321 – Why You Shouldn’t Include Prejudice

The Mythcreant Podcast

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.

Show Notes:

Wheel of Time’s Sexism

Daenerys and Exploitation

Avatar: The Last Airbender

The Bigot Who Learns Better

Avatar Kyoshi



Insufficient Reasons for Including Bigotry

City of Brass



Stranger Things Won’t Stop Besmirching Its Male Characters

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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.

Chris: Yeah.

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?

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  1. Jeppsson

    Thanks for the shout-out! And also reassuring to hear the stuff about working through your own oppression…

    I have this other world setting where I, after discussions with Oren, decided not to include racism (there’s some toxic nationalism later on, but not couched in terms of skin colour or race). I don’t deal with transphobia, despite having a trans MC in one book, and not really with ableism against physically disabled people either, even though many characters belong to that group. But BOY am I working through my personal saneism demons here.
    I do think this will probably turn some fellow mad people off, while others will appreciate it. In any case, I kind of feel like I have a right to do so. This is my shit that’s shaped my whole life, so… here we go. The whole reason I started writing fiction was basically as personal therapy.

  2. Tony

    It’s especially ridiculous when a nonhuman character with no frame of reference for human prejudices spouts those prejudices anyway. I’ve heard that criticism both about Q being sexist to Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager and about Pennywise spouting racism and antisemitism in Stephen King’s It, for example.

    • Jeppsson

      It makes sense with Pennywise, I think. Sure, it’s originally some kind of transdimensional demon, but it’s been at it’s current location for ages and ages. It’s presence amplifies regular human evils, like racism and homophobia, in Derry, that much is pretty explicit in the book. When it then taunts people in a bigotted manner, it’s probably because of some kind of feedback loop.

      • Cay Reet

        I agree that it makes sense with Pennywise.

        Pennywise uses all tools at It’s disposal – bigotry is simply one of the tools, a way to get under people’s skin. To Pennywise, the colour of the skin or the ethnicity of someone doesn’t matter, but if a bit of bigotry helps with getting all the fear out of them, that’s what It will use.

        Yet, Pennywise Itself is not a bigot. It may not even have a concept of bigotry (we never find out how it is among transdimensional demons, afte all).

        • Jeppsson

          We also don’t know if it really has a personality and views of its own, or if it sort of just sucks up evil and destructiveness like a sponge, amplifies them, and spreads them out again.

    • Jeppsson

      Adding: it’s also explicit that Pennywise is telepathic. It keeps shape-shifting into specific things its current victim fears.

  3. Star of Hope

    I have several problems with the implications and points raised by this podcast:

    1. Bigotry is a real-life issue, but like many things realistic, fiction doesn’t need to exempt itself from this aspect, because stories can benefit from including racism or other prejudices. The point of art is to express oneself and if you want to express your problems with society, you are free to do so. Yes people can and did made mistakes that are hard to forgive, but we should not stop a trend of addressing real life problems because others failed so hard at it. Also Pakku did not go “Oh she is the grandchild of my love, I stop being sexist”, he went like this ” My patriarchal lifestyle drove away the people I loved and I see now that I was wrong”. Reducing this moment to that is a bit reductive. Also the Northern Water tribr had women using their bending, but only for medical purposes. They aren’t leaving them out of this art as much as you think.

    2. Characters who start out as bad but change can work, if they are also bigoted but require more care. Sokka had the view that women cannot fight because his society created strict roles for them and when he saw a culture that did not have it, he realised that he was wrong. It worked because the reason for why he thought so are gone. Yes the make-up thing is transphobic and I won’t excuse it, you won here. That audiences might shy away from a story because a character has traits that are unlikeable happens all the time, heck I didn’t wanted to watch Johnny Bravo because he was a macho and yet he gets punished vastly mirr by the narrative than other characters from this archetype. This doesn’t make the show bad, I just didn’t liked the archetype.
    I disliked Sokka because he accused Aang of being a Fire Nation spy and yet I like that guy afterwards. Besides Sokka is not the main hero of the story, Aang is and he is the survivor of a genocide, which should have made this setting more problematic than it is.

    3. If you want to write a story about oppression, be sure to not blame it on the marginalized group, because that is bad. It’s why Fire Emblem Three houses failed to address xenophobia for making all outsiders being part of raiders. If you can do that, you already have overcome a small hurdle. The next part would be to decide, who is going to solve the problem? A marginalized person who happens to be a main character is perfect, but if you want to see the oppressor group also change someone who is well acquainted with the protagonist or is a person of high power can works as ally. But personally, I believe help is no weakness and if a White character wants a, well white person to help with the problem, it’s fine, but don’t have them be the saviour.

    4. I always hated it when historical settings try to whitewash aspects of society that are bad. We should be reminded how awful some parts of our history is, even if it’s uncomfortable for modern viewers. If you want to just use aspects of history or use the setting just for a genre, then don’t go to the hard stuff unless it’s, say about gladiators. But maybe it is about personal preference, so I dunno.

    5. I believe anyone can say something to oppression unless you are a fool and one that believes the victim is at fault. So this type of storytelling should be allowed to be told, even if some people are unequipped to deal with it.

    That is all I have to say and overall I found this podcast informative, even if I had to disagree with some of it’s flawed implications.

    • Cay Reet

      1. While bigotry in any form is something that happens in the real world, whenever you try to integrate it into your own writing, you have to be careful as not to excuse it in your characters or use it just as some form of ‘decoration’ or ‘background noise’. Too often bigotry gets either over- or underrepresented in such cases, aka. either the author makes bigotry out as a minor inconvenience or they go over the top and show it as a large problem – usually one without a solution. If you come from a more privileged group, chances are also high that you will not be able to realistically portray it, because there’s a difference between seeing bigotry and being affected by it. You can’t grasp the full depth unless it happens to you.
      Also “oh, my patriarchial views sent away my girlfriend, so I now see it was wrong” is still a very simplistic thing. Bigotry you’ve learned since youth is not something you throw away at once. It’s not an ‘I see the light’ moment, it’s something you slowly and painfully unlearn. He assumed all his life that women can’t be waterbenders because they are women. One woman who is a good bender or one granddaughter of a woman he loved who can bend is not going to undo what he held true all his life – it’s more of an ‘oh, well, seems like there are exceptions’ kind of moment.

      2. Very much see my 1. You do not unlearn bigoted views in a heartbeat. It doesn’t matter how many female warriors Sokka meets in episode 4, he will not immediately jump from ‘women can’t be warriors’ to ‘yay! women warriors’. A bigoted view has to be unlearned, it’s a conscious and long process with relapses. One problem I have with this ‘arc’ (if ‘arc’ you can call it) for Sokka is that it doesn’t make sense and is barely there. Instead of making him sexist in episode 1 and 2, not have anything of that kind in episode 3, and ‘cure’ him of his sexism in episode 4, they should just not put it in at all. If that were his arc for the whole of season one (or a good part), it would be different. And, yes, I liked Sokka later on, too, he’s not a bad character per se – which makes that forced sexism of the first few episodes even more jarring.

      3. This is exactly why putting down bigotry as a topic in a story can be so difficult. Who is going to tackle this problem? A member of the minority which suffers from the bigotry? Why has nobody done it before then? Bigotry is usually not just an inconvenience, but has a strong impact on the life of the people it’s aimed at, so nobody just let’s it continue, you suffer through it because there’s no other choice. Is it someone from a more privileged group? That’s the overused ‘white saviour trope’ and not useful for the message of your story. You essentially have no other choice – a member of the minority or someone from outside that group. In the first case it’s a question of ‘why not earlier?’ and in the second it’s a case of the white saviour.

      4. Yes, even historical fiction (not spec-fic with a setting that is based on a part of society) is usually not portraying all there is and there is ‘cleaning’ of aspects (as ‘Whitewashing’ usually means taking a character who was BIPOC originally and casting them with a white person, which is something different) as well. I think the reason for this is often the question ‘is it necessary’ and sometimes the question ‘does it hurt people’. You shouldn’t forget that every bad aspect (Inquisition, unsanitary surroundings, frequent executions) has hurt people – that some sorts (slavery and colonialism mostly) continue to hurt people to this day, people who were robbed of their past and culture. That might very well be why some aspects are not put into those stories unless they play a big role.

      5. You can have an opinion on oppression even if it doesn’t concern you, but to picture it correctly, you need to have experience with oppression, which is why certain stories should be left to those with experience to tell – because they know what it is like and won’t just twist it this way or that to fit with their ideas. Or you need to spend a lot of time listening to people who have the experience so you can picture it correctly. Even then, you take away the voice of someone who knows what they’re talking about, which is never good.

      • Star of Hope

        1. And in the end, you don’t need to know the full picture, just enough to see it. None of us would know how it is to live as the defender of this world, but it’s pretty easy to imagine that it’s though. Yes, writers should not use it as decoration, which is why I mentioned an example that just did that. The key is again, try to learn as much as you can and don’t give up, just because you are privileged enough to not become victim of bad things.
        Pakku needed a better reason to change, I agree, but it wasn’t as simple as Oren and Chris made it out to be and not what happened. Besides, he doesn’t want to prohibit the usage of bending for females as a whole, he wanted to segregate it from combative bending, which he views as a male profession. It was bad and sexist as hell and indefensible, but it wasn’t what the Podcast told us what happened and there is a difference between loosing out potential warriors through withholding a heritable skill and segregating it to gender roles. That is the thing I had issues with the most here regarding their point with Pakku and after self-reflection, I see that his redemption arc was too short and not as well executed as it should have been.

        2. Unlike Pakku, Sokka is a child and much more easily swayed by the influence of others and as such, simple experiences can shatter his convictions. People aren’t as strong in their faith and stubborn in you think, they can be changed when you hit the right bottoms and Sokka is a analytical person, he would change his mind if evidence is presented. They could have written sexism out of his character, which is the simplest and the most unproblematic way to do it, but that is not something every writers wants to do and we should be able to show them, that there are ways to make it possible to show a main character overcoming prejudice. We wouldn’t have Zuko this way and he believed the propaganda of the Fire Nation as peace bringers and Iroh once laughed at the prospect to burn a metropolis and yet he was humbled and learned to become the mentor we all love and learn. Such characters would not exist, if we didn’t experiment with bigotry as a story element.

        3. Whoever is going to satisfy the people the most and is the one, who can change that. Aang was the best candidate to end the war, because as Avatar and last Airbender, he undid all what Ozai believed in and can be seen not just as bringer of justice, but as objective judge. The best candidate is often the victim and its allies and that is for the best. As to “not earlier “, human history is full of accidents and not everyone comes with clever ideas right away. Same with fiction and Kipo’s story as well as Aang is the one example that I think is good, even with it’s flaws.

        4. It depends on the audience you want to reach. Children don’t need to see the horrors of these times as detailed as say,adults. They only need to see these things vaguely and that suffices. Adults can handle darker story and they should not shy away from showing these elements and communicate how terrible these times are.

        5. So the solution is never tell the story? Even if I can see the injustice? Maybe I will never see the full depths of sexism, but should I thus refuse to tackle it in my story in order to show that is bad and give males a better version of masculinity as alternative? I will not get everything right, but aren’t critics there for it?

        • Cay Reet

          1. This is not about Aang as the avatar. This is about using a bigoted setting as someone who is not troubled by the bigoted idea they’re working with. This is me as a white woman telling the story of a POC character, diving deep into the constant troubles they face for not being white, for example. Something I am bound to get wrong, unless I do a lot of research (see my answer to 5. further down).
          Yes, the arc for Pakku (very much like the sexism arc for Sokka, see 2. below) was absolutely too short and basing his change in opinion aroud Katara being the granddaughter of his old sweetheart was the wrong way to go. Katara challenging him to a fight, for instance, and doing much better than he expected (even if she probably would not have won) could have changed his stance – that would have made sense. Even then, she probably would have had to prove herself several times, but once could have made him more malleable to the idea that he could train her in bending for fighting purposes. Her doing well in the training then would have shown him that women can, indeed, use bending for fighting purposes.

          2. Yes, Sokka is a child (rather a teen), but that actually makes it harder for him to dispel with something he has believed before than easier. If they’d really meant to make him learn that his sexism is wrong, it would have needed more than just one episode with great female warriors, very much as Pakku wouldn’t immediately have changed his stance, either (see 1. above).

          3. Aang first ran away from his job and was frozen in ice for a hundred years, which is why it works with him – he was the only viable candidate, being the avatar, but when he should have fought straight away, he ran and hid and got himself on ice for a century (not that I blame him, he’s a kid, after all). That is why it works in this case. In the 99 other cases, you have to explain why suddenly one person from a minority is capable of ending oppression that has been kept on the minority for a long time.

          4. It depends on what you are telling, as it were. If you write for children, you have other stories in mind than if you write for adults. However, if you want a medieval comedy, you will not add all the dark parts, because it would destroy the comedic effects for most of the audience. Therefore, if you want a gritty medieval era, you will include stuff like servdom and the Inquisition. If you simply want it as a backdrop, you will most likely not. A movie or novel is neither a documentary nor a non-fiction textbook and they never will be. That’s fine, as it were.

          5. The solution is to motivate someone from the minority this is about to tell the story. Don’t take away other people’s story, no matter the reason. If you feel you have to tell that story yourself, work closely with the people you’re writing about, get ther input, change your story accordingly. That, however, is what a huge number of privileged authors never do.

        • Tellur

          I think you make valid points, but to your (1), I’m reminded of Feynman’s anecdote from a Nobel Prize dinner, when he was seated next to a princess who asked him what field he was in:

          “In physics.”
          “Oh. Well, nobody knows anything about that, so I guess we can’t talk about it.”
          “On the contrary. It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss.”

          In other words, it’s fine to imagine and portray experiences nobody has had. It’s trying to imagine and portray experiences that many people DO have, but you have not, that can get you into trouble.

  4. A Perspiring Writer

    If you guys are going to do a post on ‘not like other girls,’ I highly recommend a video on Youtube by Lindsay Ellis entitled “Dear Stephenie Meyer.” The video itself, as the name suggests, is about Lindsay examining the severe backlash to Twilight, but then shifts to an examination of how, in our society, femininity is marginalized, even by other girls. It’s a very good watch, and I can’t recommend it enough.

    • Cay Reet

      I can only second that, yes. It’s a very interesting and insightful video.

      • A Perspiring Writer

        Ah, a fellow man of culture, I see.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Well, a nonbinary connoisseur of culture I believe, but same energy.

        • Cay Reet

          Female, as it were … but I don’t blame you, on some days, I’m not sure myself

          • A Perspiring Writer

            Yeah, I legitimately had no idea. I think I knew you were female at some point, but information has a tendency to slip out of my brain like sand in a colander.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Woops, my bad!

          • Cay Reet

            No worries, both of you.

            If anything, I’m amused that I do appear rather as a man or as non-binary person to others, given I’ve been a woman for 47 years and counting…

            I might be a little genderfluid – I never felt 100% feminine, but then, what is 100% feminine? Yet, on the whole, I identify as female.

      • Tony

        Yeah, while it’s worth calling attention to Twilight’s sexism (Edward’s controlling behavior, arguably Bella refusing an abortion even when it nearly kills her) and racism (everything to do with Jacob’s pack), it’s also worth remembering that the loudest voices mocking Twilight at the height of its popularity didn’t give a damn about those genuinely bad bits and mostly just wanted to dunk on something that teenage girls liked.

        • Cay Reet


          It’s also not as if Twilight introduced creepy romance or racism in literature. There’s a lot of other novels (romance and others) which have similar problems, but aren’t as well-known. I think one reason why people reacted so viciously to Twilight was that here was a book for girls (and their mothers) which was extremely successful. That’s not to say that ‘romance’ as a genre isn’t highly successful (because it is), but it usually flies under people’s radar (sometimes so much it’s not even part of statistics about how well genres sell).

          Suddenly, there was this very popular and famous book series for girls – the pure horror of it.

          • Tony

            It’s also worth noting that Harry Potter, like Twilight, has plenty of Problematic™ bits as well as some plotting and worldbuilding flaws. But those flew under the radar for the longest time, whereas I suspect that people were more primed to notice similar issues in Twilight because that series was already the focus of so much vitriol.

          • Cay Reet

            Well, Harry Potter was a series aimed at children in general, not just girls.

            A lot of people look at children’s books with a view of ‘quality doesn’t play an important role here, it’s just for kids.’ But teenage girls are despised and every thing that is for them in particular must be bad.

    • LeeA

      I’ve wrestled with the Twilight series, and the hate it received, so much. I read the first book either late high school or early college. I remember liking it. Started to read the second book, but got distracted by life and never came back to it. I do recall loving the gimmick in book two of having the series of pages following Edward breaking up with Bella listing the months that had passed. I thought that was clever.

      Then the Twilight hate hit, and I won’t say I jumped straight on the bandwagon, but if anyone asked me how I felt about Twilight, I was quick to dismiss it as trash. Me, who had shelves lined with equally, if not far more problematic romance novels. Maybe it was teen girl hate, but for me it was a way of distancing myself from what I loved. Because what I loved seemed wrong. Not sure how trigger warnings would work on here, so I will simply say I experienced something as a child that was deeply traumatizing, and significantly eroded my sense of trust toward others.

      I believe that experience was what led me to love certain romance tropes that are viewed as highly problematic. From the arguably benign “Uber confident love interest sweeps the MC off their feet because they know it’s meant to be” to the far more problematic tropes I won’t name here. But they were highly therapeutic for me.

      For a long time, I felt wrong for enjoying those stories and for wanting to write them. I still sometimes do, but I’m working through it. Without those stories, I would not have had the outlet that saved me as a teenager.

      • Cay Reet

        There is, I would say, nothing wrong with enjoying something, even if it is flawed or problematic. As long as you are aware of the flaws and problems and don’t try to convince others they don’t exist, it’s fine. No book is perfect – they all have their flaws.

        I do think a lot of the hate was based around the fact that the series was for teenage girls. In the Lindsey Ellis video A Perspiring Writer mentioned, Ellis points out (if I remember it right, it’s been a while), that society seems to hate teenage girls in general. In such a case, it’s no wonder that a successful series written for them would get more than its fair share of hatred.

    • Rogers

      I thought it would be cool to listen to this, but I had to stop it midway through.
      Sexism is an issue, prejudice is an issue, and biases are issues. But it seems to me like what you guys are suggesting is to pretend that none of these things exist in fiction. More importantly, you want everyone to be perfect from the start. It’s like it is the ultimate worst thing if someone from a primitive society holds less than perfect views. Sokka, for example, grew up in a society which was sexist. Almost all their men were gone, and women weren’t fighters. On top of all that, they were under constant threat from fire nation. It was reasonable for him, as a teen, to hold thise views, and it is rewarding to see him grow out of it.
      Your perspectives seems to be too preachy and very black and white. It’s sad, because I kinda enjoy a lot of content you put out.

      • Star of Hope

        Yeah, they want to divorce these issues from the world of writing and delegate it to the marginalized people, who aren’t always the most knowledgeable about their own oppression as there are Jewish Nazis and Black KKK members. Being marginalized doesn’t make you an authority on these issues necessarily, it requires a certain bar for it: realism. That doesn’t mean the experience of marginalized groups are unworthy, just that like all groups of people, there can be ones with flawed views.

        Moving on, a problem this podcast had is that they believe that just because something has been depicted, it has to be endorsed. Characters can be wrong and in many works of historical fiction or spec fiction, which depicts bigotry, framing it as bad is more than enough to make the reader clear this behaviour is bad and can be shown.

        Sokka’s sexism has never been portrayed as right and it was Katara standig up to him that brought back the Avatar, which is more feminist than what most shows have done. And even though he is a main character, they are not always paragons and can be flawed or even wrong about stuff like Aang withholding the location to Katara’s and Sokka’s father out of pure selfishness a la Anakin( yes Aang is basically Anakin without being designated to become a main villian). The issue stems here from being trapped in the confines of believing that Hero=paragon, even though Sokka is no paragon and least of which a role model. He accused Aang of being a fire Nation spy, didn’t respected his sister and worked with a old man who just insulted Aang. He also drank from a cactus and suffered because of that from hallucinations, making Katara the only sane member in the first episode without Appa. While children cartoons need to set higher expectations with their main cast, having an annoying crew member who does bad stuff is not endorsement unless you give them the misplaced honour of being right.

        We seriously need to understand that hero =paragon villian=ultimate evil is not the end and all of storytelling.

  5. P

    Avatar TLA has issues, but the sexism you discussed in this post isn’t really that bad, and you missed some of the important details of the portrayal of it in the show.

    Sokka’s sexism at the start of the show doesn’t just go away, it furthers his personal narrative about masculinity and how because he was left by his father and deemed not strong enough to fight in battle, he internalized that and began overcompensating by tearing other people down to make himself feel better because he ties his self-worth to being a warrior and a guardian of his people, first by learning that not only can women be as strong as men(hence Suki’s line at the end of “I am a warrior *and* a woman.”), but also that women’s labor is vital to society actually functioning, with Katara’s refusal to sew his clothes at the start of the episode forces him to apologize to her if he wants his clothes to be fixed because he can’t sew himself. Admittedly I take issue with the fact that we never actually see him actually say that women’s labor is just as important as men’s work, and also that we never see him or Aang actually help Katara with doing the laundry or anything else after this episode, which they did on imo. But later in the show, they explore his relationship with his role as a warrior and a man and him learning to grow as a person and be confident in his masculinity. Sokka values and respects people who are more powerful than him that he can learn from, first his father when he was a child, later his formal master in Sokka’s Master, but in this case Suki in this episode after she not only beats him in combat but proves that his view of the world is wrong and that she knows things he doesn’t, which is why he asks her to train him, including wearing the Kyoshi warrior dress in order to do so.

    The resolution to The Northern Water Tribe wasn’t that Pakku had it hot for Katara’s grandmother and decided to teach her, but that he realized that the NWT’s strict segregated society is what drove her and others to leave the tribe, along with her possibly proving that their way of thinking in his society was wrong when she was able to go toe-to-toe with him, a master who’s been practicing for decades, because she was raised outside of his tribe and actually taught to use it for combat(while obviously not being able to actually beat him aside from a close-call where he almost got hit by one of her attacks because he didn’t take her as a serious potential combatant, which was visibly demonstrated in his brief shock seeing the ice come right past his face and then him taking the fight much more seriously and beating her shortly after(even if she did manage to hold him off for a few more exchanges in their fight before that)). Prejudiced people often don’t change their views without someone or something that’s personally close to them making them re-evaluate their ideas, so the fact that Pakku only changed his tune when he realized his tribe’s gender segregation was what drove his love to flee from their tribe is a realistic depiction of what the “breaking point” in a prejudiced person would be(similarly, Zuko didn’t have their view of the world broken until Zuko was forced to live as an outlaw and see the horrors the Fire Nation committed against the Earth Kingdom from their perspective, Iroh didn’t until his son died, and even Sokka didn’t until he was bested by a woman who was stronger than him that also taught him that women didn’t need to be warriors to be worth respect). Having him become engaged to Kya at the end was stupid tho lmao, but the show does imply with Katara becoming an emissary of the Southern Tribe to reconnect it with the NWT that Pakku would be an advocate for her within the NWT and want to help change the NWT from within.

    Admittedly, when under external threat a society often loosens it’s ‘rules’ like you’ve spoken about in previous posts about it, like how during WW2 women took up men’s work in factories in order to meet wartime demands, and with the Fire Nation’s warring with the Water Tribes the NWT would logically be more open to training waterbenders as warriors, but it’s also worth noting that waterbending is used for things other than combat like construction, healing, powering boats, likely as a way to farm food with fishing, and art, and is still able to be segregated by gender in peace-time(especially with the NWT’s organized state structure that allows it to be more stratified than the looser SWT that didn’t have the resources to create a stratified state like the NWT did, along with the cultural values of being rebels who recently split off from the NWT because of their strict stratified society).

    But arguably the most important thing, ATLA is children’s media that teaches children things. In Sokka’s case, it’s that you shouldn’t disrespect girls or assume that they can’t be fighters or mentors worth learning from, and that you should have a healthy concept of masculinity and not attach your self-worth to it. In Katara’s case, it’s that girls should stand up for themselves and not let society tell them what they should and shouldn’t do, and that even if they do stick to traditional feminine labor, it shouldn’t be devalued and considered less useful to society than it so incredibly obviously is. It’s not perfectly portrayed in the show, with the Gaang never actually helping Katara with the labor she does and Sokka not actually apologizing to Katara and saying that what she does is just as important as what he does, but it does decently convey those themes well enough. The bad part about it’s portrayal of sexism is moreso the unfortunate implications when compared with the rest of the show, like how the most sexist nation in the setting is the one with the most visibly dark-skinned people who are also based on indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples(whose societies in the real world were some of the most gender-equal of any society in the world) while the (usually portrayed as) light-skinned colonial nation is portrayed as the nation with the most gender-equality, due to the writers wanting to have those various separate elements(a sexism plot for the kids, making the fire nation interesting and worldbuilt around how firebending would mainly just be used for either a. combat or b. industrial factory-work, both traditionally men’s work) but not considering how they’d come off when put together

    • Bellis

      You say that making Sokka sexist at first and then overcome that is due to it being a kids’ show and wanting to teach children lessons. That’s a noble goal, but starting a lesson by having beloved main characters* do the bad things and then learn better isn’t the best way to go. There’s an entire article on the site here about that and it is also true for other lessons. We don’t start math class with “2+2=5” only to then debunk it and we don’t start knitting lessons by trying to use forks instead of knitting needles. (And I WISH we didn’t have to start any discussion by proving climate change to be real or the earth to be round but here we are… I hope we can agree that these things don’t advance the general quality of political or scientific discussion and understanding.)

      Had Sokka respected Katara from the beginning, these lessons would have been conveyed much better. He didn’t need to meet Suki to be taught that women can be tough and competent – he already knew Katara! She had already proven to him that she was better at catching fish but he still put her down and caused the fish to be lost rather than admit that. It seems very disrespectful to Katara that he and the story at large treat this as insufficient evidence to debunk his sexist ideas.

      We could have started with a Sokka who respects Katara both for her sewing and for her bending and fishing skills. That would teach children to respect girls and household skills as well as accept the idea that girls can be good at many different things including providing food, and fighting. We don’t need to question these things in order to prove them, we can just show them as true.

      If we want to show characters struggle to overcome their own bigoted ideas, we can still do that by starting from a less bigoted point, because the same principles apply whether it’s learning to go from “I refuse to see the evidence staring me in the face that girls are worthy people” to “Ok I guess girls are cool after all” or learning to go from “girls are cool but I was taught that they need to adhere to a certain aesthetic” to “actually girls and everyone else get to wear what they want”.
      The latter would keep the character more likeable and the story enjoyable to marginalised audience members and avoid reinforcing negative messages. Maybe Sokka realises how cool Katara is from the start but doesn’t take Suki seriously at first due to cultural misunderstandings and then learns that there are many different ways to be a girl. Something like that. This would still give the audience a role model that teaches them how to overcome their own sexism, but it would come with the implicit message: “We know you can do better, we believe in you” and it doesn’t set the bar too low to do much good.

      *the rules for villains are different

      • Bellis

        I’ve had more thoughts on this topic. Sorry, P, this isn’t meant as a criticism to you, it just so happens that you started this topic and I’m very passionate about it so I’m having a lot of thoughts. I like thinking things through in the comments, it helps me figure stuff out.

        It occured to me that from what I remember of the episode, it doesn’t actually provide a good role model to emulate for boys in the audience. Sokka gets the sexism punched out of it, as Oren said, and that’s not something a boy watching it can or should try to emulate. He won’t learn how to unlearn sexism, because he doesn’t get a lesson he could apply in his own life.

        Moreover, the message subtly reinforces sexism in that it is basically about how girls need to adhere to male-oriented standards and then also be better than boys at the things that boys/men have decided matter. Needing to be twice as good as privileged people to be respected at all is a real problem for most marginalised people, especially in education and careers, so that double standard should really not be taught in stories. And who decided that only warriors are worthy of respect and that it’s this skill in particular that matters most? Sokka did and he learned it from other men. Katara or other girls don’t get to measure their own or Sokka’s worth on what they think is most important, their opinion on this doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t Sokka learn that girls are people because Katara can sew way better than him and is better at social skills and keeping the group together? Or better yet, just because girls are people, no further proof required.

        Perhaps they tried to teach two lessons at once: That girls are valuable and also that girls can do “boy things”. It just comes across as “girls are only valuable because/if they can do boy things better than boys.”

      • Star of Hope

        Your school analogy is wrong on multiple accounts:
        1. Math and knitting are poor analogies for this subject as both of them need a demonstration on how to do it and later on how not to do it. A better analogy would be Biology class, where they do show you the consequences of bad health.
        2. Speaking of it, schools use negative examples to teach. I was made to drink a little bit vinegar for a lesson about different flavors and we also had an hour, where we talked about insults and slurs, which I was made to throw at a girl, despite me not being comfortable with that.
        3.People learn better from failures than from being always successful, if they would internalize this lesson, schools would be full of A-graders.
        4.Schools sucks and being a teacher is a thankless and awful job where you are responsible for the next generation being bad because bullying is none of their concern.

        Moving on, Katara could not made Sokka see the error of his ways because as younger Sister, the dynamic is different and they tend to not always change the behaviour of their brother for the better. The thing with the fish was also an accident, so Sokka had little time to think about it, especially when he and Katara were getting stucked on a glacier. Also, Katara yelled at him for being a sexist among other things, showing us that Sokka was not in the right and thus no Authorial endorsement comes from the story for his sexism.

        You do realize that a lot of people oppose progressive ideas because some empires had good ideas? That’s how Communism became a dirty word, once the Soviets came into power or Multiculturalism because of Rome. These rules for villian don’t give them a pass for being progressive, that’s why expy fascists are the best empires in fiction.

        • Cay Reet

          Yet, Sokka also had years watching the women of his tribe hold everything together (without fighting in the ‘come at me, bro’ way, but certainly fighting for survival). That should have given him the idea that women actually are as good as men.

          1. Every science has facts, no matter whether it’s 2+2=4′ or ‘this is your lung after 40 years of smoking’. You never start out by telling something a wrong fact and then correcting it. You never start out in math by telling kids that 2+2=5′ and you never start out in biology by telling kids ‘smoking is good for you’. You also don’t let childen start writing with a ruler instead of a pencil or teach them to first crotchet with a needle. You do never teach someone something wrong on purpose to correct them afterwards. It’s just wasted time and effort.

          2. I see the vinegar not as a negative – sour, represented by the vinegar, is a flavour. Using something sour will always be a little unpleasant, as ‘sour’ often is a warning that food is spoiled. When it comes to insulting someone even if you don’t wish to, I can’t say I’m in favour of this. The problem is not forcing someone to insult others who already knows better, it’s to make someone not insult others who doesn’t think it bad.

          3. We learn more from failures than we learn from success, because success simply confirms that we do right whereas failure shows us we’ve done something wrong. Yet only doing things wrong will lead to frustration, we need the success as well for motivation, to show us we’re on the right track.

          4. It’s not so much school which sucks, it’s everyone expecting that, in addition to teaching knowledge, you will also correct the behaviour of your pupils – something which school is not meant to do and can’t accomplish.

          • Star of Hope

            Fighting for survival =/= fighting in battles, trying to maintain a tribal lifestyle does not always require you to plan strategies and learn hand-to-hand combat skills. While you would have to kill animals, fighting humans requires different set for skills to face them and where Sokka lives, this knowledge is not passed on to girls. Also the reason why Sokka had to live with women for quite some time is that the men left to fight in the war. This happens in a very sexist society and Sokka would mostly conclude women to be not fit to battle, something Sokka unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly values you. This is not to justify him at all, he was pretty stupid, but he doesn’t live in a society that respected women that much, especially after most of their benders were gone.

            1. True on principle, but not every lesson is taught this way and in fact a lot of lectures use negative examples where people make mistakes and we criticise them for it, I have seen it in schools a lot. Even if you are 100% right, that negative examples are bad methods of teachings in sciences or any academy, they would be for stories poor analogies because writing that teaches us lessons, like moral lessons work on a different field. Stories are like events that in the mind of the consumer that happened and through how the character progress and treat the world around them, we can learn and see from their mistakes and take away always lessons we internalise. That’s why Ancient Greek myths about hubris are taught to anyone who wants to learn about it and why deconstructing works always teaches us the bad stuff around certain tropes like “the hero always gets the girl” and why we ditch it.

            2. Vinegar is for a child very unpleasant and negative experiences with daily products can make them reject this product altogether, hence why people often refuse foods that would contain it.
            I agree on the insulting thing, I never saw any purpose of it, I was back then an overly correct one.

            3. This doesn’t disagree with what I have been saying and I never said you should do things wrong, but try to learn from it and accept that not everything you are doing is going to be perfect. Art especially needs this lesson to be taught and that’s why we are here.

            4. Neither does this disagree with my point, if anything it reaffirms it. If schools are incapable of teachings pupils right from wrong, then any skill and knowledge they accumulated in this institution is always going to be an utter waste, because power and knowledge at the hands of fools and heartless people is worthless. That’s how you get Jordan Peterson and any pseudo-intellectual quack.

          • Cay Reet

            I have not tried to disagree with you on 3 and 4.

            Fighting for survival in an area like the one the southern water tribe lives in is an accomplishment which anyone living that lifestyle, including Sokka, should realize early. The women of his tribe have provided for the tribe, have kept it going, with all the men missing. Yes, that is a different skill set, but not one that would lead to a man thinking women are ‘lesser’ than him, which is part of a sexist mindset. It would have made him realize that they are perhaps using other skills, but are equal to the men. As a matter of fact, most nomadic societies are far more equal than settled ones because everyone has to do all they can to support the tribe.

            1. You will still not teach the wrong lesson and then let it go on for a while (Sokka doesn’t learn the error of his ways in episode 1, after all). You will present mistakes as mistakes right away and correct them as soon as possible, because doing it later will mean a lot more work and can cause a lot more problems (such as a pupil hanging on to the wrong facts).

            2. Vinegar is an unpleasant experience for a child, but so are all other sour foods. If you wish for the pupils to taste all types of flavours, you will have to add one of them – vinegar, lemon juice, or suchlike. It will always be unpleasant because, as mentioned, ‘sour’ is a signal that certain types of food might be spoiled. It might have been better to just let you touch a piece of lemon with your tongue for a moment instead of making you swallow it, but tasting ‘sour’ will never be pleasant, especially for a child.

  6. Mrs. Obed Marsh

    On “not like other girls:”

    I am white, and I have an online acquaintance who is a Black woman. She notes that, while white women were long forced into femininity and have spent over a century trying to shed it, Black women have historically been denied the chance to be girly. Under white supremacy, Black women were and continue to be forced to deal with all kinds of hardships while being stereotyped as mannish and enduring. They are forced to play the part of the Strong Black Woman, a trope she doesn’t find empowering in the least. She argues that Black women need to be protected and cherished and allowed to be girly girls in fiction, as well as in real life.

    • Cay Reet

      I think we need to allow all girls to be girlish, protected, and cherished in fiction and real life. We need to make both being girlish and not being girlish a viable choice. We need a broader idea of what a girl or a woman is like (same for boys and men) instead of limiting them to a handful of traits that are acceptable for them.

      But, yes, especially women and girls who have been denied being girly for so long need be allowed to be girly girls, too.

    • Innocent Bystander

      Reminds me of an interview with Kerry Washington about her role as Broomhilda (Django’s wife) in “Django Unchained,” where she spoke about getting to be the metaphorical princess in a tower and what that meant for WOC. YMMV on the execution, considering that the story is set in Antebellum South and made by a white man, but I can get the sentiment. Being a damsel to be rescued expresses that the person is worthy of protection and care.

      And yeah, it’s a continuing issue that can be traced through the history of feminism. Suffragettes excluded WOC, saying that women should be able to vote before Black people. And second-wave feminism in the 60s focused on the right to enter the workforce and have birth control, which alienated Black womanists who wanted the opposite (to be able to stay home and raise their own families and to not worry about being sterilized without their consent). It’s only recently that feminism has moved to become intersectional, but there’s still a long way to go.

  7. Bellis

    The way I did this in one of my (abandoned) projects was to have a future setting where it’s part of the backstory that there were big popular uprisings to overthrow most forms of oppression, but there was still one form of oppression left untouched (plus some remnants of the others, as the initially naive characters find out). That way I could focus on fighting that form of oppression without having all the negative aspects of every other oppression in it as well, because I would not have had time to adress all of that.

    Yes, that’s simplified and unrealistic in that oppressions are very much linked with each other, so it’s unlikely that humanity would overcome all of them except one, but this inconsistency was worth it to me (especially since I planned to adress it later). It was also the reason why I left some remnants of other forms of oppression, so I could deal with how they interact and intertwine. But this worldbuilding still allowed me to have as many main characters that would be marginalised in our present day as I wanted without confining their roles to “struggles with prejudice”. I specifically mention that there were huge struggles to get rid of most oppression because the concept that these deeply ingrained societal structures would just go away would be insulting.

    A second-world fantasy setting as well as a historically inspired fantasy setting could do something similar as well, either have a world without certain forms of oppression or where those have been overcome, so you can focus on one (or as many as you have the capacity to do, but even a full novel can’t really tackle all at once).
    A historical setting with more emphasis on being accurate can still do this either by chosing the point in space and time and the particulars of the story (not ALL of the entirety of history everywhere on earth was a sexist racist mess and there have always been movements to fight oppression and/or non-prejudiced subcultures) or by chosing what to focus on. You have to chose your focus anyway, no story can encapsulate everything, even for a specific point in time, so this can be part of your decision process.

    I also like to focus on communities more than on individual heroes who save the world all by themselves. Like, I do have a main character and only one POV character usually, but it’s clear that they’re part of a community and that it is a group effort to make the world a better place. That in itself helps avoid both the saviourism and the “not like other X” pitfalls, as well as other harmful tropes about indiviualism and even helps with the “why now?” question because you can make it so that your story is set in the point in time where the movement grew big enough to change the world and where your main characters contribute to the movement in meaningful ways.

    It’s important to remember that privileged storytellers can fight against oppression they don’t face in a variety of ways, it doesn’t have be “include oppression in your worldbuilding/characters/plot”. In fact, humanising the marginalised people in question is way more effective! So as a white person I’d fight racism by including a lot of well developed and non-stereotypical BIPOC characters that are not subjected to racism. I’d depict my white characters interacting with them in a respectful and supportive way or being antagonistic in non-racist ways. That does more to oppose racism than writing yet another trauma porn or white saviour narrative.

    At least that’s how I like to do things.

    “What matters is that I subverted their expectations… where they’re like, well, they didn’t expect the poor marginalized people to be the villains.” – This is one of the tropes I hate the most! It’s also so super bad because it’s not a subversion! You’re just playing oppression straight. You’re just victim blaming. It seems to be MORE common to do this than to actually have the marginalised person/group be humanised. It’s not actually subverting anything and it’s not surprising, it’s just horrible for no benefit. Do Not.

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