Fiction has a major role in shaping our understanding of the world, so we have a responsibility to portray power and privilege correctly. This sounds simple in theory: understand who actually has the power, and assign responsibility accordingly. But in practice, it can get a lot more complicated. Today we’ll look at some of the worst examples I could find. These stories each misunderstand oppression in their own way, and they provide valuable cautionary tales for the rest of us.
Spoiler Notice: Living Witness and City of Brass
Content Notice: Discussions of racism, queer-phobia, and sexual violence
The X-Men comics have been around for a long time, and over the years they’ve delved into more stories than I can count. But whenever X-Men is adapted to film or TV, one plot takes precedence over all: mutants being hated and oppressed by human society. The most recent TV adaption, The Gifted, has doubled down on this premise with mutants so intensely targeted that they can’t go out in public. Anti-mutant oppression comes from both private citizens and heavily armed government agencies.
X-Men writers usually try to model the oppression of mutants off the oppression of real-life groups, especially queer people. Heck, the second X-Men film has a scene where a character comes out to his parents about being a mutant.* Across multiple iterations, we see mutants harassed as they go about their lives. Then we see politicians debating if mutants are dangerous, and finally the soldiers and giant sentinel-robots show up so Wolverine has something to slice and dice.
That sequence isn’t realistic, most notably because bullies are cowards. Whether in the schoolyard, workplace, or parking lot, bullies are very good at picking on targets who can’t fight back. Sometimes they choose a physically weak victim; sometimes they go after the only person of color in a white neighborhood. Mutants can always fight back. All but a handful of mutants have powers that make them more than a match for even a crowd of normal humans. It’s difficult to imagine that bullies across the globe would suddenly find the courage necessary to take on someone who can lift cars or erase memories with a thought.
Beyond bullying and harassment, mutants are useful. Really useful. One character in The Gifted can open a portal to anywhere she’s been before. She could name her price with any company that has to deliver physical goods. Other characters have even more useful powers, like weather control or mind reading. Even the mutants whose abilities only work in combat could make a mint in the security industry.
While not every mutant would succeed, as a group they would quickly become wealthy and influential. Even if they couldn’t defeat anti-mutant laws on their own, the various corporations and agencies employing them would take up the slack for the sake of their bottom lines. No marginalized group in real life has ever wielded that kind of power. If they did, they wouldn’t be marginalized.
The way mutants are usually portrayed, it’s unlikely there would even be enough public sentiment against them to warrant a response. Bigots hate others for all sorts of reasons, but it’s rarely because those others have exceptional abilities. More likely, mutants would be celebrities, the way sports stars are in the real world.
2. Fantastic Beasts
The Harry Potter books have a lot of problems when it comes to social justice, but they at least understand who has the power and what that means. We see the frighteningly realistic rise of a fascist Voldemort, while the privileged pure-bloods are either apathetic or openly supportive. The books understand that muggle-borns and half-bloods are targeted because they have less power in the wizarding world, and that muggles are even lower in the power structure. While there are a lot of cringeworthy moments around house elves, at least there’s never an indication that wizards are the real slaves.
But now we have the new films, and everything is different. It’s unclear how the story will be handled going forward,* but in Fantastic Beasts at least, muggles are the scary monster that wizards tell their children stories about. Not only are witch hunts a real problem now, which is a blatant retcon,* but wizards keep themselves secret because, if they don’t, the muggles will make war on them. That’s not quite a retcon, but it does take all the steam out of Voldemort’s storyline. In the books, one of Voldemort’s main goals is to subjugate the muggles, and it’s assumed he could do this easily, so it’s up to other wizards to stop him.
Not anymore. Now the muggles are a direct threat to wizards. We can all rest easy knowing that if Voldemort had won, some muggle would have killed him with a machine gun. This makes no sense, to put it mildly. Wizards have teleportation, invisibility, and mind control, just to name a few powers. While it’s valid to point out that the portrayal of wizard battle-magic makes it seem inferior to modern muggle weaponry,* that’s always been an audience extrapolation; it’s clearly not true in-universe. Even if we accept that premise, it would be child’s play for wizards to acquire muggle weapons, especially in the time period of Fantastic Beasts.
The premise gets even more ridiculous the further back in time we go. Sure, a muggle in the modern era might be able to threaten a wizard, but what about muggles in an age when the most advanced guns were still likely to explode in your hands? That’s the time period all these witch hunts are supposed to have happened in. At that point, a single wizard could probably have taken an entire muggle army with a few hexes and some well-placed dungbombs. This is the problem with basing fantasy stories off witch hunts: in real life, the people accused of being witches didn’t actually have any magic. If they did, they’d have used it to avoid being killed.
Beyond the obvious mismatch in power, it’s not even clear why muggles would want to make war on wizards. Sure, there’s always the basic fear of an outsider, but wizards have things muggles want and can’t make themselves. The demand for the Draught of Peace* alone would put wizards in an incredibly strong bargaining position. If anything, it’s hard to explain why wizards haven’t done this already. They hold all the cards in any interactions with muggles, and pretending otherwise in Fantastic Beasts is not only a contradiction of the original books but a basic misunderstanding of power.
3. True Blood
At first glance, True Blood looks a lot like the previous examples on this list. Like Fantastic Beasts, True Blood is based on a popular book series. Like X-Men, True Blood uses the discrimination against vampires as an obvious metaphor for discrimination against real groups, especially queer people. They even use the phrase “coming out of the coffin” and show extremist Christian militias rallying around the threat vampires supposedly pose to children. There’s just one major difference that sets True Blood apart from other the entries: the vampires are evil.
That’s right: for some reason, True Blood decided to do a story about an oppressed minority, but this time all the terrible stereotypes about them are true. They really do want to suck our blood, they really have an evil plan to take over, and they really are a danger to children. So that’s not great. In complete fairness, not every vampire is evil, but the vast majority of those we see are, at least in the first and second seasons.
This badly muddles the show’s message. I’d like to think this goes without saying, but in real life, marginalized groups are not evil. Bigots love to shout about the threat posed by people of color, queer folk, independent women, etc, but the bigots are always lying. Using vampires as an obvious stand-in for real groups but then making the stereotypes about vampires true is confusing at best and irresponsible at worst. It puts the audience in the position of agreeing with bigots, and that’s something I’d like to avoid, thank you very much.
Complicating this mess even further is our old friend, magical powers. The vampires have lots of magical powers. Each vampire is super strong, super fast, and nearly immune to damage. They’re so strong that a fight between vampires and humans is laughable. This destroys the credibility of the religious extremists organizing to oppose vampires. Recent election cycles here in the US have shown us how religious extremists actually react to monsters with a degree of power. The idea that they would suddenly find their moral fortitude in the face of superpowered vampires is laughable.
More importantly for True Blood’s plot, the overwhelming power of vampires makes it difficult to take the political intrigue seriously. Much of the early story revolves around powerful vampire leaders who are all in favor of preying on humans but don’t want it to go too far because the government might “bomb them into the middle ages.” This is a strange fear for vampires to have, since they live in human cities. Even if the government did engage in a massive carpet-bombing campaign of every suspected undead hangout, the vampires would come through a lot better than the humans because of their aforementioned resistance to damage.
True Blood is eventually left with a story that can’t decide if the vampires are an oppressed minority or an evil conspiracy. They can’t be both at the same time, and yet that’s how the show tries to treat them. Then it moves on to fighting evil gods, which is probably a good choice.
Star Trek: Voyager has 172 episodes in total, but today we’re focused on just one: Living Witness. In this episode, we meet an alien civilization inhabited by two species: the Quarrens and the Kyrians. Their historical records claim that 700 years ago, Voyager got involved in a war between the two species and committed many atrocities in the process. But then historians find a backup copy of the holographic Doctor,* and he sets the record straight: Voyager did not commit any atrocities; it was just trying to get through the war zone unharmed.
That would be fine, except for the next bit. You see, the historical records also say that Kyrians were the victims of Quarren aggression. The Quarrens won their unprovoked war despite heroic Kyrian resistance, and the Kyrians have been oppressed and marginalized ever since. Even 700 years later, Kyrians have trouble accessing basic education and healthcare. But then the Doctor reveals the truth: it turns out the Kyrians were actually the aggressors, and the Quarrens were just defending themselves.
With that reveal, we have a situation where the Kyrians were conquered and subjugated after a war they started, and yet they were allowed to write the official history. While this isn’t impossible, it’s incredibly unlikely. The victorious side in any conflict is always eager to make themselves look good, whether they were actually in the right or not. That’s why we know better than to put absolute faith in Roman records about the Punic Wars. Even if the Quarrens didn’t have the moral high ground, they’d have pretended they did. If this episode took place in a rational world, any attempt by the Kyrians to subvert history and make the Quarrens look bad would have been immediately countered by more influential Quarren historians.
The rest of the episode is about the marginalized Kyrians getting angry over the Doctor disproving their version of history, to the point that they start rioting. Eventually, they just have to accept that they were the bad guys and by extension, their current situation is the fault of their ancestors for starting the war.
That’s a really ugly message, and it plays into the hands of even uglier people. In real life, it’s really hard for marginalized people to have their history told. Existing power structures have a vested interest in suppressing historical injustices, like slavery and theft of land, since privileged people are still benefiting from those injustices today.* Whenever marginalized people do manage to tell their side of history, reactionaries will always accuse them of lying, no matter how overwhelming the evidence is.
Bigots routinely claim that any version of history that treats marginalized people favorably is revisionist, the result of too much political correctness, or whatever their current bogeyman is.* They want to use history as a weapon for their ideology, which is the line of reasoning that leads to denying the Holocaust. You can’t admit that six million Jews were systematically slaughtered within living memory if your politics are based on the idea that Jews secretly control the world. I doubt the writers of Living Witness meant to align themselves with Holocaust deniers, but that’s what happens when you don’t understand how power works.
5. City of Brass
Up to now, we’ve only looked at movies and TV shows, mediums that have a limited amount of time to get their ideas across. Maybe a novel will have more success!* City of Brass centers around a complex political situation, but I’ll try to give you the key facts. Back in the day, a tribe of djinn called the Daevas ruled from their capital of Daevabad. They were super cool and built a grand and successful civilization. Their only flaw was that they really loved persecuting the shafit: djinn with one or more human ancestors. The Daeva believed the shafit were “unclean,” “corrupted,” and basically everything a Confederate slave owner would say about mixed-race children. Under Daeva rule, persecution of the shafit reached truly epic proportions, with mass murder as the official policy. The Daeva justified these atrocities with religious dogma.
Eventually, another tribe of djinn called the Geziri rose up and overthrew the Daevas. This uprising was provoked at least in part by the Daevas’ treatment of the shafit. The war was long and bloody, with lots of death on both sides. Fast-forward a few generations,* and the Daevas are doing pretty well for themselves. They aren’t in charge, but they’re rich, they have lots of political influence, they live in the best section of the city, most of them go about heavily armed, and they have powerful magic. They’re also still oppressing the shafit, who are poor, have no voice in politics, and are forbidden to carry weapons. The shafit can’t find work in Daevabad, but they’re also not allowed to leave. They’re often targeted with brutal collective punishment. It’s even against the law to give a shafit medical attention, for some reason. The Geziri are still in charge, but any inclination they had to help the shafit is long gone.
This sounds like a really obvious setup, right? The protagonist will see the plight of the shafit and do something about it. That’s certainly what it looks like the novel will be about, but as the chapters go on, things get weird. Instead of a story about ending shafit oppression, City of Brass tries to make this into a two-sided conflict. Sure, the Daeva and the other pure-blooded djinn might be oppressing the shafit in every way imaginable, but the shafit are bad too, because they want weapons to stop their kids from being abducted and sold into slavery. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not; that’s actually a plot point in the novel. The shafit are also bad because a group of them were provoked into rioting by a royal agent so the king could have an excuse for mass executions.
Why This Riot Is So Absurd
I don’t even know where to start with this riot scene. First, the king who instigated it so he’d have an excuse to execute a lot of shafit is later portrayed as a sympathetic figure doing his best in a difficult situation. Second, I’m awed by the sheer implausibility of it. The shafit are supposedly riled up by a rumor that the Daeva are keeping one of their own tribeswomen from marrying a pureblood of a different tribe, which is like trying to provoke black people to riot by telling them a white Texan is being kept from marrying a white Washingtonian.
But that pales in comparison to the idea that the shafit would ever be convinced to riot in the Daeva quarter. Remember, the Daeva are well armed, while the shafit aren’t allowed to buy weapons even if they have money. The shafit would all be killed the moment they set foot in the Daeva quarter, and they would know that! When oppressed people riot in real life, they almost always do it in their own neighborhoods. This is both because that’s where they live and because they know how bad things will go for them if they step into neighborhoods where privileged people live.
Meanwhile, we get line after line about how hard the Daevas have it, despite all their wealth, power, and special privileges. Sure, the shafit might be routinely rounded up and murdered, but the other pure-blooded tribes make fun of the Daeva religion sometimes! The Daeva come off like Confederates after the American Civil War, complaining about how badly the Northern states treat them while they commit countless atrocities against their former slaves.
I kept expecting the book to pull a reveal where the protagonist realizes that this bothsides-ism is nonsense, but it never happens. Instead, City of Brass doubles down at the end, painting the Daevas as victims of shafit mobs when they lose the king’s protection. The idea is that without the royal guard there to stop the shafit, they go on a rampage against any Daevas they can find. Putting aside the way this plays into toxic stereotypes about how oppressed people are dangerous and need to be restrained, it doesn’t even make sense. Remember, the Daeva are still heavily armed, and the shafit are not. If anything, the withdrawal of the royal guard would actually make the shafit more vulnerable; Daeva vigilantes would suddenly have a free hand. Oh, and the book also plays up how shafit are out to rape Daeva women, if the parallel to black people in the American South wasn’t clear enough.
I am truly baffled by City of Brass. The most optimistic spin I can put on it is that the author is waiting until the next book to explain that the shafit are not, in fact, an equal participant in this conflict. But even if that’s the case, it’s a mistake to wait that long. Framing an oppressed group to be just as bad as their oppressors reinforces terrible ideas to anyone who doesn’t know better, and it’s obviously ridiculous to anyone who does.
While it’s always been important to properly portray the dynamics of power and privilege, with bigotry being normalized at a disturbing rate these days, it’s now become critical. To do that, we need to be properly educated. I’d bet money that none of the storytellers behind this list’s entries meant to send toxic messages, but they still did because they didn’t understand what they were doing.
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