Prejudice and bigotry are inescapable aspects of real life, but they don’t have to be in stories. While it’s tempting to believe that by including prejudice, we’re making some kind of bold and progressive statement, more often than not, we’re simply reinforcing harmful norms. This week, we talk about why, in most cases, it’s better to leave real-life bigotry out of your settings. We discuss exploitation, normalization, and also more retcons than you might expect.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren but before I introduce my co-hosts, I do want to ask for volunteers, if anyone is available and likes to look at weird software transcripts, because we’re looking for more people to help us transcribe our episodes, since that’s just great for everyone all around, it seems like. And what we do is we send you a rough transcript, which is made by a piece of software, and you get to see its hilarious attempts to figure out what we’re saying.
I think my favorite one was when it translated Mythcreants as East Korean, which I don’t know what that is, but it sounds interesting. So if anyone is interested in doing that, there’s a contact form on the podcast and you’re welcome to just send us a message and let us know, and a big thank you to everyone who has already done that because that’s the only way we could bring transcripts to our podcasts and they have been just really great to have. So with that out of the way, my co-host today is Chris.
Chris: Hi, I’m sure you’ve never heard me before.
Oren: Yeah, very strange.
Chris: Brand new. Who’s this new person?
Oren: It’s just going to be the two of us for the next couple of weeks. Wes is taking some well-deserved time off, but never fear, he shall return. So for today, our topic is prejudice settings. This is settings in which there is prejudice, and we’re assuming it’s social prejudice. I’m not even going to bother talking about Wheel of Time where man magic is weaker than woman magic, because that’s a whole other thing.
Chris: The assumption here is that it’s supposed to be prejudiced in this setting. Whereas, when you have something like Wheel of Time, it’s not just prejudice. Women and men are just inherently different. Didn’t you know?
Oren: Or like the Belgrade where you have some humans that the gods created to be less intelligent. Yeah. No, thanks. That’s just bad. Just, just don’t do that. We’re talking about settings that have prejudices in them, and we’re also telling you not to do that, but with some caveats.
Chris: Yeah. Not to do that most of the time, but at least we’re assuming that you know that prejudice is bad.
Oren: Yeah, this is the general assumption.
Chris: Low bar, but some people do not pass that.
Oren: You know, also assuming this is an intentional choice, I don’t think that the Supernatural writers intended to send the message that all angels are dudes, but they kind of did, except for one. We meet like one angel lady in the first however many seasons, but I think that was just some unconscious sexism in the casting. I don’t think they meant to send that message.
Chris: Yeah. So going back to this, this is something that we have discussed in the blog a little bit, but not quite as directly on the podcast, is you probably shouldn’t have a prejudice setting. Again, there’s definitely a place for them, but maybe we should start by going over the reasons why this becomes such a big problem.
Oren: Yeah. It costs things. It’s not actually free to include prejudice in your setting because once you do that, you are making it harder for certain people in the audience to experience the fantasy of whatever this setting is. Because there are things there that they are not allowed to do or that they will have a harder time doing because of who they are. And this is most common in things like, sexism or racism, but you could also do it with any kind of ism.
Chris: Yeah. So what often happens in these settings that is really what makes them bad is it’s very commonly exploitative. Specifically, that means that a privileged person is writing about the oppression of other people and often having privileged characters that are there saving other people. So if you’re marginalized and you want to discuss the oppression, you personally face go ahead. I don’t see anything wrong with that. But almost always, that’s not what people are doing.
They’re not there because they want to talk about their personal experiences of oppression, they’re usually want to throw it into their setting for other reasons and then they’ll do things like exaggerate their oppression to try to show why it’s bad. And that really shows a lot of privilege, if you feel you need to make that oppression super extreme, just to show that oppression is bad, and it makes it just really unpleasant for people who are actually part of that marginalized group or are facing oppression in general. And so basically privileged people get the wish fulfillment, especially the wish fulfillment of being saviors and stopping oppression and the marginalized people have to be reminded of bad things that they deal with in their life.
Oren: Yeah. We can just say Daenerys, right. Like we don’t have to pretend we don’t know who we’re talking about.
Chris: Well, this happens in many different places, but definitely Daenerys is a huge one here. I had an entire post about how exploitative the Game of Thrones plotting is.
Oren: And even when you write the character to liberate themselves, however that manifests, there is still just a very good chance that things are not going to work out well. And when you’re dealing with marginalization and hate that people face in real life for being who they are, this can cause a serious problem, not to upset the sacred Avatar: The Last Airbender, but we just watched the episode where Katara goes to the North Pole. And the sexist water bending teacher is like, “no, I won’t teach you” until basically he finds out that Katara’s grandmother was this lady he used to have a huge crush on, and then he changes his mind.
And Katara also fights him, but it looks like that was actually the less important aspect of making him change his mind. And first of all, this is kind of hard to believe, he was so set in his ways because not only did he not want to teach Katara, he enjoyed making her upset over it. Right. So it’s hard enough to believe that he would actually change his mind based on the fact that he was in love with Katara’s grandmother. But even if you accept that, we’re still supposed to have fun with this guy’s lesson. Now he’s a fun, cantankerous old man. What about all the other girls whose grandmothers he wasn’t hot for?
Chris: Yeah. That’s not really solving the problem. I don’t believe that he’s any less sexist, or he never even apologized. Right. We didn’t even get to see him do that. We don’t have any sign that the situation in the Northern Water Tribe has changed, which is another big reason why it’s often a really huge problem with the plot, it basically opens up all of these plot hooks, right? It creates these problems, and so often the storytellers aren’t actually interested in addressing them.
They’re not interested in making their plot about solving these problems of oppression and so what we just have are these unaddressed problems that feel like pot hooks that are never closed. So that’s definitely true. The other thing is in the world building sense, this didn’t even make sense, because the Northern Water Tribe has been fighting the Fire Nation for a hundred years. They need all of the benders they can get. So the idea that they would have just not taught women bending when they needed more benders to fight off the Fire Nation. Yeah. I don’t believe that.
Oren: Yeah. And it’s easy to imagine that “bigotry doesn’t make sense” in that, you could just talk people out of being bigots by being like, “Oh, but if you oppress women, then we’re missing out on all the women’s scientists and what have you”. And that’s true, but there are more complicated reasons for why structural oppression happens in real life. But once you introduce something as game-changing, as bending to the equation, sorry, I don’t believe that they’re going to ignore 50% of their benders when they’re in a war with the fire nation.
Chris: I can believe that they wouldn’t treat women benders as well, or when benders would be given the bending work that was less desirable or what have you, but when it comes down to societal survival, usually that becomes compelling enough that some of those traditions are gonna be left behind.
Oren: I wanted to bring up something that a commenter mentioned on this topic, when I like made a tongue and cheek blurb about it on social media, where they pointed out that it’s kind of upsetting to see a character who is able to like dispel sexism just by being good at the thing they do. It’s like, hey, women aren’t allowed to play chess, but hey, I’m good at chess so people all stopped being sexist at me because I was good at chess.
Right. And I’m not actually calling out that one Netflix show about a lady who plays chess. I haven’t seen it. Chess was just the first example that popped into my mind. But you see this trope a lot, right? It’s like people are sexist towards this lady. And then she’s like, “I’m real good at this thing that I do”. And they’re like, “Oh, well, our mistake, we will stop being sexist at you”. And that’s just not how it works. It’s both wrong and it’s kind of insulting to people in real life who continue to suffer from marginalization from their coworkers, despite being very good at whatever it is they do.
Chris: And in real life, what we’d have is the dude who’s good at chess, but it’s actually not as good as her, but is considered to be better. It was always like, “Oh, you know that one time he lost those games. Those were just like a one-off thing. He’s really brilliant”. Right? Whereas, we look for every excuse to discredit the woman.
Oren: Right. We would make excuses or we would point to the fact that well “she’s pretty good, but she’s not the best”. The best chess player is still a guy ignoring the fact that the vast majority of people trained to play chess are men. And so therefore just by statistics, the best player is probably going to be a guy.
Chris: Yeah. We also have an issue with Avatar: The Last Airbender in how Sokka is introduced. And this is another thing that really feels like the writers were men and not thinking too hard about this. We’ve talked on the blog before about how you should not have a story about a privileged character that has some level of bigotry that learns better, and why that’s a really bad idea. And one of the biggest reasons is the only other privilege people are gonna like that character and think that character is worth redeeming. And introducing Sokka by just making him super sexist was not a good way to introduce somebody who’s on Team Good and is a protagonist we’re supposed to root for later. Even if you know, four episodes later, they teach him a lesson. “Look, women can be warriors too”.
Oren: Maybe I missed some things, but it looked to me like what happened was they introduced him as a sexist dude, and then it kind of disappeared. And then in episode four, he was suddenly really sexist to do it again and then the sexism got punched out of him. Is that like what it looked like to you? And are there instances that I missed?
Chris: I can’t remember if they demonstrate it, but it’s so close together that I certainly didn’t feel like it went away because we have the first two episodes, which is the intro where he’s sexist. Then there’s one episode and then the fourth episode in which they teach him a lesson. So there’s certainly not a long enough period in there of him not acting sexist, that we can assume that he’s just not sexist in, even if he didn’t happen to say a sexist thing in episode three.
Oren: So this was interesting because a lot of people really liked Sokka. I really liked Sokka, but it’s worth noting that when I introduce new people to Avatar, I have to assure them that Sokka gets better because he’s just kind of obnoxious when he’s first introduced. And we all know that Avatar is great by the end, but there are definitely people who have bounced off of it because they didn’t like the way Sokka was introduced and I wouldn’t even really say there’s growth for him. He just kind of stops being sexist in episode four because they realized that was a bad character trait. And there’s no reason they couldn’t have just done that four episodes earlier and had it not be on screen.
Chris: Right. Well, four is basically the plot constructed to teach Sokka not to be sexist. He has a specific plot about underestimating women warriors, right. And then they kick his ass and humiliate him. Right? Now, it’s of course, then his mind has completely changed about every aspect of sexism. He no longer thinks that women should be doing the sewing and it’s a very unrealistic term around, but it almost does feel like, “Okay, maybe we shouldn’t have done that. Let’s fix this.” This is the same episode where they introduce Kyoshi and in the beginning, and in fact, I think it’s even episode three, the previous episode, they show all of the previous avatars as statues. They’re all dudes and then immediately, oh, wait, one of them was a woman actually.
Oren: Yeah. But I mean, to be fair, she is the best one. So really, I think it’s even.
Chris: But what it speaks to is that it felt like the writers were realizing their mistakes very early on and correcting themselves. I can’t know exactly why that’s happening. I still appreciate that they decided to retcon that all the avatars are men, right. That was a good move on their part, but you can kind of see there’s some corrections being made there.
Oren: Right. And it’s also a thing where once you start introducing bigotry that people experience in real life, they’re going to look harder at what you’re doing, and there are chances that you’re still making mistakes. In that episode, we still laugh at Sokka for wearing makeup and a dress. I guess we’re supposed to think that the Kyoshi armor is a dress and that’s both transphobic, but it’s also rooted in sexism. It’s also weird because Sokka put on face paint to go to battle like three episodes ago, so I don’t know what his problem is here. And then they have Kyoshi be like, “I am a warrior, but I’m also a girl”. And you would never say “I am a warrior, but I’m also a boy”. This is not a thing you would say. Right? It’s just very silly.
Chris: Right. Well, it was in response to Sokka not quite learning his lesson because he’s like, “I treated you like a girl when I should have treated you like a warrior”. So he was implying that those two things were mutually exclusive and she was correcting him. But again, these are very complicated topics and the idea that we can, in a half an hour episode, explain all the things that we need to explain, again, it would have been better if they had just not gone there. The other reason why oppression is often a big problem in a setting is it tends to sideline the marginalized characters.
Right? If we have a setting that’s a patriarchy, then suddenly all of the really powerful leaders can’t be women. Or not many of them can be, right. They’re always the marginalized people throughout history that have managed to be very successful despite the obstacles they faced. But again, if you’re making that setting, that means that privileged people are going to be in positions of power. And then it’s a lot easier to make them characters that can actually solve problems in the plot and have wish fulfillment and it’s much harder to then take, “okay, well, the women are all cooking and cleaning, but they are important too”. It’s like, yes, those were very important roles, but it’s a lot harder to plot around that and then justify how the people who are cooking and cleaning can then defeat the Dark Lord or what have you.
Oren: Well, your story probably has a Dark Lord in it if you’re listening to Mythcreants let’s be honest. We’re more likely to write stories with dark Lords than not. And that’s a problem with Avatar to be perfectly honest, in the Last Airbender, we punch Pakku until he decides to be less sexist, I guess. But what that means is that now, if I want to set a story before the events of Last Airbender, which with the setting, with the kind of deep history that Avatar has, of course you’re going to want to do that at some point. That means that I can’t have female water benders from the Northern Water Tribe, unless I’d make up an extreme excuse in their backstory.
Chris: And if we wanted to do a story about a group of Northern Water Tribe warriors, right, unless we want to retcon what we already established, now there’s an automatic limit on how many women can be there.
Oren: Right. Which to be clear, I always do. I think I’ve run four campaigns in Avatar land and I always retcon that. I say “whatever, I don’t care” because it’s better to retcon bad decisions than be forced to live with them, but it would be even better if I didn’t have to.
Chris: And then the last big reason why you should just usually not have, especially real-world oppression in your setting, is because it just normalizes oppression. It just makes it feel normal to, for instance, have a patriarchy and makes that feel like the default and makes anything different, makes equality feel weird. There’s a consistent phenomenon where people always overestimate the number of women that are in any situation, any group, any party, whatever have you and that’s because men feel like the default. And if we have tons of stories where we have majority male characters, then when there’s a story where there’s 50% women, a lot of readers are gonna be like, “Wow, this story is like all women”. And again, the normalization perpetuates oppression. Right? So unless you’re willing to actually have the plot be about that and to really fully tackle it, then it’s only just continuing that cycle of oppression.
Oren: Yeah and I get clients all the time who are like “I want to make a story that inspires people to be more progressive”. And I’m like, great. I’m glad you want to do that since you are creating your own world. And this isn’t like the real world where you would have to grapple with the realities of how things work, you can do that much more easily by simply portraying a more egalitarian setting, just actually have your marginalized characters of various marked states out there doing stuff without people acting like it’s weird. And that is probably going to be more effective, honestly, because especially if you are a privileged person yourself, it’s unlikely you have anything to add to this conversation that marginalized people have not already heard many, many times. So just do the Star Trek thing.
Okay. Just do what Star Trek did. And now Star Trek of course, did it in a fairly subdued manner. Because there was so much that they were willing to, or could get away with, but at the time Uhura and Sulu being officers on the ship and no one thinking that their race or gender was a big deal was important and that was hugely inspirational. And we still have a ways to go. I know it’s tempting to think that that well is played out because Star Trek was in the sixties, but we still have so much work to do guys.
Chris: Yeah. And again, Uhura inspired Whoppi Goldberg. So we can trace a lot of people back to their inspiration and positive examples are super powerful even if it doesn’t feel like you’re kicking oppression in its ass, you are just by showing a world without it.
Oren: You’re just locking it up in a cage and telling it it can’t be in your story. Okay. That makes me feel strong. Imagining it in that way.
Chris: Do you want to talk about some other reasons why people will include bigotry in their setting that probably is not a strong enough reason to do that?
Oren: Well, I mean, I do have a blog post about that.
Chris: One thing that I see a lot is you making your protagonist and underdog, right. People are looking for ways to give the protagonists problems and make their protagonist sympathetic, and they’ll use oppression to do that. But sometimes, they want their oppression to make their character an underdog, but they don’t actually want to address that oppression in any way. City of Brass is the big one I think of with this, where we have like a main character, who’s part human, and there’s like tons of oppression in this setting of part humans. It was really extreme to the point where more privileged people are not even allowed to give them medical treatment.
Oren: Yeah. It’s out there.
Chris: It’s out there. I’ve never heard of that. So again, we’re going back to sort of the exploitative exaggerated depictions of oppression, but the main character, she’s just remarkably uninterested in addressing the plight of her own people. And it’s just exaggerated in the background everywhere and again, like an open plot hook, it’s not addressed. It’s hard to take the problems of the story seriously, because there’s just brutal oppression happening in the background that just seems like a way bigger deal.
Oren: Well, City of Brass is bad in a lot of ways. It tries to both sides oppression, where the part human spirits get their children are constantly kidnapped, they have no rights, it’s illegal to give them medical treatment, they have no jobs and no money. But the full spirits who do that to them and who are super powerful and have their fancy quarter of the city and all go around heavily armed. They’re also oppressed because people make fun of their religion sometimes.
Even at the end, the King “withdraws his protection”, from the really oppressive group. And we’re treated to scenes of the marginalized path of half humans like running rampant and rioting and doing all kinds of bad stuff. And what would actually happen is that they would all be slaughtered by the heavily armed, magical spirits who hate them. They’re not even allowed to have weapons. Where did they get the weapons?
Chris: At best, what we’re doing is creating a world where a group of marginalized people is responsible for the oppression against other marginalized people. And the people who are super privileged are just given a free pass right, at best. And that’s just, again, looking at your setting, looking at which groups have power, try not to like blame everything on the group that has the least power and is the most vulnerable, I know storytellers like to do this because they’re like, “Oh, but here makes an interesting gray conflict with moral dilemmas”, but it has a very troubling implications. And that’s just not how it works in the real world.
Oren: Look, Chris, what matters is that I subverted their expectations. I mean, I haven’t seen people do that. That’s like where they’re like, well, they didn’t expect the poor marginalized people to be the villains. And it’s like, well, yeah, I didn’t cause they’re poor. Hard to be a villain when you’re poor. I’ve also seen another one and I guess this one is a little bit more along the lines of like, why are you even doing this, is when people like, make their character like marginalized or oppressed in some way so that they can do the, I’m not like other X and I’m not like other girls is the most common.
I did recently read a book where the protagonist was not like other girls and did not like other poor people, which was just like, wow. Okay. And just really, really double-dipping it right here. This is the thing, I know it’s easy, especially when you live in patriarchy and whatever, and it’s like, “Oh, well my character, she doesn’t do dolls or makeup or whatever. She has cool things that are swords.” And I’m just asking you, please, please don’t. Believe it or not, a character’s aesthetic choices and the things that they do for fun are not an indicator of their value. And if you do that, it’s just going to look like you’re trying to make your character cool without doing any actual work to make them cool.
Chris: At some point we could probably do a whole episode on I’m not like other girls because we see it so often. It’s very sad.
Oren: Yeah. It just comes up a lot.
Chris: Another reason why people, of course, put oppression in their settings, especially with any setting that has some kind of historical flavor to it, is the assumption that that’s the only thing that’s realistic. Usually they’re trying to create like a super gritty historical atmosphere and I’m not necessarily going to get too much into real-world history if you’re actually setting your story someplace on earth, that gets very complicated, but suffice to say, there are still successful marginalized people, even in historical settings when there is less of oppression and that too often used as an excuse to just exclude a diverse range of people and only have privileged characters. But in any case, there are lots of settings that are fantasy settings.
They’re not on earth, they’re on a completely different world, right, where people will insist that well, if we make it a patriarchy, that’s what’s realistic and will make it feel historical. What I would say about that is there are so many ways to make your setting feel gritty and realistic that doesn’t rely on tons of oppression, right? There’s tons of historical real-world problems that we can deal with and if you’re not willing to show people throw their chamber pots in the street and be like walking around in sewage, then you’re not really dedicated to historical accuracy anyway. So if you really want something gritty, you can deal with things like disease and lots of other historical problems.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, just get stabbed and then try to deal with that in a setting that has 1100s Western European medicine. Yeah, that’s going to be plenty gritty for you.
Chris: Your character is really sick and then goes to the doctor and the doctor just gives them a laxative that doesn’t do anything.
Oren: Yeah, extremely realistic.
Chris: Extremely realistic. Nobody wants that part of historical accuracy.
Oren: Yeah weird, I wonder why that is. One last thing before we go is, you often have TV shows, or movies, or what have you, that are trying to do a send-up or nostalgia or a callback to other stories, right. And this is often an excuse given for why we have to have prejudice. And I’m not just talking about Stranger Things, but I am talking about Stranger Things because Stranger Things has that really weird sequence in season two where Eleven decides that she hates Max because she saw Max and Mike in the same room together, and the justification that people keep giving is “Oh, well this is the there can only be one girl trope from the eighties”. And that’s a bad trope. Don’t include that trope.
Chris: And just almost all the male characters in that show are sexist at one point or other. And I would like to have some male characters to just like and not to hate at some point when they decide to be sexist for no reason. Sometimes it’s not even in character. It’s like they somehow did a 180. They were fine before and now they’re suddenly sexist. And what happened? What happened to these dudes? I liked them both.
Oren: Yeah, and that brings up just the whole thing of when you have a character who is participating in bigotry that just tanks their likeability, except with other people who maybe share some of that bigotry or at least part of the same privileged demographic. Right? Because bigotry is bad, it causes so many problems. It’s not a personality clash, it’s not like who had a bad experience and don’t like each other, or like a character who is just trying to earn a fortune for themselves and it’s kind of selfish. If your character decides to participate in the structural oppression of people with darker skin than them then that’s just going to make them like ugh, I don’t know. I just want the character to die now. Go away.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I would definitely think about tributes. The analogy I use is you should make your tribute, like you’re writing a eulogy for somebody who died. You’re going to talk about all the good things about that person. You’re not going to bring up the bad things. You’re going to let that rest and just talk about the good spots. And so if you’re doing a tribute to a story, replicating its problems, it’s not a tribute. You’re not doing that story justice. Do you want to remember the good things about it? So if you, for instance, have a TV show that is based on lots of eighties movies, you don’t want to then repeat the bad things that those 80s movies did.
Oren: Just do the good things, please, unless, again, there are some situations where maybe you would really want to dig into that, especially if you are, for example, a girl who watched those movies and saw the “there can be only one girl”. I’m sure that there is cool stuff to be said there, but if you’re a couple of dudes, no.
Oren: Just don’t man.
Chris: Again, if you were writing about the oppression that you personally face, that’s oftentimes a different story because you’re writing for yourself and for people like you, and you’re not going to be writing exploitative things that exaggerate, there’s lots of reasons that that’s a different case, but almost all the time that’s not what we see because generally people who are facing a oppression, they want to write wish fulfillment stories that don’t remind them of the uncomfortable things that they face in real life. Not always, but so usually privileged people are much more tempted to do this, than the people who are actually facing these problems.
Oren: All right. Well, I think that was a good note to end this here podcast on. Thank you everyone for listening. 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. He is a fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
Chris: If you like what we do, send a few dollars our way through our Patreon. Every cent goes into the hoard of gold we lounge on like dragons, just go to patreon.com/mythcreants.[closing theme]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?