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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Cindi at YourPodScribe.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [Opening Theme]
Chris: This is the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: …and today we’re having some big problems. There’s somebody who wants to oppress us. And we’re way more powerful than this person, they can’t realistically oppress us, but at the same time, we’re tripping on our own feet trying to make sure that it’s possible ’cause we need problems.
Oren: I specifically use only the worst possible tactics I can imagine to try to give the bad guy a chance, ’cause otherwise we could just crush him with lightning.
Chris: Yeah, I mean this podcast just wouldn’t be exciting, if we just crushed this person so we give them a sporting chance as best we can.
Wes: [Laughter] Gotta draw this out. It’s important. We have 30 minutes, lots to fill.
Chris: So yeah, this time we’re talking about Oppressed Mage shenanigans. And basically the gist here is we’re talking about a lot of the storytelling issues that come out of the Oppressed Mage trope, which to be specific, it’s when a character is oppressed specifically because they have magic. So it’s not you’re oppressed because of your race or gender, and then you also happen to have magic. It’s because it’s when people are mistreated for having powers. And one of the big problems storytelling wise with this trope is that it sets up your protagonist to be more powerful than your antagonist. So it becomes really hard to keep the threat of the story going when that happens. And so stories do really funny things to try to keep the conflict going even though there’s just no realistic way for these people who have no magic abilities to defeat the heroes who do.
Oren: This is what happens when stories fail to clear the first hurdle that I laid out in my Oppressed Mages article where I talked about how the first problem is that it’s hard to oppress Mages because they have magic powers and some stories manage to clear that bar and then they get other ones like they create a situation where it’s at least technically plausible that this could happen, but a lot of stories don’t and that’s what we’re talking about today.
Chris: Who wants to start?
Oren: Well, I feel like we should start with the example that kind of spawned this podcast episode which is Carnival Row.
Wes: The Pixies.
Chris: Yeah. It’s funny because Carnival Row, when you look at it objectively, it probably isn’t as big as it could be because we’re really just talking about the fact that the fairies can fly ‘cause there is other magic in the setting, but it’s been pretty clear that this magic is something that non-fae can do too. Humans can also do the magic, so it’s not like one group is the only group who has these other magic powers and they’re being oppressed for it. It’s really just the fact that fairies can fly, but it’s amazing how bad the show does, trying to show why these fairies are oppressed and underpowered despite being able to fly when nobody else can.
Oren: And it’s also just weird and out of theme where it’s like no other fairies have specific abilities. None of the other magic creatures really have anything particularly useful. But Pixies can fly. And it’s like, why do they get flight and the other fairies get nothing.
Chris: I mean if we spent more time with the centaurs, maybe the fact that they could run faster or carry more or something, it would matter. But those I think are harder special effects. In any case, my favorite moment in Carnival Row where they’re clearly just trying their best but having a really, really hard time is we have this scene where all of the fae have been walled off in this ghetto surrounded by barbed wire, okay well the fairies can just fly over the barbed wire. [Laughter] So trying to sequester them here is not going to be very effective. But then to show you specifically why fairies can’t just fly over the barbed wire, they have a fairie get spooked and try to fly over the barbed wire and get shot down. But she does it in broad daylight right in front of the guards. Why would they do that? They’d wait until it’s nighttime and then they’d sneak away. And you’d have to shoot them before they get away, and that would be very unlikely.
Oren: They also did this earlier in one of the flashback sequences where they show the war and this is a pre airplanes society. These guys are late Victorian era tech as far as we can tell, they don’t really have airplanes. However, the other side does have air ships. So we have a sequence where the other side’s airships are flying in and some of the Pixs fly out to try to fight them. And of course in real life, air ships are ponderous and unmaneuverable and really awkward and they’re very vulnerable, which is one of the reasons why we stopped using them. But these Pixs instead of going far away and then flying above them and then landing on top or dropping bombs or whatever, they fly directly at the underside where the machine guns are. Why are they doing it? I don’t understand why they’re doing that. They should just be able to completely win this fight with no trouble at all. But instead they’re like, Nope gonna really run right into the guns, I guess.
Wes: It’s a death or glory society I guess.
Chris: Yeah. And of course there’s also the idea that flying would be banned in the city and that none of these rich people who have fairy servants would want them to use their flying to carry messages or do smuggling or what have you is just ridiculous.
Oren: Or just the army. The advantage that flying scouts would give you just in terms of information is ridiculous. Not even considering bombing, ’cause that’s originally what airplanes were used for was scouting. That was incredibly valuable. That was why we developed fighter planes in the first place, which was to shoot down the scouts because they were so useful. Guys, why are you all ignoring this resource that’s right here? It’s really obvious.
Wes: If at the very least they would just make the best couriers. It’s like, Oh, we can deliver packages. What was that really cute animated movie with the young witch who…
Oren: Kiki’s Delivery Service…
Wes: She’s like, well I’m a witch and I guess I know how to fly a broom. So here’s my trade. And they’re, great, you are really good at this.
Oren: The reason this happens is that we give our characters special powers because we want them to be cool. We like special powers; we want our characters to use those powers. But then we want them to be marginalized for having those powers. And that’s why this problem is so hard for writers to get past. Because if their powers were actually weak enough that they weren’t useful, then they would be boring and no one would want them. This is why you don’t see a lot of characters whose power is to make a marble the color blue.
Wes: I would still take it. I mean sure.
Oren: That’s still potentially useful but we don’t see characters with powers that weak very often outside of deliberate comedy or spoofs specifically because that would mess up the fantasy. We wouldn’t want that.
Wes: Isn’t it interesting too how often flight seems to be the one; it’s the magic or the power that is given, but then just kind of is just immediately written out. It’s either, Oh everybody can fly or you can fly, but here are all the reasons why you won’t. It’s a power that I think all of us would want to have. So it hits on wish fulfillment, but then for whatever reason it’s just never good enough and that’s bothersome. Oren, didn’t you have a post recently about mutants and stuff like that with flight in X-Men and stuff like that?
Oren: Oh yeah. Well okay so that was weird. That’s for a post that’s coming up. It should already be out by the time you’re listening to this. But yeah, there’s an episode in the comic House of X, mild spoilers, they put together a team to take down a bad space station and for some reason they bring the guy whose only power is flight. [Group laughter] This is an enclosed space station. I don’t know what you think he’s going to bring to this fight. I mean maybe he’s just really good with a gun. I don’t know. But there were more useful mutants they could have brought.
Chris: I think flight just takes a little bit more thought to carry out in a story because unlike zapping somebody with lightening bolts, it’s obvious how you would use that in a conflict. But flight is a transportation ability. And I think it takes more thought to figure out how you would leverage flight to be an advantage. And then when it is an obvious advantage, like overcoming barriers and getting in places, it makes it too easy just like teleportation does. So I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s often negated so frequently. Certainly in the new Dark Crystal show they have an issue with flight clearly making things too easy for the conflicts they wanted these characters to have.
Oren: It also just depends on what kind of conflict you have going. Like in a lot of superhero stories, the main kind of fighting is always going to be superheroes punching each other. That’s what we actually want to watch. And so if that’s the case, if your main fighting is going to be melee and once you give one character flight you kind of have to start giving all of them flight. Otherwise how are they going to reach that guy? That one person can fly. We want to have melee fights so we have to be able to get up to him too. And then like in a lower tech environment where there is no flight and everyone’s a little bit more fragile, then suddenly flight goes from an annoyance you have to overcome to incredibly overpowered.
Chris: So I have another story that has lots of shenanigans in it. BBC Merlin.
Wes: That’s the one where Merlin’s trying to keep his magic on the down low right?
Chris: Right. [Group laughter]. So in this one, Merlin is a young man who is super, super powerful. We don’t really know what he can and can’t do. It’s super plot convenient, but it feels like he can do just about anything. So to try to keep this under wrap, they have this king who is Arthur’s father Uther, and he’s the magic genocide King. He wants to kill everyone who has magic, really bad mass murderer.
Wes: Like you do.
Oren: Yeah. He just hates magic.
Chris: But in the plot, he has to stay King for reasons. At one point they say Arthur is just not ready to rule yet. But he’s definitely a better ruler than his father. Merlin’s primary conflict is trying to keep his magic secret so that the king he’s serving by protecting his son won’t kill him. So when he uses magic on Uther and Arthur’s behalf, he has to do it secretly so they don’t know that he’s using magic to help them so that they don’t murder him.
Oren: This isn’t even about how powerful Merlin is. It’s really weird for them in some episodes to show us these tragic shots of murdered Mage children and then be, yeah, but Uther’s a little rough around the edges, but yeah, you get to know him. I mean, who among us hasn’t started off like a Holocaust once in a while? You know, that’s just a really weird dynamic they have.
Chris: So basically all the antagonists are powerful magic users who want to kill Uther because he is committing mass murder and Merlin has to fight them.
Wes: Oh no.
Chris: So in this it uses this method to turn other magic workers into antagonists, so he’s still a powerful antagonist, but Merlin is constantly protecting somebody who really should just die ’cause he’s the bad guy. He’s actually the objective bad guy in this situation.
Oren: He’s also just a bad King. I just want to put that out there. He’s also a horrible ruler and is not smart and makes terrible choices that have nothing to do with magic. So the idea that we need to protect him because Arthur’s not ready to be king? Arthur’s a better King when he’s asleep than Uther is. It’s ridiculous [Group laughter] that they expect us to believe that.
Chris: It’s great. And supposedly the reason why Uther hates magic workers is he went to a Mage because his son was gonna die and the Mage told him, yeah, I can cast a magic so that your son will live, but somebody else is gonna die as a result ’cause that’s going to be the balancing factor of the consequence of this magic. And he was like, yeah, go for it. And then that person happened to be his wife and Arthur’s mother. And then he was like, no. And then he was so angry, he decided to, to kill all the Mages even though he’d signed up for that.
Oren: This is kind of like how rulers in the modern day will sometimes burn all airplanes because like a loved one died in an airplane crash. Oh wait, no, no, they don’t do that. Never mind. That’s a, that’s a boo boo on me.
Chris: Wes do you have one you want to talk about?
Wes: Well we brought up X-Men earlier and Oren’s got some posts that talk on that one too. But I woke up the other day with a nineties cartoon theme song stuck in my head, which was great. I remember this maybe five, six years ago. I YouTube’d the entirety of that series. It got weird. I had no idea. What happened eventually ’cause you only saw it with Saturday morning cartoons and you saw the same episodes over and over again. But no, it basically ends with Xavier falling in love and moving to outer space. And that was…
Oren: Yeah, why not? Get out of here Xavier.
Wes: ‘Cause why not? Oren feel free to jump in here. The X-Men are constantly being faced with…I guess if you have magic power then there’s no way you’re going to use aggressive technology. Even though the X-Men, especially in that cartoon, are well funded and have stealth jets and all kinds of tech, but God forbid they pick up a rifle or build their own sentinels.
Oren: That’s the thing that really weirds me out in House of X, which is the comic that I critiqued in my post. The best explanation this comic can offer for how the bad guys, in this case they’re called Orchis, but they’re all basically the same, can possibly hurt the X-Men is they’re going to make an army of killer robots and yo, why don’t the X-Men make one? They’ve even got a guy whose power is that he makes machines real good.
Wes: Yeah. Forge.
Oren: That’s his power. And I don’t really know if he’s actually an X man, but he does help them build their resurrection machine. So I think he would help if they asked. How could they possibly be threatened at this point? Oh my gosh, the X-Men do that a lot. There’s a TV show called The Gifted. It’s an X-Men spinoff because technically the X-Men are a group of mutants, but it’s in the same world and it has the same problems of we’re gonna get you, you mutants. And the mutants are very studiously not using their powers in an intelligent way. My favorite is just the way that in these shows you have these asshole anti mutant bigots who like come up to mutants on the street and give them a hard time and there’s like a 90% chance that mutant could just kill you with a thought. And I just don’t think bigots are that brave. I mean my experience with bigots is that they’re pretty cowardly and they like to only attack the marginalized when they have the advantage. And I think this is giving them more credit than they deserve. The idea that they’d be like, yeah, that guy has I lasers, I’m gonna go give him a hard time. No, I don’t think they would.
Wes: Oh, no, it’s so bad. I mean, it makes you wonder thinking about the cartoon; you have these main X-Men like Cyclops and Wolverine. Their powers are incredibly violent powers. And so the answer is they have to destroy robots because it’s a Saturday morning cartoon kind of situation. But we want to watch the heroes triumph against sentinels and things like that. But robot on robot action is still pretty cool. I mean that could possibly open them up for other conflict. But, and I don’t know, Oren, it’s like what you said about flight and Marvel movies and stuff is it all comes down to melee and you want your heroes punching things and even Cyclops ends up punching stuff all the time too. Just take your visor off.
Oren: So just laser them. No, we’re done with lasers. His laser is a once per encounter ability and now he’s got to punch things.
Oren: One of my favorites happens at the end of Dragon Age 2 and oh man, the marginalization magic combo in Dragon Age is super weird because one of the ways that they try to justify how Mages could be oppressed is that they give the Templars who are the main anti Mage group, magic powers too, there’s a different kind of magic power and I’m sitting here being like, well why aren’t the Templars oppressed for having the magic powers? And then the answer to that is, oh well actually Mages are super dangerous and can turn into blood monsters at the drop of a hat. So you’re telling me that in this story where you are clearly invoking tropes of actual oppressed people, you’re saying that the oppressors are right or at the very least they have a point.
In Origins if you choose the Mage quest line from the beginning, hey, congratulations, it’s time to move past apprentice status, we’re gonna force you to go into the fade and face a demon, which you know, there’s a really good chance it’s going to possess you and then we’re going to kill you. Come on.
That’s the way they explain why the mage Mages are oppressed, but the Templars aren’t because Mage magic is actually legitimately dangerous. Once you do that, you’ve completely changed the game and you’re not really talking about anything that is applicable to modern, real life oppression. But they still want to use the same parallels. But I was thinking about at the end of Dragon Age 2, there’s the section where you have this big final battle between the Templars and the Mages and the Mages are holed up in this castle and the Templars are attacking it. And they’ve told us in the story that the Templars are resistant to magic and we don’t know how resistant that is in in real terms. Like in game terms, we know that they can resist this much damage per attack. But in narrative terms, we don’t know if this is supposed to be a universe where if you throw a fireball at a Templar the Templar or will die or not.
So it’s not clear how resistant to magic they’re actually supposed to be in the fiction. But regardless, you have this whole castle full of Mages and for some reason they make the Mages fight in hand to hand combat against the Templars. And meanwhile, my party, which is made up of big beefy warriors, they have us stuffed inside in the last room. And I could be out there holding the gates and then all the Mages could shoot fireballs from afar which is what they’re good at. But no. No, the Mages are going to hand to hand the Templars with their little Mage staffs.
Oh my God, why are you doing this? Is it because you realize that showing a bunch of Templars walking through a rain of fireballs would be not believable? Is that why you’re doing this or was that just too hard to animate? I don’t know which one it is but that one was particularly frustrating because that’s a video game. The whole point of a video game, the whole reason that video games make good narrative platforms is that you feel involved but that means that video games are also way more vulnerable to “I would never do that” which is a problem any story can run into but it’s worse in video games because in video games you are encouraging me to think of the character as myself. I am supposed to avatar myself in there, well the avatar I’m piloting would not sit safe in the throne room, while there was a battle going on outside. That’s not a thing I would do and it’s really frustrating.
Wes: I have leveled up, I have skills. Let me at it.
Oren: Do you know how good a warrior I am? I have so many sword points. It’s ridiculous. Another one that I really like is at the end of a novel called Empire of Sand, which does a pretty good job until the very end because in this case until the very end, it’s not actually about oppressed Mages as such, it’s about an ethnic conflict and the oppressed minority just happens to have access to magic and the oppressor has a way of controlling them and that works out. I like that. That works pretty well. But towards the end, the main character for reasons I don’t understand gets approached by a representative of the spirits and is, Hey, so the bad guy was controlling the dreams of the gods to make everything go great for his empire. But he’s dead now. So we’re offering you that power, instead. You could control the will of the gods and just make the world awesome and a utopia. And she’s like, No, I’m not gonna. We need the bad things to also happen. Otherwise the good things are meaningless. Wait, really? Are you saying that all of the abuse you suffered until this point in the book was necessary? And then she thinks all of the abuse I suffered until this point was necessary. Well good job for straw manning yourself. I guess.
I don’t know why this was even offered to her ’cause it’s not necessary, but it was obvious that she had to turn it down because otherwise she’d be too powerful for the next book to happen. So instead she’s, no, I don’t want to. And then her reasons don’t make sense.
Chris: That is really frustrating when a protagonist is offered power they could clearly use for good, but then that power would make the plot not work, and so they get rid of it. It reminds me of the Battlestar Galactica. Let’s just send all of our ships into the sun.
Oren: Yeah. And that one’s even weirder because it’s not like they had a sequel they needed them to not have ships for.
Chris: They were just way to into this weird origin story. Maybe this is the story of earth or something who knows, I don’t.
Oren: No, it’s not man. There’s no way to make that credible and throwing their ships into the sun doesn’t help.
Chris: Another show that we’ve watched recently is called The Rook. It’s based on an urban fantasy book and the show itself certainly struggled with adaptation because the main character has got amnesia and so she spends a lot of time in her head trying to disguise the fact that she has amnesia and stuff like that. That doesn’t work very well translated to screen. It does have some cool things in it, mainly the character Gestalt who is a hive mind of four people, which is pretty cool. But the idea in The Rook is that people with super powers are for some reason secret, which is really unclear as to why they’re secret.
Oren: Or how.
Chris: It’s got a masquerade without an explanation. And that they’re either controlled by the government or they’re controlled by human trafficking syndicates that constantly kidnap them and sell them to the highest bidder for millions of dollars. But it’s really hard to explain exactly how they managed to make this human trafficking work. So for instance, the main character can explode a bunch of people when she feels threatened. In fact, as the story opens immediately after somebody tried to kidnap her she exploded a bunch of people, she exploded all of them. So when they capture her later and sell her off, it’s really like they have a way to temporarily suppress her powers. But it’s really unclear how anybody is ever going to use her powers for their own benefit when as soon as they give her her powers back, she will just explode people.
Oren: There are some of them who I could see how you could coerce this person into being useful for you. Like the person who has amnesia, power, you could give this guy that I don’t want to remember things, amnesia, or I’ll shoot you. Okay, fair. He can only give you amnesia by touching you. So as long as you make it so he can’t touch you, you could in theory order him around, but what are you going to have the main character do with her power? I want you to kill this guy I brought to you in a room that’s completely insulated so you can’t shock me. Look, why didn’t you just kill him yourself? You could even, if you wanted him to be electrocuted, you could just do that. It’s not actually that hard to electrocute someone. And then this, the same issue with the lady’s boss who also gets sold. She has some kind of weird sonic pulse power and what are you going to do with that? How are you going to force her to use that in a way that doesn’t let her turn it on you? It seems like it would be way more trouble than it was worth.
Chris: Mhm. Yeah. My original idea is if they were going to use this guy who has the power to give people amnesia to amnesia all of their new kidnapped victims, because then they would be easier to manipulate and control. But that’s just one guy. There’s no sign that there’s anybody else who ever can or have done that and they only got their hands on him recently. So that’s clearly not the method they’re using.
Oren: Right. And also they keep going with the sales after he’s escaped. So clearly they’re not concerned.
Chris: We don’t know. The main character is not sold, of course. Spoilers.
Chris: So we don’t see, but we’re going with the assumption that somehow they can make these people with ridiculous powers do what they want, compel them to use those powers.
Oren: Okay. So we’re almost out of time, but I have one more example I’d like to bring up, which is sort of a different kind of example. Because this is beyond just like trying to have the mutants do silly things to explain how people can oppress them. It’s more trying to use magic to give your character like fake spinach, which is sort of similar and I’ve seen this happen in a lot of stories, but in particular it happens with Moira in House of X. Moira’s power is very interesting. When she dies, she basically loops back in time to when she was born, but with all of her memories intact.
Wes: Groundhog Day, but like her whole life. Okay.
Oren: Yeah. She’s like Groundhog Day person. That’s a power that is objectively awesome. That power is rad. It has no downside. And yet they have the section where Moira tries to convince us that she felt that she was cursed with this horrible burden and the justification they give is that I just couldn’t be with my husband the second time because I already knew all of his flaws and they disgusted me. I think that might actually be a problem with you.
Wes: Change your taste.
Oren: But let’s assume for a minute that you’re right and that you can’t date the same person a second time. Date somebody else. There are other people you could date.
Chris: I mean if that’s how she felt about him, maybe she should have divorced him before she died.
Oren: Maybe the idea is supposed to be that she’s, I loved him and now I can’t be with the man I love, but the explanation they give for it really just sounds like you should just not be with him because you don’t like him very much.
Oren: Which would totally make sense if you lived your whole life and then died and then met your significant other when they’re 20 and you’re the mental equivalent of 70, yeah, I could see how maybe that relationship wouldn’t work the second time because you’re a very different person than you were the first time you met them. But that’s not a curse. You didn’t lose anything. You just have the opportunity to go and have a different life that nobody else would get.
Chris: It’s like it’s that or dying. So…
Wes: That is silly. That is silly.
Oren: It was really hilarious. And the funny thing is that even later they managed to come up with something that could maybe convince me, would make her think that this was a bad thing, which is that she retains the memories of her death. So if she dies really horribly, she just has to remember that forever. That doesn’t happen until after she’s decided this is a curse back when her deaths were peaceful, in her sleep. And by this point she has decided it’s not a curse. It’s awesome cause she’s got mutant pride.
Wes: Is she also cursed with perfect memory? Can’t she just forget some stuff over time? It’s a lot of lifetimes.
Oren: Extremely unclear if she has perfect recall or not. But there’s one thing I have perfect recall of which is that it is time to end this podcast. Boom. Segue. So those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, you can find his stuff on thefantasywarrior.com and finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll see you next week.
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Chris: This has been the Mythcreant podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself, by Jonathan Coulton.