There are lots of things that stories can get wrong, but few are as relevant to our lives as power and privilege. Whether we like it or not, power and privilege affect every aspect of our lives, from how much we’re paid to whether we can talk to a cop without fear. When stories get these dynamics wrong, they can do real harm. I’ve written on this topic before, but it seems like a few writers missed the memo, so I still have plenty of stories to analyze.
1. Carnival Row
This steampunk streaming show is all about oppression. Specifically, the oppression of fae by humans. The two human superpowers have colonized and conquered the fae’s home continent, forcing many to flee as refugees to the Burgue, a human city/empire that is an obvious stand-in for London and the British Empire. Refreshingly, Carnival Row mostly avoids the most common problem with this scenario: turning the fae into oppressed mages. While the fae do have magic, it can be performed by anyone, so it’s effectively a type of technology.
But notice I said it mostly avoids the problem. While most of the fae species we see don’t have any special powers, there’s one major exception: faeries.* Faeries can fly. They can fly with surprising speed for a full-size humanoid, and their maneuverability is on par with that of a hummingbird. Despite this obvious advantage, the faeries are just as poor and marginalized as all the other fae.
This is ridiculous. It’s hard to count the number of ways faeries could leverage their flight for economic gain. The military is most obvious: flying scouts would provide a crushing advantage, to say nothing of their combat potential. Beyond the military, do no rich people need messages or packages delivered quickly? We’re told that faeries are banned from flying in the Burgue, but such a law would be quickly voided once it started inconveniencing powerful people who wanted to use the faeries’ services.
You can see how overpowered the faeries are whenever the show puts them in conflict. When fighting clumsy airships, the faeries fly directly into the airships’ gunports rather than just flying a little higher where they’d have been completely safe. Later, when faeries try to flee the district they’ve been confined to, they do it in broad daylight and politely fly low enough to be shot by rifles. Why they didn’t wait until dark and easily escape, we can only imagine.
Adding insult to injury is how our half-faery protagonist is treated. He hides his fae heritage because if it were known, he’d lose his job, his home, and probably face deadly violence. That’s realistic enough, but then the show acts as if this subterfuge is an act of cowardice. The protagonist is told that if he weren’t ashamed of who he is, he’d stop hiding it. Eventually, he decides to openly announce that he’s half-fae, despite the predictable consequences. The show treats it as the completion of an arc where he’s finally stopped being ashamed.
This is super gross. While some people might stay in the closet because they’re ashamed, for most it is an act of self-preservation. They do it because coming out is physically and emotionally dangerous. It has nothing to do with shame or cowardice. You might as well have an arc about how a soldier needs to stop using battlefield cover so they can overcome their irrational fear of bullets.
2. The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film is routinely lambasted for its repetitive plot, lackluster villains, and the cheap fake-out about Bruce’s death. Those are all valid criticisms, but today we’re looking at the film’s class politics. Namely, how the poors are all evil and out to get us!
This theme doesn’t rear its ugly head until fairly late in the story, when Bane decides it’s time to take over Gotham. He does this because he wants to, I dunno, break Gotham’s spirit? He’s going to blow up the city eventually, so who knows? What’s important is that the first part of his plan* is to attack the city’s biggest prison and free all the criminals, who then naturally join his army.
Except, wait, there’s nothing natural about that. In real life, revolutionaries and insurgents often do raid prisons, but that’s because those prisons are full of people who agree with them politically.* Gotham’s prisons, on the other hand, are established to be full of regular convicts. Some of those prisoners are mobsters, but even they have no reason to ally with Bane, especially not in what appears to be a doomed insurrection against the United States government.
This plot point only makes sense if you assume criminals are a unified political block that will act against the rest of us. This is the same mindset that views policing as a war rather than a civil service and that opposes voting rights for convicts even after they’ve served their time. The truth is that most criminals have political views as varied and individual as anyone else. Claiming otherwise is a form of dehumanization, and that’s before we even get into sentencing disparities or wrongful convictions.
Don’t worry; it gets worse. Once the takeover is complete, Gotham’s rich and powerful are apparently dragged from their homes and put on trial. What they’re on trial for is unclear. Class crimes, I guess? Likewise, it’s hard to say if this is something Bane did, or if it’s just supposed to be what happens when poor people take over a city. Regardless, we’re treated to crowds of people cheering as Gotham’s elite are sentenced to cruel deaths. Also, with all their hoodies and bandanas, Bane’s goons seem intentionally designed to look like an Occupy protest.
Not only does this make a mockery of leftist politics, but it further feeds into the idea that without a massive, heavily armed police force, regular people would immediately rise up and destroy anyone above them on the sociopolitical ladder. It encourages us to view entire classes of people as the enemy, whether because they’ve committed some crime or just because they don’t have a strong bank account. This is especially disappointing after the previous Batman film spent a whole sequence confirming the humanity of a convicted criminal over that of his guards.
3. The City in the Middle of the Night
This Hugo-nominated scifi novel set on a tidally locked alien world has a lot of silly politics. The city of Xiosphant has a system of oppression based on circadian rhythms, while the supposedly anarchist city of Argelo is actually run by crime families. It’s been a while since my last political science class, but I don’t think that’s what anarchism means. However, neither of those cities or their governments are actually that important to the story, so we won’t dwell on them.
Instead, the real weirdness comes in the relationship between humans and the planet’s homegrown sapient species, creatures called the Gelet. For most of the story, humans are portrayed as destructive colonizers. Humans think the Gelet are non-sapient monsters and, as such, kill them on sight. Worse, humans have unknowingly damaged the Gelet’s climate stabilizing technology, putting the entire planetary ecosystem at risk.
Later, we’re told that the only way for humans to survive on this planet is if they recognize the Gelet’s superior way of life. The reverence our heroes show for the Gelet is so fawning that it already comes off as pretty creepy, but it gets worse when you realize something else: the Gelet are way more powerful than the humans. We are both told and shown that the Gelet could wipe out humans any time they chose, and it wouldn’t even be a contest.
This raises several questions, the most important of which is why the Gelet let humans kill them so often. Communication between the two species is supposed to be difficult, but it shouldn’t be hard for the Gelet to demonstrate their sapience and make it clear that violence against them won’t be tolerated. All they’d have to do is show off some of their incredibly advanced technology, and humans would get the message pretty quick.
Why don’t they do this? I don’t know. The book never explains it. It seems like an artifact from an earlier draft, before the author decided that the Gelet were sapient. Even worse, we eventually find out that while the Gelet won’t raise a finger in self-defense, they wiped out an entire culture of human nomads who accidentally damaged their climate stabilization system. The Gelet are apparently sad about this and claim they had no choice, but they didn’t try anything else. Murder was their first resort.
Between their advanced technology and murder-first approach to solving problems, the Gelet seem less like victims of colonization and more like a powerful country that doesn’t want to accept immigrants. Their plan to make humans practically worship them also feeds this image. The only acceptable way for humans to live on this planet is in total subservience. This still doesn’t explain why the Gelet are so happy to let humans kill them, but I don’t think anything can.
At first glance, BBC’s Merlin show appears to be a standard oppressed mages story. It’s got all the problems you’d expect: King Uther has declared war on magic, but both his motivation and his ability to do so are extremely suspect. Supposedly, he does this because his wife died in a magic ritual, but when was the last time you heard of a leader banning combustion because a loved one died in a fire? If we can get past the motivation, the mages in this setting are way too powerful for Uther to credibly defeat them. He should have been turned into a toad long ago.
Believe it or not, that’s not actually the worst part of Merlin. Instead, the main problem is that the writers want Uther to stay king, even though protagonist Merlin has every reason to either kill him or let one of Uther’s many enemies do the deed instead. The writers’ solution is Merlin’s mentor, the supposedly wise physician Gaius. For the first three seasons or so, Gaius’s main purpose on the show is to convince Merlin that Uther needs to remain king, never mind all the horrors Uther committed. This includes the cold-blooded murder of children, just so we’re all on the same page.
As you’ve probably guessed, this tactic backfires in spectacular fashion. There is no way to justify keeping Uther as king. Morally, he’s a genocidal dictator. Practically, he’s a very bad king, quick to lose his temper and unable to solve any problems without Merlin helping him. Despite Giaus’s protests to the contrary, it’s obvious that Uther’s son, Arthur, would make a much better ruler, even if he is inexperienced.
By having Gaius defend Uther, the writers change him from wise mentor to sniveling collaborator. Gaius doesn’t seem to care what happens to anyone else, so long as his precious Uther can hold on to power. The show’s backstory makes this worse. Back when Uther first started his war on magic, Gaius was a sorcerer himself. Instead of fighting or fleeing, Gaius gave up his magic to stay on Uther’s good side. Gaius did help spare a few people, but from the information we’re given, it’s mostly those he personally liked. The writers couldn’t have made him more of a collaborator if they tried.
It’s not fun to watch a show where the loveable mentor collaborates with a genocidal dictator. It’s even less fun to watch that show in a world where fascists and their collaborators seem to be on the rise everywhere you look.* But the worst part is that Gaius eventually turns Merlin into a collaborator as well. There’s even an episode where a minor antagonist calls Merlin out for defending a genocidal dictator, and we’re supposed to think that guy is wrong.
5. Crescent City
Sarah J. Maas’s bestselling urban fantasy novel is primarily a romance with some murder mystery thrown in to keep the plot moving. It has an innovative setting concept: urban fantasy, but not taking place on Earth. This allows Maas to use all of our favorite urban fantasy tropes without needing to explain how the masquerade works. This is a completely fictional fantasy world where everyone knows about magic and the technology just happens to be roughly equivalent to the United States in 2020. Very clever.
What’s less clever is how Maas handles the human rebellion against their magical overlords, known collectively as the Vanir.* What’s that, you didn’t expect there to be a human rebellion against their magical overlords in a romance mystery story? Neither did I, but here we are.
At first, the situation seems pretty straightforward. Humans are deeply marginalized in this setting. They are much poorer than the Vanir, have almost no political power, and are often badly abused with no legal recourse. Unsurprisingly, some humans have decided to fight back, launching a violent insurgency of bombings and hit-and-run attacks against the more powerful Vanir.
Less straightforward is half-human protagonist Bryce’s attitude toward the rebellion. While it’s reasonable to be against bombings that kill civilians, Bryce doesn’t seem to have any sympathy for her fellow humans. She might not love the Vanir government, but she saves her real venom for the rebels. Well, the human rebels anyway. Her love interest is an enslaved angel who also rebelled against the Vanir, but she has no problem with him because he had a big enough army to use conventional military tactics. Well, gee, I bet the humans would also use conventional military tactics if they had a big army.
And then we learn they do have a big army. Humans have even fought the Vanir to a standstill on the neighboring continent. This is revealed somewhere around the halfway point, and it’s so counter to what was previously established, I can only imagine Maas changed her mind halfway through the manuscript. So, how are the humans managing to fight against the magically superior Vanir?
Why, with mech suits, of course. These mech suits are apparently so powerful that they’re a match for even the strongest Vanir magic. I have so many questions. Most pressingly, how did the downtrodden and impoverished humans get the resources to build mech suits? I’ve played Battletech; they don’t just give those things out for pocket change. While we’re at it, why don’t the Vanir have mech suits too? The book clearly establishes that the Vanir use technology just as much as humans do. If anything, I’d expect the mech suits to be a Vanir weapon, since they’re the ones with all the money.
Also, we’re told that the Vanir army has a large number of human conscripts. If the human rebellion can hold their own on the battlefield, how are the Vanir not suffering from mass desertion? Their only sales pitch is “fight your fellow humans so we can keep treating you like garbage.” Because there’s no end to my questions, I also have to ask how Bryce’s home city can be seemingly unaffected with such a huge war going on. It would be like setting a story in London at the height of WWI and not seeing so much as a draft. And where did these mech suits come from when the tech level is equivalent to that of the modern US?
But perhaps more importantly, why is all this happening in the background of a romance where the lovebirds are investigating a murder? Occasional mentions of the war make all of Bryce’s problems seem completely unimportant. Who cares if she’ll crack this case or hook up with angel boy, there’s a revolution to be fought!
6. My Hero Academia
In this superhero school anime, our heroes must fight an ever more powerful list of supervillains. In seasons two and three, they run into their most difficult opponent yet: bad press. Superheroes are being raked over the coals of public discourse, and drama-hungry reporters are only too eager to press them with embarrassing questions. If this continues… something bad will happen! It’s not really clear what, but the characters seem to think it’s a problem, so we’ll take their word for it.
The bad press has two main sources, the first being UA High’s complete inability to keep its students safe from supervillain attacks. That’s just silly. Such high-profile safety failures might convince parents to send their kids to a different superhero school, but it certainly wouldn’t discredit superheroes as a whole. Also, after the second villain attack, UA High deserves every bit of flack it gets. Their solution to failed security was to send the kids somewhere with even less security and hope that secrecy would protect them. Because high schools are so well known for being bastions of information security.
The second source of bad press is a supervillain who goes by Stain. He kills heroes for sport, and he’s very open about why: he thinks most heroes have been corrupted by fame, money, and presumably corporate sponsorships. Pretty soon, this view starts to catch on, and Stain attracts a growing fanbase. Again, it’s not entirely clear what the end result of this might be, but the adult heroes think it’ll be bad.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and we’ll start with how utterly absurd this scenario is. In the My Hero setting, superheroes are effectively a branch of law enforcement. In real life, law enforcement is incredibly popular by default. There’s some variance by country, but the results are remarkably consistent. This makes total sense: law enforcement’s official job is to protect us from bad guys. You couldn’t ask for a better PR starting position. For law enforcement to lose popularity, they have to do something really bad. In the United States, for example, police have a long history of brutally mistreating people of color, especially Black people and Native Americans. In 2020, that brutality was highlighted when departments across the country reacted to peaceful protests with escalation and violence.
Even then, police are still remarkably popular among white Americans, for whom encounters with police are generally friendly and rare. The police are even more popular in Japan. Super-powered law enforcement wouldn’t see a dent in their popularity from such comparatively minor issues as making too much money, not when they’re literally saving people from supervillains every week. Maybe if the heroes were doing something truly heinous, Stain’s message could catch on, but then the audience would have to ask if superheroes are actually a good idea.
Beyond being unrealistic, the idea that regular people are always set to turn against law enforcement has deadly consequences in real life. In American policing at least, a disturbing number of officers adopt a kind of siege mentality, believing the entire world is out to get them, so they have to get it first. That’s a big part of why American cops are so likely to lead or react with extreme force, no matter the situation. Racism, naturally, makes the problem much worse.
Intentionally or not, My Hero Academia is perpetuating a myth that gets real people killed. It portrays a world where the general public is just a hair’s breadth away from turning on law enforcement, something far too many police officers already believe. Combined with how badly My Hero portrays the press, it’s hard not to see these aspects of the show as authoritarian propaganda.
Portraying power and privilege might seem confusing at times, but it’s actually quite simple. Most of the time, all you have to do is ask who has the power in a given situation. Whoever does is the one you need to be critical of. Superheroes have immense power, so they should be the ones under scrutiny, not the general public. In Carnival Row, flight should give the faeries power, but it doesn’t, so that requires extra attention. The list goes on. Keep that rule in mind, and you should be able to avoid the worst excesses we’ve seen on this list.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?