Podcast

320 – Exploitation and Appropriation

The Mythcreant Podcast

It’s increasingly understood that some stories are not everyone’s to tell, but how can you know which ones? When is a story just a story, and when is it someone’s heritage? Why is this such a big deal? This week, we try to shed light on what it is that makes certain stories so sensitive, why it can cause harm, and why there are some topics that most writers should just stay away from. Also, an unexpected King of the Hill reference.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Appropriative Worldbuilding

Six Rape Tropes and How to Replace Them

Sexploitation

Blaxploitation

Japanese Game With American Names

The Day of the Dead Is not Halloween

Supernatural Angels

Moana Appropriation

King of the Hill: Are You Chinese or Japanese?

Coco’s Success 

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Transcript

Generously transcribed by Kayleigh. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]

Chris: This is the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…

Wes: Wes

Chris: And?

Oren: Oren.

Chris: And previously on this podcast, we have occasionally said that something is not our story to tell, would be one way we would put it, or said that we don’t want to use certain creatures from mythology in our stories because they are not ours.

So, I just wanted to open by asking both of you — Oren, Wes — to tell me in your own words, what it means, that something, isn’t your story to tell.

Oren: I would say that it is a question of does the story belong to someone who has been harmed by something that benefits me? So, for example, does the story belong to someone whose people have been the victim of imperialism, which then propped up white people and enforced white privilege that I benefit from, whether I want it or not.

And if the answer is yes, then I would say, that’s not my story to tell. As opposed to say, if it’s just a group that I’m not part of, like if it’s Christianity — I’m not Christian — but I don’t think it matters. If I use an angel in my story, I don’t think that’s a big deal, and I’m not ancient Greek, but I think using Zeus is fine.

For me, that’s a pretty good test. Has this group been harmed by something that is benefiting me on a structural level? And if the answer is yes, then it’s probably not my story to tell.

Wes: Storytellers, we’re equipped to kind of tell stories through experience and practice. And if I’m thinking about these things “that’s not my story to tell;” I’m thinking to myself “I can’t tell that right.”

If I’m having doubt, that translates to someone can tell this better, someone who has the right experience and toolkit and lived experience to share this. And it’ll make for a way better story than I ever could. So that’s another thing that kind of comes to mind for me, in addition to what Oren was talking about.

Chris: I think for me, I could build an analogy that was more of a personal situation that I think actually covers it surprisingly well. If you knew somebody close to you who went through something traumatic, you would not just take what they went through and package it and put it in your fiction story, detail by detail, and then just sell it.

Most people would know that that would just be inappropriate behavior and that it is really insensitive to that person’s pain and profiting off of that person’s pain. Sometimes it’s not pain-related even, but you have a friend who tells you — I feel a little silly for using the, the phrase story idea, because frankly story ideas are not valuable, but nonetheless — if your friend got really excited about their Buffy fanfic that they were planning and then you were to go to somebody else and repeat exactly what they told you. Hey, maybe they wanted to share that, that’s not yours.

Those are kind of analogies, but usually when we’re talking about not our story to tell, we’re talking about it at a whole large group of people level. Some of those same issues come up where one group can take something that was traumatic for another group or inherently is associated with that other group and use it in inappropriate situations and profit off of it.

To be specific, we’re going to be talking about exploitation and appropriation — which are not the same thing, but are pretty heavily linked, specifically cultural appropriation.

So let’s just define each of those terms. Exploitation, generally, I have defined that on the site as being: when you use the pain of another group for the benefit of people who aren’t part of that group. Specifically, when that group is marginalized and it’s going to be benefiting people who aren’t part of that marginalized group.

A common example is depictions of rape in our stories. There’s a lot of uses that storytellers have for rape. It could be for anything like, “Hey, look how gritty and realistic my setting is, it has rape.” Or it could be, “Hey, see this guy, he doesn’t rape this woman. Isn’t he a great guy?”

Oren: Look how low we can get the bar. We can get it very low.

Chris: Conversely, “Hey, this guy’s a rapist. So now, you know, he’s a villain.”

Oren: Yeah, how else would I have known?

Chris: A typical rape survivor is not going to enjoy a story with rape in it. If you use that, you are making it so that the people who actually had this kind of trauma happen to them can no longer enjoy your story. Therefore, it’s just for the benefit of people who aren’t survivors generally.

And that doesn’t mean that there’s no place for commentary about rape. Usually people who are using rape in these situations, like the examples I gave, they’re not trying to make meaningful commentary about rape. They’re trying to use it as a storytelling tool and not thinking about what effect that has.

Oren: If you look up exploitation films, this definition can start to get very muddled. I was very confused because when I heard terms like sexploitation and blaxploitation, I assumed certain things about these movies.

But then when I looked up what some of these movies actually are, some movies got tagged as blaxploitation because they had a lot of black characters in them. Others were clearly more harmful because they portrayed a lot of negative stereotypes or were just racist in some other way. Whereas some didn’t have that, but they were still considered part of that genre of film.

Be aware that films labeled with a -xploitation tag may or may not be actually exploitative.

Wes: Appropriation inherently has aspects of that, especially as it relates to imbalances when we talk about compensation, but maybe we can step into that conversation here in a sec.

Chris: A common phrase you might hear is the phrase called trauma-porn, which is often how exploitative stories are labeled. Usually a privileged group has really emphasized the painful aspects of some kind of marginalized experience, then it’s labeled as trauma-porn and usually the criticism there is that the story is exploitative.

Oren: There is occasionally a bit of a hazy line between what is an exploitative story made about someone else’s pain and what is a story that someone who experienced that pain made to explore it or to critique it or to comment on it. That can sometimes happen.

I’m going to say that in most cases, that’s not going to be the issue. If you do not personally suffer from that experience, in most cases, whatever it is that you’re thinking of is not going to fall into that category. It’s going to be a lot more cut and dried.

Chris: Next, cultural appropriation and this one frustrated me for a long time and took a long time to get answered, especially since you go to con, there’s a panel on cultural appropriation, go to that panel, hoping to learn what is it? How do I not do it? And every time coming away confused.

Oren: They tell you what it is and you’re like, okay, I know what it is now. Then they’re like, “Avatar” is great. And you’re like, doesn’t “Avatar” do all those things? And they’re like, yeah, but it’s, it’s fine. They’ll carve out the “Avatar” exception in, in real time. I’ve seen people do that, It’s weird.

Chris: Cultural appropriation is basically things associated with a marginalized culture being used by the privileged culture. Also, there are different groups of people and different groups of marginalized people and I would say with cultural appropriation, what’s important is whether you belong to that particular culture or not.

I wouldn’t say that one marginalized culture can never appropriate from another marginalized culture, especially when they’re doing so through the lens of a more privileged culture that engages in appropriation. It’s possible to have more equal cultural exchange, certainly.

I wouldn’t say just because it’s not a privileged culture, doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen all.

Oren: Right, and that’s where I try to bring back the whole concept of who has been harmed here. I’m not French, but I don’t think it’s a huge problem if I use French history in my story. Or if I use some French folklore, I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.

I think the reason for that is that France has never been colonized by America. That’s just not a thing that’s happened, so I don’t think it’s a problem.

Chris: Well, I don’t think you can really appropriate from a privileged culture. Whether different marginalized cultures, for instance, can appropriate each other’s stuff, that’s one question. But any privileged culture, the main narrative about what their culture is, is packaged and determined by them. So if you’re an American, the ideas about what it is to be an American and what American culture is, you’re the mostly the one that determines that, because it’s a very privileged culture. And so privileged Americans are the ones that make movies about that and other cultural products about that.

It’s very different when you have a culture that a bunch of white people are taking aspects of your culture, and then they are determining how your culture is going to be presented.

Wes: Again, it doesn’t really matter to white Americans if some Korean film doesn’t depict America very accurately.

I’ve noticed that in a lot of films made outside the U.S., the U.S. often looks like it’s stuck in the ’20s and that’s kind of neat. It’s kind of an interesting piece of trivia, but it doesn’t really hurt me in any way.

Chris: Right. Or everybody from America is a cowboy, but who cares? We have no shortage of depictions that we determined, that we made ourselves. So it’s just funny because it’s not a sore point.

Oren: Or there’s a funny meme going around that there was some baseball game that was made in Japan in the ’90s and they needed to make a bunch of fake, made-up American names for their baseball characters.

Some Japanese developer tried to invent a bunch of American names and they sound horrendous. They’re all incredibly wrong and they don’t sound right at all, but if you’re a white American, your name being mispronounced is not a huge problem for you. There are exceptions, of course, if you have a European name, that could be an issue.

But it’s not as big an issue, as opposed to, if you were — for example — someone who is of East Asian descent.

You might have a name that people just refuse to pronounce properly, even though it’s not hard, you know? And in that case, if an American game did that and made a bunch of weird sounding Japanese names, that might actually hurt somebody. Particularly Japanese Americans; people who live in Japan might not care.

Chris: Yeah. When you’re used to respect and you have no shortage of respectful treatment, when somebody gets something wrong, it’s just funny.

If you don’t have that, if people are constantly disrespecting you and misrepresenting you, then it’s not funny anymore. Appropriation generally includes distorting other cultures just by representing them inauthentically. There’s almost always some element of “this is inaccurate” at some level to things that are considered appropriation.

Definitely profiting off of representations of somebody else’s culture. If somebody makes a totem pole, for instance, that was not made by Native Americans and then sells that, they’re profiting off of Native American culture and therefore denying Native Americans who should be making those totem poles — if they’re going to be made — any profit that would have happened as a result of their heritage.

Wes: And a further extension of examples like that is if you start, we’ll just say mass marketing culture from marginalized groups, then it becomes that much harder to allocate funds, to preserve cultural elements.

And then suddenly you’re basically participating in cultural degradation. Because if totem poles are everywhere, then why does that one got to stick around and be protected? The mindset becomes popular and people don’t see it as anything other than something you can go by. So that can really hinder efforts with preservation.

Chris: There’s also just a big element of disrespect that happens. Like a Native American feather headdress, that’s a sacred item that is supposed to be earned by the person who wore it. That’s not something that… it’s very disrespectful to just put it on whoever. That’s just not culturally appropriate.

I don’t know a lot about Mexican culture, Day of the Dead, but I have to say seeing white people wear Day of the Dead costumes on Halloween — Halloween is for ghouls and horror stuff. And the Mexican Day of the Dead is about honoring your dead family. Those things don’t seem to mix very well.

Those types of things can be very concerning where it’s, “Hey, that’s something that’s really special to us and you’re completely disrespecting it.”

Oren: Can I mention something about the whole concept of authenticity, especially when we’re talking about using mythology or religious beliefs in fantasy. Because this is something I see authors get confused by a lot.

They hear that this white author used this Hindu thing inauthentically or used this indigenous Australian thing inauthentically, and did they get confused? Fantasy is full of very inauthentic European mythology and religion in that it is not accurate to its original source material. The angels that appear on “Supernatural” are nothing like the angels from the Bible.

Wes: What? [All laugh].

Oren: Yeah. You know, the way that the Greek and Norse gods are portrayed in most fantasy stories is nothing like they are in their original mythology. To the extent that their mythology is consistent in any way; often it’s not.

But that’s the thing, as fantasy authors we often make these changes, and that confuses people. Why is it okay to change angels, but when I start changing Shiva, a Hindu God, that becomes a problem?

And it comes down to who gets to decide what that change is. What it should be. And that’s just how it is and I get that’s a little frustrating. Because it can seem like a double standard, but you just have to go back to that question of who was harmed in that exchange, people of Hindu faith were colonized by the British primarily, but not exclusively, and they are still recovering from that. And in a lot of cases, specifically recovering from having their religion misrepresented. And so, it’s really not our place to decide what the epic fantasy version of Shiva should be.

Now, if some Indian writer wants to do that. Someone who is Hindu and wants to show me their epic fantasy version of Shiva, that’s not really anything like what he is in the actual religion, then great. I will read that book. I will buy it from you. Sell it to me right now.

Chris: Part of the reason it’s, we would say, it’s not our story to tell… Yeah, people should be able to benefit from their own culture. But it’s also, there’s a huge element of, can you actually do this right? And do you have the knowledge and the experience necessary to do that?

Certainly with exploitation, the fact is that people who’ve been through trauma definitely depict it differently than people who have not. If it’s something that is… if you don’t have trauma around something like sexual assault or abuse, or what have you, it’s not a pain point for you. It doesn’t trigger anything and so usually it’s a lot more gratuitous.

It’s just not at all sensitive to somebody who does have personal experience that makes that a lot more painful for them. Whereas if somebody were to write about their own trauma, they would just automatically write it differently because of that and that would just be more sensitive to the people who had those experiences.

Oren: Abuse, like child abuse for example, is a different sort of thing than the issues of racism or cultural power that we’ve been talking about. But you can see the same dynamic at work in which if someone just randomly throws in that this character was abused as a child, that can seem pretty insensitive. And what is that? Just like a random piece of this backstory that you mentioned in the same line as Auntie went to Burger King once.

That seems weird. So it’s not this case that I would never write a character who was abused as a child, but if I was going to, I would not simply put that in there as a random factoid about his backstory. Because like that has serious effects and there are people who suffer from that.

Chris: I’ve definitely seen stories where the storyteller uses abuse to generate sympathy for protagonists. But what happens a lot of times in these situations is this person doesn’t know a lot about abuse and substantive abuse, and they feel like nobody’s going to sympathize with the protagonist, unless they make the abuse super extreme.

Because without lived experience, you don’t know how hurtful things that to other people who have not lived it, might seem small. So they just layer it on really thick and that just becomes kind of trauma-porn. Going to exploitation when talking about just other groups, so people see the breadth of the issue. One instance that’s common is writers, cis writers who are featuring trans characters always focusing on the trans person’s transition.

That would be an example of exploitation. That’s a very sensitive thing for trans people. You shouldn’t focus on a transition just because you have a trans character. Generally, it’s a lot easier if you bring in a trans character post-transition and anything involved in a trans character’s transition is just very sensitive. There’s definitely been trauma porn out there focused on transitioning and those kinds of things.

There’s a lot of marginalized groups that have experiences that are very specific to them, that are either personal or painful, and it’s not a good idea to just go gung-ho on any of those.

Should we move on to talking about whether or not this is something that can be done respectfully?

Oren: Usually, no, I guess it’s not 100 percent, but pretty small. And, of course, there is a debate of even if you could, for example, write a story that takes place in a culture that’s not yours and you could write it and you were so good at writing it that no one could tell.

Let’s just assume that somehow you manage that through the mother of all research, or maybe you lived there for a while. Who knows? But let’s assume you did it, then there’s really still the question of are you taking up one of the few slots for this kind of book that should probably go to someone who actually has that cultural background, so they could benefit from it?

That’s a whole other question.

Chris: For appropriation, a lot of times we’re talking about, for instance, if you’re a white person who is writing what you might call an East Asian-inspired fantasy setting. To me that has just tons of warning bells, just in that description right there.

First of all, East Asian is way too broad. Cultures are very, very specific and a lot of times, when you hear people talking about cultural appropriation, one of the biggest complaints is people — for instance, “Moana” — taking a bunch of different Polynesian cultures and then just being like “Oh, we can just use pieces of all of them and just put them together.”

No. If you’re like, “Oh, it’s inspired by this.” Okay, that means that what you’re doing is you’re not trying to make it authentic. Generally in that case, we don’t recommend… it’s okay, you can just base it off of Europe. It’s okay, really. And there’s plenty of ways that you can make your setting creative without that.

But we’ve generally found about zero case studies of people who are not part of a culture actually doing this respectfully. And, maybe someday, if we find some great success stories of white novelists who did a great job of depicting their Japanese fantasy culture, or something, and Japanese people loved it and Japanese Americans loved it, and then we could find out: What did you do?

Because usually traditional research just doesn’t cut it. There’s so many things that are part of culture that are very difficult to research.

Oren: Lots of really subtle things that if you haven’t lived there, you’re not going to notice them. They don’t always get written down.

This is another case where again, I know authors get kind of confused and it can be a little frustrating, because if you make a fantasy story that has elements of French, German and Spanish cultures all brought together in one fantasy city, no one cares. Like that’s fine. Most people will think that’s not a problem.

If you do that with three different East Asian countries and mix them together that way, that can be a problem.

And I get that this is kind of frustrating. It can feel like a double standard. Again, the reason is that in real life, white people have a tendency to treat everyone from East Asia like they’re the same.

There’s a “King of the Hill” skit about that. Where they keep asking this guy if he’s Chinese or Japanese and he’s Lao. If “King of the Hill” gets it, I think the rest of us can get it.

Chris: You know, there’s been maybe a couple movies. Like “Coco” has succeeded, and they brought in tons of consultants for all those little nuances. A novelist succeeding? We haven’t found one yet.

Even if we found some could be successful and have works that were not considered to be appropriative, we still, as Orin said, have to ask the question of maybe the people of that culture should be profiting off of this instead.

Oren: We say this a lot on the site, but just to reiterate, what we’re talking about here is not that your story should be all white, all the time. What we advocate for is diversity through characters, because we think that’s important for a number of reasons, and it’s simply easier than trying to depict an entire culture that you aren’t part of.

And often you still have to do research and sensitivity readers are still good, but it’s more doable. And that’s what we recommend.

Chris: For exploitation, it’s not quite such a high mountain. It’s still difficult. In most cases, what we find is a lot of storytellers who aren’t really doing it for the right reasons, are not willing to put in the amount of energy that it takes to get it right. But if it’s something that you’re passionate about, you want to make meaningful commentary on it, especially if you have personal experience with it, you’re doing it for the right reasons and you’re willing to put in work, you’re willing to get a paid consultant for something that could be exploitative, then it is possible.

It does take a lot of effort and the average storyteller is just trying to write their story. They’re just trying to make their villain villainous and they don’t need rape to do that. They’re just trying to make their love interest look good and they don’t need him to choose not to rape somebody to do that. And again, abuse, we find lots of storytellers put abuse in their stories, not knowing it’s abuse, and once I tell them, they take it out.

The average storyteller does not realize how much they are taking on by putting potentially exploitative content in their stories. But it’s not like it’s impossible to do it well.

Oren: This is also a case where, moving it back to appropriation just a little bit, there is a lot of well-meaning, but incorrect advice out there about how people are tired of high fantasy that’s based off of medieval Europe.

First of all, no they’re not. [All laughing]

Second, what that is getting at is that people do like novelty in their setting. They like novelty, that’s a big part of the draw of fantasy. Being like, “Ooh, I wonder what this setting has in store for me.” There is, because of that advice, a number of authors — I have worked with some of them — who think that in order for their setting to be not boring, they have to appropriate from other cultures.

And they didn’t think of it as appropriation at the time, because they had not considered this enfolds a complicated subject. But that’s what they were doing, because they had been told that no one wanted to read another fantasy story based on medieval Western Europe.

There are just so many ways to add novelty to your setting other than taking from Japan or Thailand or the Aboriginal culture of Australia. You have so many good options that are better than those. You know, that’s a piece of advice I see a lot and I do think it is giving a lot of writers the wrong idea.

Wes: There’s definitely a good list of things, like Oren’s “who does this harm” question, is a good one to ask. That example there, Oren was good about, if you’re looking at stories and you’re like “Oh, I need to mine something from another culture,” that’s the definition of cultural appropriation and exploitation.

We’ve talked about “Supernatural” recently, and in season one, they deal with a wendigo, or a wen-dee-go, you should ask yourself what ethnic, racial or cultural group does this belong to? What significance does it have? Does my using this benefit me in some way and take away from the group it belongs to? And what makes it possible for me to engage with this in my story?

So it’s definitely… you’ve got to ask yourself some questions. Especially the engagement and the harm stuff. You’re supposed to write what you know, and if you’re cherry picking from like other faiths, you probably don’t know it.

Oren: Right. And I will just say real quick, sometimes this can be pretty complicated, but I have checked with a number of Native American advocates who are into SpecFic. The answer is almost universally, please do not use wendigos or skinwalkers or other mythological creatures as monsters. The majority of them are saying that, and even if you know some person who is from the relevant tribe, who says it’s okay, I would still not do it. Just because enough people have told me not to, that I’m going to err on that side.

Chris: I’m not going to say permission isn’t relevant, but we always have to remember one person can never represent an entire group. So getting permission from one person doesn’t mean that when you write your story, that group is going to be, “Oh yeah, it’s fine you got permission.” [All laughing]

You know we want you to succeed and we want what you write to be well received. So we have to be frank about what will do that and what will not do that. One other thing that a lot of people ask about world building is, “How do I come up with a theoretical world and a theoretical culture if I’m not allowed to take things from other cultures?”

So if I have a culture that’s, for instance, living in a cold environment, how do I know what to do with them if I’m not allowed to take from the Inuit? In those types of situations, you have to think a little harder. By studying other cultures, you can find some logic that you can use in coming up with things that your own culture does that are different from just taking a specific practice from a culture.

A great example is burial practices. You can look at a variety of all the burial practices around the world and you’ll find a pattern where people do whatever is the most practical to dispose of a body. If it’s easy to dig into the earth, they will bury it. If they have lots of wood to burn, they will burn it. If they don’t have either of those things, but there’s a body of water nearby, they will put the body in the water. From that you can kind of extrapolate from cultures.

There’s also some practices that are in more than one culture. In that case, if it’s something that multiple cultures engage in, you have to think about how you’re packaging it. Are you giving it a label that’s associated with a specific culture or details that are associated with a specific culture?

It’s not that you can’t use cultural research to come up with ideas for your world building, but it’s important that you think about your world and how it works separately and logic that out, as opposed to just transplanting something that’s taken from another culture.

Oren: I think this is a good moment to end the podcast because we’re a bit over time. So thank you everyone for listening. If we said something that 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, professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.

[closing theme]

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I think one reason why it doesn’t matter that much when you use several European cultures together in your medieval fantasy world is that the cultures here in Europe have often been put together during history. Most countries changed their borders more or less regularly. Cultures influenced each other regularly, so French, for instance, was a language for the nobles everywhere for a time and Austria had the ‘Spanish Court Protocol’ for quite a while (that both were controlled by Habsburgs might have played a role).

    As a German, I could complain about all the cookie-cutter Nazi villains, but I don’t. What I complain about sometimes is that they’re not speaking correct German. Google translate is no way to have your Nazi villain in pursuit of the hero yell for them to pull over. Please refrain from it – those guys would be shot by their own colleague for the crime of defiling the German language.

    • SunlessNick

      I remember seeing a WWII film where the protagonists are hiding from a German patrol, and in the background you can hear the Germans saying ja to each other over and over. No other words.

      • Cay Reet

        I once read a modern pulp novel (meant it was written today, not in the 1930s/40s) where there was a general smattering of German sentences, among them a German yelling “Ziehen Über” during a car chase. That clearly was simply google translate – ‘pull over’. However, Germans don’t say it like this – we ask someone to stop or yell ‘ranfahren!’ – ‘drive over’!

        ‘Ja’ is at least a fitting German word, even if it makes for a boring conversation.
        ‘Ja.’ ‘Ja!’ ‘Ja?’ ‘Ja…’

        • Bellis

          The one-word conversation is a time-honoured northern german tradition but it has to be short xD

          • Cay Reet

            Ja.

          • Star of Hope

            Ja just means yes, can’t they use other words like ‘Korrekt”?

          • Cay Reet

            Not in SunlessNick’s example. In that case, the Germans on patrol only said ‘Ja’ over and over again.

            In a northern German conversation, all sorts of one-word sentences are allowed.

        • Star of Hope

          I need to watch this to see for myself. It’s almost as horrendous as having the Japanese guy always saying on the phone: “Arigato!!! Arigato!!!”

          Regarding Germans and Nazis in pop culture…can we get some German setting that has no Nazis in it, even if it’s the HRE during the 30 years war, which is technically not Germany, but still important part of this countries history.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, I agree … we need more common German settings than just the Third Reich (although I’m working on The Fourth Reich right now, started today, where the Nazis rallied and conquered the world at the next try, so I’m guilty, too).

            The Rheinland during Napoleonic rule, perhaps? That could be interesting. The reformation period would offer a lot of conflict. The conflicts between Romans and Germans during the Roman occupation would be interesting – Hermann/Arminius. Just shifting to WWI instead of WWII could be a breath of fresh air.

          • Star of Hope

            Yeah, they can also choose the whole Berlin wall fiasko or do something in the modern-day and maybe make some Action-Cartoon for kids based in Germany.

            Regarding the Fourth Reich: How did they amassed that power? through manipulating democracy or did they got their help from Shambhala?
            Speaking of it, this place must be a bigger victim of cultural appropriation than the Inuits, because this mythological place is a stand-in for Nazi mysticism.

          • Cay Reet

            My story has quite a bit of fantasy to it. They didn’t go for political power – they created new troops and fighters through genetic manipulation, bionic, and other scientific/sciene-magic ways and overran the world with technology and monsters. That’s all in the Dresden Protocol, which plays a big role.

            The apex of the protocol should have been ‘the Six’ – six genetically optimized people with supernatural powers instilled in them. It … didn’t work out the way they wanted and in the story, that becomes obvious for them.

  2. Alverant

    “but incorrect advice out there about how people are tired of high fantasy that’s based off of medieval Europe.

    First of all, no they’re not. [All laughing]”

    Second of all, yes I am. You talked a lot about exploitation and medieval Europe was oppressive against non-christians. I feel that fantasy settings that given some idealized version of medieval Europe that leaves out the bad parts like religious oppression and people being executed for heresy and blasphemy is offensive and has the same sort of pitfalls as cultural appropriation. It doesn’t get the culture right.

    “Most people would know that that would just be inappropriate behavior and that it is really insensitive to that person’s pain and profiting off of that person’s pain.”
    Like basing a fantasy novel in a setting that would punish you for exposing corruption or hurting the feelings of a religious figure? Things that are still happening today, I should add. Would you approve of a setting of a fictionalized CSA without slavery? How about a version of the USSR without the gulags? Why does medieval Europe get a pass?

    • Tony

      And even media that does acknowledge the suffering in medieval Europe (or in settings based on it) often does it in an exploitative way, especially where misogynistic violence is concerned.

    • Esq

      Many people approach pseudo-Medieval Europe fantasy as the Middle Ages as it “should have been” rather than it was. Besides ignoring the inconvenient political-social-religious aspects like serfdom, misogyny, and oppression of ethnic-religious minorities; it allows authors to also ignore things like leprosy, rampant infant mortality, and other not very fun or pleasant things about life in the past.

      When authors do have to go for an oppressed minority for a setting the either use a fantasy race or a Roma-analog rather than Jews for some reason. My guess is that a lot of the stereotypes and tropes surrounding the Roma, exciting and sexy dancers, musicians, etc makes for a much more fun story than the stereotypes and tropes around a Jewish analog (I’m a Jew), which are people who spend a lot of time studying religious-legal texts when not earning a living in the few avenues available. With Roma-analogs you don’t have to come up with an entire religious dispute to explain the hatred that you would for a Jewish-analogue.

    • Guest

      yeah. I’m sick of it, too.
      either idealized or excessively sh*tified.
      the very common oversimplifications and flat out misrepresentations that are not remotely justified in-story because the author *didn’t even realize it was a misrepresentation* are extremely tiring.
      There’s still something annoying about someone getting history flat-out WRONG even if it’s their ‘own’ history. different topic for discussion, sure. but annoying nonetheless.
      especially considering how much of it is the same disinformation and misconceptions repeated so often people actually think it’s fact!

      • Cay Reet

        So … every western out there, too? It’s fun to think that from the everyday details like state of clothing or the level of filth, the Italian western is closer to reality than the American one before OUATITW.

        Most uses of a culture or historic period to base fantasy setting on are flat and not very thought out – there’s a difference between writing a historical novel and a fantasy novel with a setting that’s just very much like medieval Europe.

        Ideally, the writer dives into the history and learns why things were like this – why the witch hunts happened, why the institution ‘church’ (mostly the Vatican) was so invested in hunting heretics, etc. Then they develop the history of their own world and see how this and that could have happened in their version as well. Or they figure out why it would not have happened.
        Yet, in reality, a lot of writers look up the medieval fantasy of other writers, make a few changes, and go with it.

  3. RedOnTheBed

    You give a lot of geographical (or formerly-geographical) examples here, but I find those are often the places I find the least difficulty navigating what stories are or are not mine to tell.

    The main issue that comes to my mind is actually one that you mention right at the beginning – Christianity. Now, certainly, no-one (at least, no-one with any interest in writing self-admitted spec-fic) has benefited from oppressing Christians as a group, but many protestants have benefited from the oppression of Catholics and Catholics of protestants (without even touching Orthodoxy). How does this fit in with ideas of who is allowed to tell whose story? My guess would be that anyone who would be disqualified from telling a story about Catholics because they benefit from the oppression of Catholics… wouldn’t want to.

    • RedOnTheBed

      Wait no! That was meant to be the end of the paragraph, not of the post.

      Also, *telling a story about Catholic lore

      Also, and this is applicable to culture in general, but especially to religion, what about when aspects of oppressed people’s culture seeps so far into the oppressor’s culture that the oppressor’s culture is inseparable from those aspects – angels, after all, are not a Christian concept – who has claim to those ideas?

      What about syncretic belief systems, like hermeticism? Many concepts of magic ultimately derive from Christian and post-Christian adoption and appropriation from Jewish and Islamic belief systems (specifically belief systems that were themselves influenced by Christianity). To whom, if anyone, are those off limits?

      Finally, what of persecution and oppression that happened in the past, whose repercussions have certainly carried to the present, but whose victims have no clear successors today, and whose records are very unclear? Whose stories are those to tell? I’m thinking of the persecution of heresy, and especially of the witch-hunts, which are claimed by (in descending order of historical soundness) Jews, women in general, neopagans, and witches.

      • Cay Reet

        Christians, in the sense of people of Christian belief, are not an oppressed group today in most of the world and have, as a whole, not been oppressed for a very, very long time. They have forcefully taken their religion to other areas and eradicated the local religions to replace them with their own. Very much as with European cultures, we are looking at a force of oppression, not a force that was oppressed.

        Yes, some parts of Christianity have oppressed other parts of Christianity and vice versa, but Christianity as a whole is not hurt in any way by being used as the basis on which to build an imaginary religion.

        Christianity is mainstream in western countries, so there’s no reason why someone from those countries shouldn’t play around with it. Personally, I wouldn’t mind someone from other areas around the globe playing around with it, either – it’s such a powerful religion that it won’t take any damage from that.

        • Tony

          Christians are oppressed in various countries where they’re a minority, though. Okay, cashiers in Christian-dominated countries saying “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas” may not be oppressive, but the treatment of various Eastern Christian denominations (Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, etc.) in some Muslim-majority countries is certainly oppressive. (As with a lot of historical anti-Catholic sentiment in Protestant-dominated countries, also overlaps with ethnic discrimination, as many of the aforementioned Eastern Christian denominations overlap with ethnic minorities.)

          • Cay Reet

            This doesn’t negate the fact that Christianity as a such has been the oppressor much more often in the past than the oppressed. Using symbols or mythology from the Christian religion is not the same as using content from an oppressed minority’s belief or even a religion that has been eradicated by Christianity.

            If you want to write about someone being oppressed for being Christian, for being what the church (as an institution) called a heretic, for being hunted as a witch, I would suggest considerable research into the topic – information is available.
            If you merely want to use a religion similar to Christianity in your fantasy world based around medieval Europe, I don’t think you will need all details and I doubt you will find anyone complaining.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Editor’s note: I’ve removed a comment for simply being too inaccurate on the history of Christianity and persecution. I don’t normally remove comments for incorrect information, but since claiming false victimhood is a tactic of actual white supremacists, in this case it couldn’t be allowed.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        What Cay said, and I’ll add a couple of things.

        1: Most aspects of Christian mythology that you might want to use are so intertwined across various divisions that you don’t have to worry about it. Angels, leviathan, Lilith, the end of days, etc.

        2: There are some edge cases, like if you wanted to use something that was specific to religious conflicts in Northern Ireland, or between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Those won’t come up often, but if they do, it’s time to at the very least consult an expert.

      • Alverant

        “Many concepts of magic ultimately derive from Christian and post-Christian adoption and appropriation from Jewish and Islamic belief systems (specifically belief systems that were themselves influenced by Christianity).”
        Are you sure? Given how much the Abrahamic religions copied from other religions, saying that anything “ultimately derived” from them is misleading. Religion and magic have been intertwined from the beginning. Magic existed in cultures that haven’t heard of the god of Abraham. Hermeticism emerged about the same time as christianity so it would be fair to say they influenced each other.

  4. Tony

    I’ve heard less criticism for Avatar: The Last Airbender than for other depictions of non-western cultures (though I figure that might be because it’s such a well-structured show). But even if it depicted the cultures that inspired it perfectly respectfully, the takeaway for aspiring creators is that you probably won’t write something as great as Avatar, especially not on your first try.

  5. LWE

    I think the backtracking the article does regarding characters from historically oppressed cultures and their fantasy counterparts (who are, apparently, OK to depict, with some caution) suggests that its main message is not completely sound.

  6. sevenstars

    This was a good podcast, that cleared up a lot of the questions I had about cultural appropriation. I still do have one question, though: what makes Avatar okay?

    You seemed to just laugh off the idea of Avatar being an exception at one point and never bring it up again. And yeah, it seems to tick off many of the boxes you brought up in the podcast and some of your articles on the subject. White showrunners and writers, a mishmash of cultural aesthetics, inauthenticity, et cetera. Yet I’m under the impression that you all are fans of Avatar. If this is true, then why?

    If I had to wager a guess, it’s that Avatar is overtly fantastical enough that no one will really see it as a stand-in for actual East Asian cultures. There don’t seem to be any references to real-world mythology or other cultural elements in the show, other than some foods. “Bending” isn’t lifted from any mythology as far as I know. The four elements appear in Chinese culture, but they also appear in many other cultures including European cultures. The four nations mostly feel like original creations with East Asian aesthetics, rather than Fantasy! Japan and Fantasy! Korea. Is it okay to use superficial elements of non-Western cultures like naming and architecture in otherwise original worldbuilding?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      TL:DR, It’s not that Avatar is okay, it’s that Avatar is good enough to get away with things that other stories wouldn’t get away with.

      More specifically, Avatar avoids a lot of specific problems that a lot of other white-created, Asian-inspired stories have (though there’s still a joke about Chinese food having cat in it, gross), and combined with its overall quality, that’s been enough for many critics to give it a pass. But as time goes on and the state of representation improves, Avatar’s flaws are starting to show. The discourse around Raya and the Last Dragon has accelerated this process, and I suspect it won’t be long before the general attitude shifts entirely.

      We still like Avatar because it’s very good and we like lots of problematic things. There’s also plenty to be learned from Avatar, particularly with plotting, character development, magic systems, etc. But we don’t recommend learning from its use of Asian and Inuit cultures in worldbuilding.

      • Bellis

        I think the bar that Avatar clears that honestly most stories still fall short of is to neither demonise nor fetishise the cultures it depicts, and showing them as complex and interesting and the people as individuals who are shaped by their culture but still make their own choices and have their individual characteristics and quirks.

        Whereas a lot of stories depict “other” cultures that are often stand-ins for real-world groups in very simplistic and therefore insulting and dehumanising ways or use them as metaphors or plot devices (be it as wish fulfillment/escapism or as villains) which twists them.

        Still, clearing this bar doesn’t excuse all mistakes and doesn’t mean that a story like Avatar can’t have stumbled as well (like with the Guru character who is just stereotypical and not great).

  7. Ana

    As someone from a South Slavic country, I don’t appreciate how Europe (and whiteness) is treated as a monolith. People from my country & culture have never been faithfully represented in Western media, and I most certainly feel it’s appropriative when American authors use elements of our culture in building their settings.

    Second, my country has never benefited from colonialism, but has always been a province of larger empires that extracted resources from it. So I resent the implication that as a white author, I inherently benefit from (Western) European colonialism & imperialism, especially when in Europe, discrimination still often happens along the West–East lines, as well as the racial&religious. In the country where I currently live as an immigrant, I don’t benefit from white privilege, I am constantly Othered and discriminated against on the basis of my nationality. So please don’t speak of “Europe” as a monolith of privilege, especially since it betrays that when you speak of Europe, you’re actually referring to Western Europe.

    • Em90

      As an Eastern-European I totally agree!

  8. Paul C

    Even though I generally agree with this discussion, that is, I would not as a white male try to write a novel about growing up as a poor woman in Mexico and immigrating to the United States, I think there is still a place for writing stories that are not of one’s own culture. I offer two examples.
    First, Shogun by the white Australian James Clavell (1975) — following his Tai-Pan and King Rat. I do not know how many readers here remember 1975 (!!) but at the time Asians in general and Japanese (Oooh, they make tiny radios, copy everything, etc. etc. etc.) in particular were not held in high regard (which makes the current stupid, evil, anti-Asian crap in the U.S. more disheartening). However, Shogun, despite its faults, presented a completely different picture of the Japanese culture, noble, honorable, deep, complex. It helped non-Asian Americans start to see Asians as *people*. Also, it turned the “white savior” trope on its head.
    Second, Lovecraft Country by the white American author Matt Ruff (I have not seen the TV adaptation). It introduced me to “sundown towns” and all manner of historical badness. Of course, I should have encountered some of the information in history classes and books (I suggest Stamped from the Beginning and also Sundown Towns), but Ruff did a great job of making me upset at how we treated one another back then. Sorry, treat one another right now. (Sundown tows still exist, just implicitly.)
    Should those books have been written?

    • Cay Reet

      Perhaps those books should have been written by a Japanese (or American-Japanese) and an African-American author respectively?

      It’s not only that white authors writing stories about other cultures appropriate a culture that is not theirs (some are good at treating those other cultures respectively), it’s also that they take away the voice of authors from that culture who could be heard instead. There’s no dearth of white authors, BIPOC authors struggle much more with being published.

      • Bellis

        To add to Cay Reet’s response, the problem is that privileged people are so used to only listen to/ read (and publish, and seek out) and believe the voices of similarly privileged people, with very few exeptions that are often pressed into tokenised roles. I don’t know the specific examples you used, so I apologise if what I say goes off on a tangent. But Japanese/Japanese Americans and Black Americans have actually written books that humanise themselves and that deal with injustices.

        Maybe in the past there was more of a need for those books written by white authors, I don’t know. But nowadays we don’t need white saviour authors to tell marginalised groups’ stories for them, even for the best of intentions, because we have more opportunities to seek out and lift up their own voices directly. Of course this is easier to do for publishers, but authors can contribute as well, be it by making recommendations to their fans over social media, be it by collaboration (not necessarily writing on the same story, it could be by putting together an anthology or an online event etc) or by hiring them as consultants, artists, translators etc.

  9. Leah

    Thank you for this interesting podcast. What about taking inspiration from cultures that do not exist anymore? Like Phoenician, Carthaginian, Thracian, Sumerian, etc.? Is that appropriative/exploitative, even though there are no more living members of those cultures and anyone who could hence authentically represent them? Or anyone who could be harmed from such representations?

    My worldbuilding is inspired by some neolithic Mediterranean cultures (I am myself from a Mediterranean region in Southern Europe), so I was wondering, is that also a case of cultural exploitation?

    • Star of Hope

      If so, your biggest critics are historians who object to misinformation and bad stereotypes like for instance the cavemen in Fred Flintstone. Regarding cultures that are dead, you could ruin their presentation by making them cliche like how the Nasuverse made the Mesopotamian gods aliens and take too many artistic liberties, to the point they aren’t the same person they referenced.

      Just study it or let it slide, you can come up with fun and great deas anyway, if the shoulder of giants are too much for your. If not, make it authentic and avoid stereotypes.

      • Tony

        It’s also worth noting that various ancient cultures have at least some continuity with modern ones. The Maya, Aztec, and Inca civilizations all have living descendants that still practice a lot of those cultures.

        Likewise, many Syriac Christians speak a modern version of the Aramaic language used in ancient Mesopotamia and the Levant; Coptic Christians likewise use a modern version of the ancient Egyptian language in their liturgy (though, as with Latin in the Catholic Church, not in everyday life). I haven’t heard much objection to use of ancient Egyptian, Levantine, or Mesopotamian cultures in fantasy. This seems to be partly because Western cultures have some continuity with those cultures too (via Phoenicia, Greece, and Rome) and partly because (unlike with a lot of indigenous cultures) the ancient religious beliefs of those cultures only exist in reconstructionist form nowadays, while the cultures themselves have been largely Islamized or Christianized. I’d still try to depict those cultures respectfully, though; a lot of media involving ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia has an unfortunate tendency to exotify those cultures (see the usual tropes about hostile mummies and demonic Sumerian gods).

        • Leah

          Thank you both for your responses
          I absolutely agree that the same level of sensitivity and research should be applied to historical cultures as the contemporary ones, which includes avoiding misguided and harmful stereotypes.

          Also, I’m not basing my worldbuilding on any particular culture or claiming to represent it – it’s more about what building materials and architectural styles would be common in that period, what kinds of textiles and dyes, what were the widespread practices of trade, political organising, policing, ways of interacting with people from foreign territories, how much people would know about the world beyond their experience (and through which means), how would class systems function, etc. And then, I create unique cultures with practices that make sense for them… It’s more about extracting sociological and historical logic/reasoning than about basing the worldbuilding on any particular culture (within a particular period, since ancient cultures evolved much faster than we often acknowledge).

  10. Bellis

    Great episode, very thought-provoking!

    I feel like I’m finally getting close to understanding the dilemma of “how to represent without being appropriative” or how to walk the line between cultural appreciation versus misappropriation as a storyteller.

    Because I feel like the advice to only use marginalised characters but not marginalised cultures could lead to woldbuilding that’s only inspired by either dominant and/or your own cultural and religious background (if that’s not or not entirely a privileged background) and lead to pitfalls. Maybe I’ve misunderstood it too, not sure. But I’ve wondered how to do this without making all the characters of colour assimilate into white culture(s).

    But using research and – gasp – creativity, it actually is possible to create several cultures for your world that are not all just different shades of white, while avoiding to directly base them on real-world cultures or marginalised religions in misappropriative or racist ways.

    So yeah, I really liked the idea of doing research and looking at some commonalities betwen really different cultures and letting that guide you to develop fictional cultures that make sense, but that have aesthetics and details and ceremonies that aren’t based on real-world marginalised groups or stereotypes thereof. For your example of creating a culture that lives in an icy and snowy region, writers might do some research not only into Inuit but also other peoples from around the arctic circle, past and present, and maybe also from other cold places like high mountains. And you‘ll see some similarities that are probably dictated by necessity and possibility (can‘t base your architecture on wood if that‘s not around where you live) but you‘ll also find a lot of diversity, including different ways to cope with or use the same environmental factors.

    And then using that research for worldbuilding would mean to adapt what you found out about broad commonalities into your fictional setting and you‘re free to make up more superficial aspects like aesthetics. So neither using closed aspects nor stereotypes nor using superficial aspects to signal what real-world culture or religion they‘re supposed to mirror, but instead base cultures around the things that actually shape those people’s lives while letting them be complex and fully rounded (or as rounded as possible for the story). This requires not so much knowledge about a specific culture but about how cultures in general work and the reasons behind specific practices, like you said with the burial rites. Yes, they have cultural and religious significance and when you ask someone, they’ll probably talk about that rather than say “it’s convenient” because that’s not how a member of a culture thinks about their own culture. But there’s no contradiction between something being convenient or a necessity and it being culturally significant or even sacred.

    And understanding contexts can make your worldbuilding way more immersive and vivid! Maybe most readers won’t stop to analyse it consciously, but a lot of people might get a vague sense that something is off if your Arctic dwellers live in wooden houses whereas they will get the satisfying feeling of “everything fits together” if they use inedible turtle-seal parts to make paint and dyes out of that in turn shape their colour scheme.

    Maybe they revere and fear their dragon overloards to the same degree, maybe they sustainably farm will-o’-wisps’ illusion magic, maybe they’re merfolk who build their homes out of sea serpent’s shed skin because it’s the most durable material around. Or they’re a culture of black desert-dwelling elves who use their long ears to transfer heat out of their bodies and whose cultural practices are based around sensible things to survive in the desert and whose details are made up in the same way as any other sff culture. Something like that.

    Idk still mulling this over, but I feel closer to “getting it” now. Because there’s the very real danger of going too far in the opposite direction while trying to avoid cultural appropriation and ending up tossing out cultural appreciation and representation with it and at worst ending up with something that looks more like segregation. And both of those are harmful, but it is possible to find other ways around that, mainly through respect and research and consultation.

    Another thing to keep in mind about cultural appropriation is that cultures are different from each other and what is closed to one culture might be openly shared by another. For example afaik the Romani language is closed and there‘s a huge problem of white people stealing and confiscating their language, whereas most other people are happy if you learn their language instead of making them learn yours (provided you do it in a respectful way of course). A lot of religious practices, artifacts and symbols are closed and reserved for their respective culture, whereas some religions try to convert others and therefore do spread to outsiders on purpose. For some marginalised groups, the way they build their houses or make their clothes is mundane enough to be shared (respectfully of course), whereas for other groups those things can be sacred and closed and it would be appropriative to anyone not from their group to just, say, build a yurt.

    I only bring this up because I‘ve seen people be worried about cultural appropriation and then jump to the conclusion that everthing that is sacred to a culture is also closed or that because houses are closed in one culture, they must also be closed in every other marginalised culture. But that still lumps all cultures together instead of affording them the respect of context and nuance. The most harm this probably does is when people refuse to learn languages for fear of appropriation, thereby unintentionally propping up cultural hierarchies where everyone in the world has to learn English, French and the like while the rest are treated as less valuable and who cares if you speak four languages if none of them happens to be English?

    So there are some broad universal truths, mainly that understanding power, privilege, oppression and exploitation on a structural level is important, but a lot of the details are specific to their context and we need to keep these nuances in mind.
    And it actually occurs to me that keeping these worldbuilding tips in mind makes for better western-european-based worldbuilding too! Fewer one-dimensional faux-medieval societies that somehow manage to stay technologically stuck despite the existence of magic…

    Another thing to keep in mind is that while cultural misappropriation is a huge problem, so is erasure and under-representation and we should strive for a world where no one has to chose between one of those two or be glad that they are “only” hit with the lesser of those two evils.

  11. Star of Hope

    Personally if you want to write stories from other people, the best way to do it is to ask these people themselves, which is the most logical conclusion I think.

    I as a person with near-eastern roots can write a story about people from this region, maybe one hero who meets friends on his or her way. However I will always try to learn even from my own and the dominant culture even with my rights, because if you use real life Culture, you should understand it’s meaning and not simply use names of deities because it’s cool.

    Hey, do you think we should stop the stereotypes of the oriental harem and the submissive Asian wife? Well we can all join in an effort to stop such harmful stereotypes. So yeah, let’s work together for a brighter future!!!

    • Cay Reet

      I’m all for retiring those stereotypes.

      The truth about the harem as a political institution is much more interesting than the ideas of western writers with too little of a sex life projecting their own ideas on the many wives and mistresses of an Oriental ruler. Chill, dude, that guy probably didn’t have that much more sex than you, his day also only had 24 hours and he spent most of them on other things than sex…

      • Star of Hope

        The stereotypes made by the orientalists towards the Orient tells me more about their perverted mindset than that of the people from this part of the world.

  12. Bellis

    Making this into its own comment because the other one is already really long.
    When it comes to ‘sploitation or trauma porn, for those writers who do want to draw attention to problems in order to spur people into action to change the world for the better, I‘d suggest focusing on uplifting the humanity of those affected. (Or… that they have feelings and needs and deserve better in the case of animals/robots/aliens; Black Beauty does this.)

    Also, because a lot of writers don‘t make (much) money off their writing, it‘s appropriate to point out that profiting off a story doesn‘t have to be in a financial way, it could be to further someone‘s (academic) career or social standing or just generally their group‘s privilege, for example saviour narratives.

    Depicting how much pain and suffering some people are put through doesn‘t actually humanise them. The perpetrators are usually familiar enough with it that they should know better, and still utterly dehumanise their victims even when (if) looking them in the eye. Depicting it is only useful if that pain and suffering is widely unknown even among those people who care, and that‘s not a common situation in the internet age. Information can spread as freely as never before. There are exceptions to this, but even then it‘s most important to get it across why anyone should care and that the victims/survivors of the atrocity or oppression in question are individuals who have complex inner lives, feelings, dreams, usually their own (sub-)culture and very importantly: agency. Also that there are ways to do things better and to actually change the situation, because a LOT of people do care about a lot of things but just feel powerless to do anything about it or burn out.

    That way you can also tell the story in a way that will be enjoyable for someone to read who went through the thing (or at least more likely – there‘s never a 100%). Not surprisingly, this is done well in a lot of stories that are written by people who are affected themselves, like my current favourite audio drama Love and Luck (https://www.loveandluckpodcast.com/) which focuses on how to heal from anti-queer bigotry and hate crimes, support each other, protect and uplift each other and doesn‘t dwell on depictions of suffering and has no graphic violence at all. But you don‘t have to be affected yourself or wanting to write about queer issues specifically to learn from and use these techniques of distancing from the violence and suffering while really bringing home the humanising message as well as agency and ways forward.

    An example I absolutely hated and stopped watching the show for was Ash Tyler* in Star Trek: Discovery. At first he seems like a respectful (if way too graphic for my tastes) depiction of a rape and torture survivor with PTSD, who is treated well by the other characters (surprisingly rare!) but then comes the oh so “clever“ reveal that actually, he‘s a spy with an implanted dual personality who consented to the things he relived as flashbacks later, so they can‘t be called rape and torture, really. And it‘s like wtf. Now you‘re having a victim blaming AND ableist storyline that depicts rape/torture survivors and people with DID (dissociative identity disorder) as untrustworthy and not telling the truth and also definitely dangerous and just. No. Why. Why start out with something full of potential to only pull the rug out from under your audience‘s feet and hammer down a whole bunch of last-century stereotypes? Twists are only good if they give some kind of value…

    *Ash Tyler is also firmly a trans man in my headcanon because of his name alone. C‘monnn!!! He chose that name when he was 13 and first came out because it was the coolest sounding name he could think of and he was right. Nothing could ever convince me otherwise.

  13. Eli

    And now I understand what the fuck cultural appropriation is. Thank you for once again teaching me more than the american school system cannot (for some reason they try to talk about this a lot)

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