Commentary

Five Reasons Not to Write a Persecution Flip Story

Rick and Morty's Raising Gazorpazorp starts off making fun of persecution flip stories and then just becomes one.

So you’ve read through all the articles tagged “social justice,” and you’re convinced: Bigotry is wrong. It’s evil. And it leads to lousy writing. You want to do your bit to fight bigotry with your stories. That’s highly commendable.

Now you’ve come up with an idea. Why not write a story where black people, gay people, women, or some other marginalized group rule, and white people, straight people, men or some other privileged group are oppressed? Why not show a privileged group being subjugated, so real-life members of that group understand what it feels like to be downtrodden? This is called a persecution flip story, and there are many reasons why you should not do this.

For our purposes, “privileged” and “marginalized” refer to groups in the real world. “Ruling” and “oppressed” refer to groups in a persecution flip story. I’ll also mention positive flip stories, which argue that the marginalized group should rule.

Content notice: This article describes bigoted arguments and briefly summarizes stories that include sexual assault, harmful medical procedures, and problematic stereotypes.

1. It Stereotypes Both Groups

The main cast of Tripping the Rift It may shock you to learn that this show isn’t great at depicting social justice.

If you’re going to depict a marginalized group ruling, you’ll want your audience to see the difference between that group and the privileged group. If there is no difference between them, then how can you tell which group is which once power has changed hands?

To differentiate between these groups, you’ll present both of them with all the stereotypes, caricatures, and misconceptions you can cram into your story. In the process, you’ll reveal your own prejudices, conscious or unconscious.

These stereotypes insult and demean the marginalized group. As for the privileged group, the good stereotypes presented just reassure them that they are indeed better than the marginalized group and that they deserve to be on top. This is the opposite of the intended effect.

Positive flip stories present good stereotypes about the marginalized group and bad stereotypes of the privileged group. However, any stereotype caricatures people and frames them as “other.” Furthermore, any privileged person who doesn’t believe these particular stereotypes will reject the entire story and learn nothing from it

In an episode of Tripping the Rift, the crew visits a planet inhabited only by homosexuals. Rather than arguing against homophobia, the episode presents every gay cliché it could muster.

In the episode, the public suspects a governor of being straight. This was the news story:

Governor McJersey was almost stoned to death today by an angry mob of gay men. But since all the men here throw like girls, it seemed like he was going to get away with only a few minor scratches. Until the women’s softball team showed up and finished the job. Way to go, Bulls!

Even the title of the episode is problematic at best: “You Wanna Put That Where?”

2. It Presents Human Rights as Zero-Sum

Two mirrored characters from the Red Dwarf episode Parallel Universe Behold, the scathing commentary.

In a zero-sum game, you can only win what someone else loses. For instance, poker in a non-casino setting is a zero-sum game.

Some people claim that human rights is a zero-sum game. This means that for me to gain a right, you have to lose it. These people argue that letting the marginalized group have a human right devalues that right for those who already have it. For example, they might say, “Gay marriage diminishes straight marriages. If two men or two women can marry, then the union of a man and a woman is meaningless.”

They might also insist that nobody truly wants equal rights and that marginalized groups only want to take it away from those who have it. A good example is the backlash against Black Lives Matter, a movement against police killing unarmed black people. Those opposing Black Lives Matter will say something like, “Hey! All lives matter! Why do you say that only black lives matter? Are you saying white lives don’t?” Of course, all lives do matter, but the police do not equally target all people.

At its worst, this argument alleges that privileged-group members have the “right” to insult, dominate, and abuse the marginalized group, and the marginalized group has no right to resist or fight back. They claim, “You just want to do to us what we do to you!”

Of course, all groups have extremists who do want to oppress others, but almost all of us fighting for human rights want equal rights for everybody. A persecution flip story is about the fear of losing a privileged group’s rights the way the movie Arachnophobia is about the fear of spiders. It feeds into the view that human rights are zero-sum. And a positive flip story all but states this view.

In the Red Dwarf episode Parallel Universe, the crew enters a universe where everyone (except Cat) is gender-flipped. The men with authority in the Red Dwarf universe are women with authority in the parallel universe. Women insult and belittle men, even grope them against their will. Men had to fight for equal rights throughout history, and when Rimmer protests about men being objectified, his female counterpart asks, “You’re not one of those boring masculinists, are you?”

There is no equality there; women have the power and men are the victims, though this is mitigated because Red Dwarf takes place in the late 22nd century, where women have apparently made major strides toward equality.

While this episode was meant to show men the tribulations women face, it is just as likely to convince men that things are great right now and should not change.

3. It Alienates the Marginalized Group

Cover art from the first Save the Pearls book. You might think this image represents mixed heritage, but really it’s just blackface.

At first you might think that a persecution flip story would have a special appeal to the group marginalized in the real world, that it would give them a chance to imagine what it would be like to be on top.

It doesn’t. The whole point of a persecution flip story is to show how bad things would be if a certain group were on top instead of on the bottom “where they belong.” It emphasizes how abnormal it would be for members of that group to have any power. And since the story usually implies that those people would be corrupt, incompetent, oppressive, or all of the above, the takeaway is that they should not rule. Furthermore, the story typically has the oppressed group treated the exact same way the marginalized group is treated in real life. While any story can have unpleasant triggers, persecution flip stories pretty much require them.

Even a positive flip story can be insulting; it presents stereotypes that a member of the marginalized group knows to be untrue. If your story depicts a world-wide matriarchy that’s peaceful because women are nonviolent and always negotiate rather than fight… well, I know more than one woman who’d disagree.

Victoria Foyt’s Save the Pearls is a YA series about a dystopian future in which black people (called Coals) are the highly privileged majority and white people (Pearls) are the downtrodden and oppressed minority. Pearls typically wear blackface to pass as Coals. Eden, a 17-year-old Pearl, “must fight to save her father, who may be humanity’s last hope.”

Save The Pearls Debunked, a tumblr written by a person of color, features what the site accurately calls an “in-depth look at the racism (and terrible writing) in Save the Pearls.” It’s a condemnation, not a commendation.

Lines from Save The Pearls Debunked include:

  • “I can only guess Ms Foyt thought ‘uppity’ was too obvious a word choice.”
  • “Racist white people are the only ones who are convinced POCs will ~rise up~ and attempt to do to them what they have done to us for centuries.”
  • “I have a feeling the author doesn’t even know she’s being racist, but the whole thing reads like she’s made a concerted effort at it.”

4. It Doesn’t Teach Privileged People Anything

A scene of gender flipped assault in the film Majorité Opprimée. It’s too easy to say “well I don’t do that” and walk away.

Persecution flip stories usually aim, as stated earlier, to teach privileged people about the challenges that marginalized people face. However, even at this they can fail, because instead of learning the experiences of the marginalized group, the privileged group may feel like they’re being attacked. They may become so defensive that they are unwilling or unable to judge the story fairly or listen to the point it’s trying to make.

Of course, any story involving social justice is, almost by definition, intended to unsettle the privileged group. But while calling someone out on their harmful beliefs is necessary in many contexts, it isn’t an effective way to convert them to your cause. When a person feels the need to defend their beliefs, those beliefs often become stronger – even when they’re obviously wrong. They are likely to feel even more defensive in response to a positive flip story. In this case, the privileged group is insulted deliberately. Yes, pernicious beliefs should be attacked, but those attacks are not the same thing as education.

Persecution flip stories are usually written with the intent to increase sympathy for the plight of the marginalized group. However, by putting privileged people on the defensive and treating marginalized people as caricatures, these stories may even reduce sympathy. Plus, sympathy is not the same thing as understanding or respecting the marginalized group. (See “white liberal guilt.”) If the goal of the work is to teach privileged people to change their ways, a persecution flip story will not accomplish it.

In the short French film Majorité Opprimée (Oppressed Majority) – which was written and directed by a woman – women degrade, sexually harass and even sexually assault men, and society restricts men from defending themselves. My first reaction upon watching it was not, “Women sure have it tough, and I should make more of an effort to treat women with dignity and respect,” but rather, “Don’t accuse ME of that, because I certainly don’t act like that toward women.” I believe I treat women with dignity and respect, but I have to admit my knee-jerk defensiveness distanced me from the film’s theme.

5. It Is Hard to Sell

Quark holding two bricks of gold pressed latinum from Deep Space Nine. Don’t let a persecution flip story leave you without two bricks of latinum to rub together!

Whether regular or positive, persecution flip stories sell poorly, if at all, in the current market. They are considered unoriginal, even cliché, in addition to any personal insult the editor may feel.

Expanded Horizons, a webzine that promotes diversity in speculative fiction, specifically states in their submissions guide: “We do not publish ‘reverse discrimination’ [persecution flip] stories.” Six years ago, Dash,* the Expanded Horizons editor-in-chief, stated in a Livejournal post, “The concept is not new, not creative, not original, not fresh, and not clever.” In a private communique, Dash added, “To the authors of these submissions, perhaps the concept seemed fresh and new, but from the other side of the submissions process, it was the same premise, reworked, over and over again.”

Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine, has a list called Stories We’ve Seen Too Often, in which they warn potential writers of overused tropes. Item number 42 is not about Life, the Universe, and Everything, but rather:

Story is set in a world in which some common modern Western power structure is inverted, and we’re meant to sympathize with the people who are oppressed in the world of the story. [Such stories usually end up reinforcing the real-world dominant paradigm; and regardless, they rarely do anything we haven’t seen many times before.]

  1. Women have more power than men, and it’s very sad how oppressed the men are.
  2. Everyone in the society is gay or lesbian, and straight people are considered perverts.
  3. White people are oppressed by oppressive people with other skin colors.

So What Do You Write Instead?

Robots from a BBC production of R.U.R Robots are great because they aren’t a real group… yet.

One option is to have a society where a marginalized group rules, but it is not depicted as a ruthless dictatorship. Black Panther comes to mind. The society doesn’t have to be a perfect utopia. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be. That can come across as arrogant, preachy, or just plain dull. But it should not be significantly worse than many real-life governments (admittedly a low bar).

But suppose you do want to show the effects of oppression. What then? Well, your story is already science fiction, fantasy, or in an alternate universe. Just take it one step further.

Robots are specifically built to be servants and slaves. The term “robot,” first used in K. Čapek’s play R.U.R. “Rossum’s Universal Robots” (1920), literally comes from a Czech word meaning “forced labor.” If they become sentient, they may be the newest oppressed group. Or the robots could rise up and turn the tables, so we have to serve them. Terminator is the most obvious example of this, though the robots there want to wipe humans out, not enslave them. Even robots oppressing robots is a possibility, as in the classic comic “Judgment Day,”

Aliens are another good choice. In the Doctor Who episode Planet of the Ood, humans enslave an alien race called the Oods, treat them like cattle, and even routinely “lobotomize” them. Alien overlords in fiction are too numerous to list. And some aliens might persecute other aliens, based on the number of heads or whether someone has pincers or tentacles.* The Star Trek TOS episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield takes this to an extreme.

There are even more alternatives:

  • Vampires (Vampire: The Masquerade, I Am Legend)
  • Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, etc. (most traditional fantasy settings)
  • Superheroes, mutants, and psychics (Steelheart, X-Men, Wild Cards)
  • Magic users (Harry Potter)
  • Animals (Zootopia, Planet of the Apes, Animal Farm)
  • Even ants (I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords)

Whether a group rules, is oppressed, or both, this will allow you to explore social dynamics without cultural baggage. Of course, you must take care to avoid unfortunate implications. If the ruling High Elves have pale pink skin and the lowly Deep Elves have dark brown skin, you are on the wrong track. And if the oppressed group has magic or another advantage that the privileged group does not, you may be misrepresenting the dynamics of power and privilege.


Now, there are few absolutes in writing, and a persecution flip story can possibly work. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, a book in which Africans enslaved Europeans, and the Sliders episode The Weaker Sex, where the sliders arrive on a female-dominated world (with Hillary Clinton as president), have both received good reviews. But a persecution flip story is much more likely to do harm than good.

Examining privilege and marginalization, rulership and oppression, from a different angle can show people old issues in a new way. And speculative fiction in its various forms is uniquely qualified to present that different angle. But the best stories do not confirm old beliefs and prejudices, either deliberately or inadvertently. They challenge them.

Dave Lerner is a long-time writer who spends far too much time arguing online. His most recent work is The Cat in the Sprawl: Blake Snyder’s Genres and Postnarrative Fiction, a rather esoteric guest post for the blog of Sean P Carlin, writer of things that go bump in the night.

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Comments

  1. CottageGarden

    Oh my gods the ferengi are so disgusting, they ruined tng and ds9 for me. Whoever thought that a vicious anti-semitic caricature should be part of Star Treck belongs in prison.

    • Julia

      I believe the ferengi were supposed to be American capitalists. They were even compared directly to “Yankee Traders” in the first TNG episode they appeared in. A lot of people say they are coded as terrible Jewish stereotypes, however. And then there is Armin Shimerman’s take:

      “In America, people ask ‘Do the Ferengi represent Jews?’ In England, they ask ‘Do the Ferengi represent the Irish?’ In Australia, they ask if the Ferengi represent the Chinese,” Shimerman said. “The Ferengi represent the outcast… it’s the person who lives among us that we don’t fully understand.”

      • Dave L

        I’d heard the “Yankee Trader” comparison, too

        Yeah, when writing, you have to try to avoid any unfortunate connotations, and even then you can fail

        The best way to avoid this is to have members of a given race have variety, not all be the same

        Just like humans

    • Dave L

      I agree the Ferengi were not the high point of any of the Star Treks

      But as someone of Jewish descent who is particularly sensitive to Anti-Semitism, I did not think of them as Jewish caricatures, though I can see how they might be

      Just don’t get me started on Watto!!

  2. Lizard with Hat

    Hm, i understand the knee-jerk defensiveness as such:
    People realiszing that they have made a mistake, done something wrong. Thats not a great feeling by any means.
    If they have the feeling that this mistake wont be treated with some understanding but with contempt and harsh words there is nothing to gain for them – the lesson they maybe willing to learn is stomp on by a understandable fear of having to pay for what they have done wrong.

    Mind you, i dont think that many people are so thirsty for revenage to do that but some stories make it seem that way … and in turn underminds the purpose of efforts made to improve matters.

    Storytellering should show new ways of thinking and emphizes good ones – not make one feel gulity and bad (at least not to the Extremes some Story take it).

    • Dave L

      Precisely!

      We all make mistakes. We all can learn from our mistakes, but not if we become so defensive we refuse even to admit we made a mistake

      Mind you, the injured party has no responsibility to teach why a mistake is a mistake (see Why You Should Avoid Bigoted Heroes Who Learn Better). But the person who made the mistake DOES have a responsibility to learn

      • Lizard with Hat

        I see your point but I would argue that i is in the best interest of the injured party the help with understanding – after all it’s their live that is made worse.
        I would also add that understanding is always a two-sided matter – even in this case.
        The one side is underprivliged and the other side has (lifelong= bias – niether of the partys can accutly change, in a way that is for the betterment of all, without the other.

        I further argue its everybodys choice whom to help and whom to ignore – and it should be carefully considered.

        And this only applies to people who want to learn … going against people who shout eyes and ears in an arguement isn’t producitve, but helping people who are willing to change is!

        • Dave L

          Yes, holding on to anger can be self-destructive. Forgiving those who trespassed against you can be healthier for all parties involved

          But if I’m the one who harmed you, I can not reasonably DEMAND you forgive me. That decision is entirely up to you. Even if I apologize, you get to determine if you accept

          > going against people who shout eyes and ears in an arguement isn’t producitve, but helping people who are willing to change is

          Of course, as you implied earlier, figuring out which is which can be tricky sometimes

  3. LiliesAndRoses

    But is it OK to portray fictional society as matriarchal? And is it OK to show female privilege in that society (if so, should Lady Land stories be avoided? and which male disadvantages are appropriate?)?

    • Cay Reet

      That depends on how your matriarchy works, I guess. If most ruling positions are held by women (or a lot more emphasis and popularity is put on ‘female’ occupations as childraising or caring professions), but men are not in any way oppressed, then it can work. If you just take the worst example of patriarchy where women have no rights and flip it over, it’s probably not going to be a good idea.

      Changing the views of society works better than giving men any disadvantages under the law. As I mentioned, you can give the society a different view of which occupations are held in high esteem. Most classic ‘female’ jobs are low-paying and not seen as important (such as childcare, nursing, etc.), whereas most ‘male’ jobs are paying a lot better and are considered more important (especially the male-dominated higher management). In a society where social jobs are held in higher esteem than business jobs, for instance, and women still do most work in the social field, they’ll be considered more important than men. That works without actually restricting men by the law in any way.

      • Dave L

        True

        In modern America, we’ve reached the point where outright discrimination is (mostly) illegal. But discrimination still exists. And in some ways, is now harder to fight

        You can still have some of the problems I list above. Subtlety and sensitivity are definitely required here

    • uschi

      I would say it also depends on whether the matriarchy/female privilege is part the setting or the whole point of the story. If it is only marginally important you may get away with a female-dominated society oppressing men (though why would you, as this carries the dangers of communicating the things mentioned in the article).

      • Dave L

        Yes, the more front and center the Matriarchy is the more of a problem it can be

        Having a Matriarchy in the background can add flavor. But I don’t suggest you have a sympathetic male character say, “Good thing we don’t live in a messed-up place like that!”

    • Dave L

      Certainly it’s ok to have a Matriarchy. See Matriarchies, Patriarchies, and Beyond. Even a certain amount of female privilege should be all right, as long as it doesn’t go too far

      One question to ask is: Is this insulting to men? Another is: If this were a Patriarchy would this be insulting to women?

      As for disadvantages, that’s on a case-by-case basis. This is a good question for your beta-readers

      If by Lady Land you mean an extreme Matriarchy then you’ll face the issues I wrote about here. If you mean ALL female, that’s different issues, though #3 certainly applies. Again, ask your beta-readers

    • Emerson

      I liked this Tumblr post about matriarchies: https://bemusedlybespectacled.tumblr.com/post/147104773286/i-always-find-it-kind-of-weird-that-matriarchal

      It would actually be interesting, flipping it so more feminine-oriented values are celebrated. Like maybe in this matriarchy, motherhood and child-rearing are the most celebrated of virtues, because they are shaping the minds of the next generation and the future itself, whereas stuff like war and fighting is, like the post said, is just seen as work that needs to be done, like you need the garbage taken out and the like.

      Maybe in a matriarchy, men are barred from leadership, because they are seen as too violent and impatient. After all, a man’s role in reproduction is over pretty fast, whereas a woman has to endure nine months of pregnancy. So they would use that as proof that men lack the patience needed for leadership.

  4. Alex Lund

    To Point 3:
    Haiti anybody?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiti#Haitian_Revolution_(1791%E2%80%931804)
    Dessalines at first offered protection to the white planters and others. Once in power, he ordered the massacre of most whites. Without regard to age or gender, those who did not swear allegiance to him were slain. In the continuing competition for power, he was assassinated by rivals on 17 October 1806.

    Only three categories of white people were selected out as exceptions and spared: the Polish soldiers, the majority of whom deserted from the French army and fought alongside the Haitian rebels; the little group of German colonists invited to the north-west region; and a group of medical doctors and professionals. Reportedly, people with connections to officers in the Haitian army were also spared, as well as the women who agreed to marry non-white men.

    Please correct me, but I cannot recall any circumstance where white people in the US massmurdered non-Whites like what happened in Haiti.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Google will help you with that. In just American history (which is a weird requirement considering your example is from Haiti), the Trail of Tears alone claimed as many or more lives as the 1804 Haitian Massacre.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trail_of_Tears

      • Dave L

        Trail of Tears was my first thought, too

    • Dave L

      I’m not certain what the Haiti Revolution has to do with #3 (It Alienates the Marginalized Group)

      As for mass murders of non-whites, sad to say American history has numerous examples involving Blacks, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, etc

      • Alex Lund

        It has something to do with a point mentioned under point 3, namely:
        Lines from Save The Pearls Debunked include:
        • “Racist white people are the only ones who are convinced POCs will ~rise up~ and attempt to do to them what they have done to us for centuries.”

        And yes, Trail of Tears was inhuman, but it was not as exterminating as Haiti.

        To quote from Haiti:
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1804_Haiti_massacre
        “By the end of April 1804, some 3,000 to 5,000 people had been killed and the white Haitians were practically eradicated”

        And you find in the text that it was planned as a genocide:
        Discussions between Dessalines and his advisers openly suggested that the white population should be put to death for the sake of national security. Whites trying to leave Haiti were prevented from doing so.
        Dessalines later gave the order to all cities on Haiti that all white men should be put to death.

        In the Trail of Tears I found no Information that there was a genocide planned. Forced relocation, yes.

  5. witchy

    I was a Rick and Morty fan till that abismal episode full of harmful stereotypes I also see daily on social media usually bashing some strawman ‘feminazi’

    Kinderen van Moeder Aarde (Children of Mother Earth) by Thea Beckman

    • witchy

      …however is an example of the matriarchy trope used in a compelling way. (sorry for the self-reply, but the comments cant be edited.)

      • Dave L

        Harmful stereotypes are all but required in these types of stories, even when the point is specifically to fight such stereotypes

        >the comments cant be edited

        I have made more than one typo that will live forever. Or at least as long as this site latss

  6. SunlessNick

    White people (Pearls) are the downtrodden and oppressed minority.

    An observation I made about Save the Pearls when it first came out was that who the hell would choose *a precious stone* as an insult?

    For our purposes, “privileged” and “marginalized” refer to groups in the real world. “Ruling” and “oppressed” refer to groups in a persecution flip story.

    This rather fittingly parallels another flaw with almost all flip stories, which is that they almost always mirror only the most blatant and aggressive forms of discrimination – often in simplistic ways – and don’t look at the more pervasive and subtle forms of marginalisation.

    A book I can’t recommend enough is Apprentice by Patricia Thomas. It’s set in a world called the After, which is populated by every character from any work of written fiction – they appear in the world, along with their book of origin as soon as the latter is written – and their descendants.

    The world has a few axes of privilege, one of which is that the “first generation” – characters – are considered to have less complete souls than those born in the After. It’s *extremely* well portrayed, including how it’s supported by otherwise sympathetic characters, who apply it to people they otherwise purport to respect.

    (Note that this isn’t the only reason I recommend it).

    • Dave L

      >only the most blatant and aggressive forms of discrimination

      Good point, especially these days. Subtle discrimination is hard to fight, both because it is harder to see and because there’s no “main target”, such as a specific law or a specific person or organization. A person discriminating in this way might not even realize they are being prejudiced (point 4)

      I looked up Apprentice by Patricia Thomas on Amazon.com, but it’s out of print

  7. ILikeTrains

    The Bartimaeus Trilogy is a world where magicians are privileged and rule everybody and subjugate nonmagical people. It’s a great series.

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