Having magic is such a struggle! All the muggles are out to get you, and the church keeps trying to set you on fire. Clearly, mages are oppressed. Or are they? Wes returns after a short sabbatical, just in time for us to discuss this trope and why it doesn’t make any sense. We talk about how hard it is to oppress people who can shoot fire from their hands, how magical oppression compares to oppression in the real world, and what lessons we can learn from Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.
Generously transcribed by Innes. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: This is the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is-
Wes: Wes and-
Chris: And today we’re here to announce how very very sad we are that we have magic powers.
Oren: It’s so sad!
Wes: What a burden.
Chris: In fact we’ve been hiding it this whole time, even though we had it just we worried that people would enslave us and then make us perform magic tricks for them.
Oren: [sarcastically] They would fear us for being different! We’re different and depressed because we have magic powers. I’m really worried that people are going to beat me up for having magic powers. My magic power specifically is to shoot lasers out of my eyes. I’m just really worried that someone might attack me in the street knowing that I can shoot lasers out of my eyes.
Wes: They think that I’m gonna solve all of their problems, but whenever I exhale deeply the room freezes, what am I supposed to do?
Oren: [sarcastically] Oh, no!
Chris: We’re going to talk about stories with oppressed mages, which is a surprisingly common trope considering how now that I say it, it’s super niche.
Chris: I mean don’t get me wrong. There’s definitely a broader group of stories that just don’t understand how power and privilege works in culture, but in this specific one we have people who have magic abilities and them being systematically discriminated against, enslaved, depressed, whatever. It’s a thing that writers really like.
Oren: They do. They like it because they know I hate it and they want to hurt me personally.
Chris: Yeah, maybe let’s go into why we think it’s popular. I think personally it’s definitely good to have sympathetic problems for your protagonist.
Chris: That helps build attachment to your protagonist, makes them an underdog everybody loves an underdog. Also people like wish fulfillment, they want their protagonist to have cool traits and they’re often reluctant to give them flaws or problems that are too realistic. Nobody wants a protagonist that has student debt, which is too bad because I think a protagonist with student debt would be nice.
Wes: Yeah, I’d read that.
Oren: It would be you know. What’s sad is that I always say that would be cool. But the one book I read where it was about a student having to deal with financial problems was really bad. I was like, ‘this is this is disappointing.’ It’s such a cool concept. Anyway-
Chris: Well stories do need novelty right? And so there’s a certain level of – if it’s too real, it reminds you about the terrible things in real life. It’s not a nice empowerment fantasy. At the same time we still need problems and a lot of times we don’t actually want to represent anybody who has a systemic oppression or is being marginalized, right?
Oren: Right and fiction does have a bit of a contradiction where the problem has to be severe enough to make us care about it, but also not so severe that it can’t be solved. It needs to be solved or addressed in some way within the confines of the story otherwise, it’s just a very unsatisfying story. Otherwise, I might as well not read it because I already know what it’s like to deal with problems I can’t solve.
Chris: I think it’s also worth mentioning that a lot of real life problems remain problems because people don’t recognize them as problems. It’s really hard to try to put that in your story. You really have to focus on not just displaying the problem but proving to readers who were not otherwise open to this that it is actually a problem. Even student loan debt, you can definitely have something burdened down by student loan debt, but not everybody realizes what a big problem it is and then you have to do that extra work.
Oren: Just have a chapter where the main character has to deal with the villain lecturing him on how ‘you should have just chosen a more lucrative major’ and then everyone drops the book and runs away because it’s too real.
Oren: No, okay. So I think I think what Chris says is absolutely right. That it does often come down to wanting your character to have problems but also wanting your character to be cool and have cool empowerment powers, and that’s where the magic ends up. Why not do both at the same time? That’s one element. If I’m going to engage in a little bit of amateur psychoanalysis.
Wes: Here we go.
Oren: Yeah, I know. Just to be clear when I talk about oppressed mages, I mean basically anybody who is oppressed specifically for a supernatural ability that they have whether or not this is an actual wizard with a book or the X-Men. Their powers are flavored differently, but it’s the same basic dynamic. I think there are a lot of places this comes from. I think we still have this weird cultural heritage of witch trials and people imagine witches with magic being oppressed by the church and the church hating them because they had magic and the church didn’t like that. No, okay because those people didn’t actually have magic. They were just people the church didn’t like, mostly independent women and Jews and accusing them of witchcraft was a convenient way to get rid of them and then take their stuff. That’s the problem. People don’t really make that connection of with how actual witchcraft works. That’s a big part of it. I also think, based on my own observations and anecdotes and from my discussions with authors, it seems to me that there’s a very powerful need to imagine that other people hate you because you’re so cool.
Wes: Yeah, right.
Oren: It’s not because of some systemic issue or even a practical issue or heaven forbid anything you did wrong. It’s because they’re jealous.
Chris: I think it is worth distinguishing when that is relevant and when that comes into play. It’s not like jealousy doesn’t exist period, butI think it’s important to distinguish the difference between people resenting you within your interpersonal reactions and society-wide oppression.
Oren: This is basically the motivation behind most of what Ayn Rand writes. The whole concept of the super rich person that built society and is so great but everyone resents and hates them so they are the real victims and they have to go off and found their own rich people city that only rich people are allowed to live in.
Wes: [sarcatically] Woe betide them. They’re just so strong and tall and smart. Yeugh!
Oren: I know right. I don’t know exactly where this comes from, but it is not an uncommon fantasy that I have seen people engage in. Of ‘this is why people don’t like me.’ Go no further than right wing YouTube if you want to see all the people who think that. I mean don’t do that it’s bad for you.
Wes: Don’t contribute clicks to that nonsense.
Chris: I’d like to return back to Ayn Rand later, but I want to go back to this whole jealousy thing because I want people to be able to distinguish how jealousy and resentment of success realistically plays out in various situations right as opposed to what we’re seeing in so many stories. I think the difference is that jealousy and resentment can play [out] in interpersonal reactions. If you have a person who is a mage and a family member who’s not a mage, there might be a little bit of bad blood there because a family member resents you [the mage] for being more successful. In the classroom setting or settings where there is naturally a smaller group of people and those people feel like they have to compete against each other in some way, sometimes teachers for instance feel threatened by their students because they’re supposed to be the super knowledgeable one and so if a student excels there’s a little bit of resentment that happens in those interpersonal reactions, The difference is that oppression happens at a very huge society-wide level and there’s no interpersonal jealousy there. There’s really just looking at which group has the most power and that power doesn’t only translate to bullying other people, that power also translates to social and cultural power which means that they are the most glorified in that society. In order for them to be hated – a lot of people don’t like billionaires today – they really do have to do something that could reasonably piss people off. Not just have magic.
Oren: The other thing is that whenever I bring this up someone will always be like, ‘But the French Revolution!’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, okay in the French Revolution the French lower classes rose up and cut the heads off a bunch of aristocrats and also off of a bunch of not-aristocrats because the French Revolution was a terrible time.’ That ignores everything that happened before the French Revolution, and how bad things had to get before the lower classes of France were motivated to take the extreme risk of rising up against the powerful elites. The elites basically had to run France into the ground for decades before this could be a thing, before anyone would even think of doing that. The same thing happened in Russia, the Russian Revolution of 1917 didn’t happen out of nowhere. It didn’t just happen because one day all the Russian commoners were like, ‘The Czar’s a bad guy and I hate him.’ It was because the Czar and the whole Russian elite had been running Russia into the ground for 50 years and things had just gotten so bad that there was no choice.
That’s the sort of thing where it’s like, yeah, if you wanted to do that you could craft a setting where the mages were in charge, which is almost certainly what would actually happen, but they’re just so oppressive and so bad at their jobs that they create a scenario bad enough to motivate commoners to rise up against them. But if you do that, you’re not really talking about oppressed mages anymore. The dynamic has completely changed.
Chris: Even combining that with an idea of oppression could become problematic because we don’t want to suggest that people are oppressed because the deserve it.
Oren: Yeah, if you try to combine French Revolution dynamics with American racism. Those two are not the same thing. They don’t work together.
Chris: Yeah. Do you want to go back to Ayn Rand?
Wes: Might as well. We should get it over with.
Chris: I do, now that you mention it, I do remember the end- Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand) was such a weird book because it started with a bunch of really weird philosophy and cartoonish characters and then it became science fiction by the end. Because of this idea that we’ve got these the hard workers that are super oppressed and if we could just get rid of everybody else and stick to the superior people and put them in their own isolated community, they could do wondrous things.
Oren: Yep. Just do it. It’d be great because everyone else is really holding them back. I’ve seen magic stories that kind of work like that. The new Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling) stuff is trending in that direction.
Chris: [chagrined] Oh, no.
Oren: Not exactly, but the new Harry Potter stuff is just great because everything is wrong with it. So you can just pick things and be like, ‘what do I want a critique today?’ and just throw a dart at a map of all the things in the new Harry Potter stuff. Originally, in the original books the reasons for the Wizard World being separate from the Muggle World were vague which is probably for the best and they establish that Muggles are no threat to wizards. They went out of their way to explain that witch trials didn’t catch any actual witches which makes sense because the idea of 13th century priests trying to burn a Harry Potter witch is absurd. They established all that and that’s fine. And then they even went a little further and implied that the reason for the separation was to prevent wizards from taking advantage of muggles. Because that seems to be Voldemort’s main thing, he wants to end the separation so that he can rule all the muggles by virtue of being the best mage. You could argue whether or not the complete segregation of the two societies is actually a good way to achieve that goal, but that’s at least the implication. Then Fantastic Beasts (J.K. Rowling) rolls around. [Sarcastically] Thanks Fantastic Beasts! We find out that’s all a lie and actually the muggles were oppressing the bejesus out of the wizards and witch hunting them for no good reason and hated them and are the worst and are a giant threat and if the muggles ever find out about the wizards we’ll all die.
Wes: [Sarcastically] Sure, we will.
Oren: It turns out all those people who were just like, ‘why didn’t they just go ask the muggle prime minister to airstrike Voldemort?’ It turned out that they were all right. We thought it was a joke, but that was actually the solution the whole time. That’s the impression now is that muggles could actually defeat wizards in a fight. That’s the thing and it’s like, ‘No guys that was a joke before we didn’t actually want you to make that canon. I’m very sorry that we ever said that.’ It has that whole ring of, we need to be separate from those gosh darn muggles cuz they’re just bad and we are superior because we have magic and we need to not be where they are. You can’t trust them. It’s got that whole dynamic going on.
I really doubt that it happened because J.K. Rowling is a fan of Ayn Rand. I just think that that’s a weird surprisingly common attitude that I’ve seen people exhibit.
Chris: It’s really too bad because the Harry Potter books do a pretty good job of getting that power balance right. Well, yes, muggle-borns would definitely be discriminated against in that situation. That is 100% believable. Yes, the people who have magic, but also have a long history of having magic thereby accumulating more wealth and more power would definitely be at the top of the hierarchy. There’s no doubt. It’s too bad to see all of that thrown away.
Wes: That’s super believable because it’s grounded in real world stuff. I mean I think of the old rich and the new rich from The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) and stuff like that. It’s really just a way of preserving status over someone else. It’s power at the end of the day. ;’Well, we don’t have the same thing because I’m better.’
Oren: It’s also the whole- even if you take someone and give them an education if they come from a disadvantaged background, they’re not suddenly on the same plane as all the super privileged people. Even if they had access to the same education, that helps but it doesn’t make up for all of the accumulated wealth that all these other privileged people have that their families have built up over centuries.
Chris: Yeah. I also think it’s worth when we’re thinking about the timeline, when it comes to power, again any kind of power will ultimately translate to social and cultural power. When you think about throughout history, the longer a group is in power the more they have the opportunity to change culture to glorify them and present them as the good guys. In all sorts of ways, just by funding the right plays for instance. The ways are numerous. It just happens. It would be really unlikely, if there is a long history of a group having power even if they lose it. It’s going to take quite a while before culture turns against them because that’s going to remain for a really long time.
Oren: We’re getting into what I think of as the second barrier to why oppressed mage stories don’t work, which is that people don’t hate you for being able to do cool things. They just don’t. That’s just not a thing. The people who hate Barack Obama didn’t hate him because we hate presidents.
Wes: Well, we used to not.
Oren: There was another reason that they hated him. It was different and I’ll let you figure out what it was. We don’t hate professional athletes for being really good at sports. We elevate them. We think they’re so cool because they’re really good at sports. Now, sometimes when that extreme ability intersects with an actual marginalized identity, they can intermix in weird ways. Celebrities of color are very often held to a much higher standard than white celebrities; female celebrities are held to a much higher standard than male celebrities, etc, etc. Again, it’s not because we hate people who are really good at acting or at least make a lot of money off of it or whatever. That’s the social barrier to this idea that magic would inspire hatred. You’re different, but you’re different in a way that is clearly superior. And that kind of thing doesn’t have a super great parallel in real life because magic is not real. But the closest one you’re ever going to get is people who are really good at something, who are extremely skilled either by nature of their dedication or because they were born with some genetic quirk that made them really good at it. Usually both.
Someone will always point out that people hate the Jews and the Jews are rich, but see that’s a myth. Some Jews especially during the Middle Ages would get wealthy because they could lend money when Christians couldn’t but most Jews weren’t. Most Jews were about as wealthy as anybody else. But they were also Jewish so they would be targeted and then people would use the myth of the wealthy Jew to attack them. But if the Jews were all billionaires, you wouldn’t see antisemitism. It wouldn’t be the same. It would not exist. We sort of skipped over what I think is the first barrier, which is even the practicality of it. Most stories fail even this test, which is even if you could convince people to oppress mages most of the time it would simply be unfeasible. If you watch most X-Men stories, the idea that you’re going to beat these X-Men with a SWAT team is absurd and the only way it ever works is that we just explained that the X-Men are such nice guys that they would never use their powers to their full extent.
Chris: Or use their powers to get lots of money and then hire their own SWAT team.
Oren: This is before we even get into how much money an agricultural corporation would pay for Storm to work for them. ‘Oh you could you can control the weather. How would you like all of the money?’ It just wouldn’t work that way. ‘Oh well, maybe if they had giant robots, I guess.’ All right. Sure. I guess if you work really really hard you could engineer a scenario where all of the world governments have turned all of their resources to fighting the X-Men and have built giant robots. But then you run into the second problem, which is that they would never do that.
Wes: In that kind of situation, the oppression levels of the mutants are different. I’m thinking about motivations from X-Men throughout a lot of the stories and even Old Man Logan and stuff like that. There tends to be a prime operator who resents the mutants for having what they don’t. So they’re the ones convincing others and fabricating reasons. That story of oppressing mages or special people with special powers often seems like it’s rooted in a particular villain who somehow has convinced everybody else that this group is wrong. Maybe that’s why they’re popular because there can be a figurehead who has hoodwinked everybody.
Oren: I’ve seen that used as an explanation a lot. I even saw that in The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan) which isn’t really about oppressed mages. It’s more about sexism. But it’s the same thing where this group of people that should by all rights be incredibly popular have all been turned into pariahs by this one really clever mastermind who just doesn’t like them. I can’t say a hundred percent that’s impossible. But it just seems so incredibly unlikely. If you look at modern-day demagogues who whip up hatred, they don’t go after hard targets because those are hard. They go after easy targets that people already don’t like.
Chris: I will also say certainly if you had people who didn’t like mages and they already had a lot of power and at least in X-Men mutants are relatively new. A lot of stories with mages have a long history of having magic which gives them more time to get even more cultural influence. But at least in X-Men mutants are relatively recent so you could say, maybe there’s somebody in power who feels threatened by them, etc, etc. They’re just gaining power. The antagonist has a head start. Even though then though it would be really hard because what about the other like billionaires out there who realized that there’s a lot of money to be made by working with mutants? The idea that one person could then go against everybody else and they probably just wouldn’t have enough power compared to a system and all the other people who would be rewarded by working with mutants would make money from them or our off of them. That’s what it comes down to is that if you have power, other people get power by doing things for you because you have something to offer them. One person, even one super powerful person- If we have a really extreme situation where it’s the emperor who feels like these mages that have just appeared might be getting like a divine mandate which then threatens the idea that they were mandated by the divine to rule. We could have a very niche situation where if we set it up just right we could perhaps make that believable, but I think in most of these situations, in particular X-Men, I’m not seeing it.
Oren: I think in this situation it helps to consider what I call the Rudolph model. Which is based off of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer because as you all know, he had a very shiny nose and the other reindeer are bigots and hated him for having a shiny nose-
Oren: Which is reasonable and makes sense. That’s the thing that would definitely happen. If you came into school and your nose was all weird and shiny people would probably bully you for that because people can be small-minded so that would definitely happen. But then the moment his difference becomes exploitable, now suddenly it is a source of prestige because Santa needs it to guide his sleigh tonight. I didn’t realize that your weird facial deformity was actually valuable. Now you get rewarded and so that’s basically how it works is difference does tend to be punished but not if it’s exploitable, then it is rewarded. You can argue whether or not that’s a quirk of capitalism or if that’s just the way human society works. That’s a question for philosophers. I just know that in the societies that we live in that’s definitely how it works.
Chris: We have a few minutes left. Maybe let’s talk more about what you can do instead because there are a lot of writers that are really trying to figure out what to do with our characters in the world and they had this idea and once they realize okay, there’s some issues with it, what direction can they take? We already talked about a very niche situation a single antagonist. What else? I think we can have mage versus mage oppression. I think is a really good option for this where maybe instead of being mages is versus non-mages there’s different types of mages. You’ve got a minority of mages. They’re not more powerful than the majority, but they’re unique and then they’re considered a lower class of mage. Avatar: The Last Airbender I think is actually a good example of different populations and each population has their mages right. But then when one population decides to invade and oppress the other they go straight for the mages in the oppressed population because those are the ones that can fight back and of course they want to keep the population from fighting back.
Wes: That’s a good example.
Oren: Yeah, and that works because that models the way a lot of conquests happen in real life. Like when the Spanish conquered the Mexica – or the Aztecs as we often call them – they specifically engineered situations where they could massacre the Mexica elite first and they didn’t do that because the Spanish hate aristocrats. They did that because the Mexica aristocrats were the ones with the greatest capacity to fight back because they had all the power. This was not a case of the poor oppressed billionaires, this is a case of conquest and one group eliminating the most powerful members of another group so that conquest will be easier. That dynamic works really well in real life and frankly, that’s the reason why the whole concept of oppressed mages bothers me so much is because I think that it is really important for people to understand the way that power works and the dynamics of oppression, especially now. No person is going to read a single book about oppressed mages and get the idea that really it’s the billionaires who have it badly, but just that level of cultural noise where we have this incorrect dynamic in our heads. I do think that can cause problems in the long run.
Oren: I would recommend if you want- we recommend Avatar: The Last Airbender all the time as we should because it’s great. If you want this in novel form, I would recommend the book Fire Logic (Laurie J. Marks) which I’ll put in the show notes and it does essentially the same thing. In this case it’s a con. It’s a situation where an outside invader comes to a place that has magic and wants to invade them and so makes a priority to kill the mages because the mages could fight back more effectively.
Chris: I think it’s worth noting that you make sure that the invaders have more power over all than the invaded, even if the invaded have mages. The invaders could have mages. I feel like it’s also plausible if the invaders are at a much higher tech level. The invaded might have mages but the tech level actually more than makes up for the lack of mages. In that case you could have mages be a special thing within the people who are invaded, but again, make sure that the invaders should always be more powerful.
Oren: You still have to deal with the practical issues. It’s still not going to work if your mages can teleport and make nuclear explosions by snapping their hands. and your invaders have muskets. You still have to balance that, but at least that dynamic is a real one and will be helping your story instead of forcing you to go through all kinds of mental gymnastics to try to justify it.
Wes: One other thing, a smaller thing that you might consider is don’t just take the easy route and say, ‘these are an oppressed group.’ It’s okay to bring nuance into things and say that these populations know that magic exists, that there are magic users, but either it’s not a big part of their life, or they just don’t know what to think about it. That uncertainty that somebody might get a positive or a negative reaction could carry a good character into some more interesting situations instead of constantly being worried about being found out. It’s okay to bring a little nuance into the story.
Chris: I think it’s also worth talking about the costs, because another way to reduce the influence that mages have as make it so that magic is not as good. The thing to keep in mind here is that you would have to personally not want to have the magic. If the magic has such huge costs that it’s worse to have magic the not have magic, and it has to be more than a cost that is only incurred if you choose to use magic because no matter how bad that cost is the fact is that magic gives you another option you wouldn’t have otherwise. It really has to have such terrible cost that it’s bad to have it. If people who have magic are constantly causing explosions that they can’t help, and magic doesn’t actually do that much stuff that’s useful…
Oren: The other thing is if you set up a scenario – and I see a lot of other stories try for this – if you set up a scenario where magic is actually dangerous and mages actually kill people without meaning to fairly regularly.At that point, you could have a society that targets mages but it would be very different from oppression that exists for the most part in the real world. In the real world, at least if you live in the United States, the vast majority of discrimination and hatred is not targeted because of any actual risk. Whereas if you have a world where a baby mage can sneeze and burn down the town that is an actual risk. I’m not saying that that would justify murder but it is a very different dynamic than what exists in the real world, so I recommend being very cautious with that kind of thing. It’s like what happened in Wheel of Time when Robert Jordan was like, ‘oh the poor oppressed men. Everyone hates them.’ Why does everyone hate male magic users? Because they destroy cities by accident. Hey, that sounds like a problem and the solution that the female magic uses come up with is to cut them off from their magic without killing them. That actually sounds like the best possible solution. They’re like, [in a whiny voice] ‘no it’s inhumane and it makes them want to die.’ Well, I’m sorry that’s the best solution that we have. That doesn’t equal hating male magic users. No- Okay, the story is going to keep going with that.
Oren: We are actually very much out of time, but thank you to both of you for engaging with me on this pet peeve that I have. You may have been able to tell that I feel a little bit strongly about this.
Wes: Just a little.
Chris: Just a little.
Oren: Before we go, I want to thank two of our sponsors: Kathy Ferguson, who teaches Political Theory in Star Trek, and Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. Other than that if anything that we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com and we will talk to you next week.
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