can pretend Tiana didn’t face racism every step of the way.
But back to the question of setting the story in a vague fantasy world, and not one as specific as the one in TPatF. If we want to create a post-racial fantasy world, shouldn’t there be color-blind casting?
We can take the case of Hamilton, which has an exclusively non-White cast playing the Founding Fathers and their families, etc. The idea was to tell the story of America’s past using the American present. Maybe we can apply the same idea when creating a fantasy land like the Enchanted Forest.
Well, then the question arises, if Once Upon a Time was really going for a post-racial fantasy world, how come 95% of the people living in the Enchanted Forest is white? How come the racial minorities don’t face the experience of minorities? Why isn’t there more colorblind casting? I don’t want to be too hard on the show, because at least it is making an effort for more representation. But we have a long way to go before we have equal representation and before we figure out what is the right way to have these representations.
Some updated thoughts (August 2016):
- Post-racial might not have been the right term to use here? Post-racial fantasy world might imply that racism existed in the past in the fantasy world and now it doesn’t. That was not what I meant here. I was asking if we live in a post-racial world (i.e. if the real world were post-racial the way we would like it to be), how would we depict the new fantasy worlds we create? Would there be racism in those fantasy worlds, or should we create worlds without racism? And I would also raise the question whether creating a racism-free world is similar to sanitization of history (let’s forget about the racism that used to exist)?
- Color-blind casting was not the correct term to use for Hamilton because by excluding white actors, they were not being color-blind. But you get my point regardless, I hope.