The Problem With Oppressed Mages

Poster art for X-Men 3, showing the main characters in action poses.

Here we see mutants oppressed by the government for being so cool.

I talk about stories that misunderstand power and privilege a lot here on ye olde Mythcreants, but I get by far the most pushback when it comes to the trope of oppressed mages. It’s not hard to see why. This trope is incredibly popular, and many beloved stories employ it. So, naturally, I decided it made sense to double down and write a full article about why this trope doesn’t work and why we should stop using it.

For the sake of brevity, I use “oppressed mages” to mean any situation in which people are systematically mistreated and marginalized specifically because of their supernatural abilities, whether they use spellbooks or mutant genes. X-Men is one well-known example, as are the new Fantastic Beast films.* It doesn’t matter exactly where the power comes from or how it manifests; the important part is that a supernatural ability is the primary mark of oppression.

Why This Trope Doesn’t Work

Bellatrix casting a spell from the Harry Potter films. I’d love to see some 13th-century priests try to put this lady on trial.

First, let’s examine why this trope fails in every story that uses it. Yes, even the ones you like. Even your very favorite.

It’s Hard to Oppress Mages

Before we even get into the social and political problems of this trope, there’s a practical barrier that most stories fail to overcome: How do you oppress someone who can shoot fire out of their hands?

This is a difficult issue even for low-magic stories. A little supernatural power goes a long way, and humans are notoriously good at leveraging seemingly small advantages into big gains. You can see this dynamic at work in competitive sports, where the difference of a few inches in height or a few pounds in weight has a huge effect on the outcome of a contest.

If the mages in your setting have weak elemental control, they can use it to trip their opponents by sloshing water under their feet or make a killing in the gemstone business by brushing useless earth off valuable ore without the need for expensive tools. If mages can see through the eyes of animals, they can know in advance where enemy soldiers will be and ambush them before every battle. If mages can predict the outcomes of random probability, they can use casinos as their own personal ATMs. The list goes on.

However, in most stories, you don’t even have to consider the clever ways mages might use minor powers because authors love to give their heroes major powers instead. We can all see how eye lasers and death curses can be used to prevent oppression, but noncombat powers have enormous potential as well, perhaps even more so.

Consider a mage who can control the weather. They can’t summon lightning strikes or storms, but they can turn a day from rainy to sunny and back again. The ability to make it rain in dry areas, or stop raining in wet areas, would increase agricultural profits by an untold margin. This mage would be in huge demand from monarchs and churches in a historical setting or presidents and CEOs in a modern one. The mage could set their own price and then spend all that money on lawyers, PR teams, lobbyists, and private security. All these things make it notoriously difficult to oppress someone.

This effect is magnified with time and numbers. The more mages there are and the longer they’ve been around, the more cemented they’ll be at the top of society. Wealth accumulates over generations, and if mages ever develop the group identity needed for most magical oppression stories to work, they could combine their resources to even greater effect.

In most stories, authors make a token effort to give the evil muggles some kind of countermeasure to negate the advantage of magic, and they’re almost always woefully inadequate. Sometimes the author just assumes that mages would be unable or unwilling to use technology, and that never makes sense. Other times the muggles have tech that can shut down magic, but it never works at the required level because if it did, we couldn’t have the cool magic fights most authors want so badly. Occasionally, authors will go even further and give the muggles seemingly magical abilities of their own, which raises the question of why they hate one kind of magic but not another and blurs whether this is even an oppressed mages story.

These stories also love to include scenes of regular bigots hassling and even attacking mages in the street. They do this because it references images of bigotry we see in real life, but it makes no sense. How many bigots do you know who are brave enough to harass someone who could kill them with a thought? In my experience, bigots tend to be cowards preying on people who can’t fight back at all, let alone unleash unstoppable eye lasers.

Despite everything we’ve just covered, it is technically possible to craft a premise that overcomes the practical obstacles of oppressing mages. With enough work, you can set up a story where all the world’s governments have rallied together and made the giant robots or elite death squads that would be necessary to oppress mages. But then you get into the social and political problems, so let’s take a look at those!

Oppression Flows From Power, Not Toward It

Let’s assume you have a story where all the of the practical obstacles to oppressed mages are dealt with. Magic is really weak, or muggle countermeasures are really strong, or both. You’re all set for a story where people hate mages for being different, right? Just one problem: systemic oppression does not work that way.

Allow me to introduce the Rudolph Model.* As you may recall, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had a very shiny nose, for which he was relentlessly bullied and mocked. This is pretty realistic. Any kid who’s gone to school with a visible birthmark or audible speech impediment can tell you it’s the sort of difference that often leads to bullying. But then Santa discovers that Rudolph’s nose is useful for the important task of guiding aircraft during inclement weather, and suddenly Rudolph is showered with praise and adulation for his difference. It’s unclear what sort of compensation system the North Pole runs on, but we can assume that Rudolph negotiated himself a few extra bales of hay, since he is the only one capable of performing a task vital to his employer.

The Rudolph Model is a great predictor of how differences will be treated in real life. People who are more traditionally attractive than their peers are typically rewarded, as are people who score better on tests, or people who are bigger and more muscular. Meanwhile, people with less-developed social skills, a visible trait considered unattractive, and those who do not display traditional markers of intelligence are punished, socially if not officially. And this can all happen within a single privileged demographic; once you take marginalized race, gender, or disability into account, the effects become far more dramatic.

The lesson is clear: differences are punished unless they are exploitable in some way, in which case they are rewarded. There are occasional exceptions,* but the rule holds true in most cases. Magic, as it is portrayed in fiction, is almost always exploitable, usually on levels far beyond what any muggle could ever imagine. Mages would be loved and showered in accolades, not despised for their differences.

This means that while it’s technically possible for mages to be oppressed if all the world’s governments were united to fight them, governments would never do that. A supernatural power simply doesn’t align with the reasons anyone is actually oppressed, any more than athletes are oppressed for being really good at sports. Of course, it’s always possible for mages to face oppression for some other aspect of their identity, but it won’t be specifically for having magic. White Americans didn’t hate Muhammad Ali because of some bizarre aversion to championship boxers; we hated him because he was black.

If mages are new to a setting, there might be some fear of their abilities, but it would quickly be overcome by how useful they are, in the same way some people fear new technology and yet the gadgets just keep on flowing. If mages have existed in the setting for a long time, they would likely have an entrenched position of privilege similar to old money families that pass their wealth from one generation to another. This might create some individual resentment, but that resentment doesn’t translate into systemic oppression, the same way wealthy people aren’t oppressed in the real world.

The Myth of Wealthy Jews

This is a pet peeve of mine. In any discussion about power and oppression in speculative fiction, someone will always bring up the supposed example of Jews being oppressed because they were wealthier than Christians.

This model of antisemitism is a myth.

It’s true that for some points in Western European history, the average Jew could be better off than the average Christian, but this happened because the vast majority of Christian wealth flowed to an ultra-rich minority of landed nobles, while wealth in Jewish communities tended to be more evenly distributed. Even in these periods, wealthy Christians called the shots, and they were happy to whip up antisemitism to take even more Jewish wealth for themselves.

In other periods of European history, Jews were even poorer than Christians and were given the jobs no one else wanted, like trying to collect debts that Christians owed to other Christians. Either way, Jews are not an example of people with power being oppressed.

When storytellers insist on portraying oppressed mages, either deliberately or out of ignorance, they’re doing more than creating an unrealistic setting; they’re reinforcing harmful ideas people have in real life. We already have a dangerous tendency to side with the more powerful party in a dispute, which is one reason there so often seems to be more sympathy for rich people facing taxes than for people of color facing police bullets. Portraying powerful sorcerers as the victims of oppression only makes this dynamic worse.

Justifying Oppression Means It’s Not Oppression

Some storytellers are wise to all the problems I’ve just laid out. They know that there’s no reason for muggles to systematically oppress mages, even if they were able to. But these storytellers still want to oppress mages, so they try to add additional context, hoping that will fix things. Spoilers: it does not fix things.

One common addition is the idea that mages are inherently dangerous in some way. Maybe baby mages can accidentally burn down an entire town because they haven’t yet learned to control their power, or magical rituals require human sacrifices in order to work properly. The other really common justification is the idea that mages used to rule the muggles, but they were so oppressive that they eventually drove the muggles to revolt and now mages are oppressed out of vengeance.

Neither of these concepts work because they change the context of the oppression that these storytellers seem to want so badly. If magical babies are a serious threat to the people around them, it means muggles actually have a reason to be afraid. Even if the muggles’ reaction to this danger is overly harsh, they’re still acting out of self-preservation. This is almost never the case in real-life oppression. Black people are not a threat to white people. Queer people are not a threat to straight people. Immigrants and refugees, no matter their skin tone or religion, are no threat to developed countries like the United States.

The idea of mages being the oppressors in the past and oppressed in the present has similar problems. It invokes real-life occurrences like the French and Russian Revolutions, where it was easy to sympathize with the rich as they were seemingly the new target for oppression. What such stories usually leave out is how bad the ruling elite had to let things get in order for the revolution to occur. It’s really difficult to convince people they should rise up and violently overthrow the government, and before every popular uprising, you have decades of the privileged class running their country into the ground. It’s hard to call the rich victims in such a scenario, and the same is true for mages.

French Revolution—type stories also miss that, in most cases, violent uprisings are a temporary reversal of normal trends. A number of France’s elite lost their heads in 1789, but just a few decades later they were back, ruling through their wealth and power like nothing happened. Even the explicitly communist USSR had its rich and powerful, though they had to be a little more careful about how they displayed their wealth. In most stories, the overthrown mages would have clawed their way back into power given a generation or so, if it even took that long.

No matter the specifics, stories that introduce new contexts that justify hatred against mages can’t get around the fact that they’re justifying hatred. This can work if the goal is to create a multisided conflict where each side has a legitimate grievance, but it absolutely falls apart when modeling real-world bigotry and oppression, as so many stories of downtrodden mages are trying to do. And yet, storytellers keep taking this route because they know without it, there’s no way to justify why muggles want to oppress mages in the first place. It’s a vicious circle we’d be better off never starting in the first place.

Why We Try to Use This Trope Anyway

Uther from BBC's Merlin In Merlin, Uther has all mages killed after a ritual he asked for doesn’t go perfectly. Sure.

If oppressed mages are such a bad trope, why is it so common? What is it about our society that produces so many stories where people who can call down lightning from heaven are the victims? I can’t give you a total accounting without some very expensive scientific studies, but I can tell you what I’ve learned from talking to authors in my professional capacity as an editor.

Our History of Witch Trials

We have a cultural legacy of imagining the church hunting people down and setting them on fire for the crime of having magic, and it’s not hard to see why. After all, that’s what the church claimed it was doing back in the day, and this idea has been reinforced by centuries of popular culture. It’s easy to see where people would get the idea that religion and magic are diametrically opposed.

But here’s the thing: none of those people the church persecuted actually had magic. If they did, they’d have used it to avoid being executed. The actual reasons behind European witch trials ranged from a general hatred of independent women to superstition within the church itself to complex local politics that are often difficult to understand from surviving sources, but none of it involved real magic.

Meanwhile, it’s fairly common for religious figures, Christian and otherwise, to claim they have supernatural powers. Sometimes they have to be careful how they flavor these powers so as not to violate doctrine, but they always find ways. If magic actually existed, religions would either embrace it or be formed around it rather than reject it as evil.

Our Need for Character Problems

Most storytellers understand that a character needs problems in order to be compelling, but giving the hero real problems can be a drag. If the problem is too serious, it might make the story darker than the author wants. Worse, if the problem is related to something the hero actually did, that might confirm that they aren’t a perfect paragon of righteousness, and then where would we be?

To get around this, some storytellers try to portray a hero’s advantages as problems, and thus a story of oppressed mages is born. It might seem like the hero is blessed with good fortune and the ability to conjure flames from thin air, but that’s actually a hindrance because regular people resent this awesome power and want to bring the hero down.

The trouble is that audiences can sniff out a false problem pretty quickly, whether it’s magically derived oppression or a character who is ridiculed for being too attractive. These fake problems generate frustration with the character rather than sympathy, and this is assuming the audience isn’t clued in on the larger political issues associated with oppressed mages.

Our Desire for Parallels

Storytellers often want to push back against oppression and marginalization, and this is an instinct we very much applaud here at Mythcreants. At the same time, including direct examples of real-world bigotry can be extremely difficult, with a lot of pressure to get everything right, so storytellers decide to use a parallel. So far, so good – Mythcreants is also a big fan of parallels.

From there, oppressed mages seem like a great idea because they’re so far removed from real life. There’s no risk of misrepresenting a real person’s pain because magic isn’t real! Unfortunately, this isn’t quite true. Even in a parallel, audiences can usually tell what real-world struggles you’re drawing from. This doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it becomes one when the parallel contradicts the situation it’s supposed to be standing in for.

In real life, oppressed people do not have the power to annihilate their tormentors with flames from the aether plane. If they did, real life would look very different. When oppressed mages can do that, they stop working as a parallel and any hope of a positive message is lost. It’s more likely that the story will end up validating people who want to believe that oppression happens for a legitimate reason.

How We Can Do Better

Cover art from The Ballad of Black Tom. A story that highlights American racism and has elder gods? Sign me up.

Believe it or not, the solution to this problem is not to throw out any story in which a magical character suffers oppression or marginalization. Such stories can be valuable, so long as they ditch the idea that it’ll be mundane humans doing the oppressing. There are plenty of ways to do this, but I’ll go through some of the more straightforward options.

Mages Can Be Oppressed by Other Mages

Oppression is all about power, and if there’s one group with the power to oppress mages, it’ll be other mages. Maybe your character is the last child of a mage clan that was defeated and enslaved by their rivals. Now the defeated mages are forced to do the most dangerous parts of magical rituals in service to the victors. Juicy conflict indeed!

This option gets away from the harmful and nonsensical paradigm of mages being oppressed by people without magic. Instead, you have a conflict between two factions that are at least on the same footing, if not entirely equal.

A great example of this trope in action is N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. In that story, a group of gods are on the losing side of a divine civil war, and so they are enslaved by the victors. While they are made to serve humans over the course of the story, it’s clear that what’s really keeping them down is other gods.

Mages Can Be Oppressed for Other Marginalized Traits

One of the central reasons that oppressed mages never work is that having supernatural powers simply isn’t the sort of trait that marks one for marginalization. Quite the opposite, people who can do things others can’t are lauded and rewarded. But being a mage doesn’t have to be your hero’s only identity.

If your protagonist has an actual marginalized trait, they might be oppressed despite their magic. Indeed, if they are part of a marginalized group, bigots might hate them even more for having abilities that are supposed to be reserved for the privileged class, the way racists will always hate President Obama for being a black man who rose above what they saw as his rightful place.

One great example is The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. This novella tells the story of a young black sorcerer in 1920s New York and all the bigotry he has to deal with. The cops don’t hate him because he’s a sorcerer; they hate him because he’s black. Being a sorcerer is actually one of the few options the protagonist has to escape White America’s hatred.

Mages Can Be Oppressed Through National Conflict

A final option is to use the dynamics of war and conquest as your story’s basis. This shifts the paradigm away from the type of bigotry most Americans see every day and eliminates a lot of problems. Instead of the one-sided nature of modern racism, you can parallel the tactical and strategic choices that countries make during war.

Perhaps your story is about a small country being invaded by a much larger one, and the smaller country’s only advantage is a higher proportion of mages among the population. In that scenario, it serves the invader’s interest to make wiping out the defending mages a top priority. This has plenty of precedent in real life, like when the Spanish massacred the Mexica elite during their conquest of Tenochtitlan. The Spanish didn’t hate nobles; they simply knew that the Mexica nobility had the greatest capacity to resist.

Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks, a book I never get tired of recommending, is the perfect example of this solution in action. The protagonist’s nation has already been conquered, and their mages are the only thing giving them any chance to resist the technologically superior enemy. It also helps that the mages of Fire Logic are quite limited in their abilities, but that’s something you’ll have to adjust based on your story’s context.

The trope of oppressed mages is one of the most stubborn I’ve ever encountered. It’s got an incredible amount of cultural inertia behind it, and because it’s so often used in attempts to encourage social justice, many people who normally oppose bad tropes give it a pass. But that doesn’t erase the harm that oppressed mages can do, both by making a story unbelievable and by reinforcing bad ideas people hold in real life. We have to do better.

Update: I’ve added added a comment specifically on the subject of Dragon Age, since it comes up a lot in discussions of oppressed mages.

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  1. Dvärghundspossen

    I just realized I have a sort of real-life-magic story to tell. In the late 1990:s, I worked in nursing, caring for very old and sick people in their homes. An old lady who had been born in a miniscule village in the absolute middle of nowhere told me this story… She was born in the early twentieth century, and this supposedly took place in the late nineteenth century, and was told to her by people who had actually been there. (I’m not saying I take this story at face value! I just tell it like I heard it.)

    In their village, there was a “kuseregubbe”. “Gubbe” is regular Swedish for “old man”, but “Kusere” is some weird dialect word. From the context though, “kuseregubbe” supposedly means “warlock”.
    He knew black magic, and could use it to cure illnesses and other useful things for a good-sized fee, but he also used it to bully people. Basically everyone hated him for being such an asshole, but everyone was scared of him too. Also, he was an alcoholic, and drunk more often than he was sober.
    It never ended well if anyone tried to stand up to him. One night, he banged on a farmer’s door, drunk as usual, yelling that he was out of booze and the farmer had to give him some. The farmer tried to refuse, and then the “kuseregubbe” went
    – Suit yourself then, I’m gonna CURSE YOUR COW!
    The farmer heard noises from the barn, ran out, to find his cow in cramps on the floor. He quickly apologized to the “kuseregubbe”, gave him more booze, and the cow went back to normal.

    One day, the poor girl who was tasked with cleaning the house of the “kuseregubbe” found him dead in his bed. When she told people, everyone went in their really cautiously, because they were afraid of just being in his house. Eventually they started searching through his stuff, and they found a black magic book, a mummified human hand and other creepy shit. They decided that likely his entire house was tainted by evil, so they set it on fire.

    And that’s the end of the story. Pretty fascinating.

    • Cay Reet

      Cool story and very interesting.

      That human hand could have been a Hand of Glory (the hand of a hanged man mummified for use in rituals).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Okay I love that story regardless of how true it is. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Cay Reet

    Thanks for the article, Oren.

    The trope of oppressed mages has bugged me for a long time, because it makes no sense. I can see mages oppressing other mages or mages being oppressed not for being mages, but for other things. But non-mages oppressing mages just makes no sense.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m glad you liked it Cay! Yeah for me the sticking point is the idea that having magic is a marginalized identity. It doesn’t make sense, it sends bad messages about how power works, and to me at least it’s just kind of disrespectful. Like, you think that if Jews had the ability to create unstoppable murder-golems, we wouldn’t have used it to stop the pogroms?

      I know that’s not what most storytellers mean, but it will always bother me.

      • Leon

        Most of the time, this is right. But what if the mages power is limited to the ability to transform onto the Mike Tyson once a month, or being a human bazooka that takes a whole day to reload, or being able to hack another persons body but they can hear your voice, and identify you from your thoughts?
        There’s very little utility there (most of what a soldier carries is to keep themself and others alive, not weapons). No way for anybody to make money out of it. You couldn’t abuse the power without being caught. But there is real danger. And that would cause fear. How do you see that situation playing out?

  3. Lizard with Hat

    Great article, it is what bugs me with this trope.
    In retrospect if think is what made me loose interest in X-Men, because i felt that their Problems with Government and other people weren’t really … let say believable. Most Characters who fit this trope today would get rid of it fast – most of them are superheroes who are doing well.
    It’s hard to oppress people for being awesome and saving the day. It very disingenuous.

    To be honest in nearly would have implemented oppressed mages in my fantasy world if not for your articles. Now I altered that for the better. In Changed the Magic-System slightly so that there is a reason for mages to be careful and for none-mages to be wary, but the risk is not that great. It also lightened the mood of my story, which I like very much.

    So yeah, thanks for clearing up that trope. Especially the “how we can do better” part is great
    Pointing out a problem is one thing but helping avoid or solve it is sometimes overlooked, so: Thanks!

  4. Feral

    Although I generally agree with you, I wonder what definition you’re using for oppressed here. Do you only mean “genocide?” Because you outright state that one thing that would likely happen is the exploitation of magic and mages – exploitation, of course, being a form of oppression. The “accolades” someone is likely to gain if they are useful to a monarch or megacorp does not mean they are not oppressed – a gilded cage is still a cage and acting out or choosing not to be exploited is historically quite deadly.

    This ties in with your example of the oppression of the only humans capable of giving birth; the oppression type that exists in this case is the attempt to remove the agency of when and with whom to become pregnant. It’s a control of circumstance, and while it’s not outright genocide because that makes no sense, violence and death against individuals in this oppressive system are frequent punishments for non-compliance.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      I think it’s a mistake, actually, to bring women and child bearing into this, because it’s such a widespread ability. If you lose a child-bearer, there are billions more to replace them.
      If fertility were really rare, I think the situation would be very different (and likely not in a Handmaid’s tale way…?).

      People with rare and amazing talents can definitely be put in gilded cages, so to speak; they might get lots of money and fame while simultaneously being pushed and prodded to always “deliver” until they’re completely burnt-out for instance. It could be interesting to do a fantasy version if this.

      What I think Oren had in mind, though, isn’t just genocide, but also far less dramatic examples like people don’t want to rent you an apartment on account of you being part of group X, you’ll have to bear some kind of marker if you’re X, harassed by the police if you’re X, people don’t want their kids to date you because you’re X, people see you as “filthy”, “vermin” or the like because you’re X, etc etc. I don’t really think there are any real-life examples of this happening to people because they have some amazing talent that 99 % of the population lacks.

    • Cay Reet

      Oppression is when it’s legal to act against a certain group. That’s not genocide already, but it means you’re allowed by the law to treat them differently. Like during the Jim Crowe era, when it was allowed to put ‘coloreds not allowed’ signs into the window of a shop or bar. Oppression always happens with the okay of the ruling class/government. Since women, to get back to your example, are not by law ‘second class’ citizens (a lot of first-world countries actually have laws stating women and men are to be treated equally), they are not oppressed, but severely discriminated against (see next paragraph).

      A step below would be discrimination, which can have systemic parts (such as companies not hiring POC on principles), but is not covered by laws of any kind. If you don’t get into a club for not being white or are not hired because you’re a woman, it’s discrimination, which can also be very subtle and against an actual law.

      On the bottom, there would be bullying, which is always against the individual. One individual takes out frustration or hatred against another individual.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      We’re having a bit of a terminology issue here, which I should have done more to clarify, so my bad. I’m referring to the abilities themselves being exploitable, not the person. Similarly, being able to design websites is a very exploitable skill for the person who has it. They are actually less likely to be exploited or otherwise marginalized themselves because they have this valuable skill that gives them more bargaining power than say, an Uber driver, who’s skills are less exploitable.

      Of course a web designer can still be exploited or otherwise marginalized, but it’s not going to be *because* of their skills. Usually it will happen in spite of those skills.

      As Cay Reet and Dvärghundspossen have pointed out, magic powers don’t really map well to the ability to have children, for a number of reasons.

      • Feral

        Just so we’re clear, are you arguing that institutionalized sexism (per your definition, oppression) is not a thing in countries like the US? Women are not second class citizens technically (nor are POC nor trans folk), but that doesn’t make the law, and application and protection of the law, on our side.

        I’m really just trying to go off on an thought that occurred to me from something Oren specifically mentioned in the article.

        More subtle forms of oppression – implicit rather than explicit, ingrained in the society from multiple fronts and developed over many centuries or even millennia – might be an interesting avenue to explore in these kinds of narratives. The way women are pushed into more nurturing/care-giving roles; the way POC are pushed into more stereotypical roles of their races – could there be something similar? The push for superpowered individuals to go into areas where they can be better exploited? I’m interested in the brainstorming of situations psychological manipulation rather than overt violence.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Not sure if you were talking to me, but just to clarify, institutionalized sexism is absolutely a thing in the US and other similarly developed countries.

          The reason I say the ability to gestate children doesn’t serve as a good parallel for oppressed mages is that while having children is very useful for society as a whole, it isn’t really of material benefit to the person doing it, at least not for a long time after the child is born (and even that depends on labor laws and the relationship between parent and children).

          • Daisy

            “The reason I say the ability to gestate children doesn’t serve as a good parallel for oppressed mages is that while having children is very useful for society as a whole, it isn’t really of material benefit to the person doing it, ”

            True. Especially since the child can be taken away by a man, and then the benefit to the woman who gave birth would be less than zero, because she spent all those resources on pregnancy and was left with nothing.

            However, that shows us how a setting with oppressed mages CAN work: Just give them powers that can be exploited by others against the mage’s will, but cannot be used offensively. Like healing. Healing magic is usually voluntary, but what if someone could heal people by giving them blood transfusions? You bet that person would be locked up and exploited.

  5. Dave L

    There may be other reasons:

    The stereotype of the science fiction, fantasy, or superhero fan is a highly intelligent yet socially ostracized teenager

    This person would naturally sympathize w/ mages being persecuted for being special

    If mages are in power the world is changed significantly. If the mages are persecuted then the rest of the power structure can be otherwise familiar. This allows a world w/out a masquerade to be similar to our world

    If the world has a masquerade, this provides a good excuse why they have it, and why they need to continue it

    • Cay Reet

      Your examples are surely interesting, but I’ve always been dubious of the Masquerade principle (and I know a lot of urban fantasy uses it, because otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘urban’ any longer). It’s hard enough to keep a secret which only a handful of people know, the more people are in the know (and with mages or other supernatural creatures, we’d be talking millions, if not more), it’s highly unlikely the secret would stay secret for a long time – all it takes is one major slipup and it would all be blown.

      • Rose Embolism

        Well that really depends on what a Masquerade really is. If it’s “Nobody believes in the supernatural”, thats not really feasible. If its a world where people regard the supernatural the way the real world does, then that’s perfectly doable.

        And when I mean the real world, I mean the one where large numbers of people do seriously believe in the supernatural: psychic powers, vampires, ghosts and monsters. Where theres Reddit pages devoted to skinwalkers and mysterious disappearances. Where people even now are being prosecuted in Africa and Asia for being witches.

        People tend to overestimate how rational and scientific the modern world is. Remember, the McMartin Prescool prosecution took place only 30 years ago, and that sounded like something ppout of the witch trials of the 1600s.

        With a modicum of secrecy, creatures that can vanish and alter minds could easily keep their existence relegated to the ranks of urban legends. After all, tuus is a world where serial killers can operate for decades without being acknowledged.

        • Cay Reet

          Masquerade usually means ‘the public is unaware that supernatural beings exist.’ There are people who say those creatures (for example vampires) exist, but they are treated like madmen.

          The problem with that is that it doesn’t really work. I can barely believe it when it comes only to vampires, but they are known for the ability to blend in and to control minds and there won’t be too many of them at any given time (predator/prey ratio and all that). Other novels and even series of novels say ‘a lot of different creatures from vampires over fairies to dragons exist.’ That is where it becomes absolutely unbelievable, especially in a time of mass media, where even the best mages won’t be able to completely remove a video from the internet. Once I read about a fight between two dragons which is basically fought in the skies above NYC (not kidding here), I can’t believe anyone can successfully keep that a secret.

          • Dvärghundspossen

            Yeah I’m with Cay on this one. If a single supernatural creature had some kind of psychic powers, they could use said powers to go undetected. But an entire society of supernaturals? They’d have to have supernatural cooperative powers too, for no one to blow their cover.

            Sure, people can often be irrational, but that doesn’t mean that an entire society or entire species could exist in our midst for ages and ages, and the scientific community and the public at large completely miss out on their very EXISTENCE (which is a very different thing from knowing about them, but having some serious misconceptions).

          • Grey

            I prefer the idea of “the supernatural exist in an alternate realm and occasionally things slip through the cracks between worlds, and it happens both ways.” For example: The Boiling Isles in The Owl House, or Wonderland.

      • Leon

        You’re correct if you assume mages are numerous and exceptionally powerful.
        But what if mages are a small minority, and their combat abilities are no more potent than a norm with a weapon?

    • Laura Ess

      The first example is very like Rice’s Vampires, who are ageless and don’t generally interact with regular humanity other than to feed, and thus become disconnected and isolated as a result.

      Certainly in the past in Rice’s series, we see Vampire Kings and Queens, ruling the general populace as gods. But in present times they are either dismissed as just stories, feared as predators, or misunderstood.

  6. Alex Lund

    I disagree with you that mages / mutants cannot be oppressed.

    The reason: numbers.
    If I look at Harry Potter or remember the X-Men franchise, mages/ mutants are outnumbered by what? 10.000 to 1 or even worse.
    Yes, a mage / mutant may have the power to literally kill with a thought but if 10.000 people zerg-rush him/ her, he/ she is toast.
    And lets not forget: Sleep.
    Sooner or later a human has to sleep. And then the mutant/mage is helpless against attack.
    Yes, if a few mages/ mutants band together, even this obstacle is overcome but just let the 10.000 normals surround them for days or weeks. If their power does not give them water and food they will perish.
    Of course provided the mages/ mutants are not sociopaths who would slaughter innocent people just standing around.
    Yes, denying people water and food is evil but if the mages/ mutants kill the normals they have just given the normals a reason to hate them:
    “We were just demonstarting against the mages/ mutants and their evil ways and they just slaughtered us.”
    And another Point: Guerilla warfare.
    A human can see 160 degrees of 360. So, you cannot see what is behind you. Entry one resistance fighter, sorry anti-mage/mutant with a crossbow.
    And if the mage/ mutant produces a psionic field against aggression (Robert Silverberg wrote about it in his book “The Alien Years”) the book introduced a character who could literally convince himself that the sniper rifles bullet was an act of love towards the aliens.

    And have you forgotten Jesse Owens in the 1930? Yes he was a big sports star. But he was an afro-american who had to use the restrooms for coloured persons as they were called at that time. Maybe yu should look ip the latest movie by Viggo Mortenson, where he plays a driver for an afro-american pianist. There the same thing happens.

    • Lizard with Hat

      I think the point is not so much that you can’t oppress mages but that the way it’s commonly used makes little sense as in: the oppressed mages have too many powers!
      Let’s look on harry potter wizards and x-men mutants. They can teleport, read minds, wipe memory’s, go through walls, fly, shoot energy, turn invisible, move objects with their mind and can heighten their senses.
      And that leaves out that for example Harry-Potter-Wizards are very obscure or outright unknown to the world at large. It’s hard to fight a war against an enemy you know nothing about, which can come and go as they please and you can’t remember they even where here.
      It’s not impossible to kill them but it would be hard to get in that position in the first place. The powers I mentioned aren’t uncommon in either setting.
      That’s why this trope is so nonsensical – oppressed mages can’t nifty superpowers too. If Mages are oppressed their powers must be limited enough so that other people have a fighting chance.
      And that is not the case in Harry Potter and in X-men it feels contrived for most parts. And some mutants and wizards clearly are just one step away form kill humans left and right (and I don’t even mention Voldemort or Magneto)

      Again its not impossoible to make this trope work, but it is mostly broken because the mages must look cool.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      Seems like you got so upset that you didn’t read the entire article. Quote: “White Americans didn’t hate Muhammad Ali because of some bizarre aversion to championship boxers; we hated him because he was black.” Same thing with Jesse Owens – he didn’t have to use a different bathroom because he was too fast.

      Also… I really don’t think Oren’s point was that it’s literally impossible for humans to conquer mutantkind in the X-men (to take one example) if they were 100 % determined to do that and cared nothing about their own safety. Sure, if 10 000 humans are willing to rush one powerful mutant, not giving a shit about their own lives, yeah (although for the most powerful ones that would still likely be insufficient), but why on earth would people do that? Oren’s point was that oppressed mages, the way it’s usually portrayed in pop culture, doesn’t make much sense, not that such a scenario is literally impossible.

      • Cay Reet

        Yes, the battle humans vs. mages (or mutants) would only be the last step in the development which starts with ‘hey, my kid can lift the couch and he’s five.’ On the way from ‘there are people who can do amazing stuff’ to ‘we have to kill all people who can do amazing stuff,’ there’s a lot of stops in-between. Somewhere along the way, some people would realize that a mage (or mutant) can solve a few problems which mankind is hard-pressed to solve (weather manipulation is in the article, I could also think of quick transport and other things). And if there’s one thing you can rely on, it’s humans making use of anything they can find a use in, so instead of trying to destroy mages (or mutants), they’d make them work for mankind.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Just popping in to say how much I love Cay, Dvärghundspossen, and Lizard’s contributions to this discussion.

        Yeah, as I discuss in the article, it is theoretically possible for muggles to defeat mages under the right circumstances. The issues are two fold.

        1, most stories don’t have those circumstances. In most oppressed mages stories, mages are so strong that even overwhelming numbers wouldn’t be enough, the same way human wave attacks often fail against much smaller but much better armed forces.

        2, even if a story provides the right circumstances, it always fails to create a correct motivation for why muggles would be willing to put in such effort in the first place.

        • Cay Reet

          Thanks, Oren.

          One thing about 2 is that it is very unlikely. Humans have a strong instinct of self-preservation. Running against an enemy while knowing that the overwhelming majority will die is not a thing humans will do freely – only under massive pressure or not knowing what will happen (soldiers arriving in the Normandy on D-Day didn’t know how low their chances of survival were, they wouldn’t have left the boats, had they known).

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            You’re absolutely right that that it takes very special circumstances for human beings to completely disregard their own lives and charge into death.

            Because I’m a history pedant, I do want to make small factual adjustment. While the Allies did lose a lot of people, that’s a reflection of just how massive the invasion was, not that the soldiers were charging into certain death. In fact everything possible was done to reduce casualty rates, from naval bombardment of Nazi positions to landing soldiers behind the lines to cause chaos. At the same time, staying in the landing craft was hardly safe either.

            Exact numbers are hard to come by, but most estimates I’ve seen place the number of Allied soldiers at about 156,000 and the number of dead anywhere between 4,000 and 10,000. Even at the highest estimates, that’s less than 1 in 10, which isn’t great but is hardly certain death.

            A very real example of a time human soldiers charged to nearly certain death can be found in the Anglo-Zulu war, where the British had such superior fire power that the Zulu’s only chance was to overwhelm them with numbers.

            This says incredible things about Zulu discipline and training. Most armies would have broken and ran, but the Zulu charged on because this was their only option. If they wanted to keep the British out of their land, they had to die in huge numbers. Even though they were unsuccessful in the end, I still marvel at the sacrifice they were willing to make.

            And of course it should be noted that in this situation, the British were clearly the villains.

          • Roger

            “Running against an enemy while knowing that the overwhelming majority will die” can take place if passive survival would be little better than near-certain-death.

            We aren’t lacking real world examples: The attacks on gaurds made by prisoners in concentration camps, the Warsaw uprising, the Tambov rebellion against the USSR etc.

          • Cay Reet

            Your examples are more ‘uprising against certain death,’ though. Highest stakes – it’s fighting or dying.

            I agree that high enough stakes will prompt people to fight even if there’s basically no chance to win. But the stakes described so far are not high enough. Unless mages are dead set on killing all non-mages, there will not be enough pressure for non-mages to attack like that.

    • Daisy

      In Harry Potter, witches and wizards are not oppressed, they are in hiding and were persecuted at a time.

      However, they never were exploited like women or black people were.

      Because that would not have worked. They could be murdered in their sleep, but if the muggles want a witch to heal them, they would have to give her her wand back, and then she could disapparate, or hit them with a curse, or … whatever.

      Plus, they can set up a huge fortress that they guard at night and that is invisible to muggles on top of that. Which they … did.

      • Bunny

        That persecution makes no sense either, though. How would you get a wand away from a witch in the first place? How would you persecute them? To persecute a group, you need power over that group, or at least confidence that they are unable to retaliate. Nobody is going to heckle a witch for having magic for the reasons you list above: she could disapparate or hit them with a curse. It only makes sense if magic-users are persecuting other magic-users.

  7. Dvärghundspossen

    I just remembered that the Superman origin story “Birthright” has this thing where people are a little scared of Supes because of his powers, and I think it works.

    So actually, these problems are mostly presented before he dons the cape and becomes Superman. Clark Kent finds himself in situations, one time after the other, where he does some super feat to, say, save someone. And people are grateful and happy for it, but ALSO a little scared and uneasy when they realize that he’s got superpowers. So he’s in this situation where either he’s got to pretend he’s a regular human and lie to people, or he has to deal with people being a little scared and weird around him, keeping their distance. That’s not oppression, or discrimination, and it’s certainly not the worst problem anyone has ever had in the history of mankind (the book doesn’t make that claim either), but it’s still a legitimate problem! And it’s also plausible that people would be a little scared of someone THAT powerful, even if he’s been nice so far.

    This also leads up to the romance with Lois, who’s immediately just curious and fascinated, which is a refreshingly different reaction to him.

    Obviously, since this story is set at the very beginning of his career, there are no OTHER superheroes around yet; as soon as Superman has got Flash, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Martian Manhunter etc to hang out with, people have both gotten more used to the existence of superheroes, and he’s got friends who are similar to him.

    • Cay Reet

      I think the point about that story is that he’s alone … that there’s no other superheroes around, in which case he simply would be ‘a new one’ who could become someone special or not.

      And interesting other take on superheroes I’ve read recently is the universe which Tansy Raynar Roberts has created with the three stories ‘Cookie Cutter Superhero,’ ‘Kid Dark Against The Machine,’ and ‘Girl Reporter.’ In her alternate universe, alien machines arrived in the 1980s and turned regular humans into superheroes – for a time. The machines regularly (the span is different from country to country) choose new humans and retire old heroes who lose their powers again (the only exception in Australia, where the stories are set, is Kid Dark, who ran away before he was sorted out and his powers would have been taken back). Apart from having nice diversity (especially in the longest story – ‘Girl Reporter’ is the only novel), the stories also deal with questions like ‘what is it like to suddenly have superpowers (especially if your replace public darling Solar, the longest-serving hero)?’ or ‘how do supervillains happen in this world?’ (Spoiler: there’s a machine for that, too, but the villains vote on who comes and who goes). In this world, however, superheroes are media celebrities, not hated, not despised – because everyone can become a superhero, if the machine in their country chooses them.

    • Laura Ess

      But Lex Luthor stirring up anti-Superman sentiments based on the fear of alien invasion has long been a trope in the DC universe, regardless of reboots. Supes is the target because to a certain degree (coming from Krypton) his history is known. That Superman (and his cousin Kara) do good deeds regularly counters these accusations, but two super Kryptonians is an exception rather than a rule. If there were a 100 of them on Earth (and they’ve done that story several times) it’s different, because often the others are out of control (as in NEW KRYPTON).

  8. Laura Ess

    “If magic actually existed, religions would either embrace it or be formed around it rather than reject it as evil.” There are some stories that explore just that. The LORD DARCY stories (a Holmesian pastiche) by Randall Garrett are set in an alternate Britain where magic is real. In that world you don’t have a refrigerator, rather you have a cooling box that is maintaining by a low level magician for a regular subscription. These stories are a really good example of how to add magic, and not make it a “cop out” for a poor plot. There are rules that need to be followed, and consequences when they’re not.

    Mutants and and meta-humans seem to be stand-ins for magic users in a lot of comics, and it’s odd that we don’t see more of them making a buck by using their abilities in regular employment. Mutants that can phase through solid objects would be perfect for rescue work, Spiderman would be great on building construction, as would perhaps, Stiltman. But there seems to be blind spot when it comes to the obvious, that if you really did have mutant or meta powers, you wouldn’t need to steal stuff, you could make a fortune in legitimate work. Teleporters would be great couriers, mind readers would be perfect in negotiations, et cetera. Part of the silliness of Pokeon is the fact that whenever Team Rocket do a legitimate jobs as a cover (e.g. as hairdressers) they make lots of money, whereas when they try stealing they end up “blasting off again”. Of course using spells and powers in public might have unexpected legal issues related to liability. Imagine all the lawsuits of “that wizard cursed my livestock and I want compensation” type, or “they demolished my building with their fighting and I want damages”. That in itself would be one reason why magic users, metas and mutants might choose to have either secret identities or operate in secret.

    Wizards who can affect the weather might have other considerations however, as per the EARTHSEA series. In that, a wizard might be able to make it rain in a drought affected area, but in the process create a drought affected area elsewhere. In that series though, wizards were an accepted part of society. If magic/mutations/meta powers were exploitable the Xavier’s wouldn’t be the only school out there. Instead there’d be a plethora of establishments wanting to train such folk for money, some legit, some bogus. If people were afraid of uncontrolled abilities, there’d be be “special schools” to train them in controlling such, just like there are specialised schools for disabilities and polymaths.

    There would also be lots and lots of spurious claims about such abilities, especially in the media. Conspiracy theory would run rife, but also they’d be lots of gossip about who’s with who, what battles were fought, who’s going to have a baby, et al.

    • Cay Reet

      Yay! Someone else who has read Lord Darcy!

      I agree that the stories are good example of how to integrate magic without getting all worked up about ‘how can mages and normal people coexist.’ With the rules of magic fixed from the beginning, it’s clear what mages can and can’t do. And even though Master Sean (a forensic wizard) can find out whether a piece of cloth came from a certain piece of clothing or whether a bullet was fired from a specific gun, he can’t just ask the magic to tell him who did it. That job falls to Lord Darcy himself (who doesn’t have an ounce of magic).

  9. Sonia

    I agree that mage oppression is often done wrong; however, just having a useful ability doesn’t mean you won’t be oppressed or persecuted.
    I think one way it could work is if mages are very, very rare. So maybe in some places and times they would be revered, but in others, people would be scared of the Other and if there aren’t many of them (maybe two or three within reach of each other), they wouldn’t be able to defend themselves against a mob, especially if they have to defend family at the same time or have friends in the mob they might hesitate to hurt. Of the “witches” that were burned, some were confused old women, some really thought they were witches, and some possessed some knowledge of plants or birthing that was really useful, but that the authorities could not fit into their world view and thus saw as a danger (or a convenient scapegoat). Also envy could turn neighbours against them. Again, this doesn’t work if mages make up a sizeable part of your population, though.
    Oppression can work for a larger population if the powers are not too violent. They can be useful to society but, to make sure they don’t get too much political power, the PTB refuses them access to certain benefits of society, need a special pass for accomodations, can’t get their children into certain schools etc. If too many of them have big destructive powers, a mage revolution will probably succeed, but if most have powers that don’t exceed the technological level of non-mages (but can accomplish things that technology doesn’t), they could still be oppressed.

  10. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I’ve deleted a comment for a racist comparison between Muhammad Ali and a white supremacist. If anyone is interested in learning why it’s not the same when black people are afraid of white people and when white people are afraid of refugees, I’m happy to explain, but that kind of false equivalency is not acceptable.

  11. Adam

    I haven’t finished reading the whole article yet, but I wanted to write this before I forget:

    You want exploitable abilities, look no further than the Mending spell from D&D.

    “This spell repairs a single break or tear in an object
    you touch, such as a broken chain link. two halves of
    a broken key, a torn cloak, or a leaking wineskin. As
    long as the break or tear is no larger than 1 foot in
    any dimension, you mend it, leaving no trace of the
    former damage.”

    A 0-level cantrip spell that any neophyte mage can cast again and again, every minute. It could be used to such great effect in a society that takes advantage of it!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah that’s a good one, my favorite is Create Water from Pathfinder. It’s a 0th level spell, so you can cast it forever, and it creates 2 gallons of water per level, so even a level 1 cleric can create 20 gallons of water per minute all the time. Did someone say goodbye droughts?

      • Adam

        I remember you mentioning this in a podcast — a cleric flooding the dungeon with water LOL

      • Phoenix

        Those two spells were so exploitable that in the 2nd edition of Pathfinder, they made them both 1st level spells.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          That’s a good change for world balance, though I’m hard pressed to imagine a situation in Pathfinder where a PC would waste an actual spell slot on Create Water

  12. Oren Ashkenazi

    I’ve learned that whenever the subject of oppressed mages is brought up, people will always have their personal example that they think works. While it would be impractical to address all of these, Dragon Age comes up a lot, and I find it uniquely interesting, so I’ve decided to go into a little more detail.

    To a large degree, Dragon Age seems to work because of some clever sleight of hand from the video game mechanics. Within the battle mechanics, we accept that a blast of fire and a sword strike are roughly in the same ballpark in terms of damage. That makes it easier to accept that sure, some Templars could keep the Mage Circles under control, especially if they have resistance to mage damage from their anti-magic drug-dust. It’s also easier for us to not wonder why mage abilities are always exclusively useful for squad level, close range combat and not anything else.

    These conceits would be much harder to maintain in non-interactive medium. Audiences would question how a fireball doesn’t just crisp everyone caught in it, even if they have some resistance to it, or why mages can’t use indirect effects to, say, drop rocks in the Templars and so get around their anti-magic drug-dust.

    It would be much harder to disguise the fact that putting all the mages together in Circles is the exact opposite of what you would do if you didn’t want them to take over. Concentrating marginalized people is something you do when they have no power. With mages, you’re just putting them in a place where they can more easily work together and come up with plans for world domination or whatever else strikes their fantasy.

    The idea that anyone but another Mage Circle could tell a Circle what to do would be more obviously ridiculous if we had to read or watch scenes where the mages’ power over the elements somehow doesn’t completely wipe out any force sent to boss them around. Mage Circles would be centers of power, not marginalized communities. They probably wouldn’t have to bother with anything as bothersome as a violent rebellion, since trying to stop them would be obviously pointless.

    At the same time, Dragon Age’s social and political dynamics are extremely suspect. The series changes its mind about how dangerous mages are at least once. In Origins, becoming a blood mage was really hard, and it wasn’t even clear if blood magic actually turned a person evil like the Dark Side or if it was just another branch of magic. Then in DA2, they changed their minds and suddenly every mage was just one palm-slice away from being super charged, completely evil monster.

    Ironically, it’s in DA2 where they really play up the angle of oppressed mages, and it’s kind of awkward because apparently the oppressive templars are right, these mages really are a clear and present danger to everyone around them. This makes the game’s use of parallels to actual oppression more than a little problematic, since as I’ve gone over, marginalized people in real life are not a threat to privileged people. That doesn’t stop the game from invoking the imagery of real life oppression to tug on your heartstrings so you feel bad for the poor mages though.

    Dragon Age is a fun game, I’ve enjoyed more than a few playthroughs myself (Isabela is the best romance don’t @ me), but it’s not an exception to the problems with the oppressed mages trope.

    • Alex

      I think the main problem with the argument is power levels. Not all fire is the same, there are 1st to 3rd degree burns in our world. After a 1st degree burn that fighter is still coming for the mage with a pointy sword. We can’t assume a low power level magic world/individual and still assume the that person can kill with a mere tought.
      That magic is used very unimaginatevely in most games I 100% agree.

      • Cay Reet

        However, a little fire well applied can actually go a long way. Not by burning the fighter, but by, for instance, starting a fire which blocks the fighter’s way.

    • SunlessNick

      I disagree about Dragon Age, because it’s clear that the Circles only work because they provide enough benefits that the majority of mages go along with them. The thing I’d compare them to most in the real world is monasteries.
      The one in Dragon Age II was severely dysfunctional on all sides (the mages, the templars, and the metaphysical integrity of Kirkwall itself).

      • Sara

        I think they meant how it got started to begin with. It doesn’t work because the mages wouldn’t have allowed the Circle to have had from the start. If they were really that dangerous and powerful, there was no way they would have been a Circle system to begin with. Southern Thedas would still be like Tevinter. That is how they have shown them to be. They would have also figured out a way around the templars abilities a very long time ago. That’s why it doesn’t work. The mages are just too powerful to be truly oppressed and people with power, especially the possible abilities to kill you with a single thought, wouldn’t have any problem being locked up. Mages and magic are far better as what they really are a metaphor for: power and what power could possible do to someone; good and bad. They’ll never work as an analogy for those being oppressed.

        • Rabbit 12

          In my view the Chantry are group of fools who were delaying the inevitably of Southern Thedas becoming more like Tervinter. I hope in future rpgs will avoided this trope in future and like you said use it as a metaphor for power and good and bad that comes with it.

  13. Alex

    I don’t think the Rudolf paralel works that well. He is incredible valuable but what tools does he have to actually demand or enforce better rights? Rudolf is a ripe example of useful disenfranchised, like a real life slave.
    This whole discussion depends on how well the mage class unites or has the means to fight back. The child bearing women in Handsmaid’s Tales have (in that context) almost magical powers of life. How well that turns out for them?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      To explain the Rudolph Model a little more, simply having a unique and valuable ability or skill that no one else has gives you power because if you withhold the use of that skill, other people lose. In the case of Rudolph, the one who loses out is his employer. This dynamic plays out in real life all the time. A web developer has skills that are much more financially lucrative and much harder to replace than, for example, a ride share driver. That gives web developers far more bargaining power, and is one of the reasons web development is a viable freelancing career, while ride share driving typically isn’t.

      The ability to gestate children is one of those rare exceptions I referenced earlier, for a number of fascinating reasons. Most prominently, while having children is extremely useful for society at large, it isn’t really useful for the person having the child, and in fact represents both a huge cost of resources and a risk to personal safety.

      It is conceivable that a magic system could work similarly, but I have literally never seen or even heard of such a system, and I don’t think many writers are interested in creating one.

      CN: Rape and Sexual Violence

      There’s also the unfortunate fact that it’s fairly easy to force people to gestate children. Much easier than it is to force someone to use a rare skill or powerful ability. This is not something most stories are interested in exploring, nor would I expect them to.

      • Bubbles

        About a magic system that works like bearing children: There are at least two fairly common themes that could get you such a result.

        One is: mages are not unique. Even in stories in which mages are rare, there is often more than one of them, and sometimes they have the same or similar power. Perhaps, then mages are replaceable. This could actually mean that up to a point at least, more mages means less power for mages.

        Two: using magic is exhausting/dangerous. It could potentially have similar costs to child-bearing then. As for the requirement of “it gives little to no benefit for the person using it,” that is, admittedly somewhat harder. This might be only true for childbearing because people generally don’t pay for children. (Although I have heard of cases in which people do pay for children, such as in certain illegal adoptions, and it does then seem that women are often pressured to bear children). Perhaps, then, serious costs are enough to fulfill this requirement.

        As for forcing people to use their power: the obvious way to do this is threats. “Work for me, or I’ll kill you” is a blatant form of this, but there are probably more subtle ways for this to happen, such as “Work for me, or you won’t get the money you need to have a good life. And what I’ll lose from you not working is less than what you’ll lose from you not working.” This would likely mean that the powers are economically useful but not so useful in a fight, but there are several powers that could fit the bill. There might be even other ways, such as for powers that the user can’t directly control but activate under certain circumstances. If someone creates a powerful healing substance only when in a situation of extreme pain, well…it’s easy (and disturbing) to fill in the blanks of what might happen to them.

        I know you aren’t mandated to respond to anything, but I personally would enjoy it if you analyzed two works, the SCP Foundation online collaborative writing project and the book Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, which both, in their own way, have people with supernatural powers being oppressed. I even mentioned the latter book in a comment on your podcast about oppressed mages. What are their strong points – and their flaws? Do they portray a convincing counterexample to your argument, are they part of the loopholes you mentioned in this post, or are they simply making the mistakes you discuss?

        • Laura Ess

          A scenario where say there was a fixed amount of power divided between a variable number of mages (probably NOT what you meant) would imply a degree of oppression, but not from the main population, but other mages.

          Larry Niven had a set-up vaguely similar to that in several stories where magic comes about via magic sensitive people using manna to do it. But manna comes from a limited number of sources, there’s a certain degree residing in the land itself (and it accumulates slowly over the centuries), and you can generate more by sacrifices of various sorts. Eventually the manna runs out, but the tradition of magic rituals continues, even though they no longer work (as they no longer have any manna).

          In a world like this you can have as many magic users, or magic sensitives, as you want. But lack of knowledge and lack of manna could give random results. Maybe “naïve sensitives” would get the odd result but they wouldn’t know why, whereas trained magic users would get better results because they knew the theory behind the magic. Even the mages who know what they’re doing would probably NOT do magic, unless they were strongly motivated, because of the difficulty in replacing manna. Magical battles would be rare because no matter who won, both parties would use valuable reserves of manna.

          Or perhaps magic users aren’t the only folk who know about manna. Maybe religious and other groups understand it, and know that it’s linked to biomass/life-force in a place. Uncontrolled magic use would be repressed because drawing manna from the land and the fauna and flora might also kill that (akin to scenes in the series CARNIVAL) and cause famines or worse – imagine a high level user doing a a spell that requires immense amounts of manna in the MIDDLE of a city! The net outcome of such a world might be like that in FullMetal Alchemist, where those will ability are either recruited and trained by the state, or arrested and imprisoned or killed instead.

          • Bubbles

            Yeah, when I was talking about “power,” I meant social, not magical power. Specifically, that the more people have some power, the more replaceable each individual is in, say, economic areas and the less an employer will lose from one person choosing not to work for them.

            Nevertheless, your idea is very interesting in its own right. Magic running out is a good way to include conflict. It can also serve as a balancing factor for magic, but you have to be careful because it has less direct impact than immediate consequences, so it isn’t quite as strong of a balancing factor.

  14. Haazen

    What are your thoughts on Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and the Darkest Minds’ series? Do you think these stories handled the “oppressed mages” trope well or not?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m afraid I’m not familiar with those books, but I appreciate the suggestion.

      • Haazen

        I recommend the books over the film-adaptations.

      • Haazen

        Here’s some info on the “mages” of the Peculiar world. They are a minority – peculiar traits are recessive – whose abilities fall on a spectrum of harmless (say, an extra eye) to strong (fire powers or telekinesis). Even stronger titan-like peculiars with immense power existed in the distant past, until something happened to them.

        The Tales of the Peculiar showcases many interesting peculiarities:

        The super-powered kids in the Darkest Minds are different. Their abilities are more on the limited side compared to the peculiars.

        Can’t say too much about them.

    • Laura Ess

      I read all three books (I understand there’s now a 4th) after seeing the film. The most obvious thing about those books is that firstly, powers are random and that the main oppressors don’t come from the mainstream so much, but from groups within the population of peculiar folk. Most normals don’t know about the peculiars.

      • Haazen

        You should check out the fourth book. It revealed interesting information about dangerous normals.

        • Laura Ess

          Bought a copy yesterday, and look forward to reading it.

          • Haazen

            Nice! Let me know what you think when you’re done with it. c:

    • Juan

      I only read the first book, but I would say this is an example that could work.

      First for the “mages being more powerful, they would fight back against oppression”.
      The peculiar children are very rare, I don’t know if the next books tell us how much but it’s certainly a millionth of a percent of births or something similar. Without the time-traveling ladies, there just wouldn’t be a peculiar community.
      Add to that the fact that there is no rule to who receive powers at birth means the new peculiars would find themselves isolated and without help from the others at each generation. How do you demand equal rights if you’re the only one asking ?

      Secondly “Mages would be useful, and so not oppressed”. All of the powers that can’t be harnessed (I doubt of the usefulness of having bees in your stomach) would become weird differences to shame.
      As for the useful one, them being alone and very much human in all other aspects than there power would place them in the situation of servants to the powerful, rather than powerful themselves.
      Unlike a situation where a whole lot of people have the same useful power, they wouldn’t gain much of social status and would be either feared by the people not benefiting directly from them, or coveted by others.

  15. Xzenu

    Hi Oren.
    It seems to me like you are making two main points – of which one is valid and is important for building fair discourse, while the other is invalid and important for upholding dogma.

    You make a strong and convincing argument for why sticking exclusively to the “oppressed mages” trope makes oppression look if not justified so at least as if it has some really good points. This is indeed a big problem.

    The way I see it, it’s only really an argument against having so many stories which exclusively use this trope. The problem can be mitigated by combining with using other forms of oppression as well in the story. Showing the similarities and the differences.

    Like in your previous posts, you push the oversimplified worldview that oppression and privilege has to be a simple dichotomy where one side has all the advantages and the other side all the disadvantages. Reality does not work that way, social structures are much more complex than you present them.

    It is good that your text actively distance itself from holocaust deniers and from misogynists who claim that patriarchal oppression has never existed and could never exist. Yet, those who argue such positions can easily use (and often DOES use) the same oversimplified dichotomy which you use in your text. And you make a very weak and unconvincing case for why they are wrong. Your only substantial argument for why they are wrong is actually also a stronng argument for why YOU are wrong. You mention that while a jews could have more socioeconomic power than a regular Christian, there would also be Christian overlords who would rile up Christian peasents against the Jews so that the Christian lords could take advantage of the Jews. Yes, exactly right. And this is also a core dynamic behind how the oppressed mages trope work, when it’s done right.

    People who have some kind of power often target those who have some other kind of power. Either to exploit them, or to get rid of the competition they are or could become. The patriarchal appropriation of women’s reproductive power is a very good example. And no, you can’t just blame it all on rape. Coerced compliance is MUCH more common, and unlike rape it can be used on oppressed mages as well.

    In a good oppressed mages setting, the mages are not merely outnumbered. They also have other disadvantages. They may be helpless while they sleep, they may have other weak and vulnerable moments as well, and they may have defenseless loved ones. Besides, society can strip them of all legit ways to hold on to basic necesseties like food and shelter. Having fire at your fingertips doesn’t make you any less of a thief if you use that fire to steal food.

    Finally a note on the Harry Potter setting.
    There was no retcon.
    The setting has never been established as ACTUALLY being either a wizards-are-invincible setting OR a wizards-are-oppressed setting. The arguments we se in BOTH directions are in-universe PROPAGANDA, used by wizards to manipulate other wizards. While it is true that Harry’s schoolbooks portrayed Wizards as invincible and the witchhunts as pathetic mortals to laugh at, it is also true that Dumbledore warned Harry and the others to not trust the wizard supremacist propaganda in those books. And while it is true that the American Wizard leaders in Fantastic Beasts portrayed the wizards as oppressed by muggles, the movie also gave us strong reasons to distrust those leaders.
    Thus, the setting is very consistent: The lesson is to don’t trust what you are told about the world – make your own observations, learn to see beyond the dogmas and propaganda.

    • Cay Reet

      Why I would give you the ‘helpless loved ones’ as a legit weakness for the mages, you should also consider what oppression really means. It’s not just about ‘not being treated well’ or ‘facing opposition.’ Everyone with powers will face opposition, from other people with the same powers or from people who just despise people with those powers. It’s also not about individual treatment alone, because oppression is always systemic – everyone with a specific marker (be it ‘female,’ ‘POC,’ or ‘mage’) has to fear the same things.

      Individually, mages can be overpowered, no question about that. Depending on their own powers, it might take a lot of opposition, a whole company of soldiers against one mage, but it is always possible to overpower an individual. We’re not, however, talking about a world with one or five or twenty mages. We’re talking about a world with 25% or so mages – a world where a sizeable portion of the populace has powers. Even if we just talk 10% – we’re talking about billions of people. And we’re talking about humans. Humans are xenophobic, but they also don’t take well to being forced into submission for a long time. If the oppression is sizeable and the oppressed do have powers (unlike the slaves in the US’s past or women today), there will be revolution. There will be fighting back. The regular humans will be able to take down some mages – and some might not take up arms, so to speak of -, but there will be fighting until the situation changes for the better. And that is where individual weakness doesn’t matter any longer. The humans can take down some mages, but not all – and the rest will retaliate. Not all mages will have loved ones – some people are just alone in the world (or might already have lost them). Not all mages sleep at the same time – if it’s dangerous, they’ll gather in groups where some guard and some sleep (or go to the toilet or have other weak moments). And the argument ‘society can strip them of their rights’ is an especially dangerous one – with nothing left to lose, what reason does a mage have not to go berserker on those who have taken everything from them? We are not talking about regular humans, we’re talking about humans who can simply make things they need (like food and shelter and warmth). And even regular humans whose rights have been taken and who have run away into hiding can provide themselves with those things – illegally, but what does that mean when you’re illegal by simply existing? Outlaws in human history have lived dangerously, but not necessarily badly.

      Yes, there will be exploitation, no question about that. But here’s the point: with people who have powers, exploitation is not about locking them away and threatening them with bodily harm to get them to work. With people who have powers it’s about giving them comforts and privileges in exchange for their powers. Look no further than at professional athletes for that. They’re not forced to compete at gunpoint. They’re paid well, they can attain a celebrity status, they have privileges in society. That’s why they compete.

      Rape is a huge topic not necessarily when it comes to making use of a woman’s possibility to have offspring, but in other contexts. Rape is not about sex, but about domination and about humiliation. And that is where it comes in. It has always been an inofficial weapon in war. It is a weapon to keep women complacent (either through the deed or through the threat). It’s not the main way used to bring new humans into the world, but coercion isn’t much better, it just features less obvious violence.

      • Bubbles

        Interesting points. I was, however, going to mention North Korean athletes as a real-life situation in which people with special talents are exploited by being treated badly. It does seem that the situation is complex. I’ve read that while successful athletes are, in fact, rewarded with luxuries difficult to find in that country, athletes who fail are publicly humiliated and forced to do hard labor. Their lives are also strictly managed. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem that people there dislike athletes for their special skills (although it seems entirely possible that some people are jealous, which should happen in nearly any situation with special talents that only some people have). This is more likely a result of the general authoritarian nature of North Korea. One might imagine mages being treated similarly in a similarly oppressive country…

        • Cay Reet

          It’s always about success. A successful athlete is pretty much the equivalent (for this example) to a mage who can use magic. An athlete who fails and is treated badly would then rather be the equivalent to someone who technically has magical talent, but for some reason can’t use it, even though they promised to.

          And the general oppressiveness of a government will have an influence on how much any group living there is oppressed. However, unlike the athletes, mages could actually rise against the government and overthrow it, which makes it more likely they’d be treated well.

          • Bubbles

            Okay. Although I would say that even a “failed” athlete still often showed talent, just not enough to defeat the other athletes. A similar case would be a mage who either wasn’t able to defeat other mages or could do something magical, just not strong enough to fully achieve the desired goal. Also, whether mages could actually overthrow the government or not depends on how strong they are.

            There’s another thing I just noticed in the original article: it claims that mages being oppressed by other mages is something that makes sense. While this seems intuitively plausible, it contradicts some of the reasoning given elsewhere. It is argued that one reason mages won’t be oppressed, even if they can be overpowered, is because their abilities are useful. However, their abilities would be useful even if there are other mages with different abilities, so why would mages oppress other mages? If you then say that the only reason mages wouldn’t be oppressed is due to their power, many people, including the author himself, have agreed that there are situations in which the “normal” population could overpower mages, such as through force of numbers.

          • Cay Reet

            ‘Mages can be oppressed by other mages’ comes down to the fact that between mages, the powers are equalized again, so it’s the same as ‘non-magical people can oppress other non-magical people.’ There is a difference between oppressing someone with more power than you or less power than you. Mages oppressing other mages comes down to the same principles as, for instance, white people oppressing POC.

            The problem with the ‘oppressed mages’ trope is not that oppression of mages is never possible, but that the premise that non-magical people can oppress mages (which you find most of the time) is faulty, because it doesn’t take power into consideration. Mages have a power which can be useful (like an athlete’s), but they also have a power which means they can actually do a lot of damage to other people when they lose it or feel threatened (unlike any group of humans in our regular word). Oppression always happens from the powerful towards the powerless and mages will never have less power at their disposal than non-mages.

      • Xzenu

        Hi Cay.
        You are proposing a setting where:

        * Each mage is powerful enough to stand up to an army of muggles, and has no crippling flaws
        * These mages are a big partition, at least a tenth, of the population
        * And these mages who are ultrapowerful as well as plentiful are also sharing a sense of community.

        I completely agree with you that in such an extremely unbalanced setting, playing the “oppressed mages” trope straight would indeed be completely ridiculous.

        On the other hand, I have never encountered such a setting.

        In the Marvel Universe, even powerless mutants are a very small part of the population – and the extremely powerful mutants are extremely rare as well as busy fighting each other.

        In the Dragon Age games, a mage has power comparable to a warrior. (Sure, Oren argues that the games SHOULD change to make the mages overpowered enough to fit his narrative. But since this proposed change is not actually part of the games, it doesn’t count.) The mages also have the inner struggle against demons to deal with, giving them strong reason to fear themselves and to cling to the non-mages who control them for security. It also seem that developing and gaining and upholding control over their power takes lot and lot of time and energy, leaving them with much less of these precious resources to spend on politics.

        The “Fantastic Beasts” sectionof the Harry Potter setting has not been showed to be a setting where the oppressed mages trope would be an actual part of what’s really going on, it has only been shown to be a setting where powerful mages uses narratives about oppressed mages as a means of emotionally manipulating and controlling other mages. Not unlike, perhaps, how governments like that of Nazi Germany spread narratives about “Aryans being oppressed by Jews” as a way of justifying their politics.

        • Cay Reet

          It’s not necessarily an individual mage who would stand up against an army. If treatment is bad, a large portion of the mages will stand up. This means one mage doesn’t have to be strong enough to fight an army – because it’s not going to be one mage against the army, it’s going to be a group of mages against it (probably also a group with diverse powers, which makes it harder for the other side to counter them at the same time). Even in our regular world, there are quite some examples of revolutions which were begun against all odds and still succeeded somewhat. As I pointed out before: if oppression is worse enough, it’s no longer about individual survival for the rebelling oppressed, but about making sure their children and grandchildren are no longer in that situation. Mages may take a stand, even if it kills them, just to inspire others or take down part of the opposing force.

          The X-Men universe has a relatively small group of mutants, compared to the overall populace, that is true. It does, however, have quite some extremely powerful mutants, mutants I would describe at a god level or near-god level (among others Professor X, Magneto, Storm, and Phoenix). A mutant with the high healing factor of Wolverine or Deadpool could simply walk into the army and kill people left and right (especially as both of them also have a military background and could easily spot the biggest dangers to them, taking those out first). In this case, there’s also human nature to keep in mind – the soldiers would panic and run, once they see their bullets can’t stop the enemy and they’re killing everyone.

          The Harry Potter universe is a mess as it is, since Rowling is currently retconning things. You can put it down as ‘unreliable information’ (as another commenter did), but she is contradicting herself between the Harry Potter series and the Fantastic Beast basics. Yes, the argument of being oppressed can be made as a ruse, as misinformation – but it is the ministry which is set on keeping the wizards a secret, not the muggle world. So if anyone oppressed the wizards, it would be their own government and not a group of people whom they could easily subjugate.

  16. Tree friend

    Thoughts on a world in which specific people have magical powers (typically telempathy or the ability to enchant objects e.g. enchant trains to run – not very useful in a fight), but this magic can easily be taken by non-magical people, placed in “batteries,” and used completely independently from the original magical source? The discovery of a method for bottling magic caused a somewhat abrupt transition from a “magicocracy” of sorts into a world where magical people don’t have a lot of power. Long after this transition, a war gives the nonmagical portion of the government an excuse to draft all magical people into the military, which gives those who don’t want to join the army a reason to hide their magical power.

  17. Roger

    Allow me to get out one other possible way the “opressed mages” trope can be made to have some sense:

    Let us have a universum where some mages (it can be a tiny minority within the minority, or even just a few but prominent individuals) did in fact cause some very dangerous or morally evil events. This could lead to a backlash against the whole group.

    We have RL examples: Some whites commited atrocities in Rhodesia, which lead to all whites being killed or expelled. Some jews supported communists in Germany, then all jews were unjustly targeted. Some gay men rape boys, which lead to backlash against all gays. A few crimean Tatars supported Hitler, so after the war Stalin had all Tatars killed or deported.

    Its easy to find a few rotten apples and then use them as justification to opress or kille whole ethnic groups. Especially if said groups are rich (and thus profitabel to rob) or are economic competition for the majority.

    So make the mages a small group, rich, competitive for guilds and then have a few individuals do something quite bad. A recipe for having the whole group targeted.

    • Cay Reet

      These examples again lack something: the difference in power. Jews, whites, gays, and tartars lack the powers a mage has, but a regular human doesn’t. Yes, the deeds of few can cast a bad light on the whole group. But oppression (again: systemic oppression, not dislike, not occasional bullying, not subtle discrimination) is only possible if those who oppress have the power to oppress. A regular human lacks the power to oppress a mage.

      The problem with real-world analogies often made (I have no idea how often I’ve seen Jews mentioned) is that there is a huge difference in power level between your average mage and your average non-mage. That the non-mage lacks whatever they would need to oppress the mage. You can oppress a Jew, because the Jew can’t take over your brain, burn you to crisp, drown you in water, or call a demon to rip out your soul and drag it to hell. A mage, depending on the setting, will usually be able to do at least one of the above. And even if one mage can’t, your setting alone, with a minority causing great trouble, says that some mages can. And mages who see their brothers and sisters suffer will act at some point – the situation will reach a breaking point, as many situations in the history of mankind have, even without magic to un-balance the score.

      In your example, with some doing horrible things, the more likely outcome would be other mages turning into some kind of magical police or army and specializing on taking down those who have gone bad.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Editor’s Note: I’ve decided to leave this comment up because it provides an educational opportunity, which Cay Reet has already started on.

      The idea that oppression stems from “a few bad apples” being used to generate anger is simply not accurate. While those in power do sometimes find a member of a marginalized group who did something bad and use them to whip up bigotry, just as often (probably more so) they just make something up because it doesn’t actually matter what marginalized people do. What matters is that the dominant group has the power to oppress them. The excuses come later.

      The prevalence of this view is one reason Oppressed Mages is such a toxic trope, as it reinforces bad ideas people already have. Further comments defending this view will be deleted.

      • Roger

        Cay Reet: “These examples again lack something: the difference in power. Jews, whites, gays, and tartars lack the powers a mage has, but a regular human doesn’t.”

        I agree, but then again we will never find RL examples of groups with power beyond regular humans, because no such powers exist. I think the closest examples is like the white Rhodesians – a minority elite group that holds a disporportionate amount of wealth and political influence within its society.

        Oren Ashkenazi: “What matters is that the dominant group has the power to oppress them. The excuses come later.”

        I agree. We are not in contention here as I am not claiming that opression stems from “bad apples”. What I am claiming is that individuals (or groups) in power use cases of “bad apples” to justify opression and make it palpable for the wider population.
        This is especially true in two of the examples I used: Tatars and Rhodesian whites, as the decision to evict them was taken by a single leader behind closed doors. Modern history now that we have mass-media, is full of examples.

        Oren Ashkenazi: “Further comments defending this view will be deleted.”
        That sounds rather hostile. Am I to understand that all further comments that I make will be deleted?

        Anbdrew White: “Sexual violence against children does not correlate with being LGBTQ.”

        I feel I need to defend myself here, as my post has been misrepresented. I have not claimed that there is a correlation between being gay and child molesting, nor have I claimed that most children are victimized by gays. My post was about the isolated acts of individuals that are used to villify whole groups.

        I was referring to cases where anti-gay groups have used specific cases of child molestation by a gay man to further their agenda and target gays as a whole. Real life exaples would be how the sex abuse case by catholic bishop J.Paetz is being used by anti-gay groups to spread messages of hate against all gay men.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          You’ve clarified that you are not saying oppression is the result of actions by marginalized people, as it originally seemed you were advocating, so no, your comment will not be deleted.

          I hope you can also understand that whatever excuses oppressive groups make are fairly immaterial, since they are happy to fabricate excuses if one cannot be found by misrepresenting and cherry picking data.

          • Roger

            Sorry Oren, I thought that I’ve made my position in the first post clear by my choice of examples as well as the sentence: “Its easy to find a few rotten apples and then use them as justification to opress or kill whole ethnic groups.”

            Either way, I’m glad we had that misunderstaning cleared up. No hard feelings.

            Oren: “I hope you can also understand that whatever excuses oppressive groups make are fairly immaterial, since they are happy to fabricate excuses if one cannot be found by misrepresenting and cherry picking data.”

            I certainly agree, especially in totalitarian systems where power is not checked by popular opinion.
            Things are more complex in democratic societies. There I would argue the excuses and justifications are actually vital to swing the popular opinion. In those cases, I wouldn’t call them “immaterial” – at leats not in the sense that we should just happily ignore them. Lies need to be countered by reason and facts, otherwise we will all lose in the modern world of hashtags and biased partisan mass-media.

            My view is that we should point out all fallacies, expose liars by sticking to facts and promote real equality in speech and in action. We have to start by getting rid of double-standards and hypocrisy in our own ranks though.

            … and there I go, off on a tangent

    • Andrew Wright

      CN: Sexual violence

      Your point about gay men is entirely wrong. Sexual violence against children does not correlate with being LGBTQ. Most children who are victimized are victimized by men who identify as straight. As noted elsewhere, sexual violence is about power, not sex, and adults who prey on children do it because they enjoy dominating the powerless, not because of an orientation to the same sex.

      Also, your point makes it sound like the effect follows the cause, as though at one point in history, everyone was okay with gay men, accepting them as part of society, then a handful of openly gay men molested children and that made straights turn homophobic. Hatred of gay men predates the libelous claim that gay men tend to molest children.

      • Roger

        Foreword: I seem to have referred to your statements in my reply attached to Oren’s post (as opposed to making a direct reply to you, so you might not received a notice if you had this set on). I’m sorry, I did not mean to avoid answering your objections or evade your replies.

        Andrew White: “Sexual violence against children does not correlate with being LGBTQ.”

        I feel I need to defend myself here, as my post has been misrepresented. I have not claimed that there is a correlation between being gay and child molesting, nor have I claimed that most children are victimized by gays. My post was about the isolated acts of individuals that are used to villify whole groups.

        I was referring to cases where anti-gay groups have used specific cases of child molestation by a gay man to further their agenda and target gays as a whole. Real life exaples would be how the sex abuse case by catholic bishop J.Paetz is being used by anti-gay groups to spread messages of hate against all gay men.

        • Andrew Wright

          Thanks for clarifying.

          I still think the second point, though, relates more to the trope of oppressed mages. In the cases you describe (except perhaps Rhodesia but that’s really about colonialism, not individual prejudice) long-standing oppression was fueled by either isolated incidents or false accusations. It’s not a case where Jews in Europe got along harmoniously with Gentiles then a few bad Jews turned communist and the deal was off. I forget exactly where I heard this, but historically, it is almost always vilification first, slander second. Hatred starts with hatred, and then people are willing to believe the worst about the oppressed group.

          So if you write an “oppressed mages” story saying that there used to be a harmony of specials and mundanes, and everything was fine, and then a few specials went bad, and because of that, now the majority mundanes hate the specials, it would be unrealistic based on real-world examples.

  18. GeneralCommentor

    While I appreciate the article’s attempt to provide suggestions on how to recontextualize or alter the common precepts of this trope to address the problems with its usual portrayal I feel like there’s a major potential avenue that has been overlooked:

    The oppressed mages need not be written as a parallel to oppression based on race/gender/sexual orientation but as a parallel to censorship, ideological oppression or information suppression.

    Mages and other supernaturally powered characters need not have their powers as an inherent trait determined at birth, but as something that is either learned, developed or cultivated in someone. If you remove that aspect it becomes possible, with proper execution, to instead use mages to explore persecution based on ideals/ideology or as an exploration of censorship.

    These sorts of forms of persecution do have precedence in our history, and people have definitely shot themselves in the foot in trying to suppress ideological opponents with potentially beneficial ideas: The most relevant example in recent memory is the governmental backlash in China when Mao rose to power against perceived “intellectuals”, the persecution of whom had a fairly major negative impact on the country’s development. It can even more broadly be applied to research into potentially beneficial technologies being outlawed due to ideological conflicts.

    So, while the idea of super-powered beings being used as narrative stand-ins for for historically persecuted races/genders/sexualities is definitely a trope that rarely, if ever works in execution, these are not the only types of oppression that such a narrative framework can be used for.

  19. Jenn H

    I was working on a setting where some supernatural beings (eg: werewolves, witches, demons) are feared and hated by the general populace and actively hunted down. But other supernaturals (elemental mages, dragons, angels) are highly respected, despite being far more dangerous (or probably because). It seamed like a good way to play around with this trope without running into the problematic elements discussed here.

    One common problem I’ve seen in the examples is that the mages/mutants/supers preferentially hang around with other powered individuals. While I get that there is solidarity in being with others like yourself, many of these people have little in common except their powers. Mages that appear randomly within the population should be very reluctant to just abandon their communities, especially since they could use their powers to help their people (and you could easily recruit an army of muggle mooks to do your bidding). Especially if they are from a vulnerable minority, they would have more to fear from superpowered bigots than the regular ones. A witch species that chooses to stay isolated from the world makes more sense, but then that isolation could increase the discrimination against them. If the muggles don’t personally know them and don’t know much about them, it is easier to fear them.

  20. Dvärghundspossen

    The two most provoking statements made by the Mythcreant writers:
    1. It doesn’t make sense for people with magic powers/superpowers to be oppressed because of said powers.
    2. Harry Potter doesn’t have a rational magic system.

    • Cay Reet

      Yup, shockingly provoking.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Fun fact, I always assumed my first (and so far only) death threat would come from one of my social justice pieces, but no, it was over my D&D review.

      Obviously I’d get a lot more if I wasn’t a white dude, but I still find that funny.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        One day someone will break into your house, dressed in a home-made Wolverine costume with knife gloves, shouting “I’m so OPPRESSED!” and proceed to try and kill you.

  21. Emerson

    I’ve become kind of annoyed with the concept of the X-Men verse for many of the same reasons mentioned.

    First of all, a bunch of teenagers suddenly gaining superpowers with the onset of puberty, would have huge implications for humanity as a whole. Ordinary people would be afraid and would have reason to be. Yeah, a mutant has the right to exist, but doesn’t some ordinary joe have the right to go to the supermarket and not have to worry about some superpowered being killing him on purpose or accidentally?

    Though a thing that really annoys me about the X-Men verse, is the overall lack of curiosity regarding the mutations. Humans have an innate curiosity: you show us something new and immediately, we’ll be like, “Hmm…how does this work?” From there, we’ll study and experiment like crazy trying to figure it out.

    The oft-heard argument regarding the X-Gene that gives out powers, is that it behaves unpredictably, which is why one guy shoots laser death rays, whereas someone else walks through walls. Yeah, I know real-world genes do not work that way, but for the sake of discussion, we’ll just go with it. The thing is, somebody will be curious about the unpredictable nature of the gene. Scientists would try to study it, see if they can map it out and figure out how and why it works the way it does.

    And of course, the government would get involved every step of the way. We would likely come up with some cheap and easy way of scanning for the X-Gene. If someone is discovered to possess said gene, programs would be set up to address and develop these possible powers; it wouldn’t all just be this one insanely rich guy acting on his own. We would also develop ways of neutralizing powers, so ordinary cops have a shot at taking down bad mutants, without having to depend on vigilantes. Also, the issue surrounding a cure is much more nuanced; plenty of poeple would wind up with powers that have no benefit, powers that legitimately ruin their lives and screw them over. People would actually benefit from a cure.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      TBF, I think most of these things have been adressed in the comics (although I haven’t followed X-men for quite some time now). There have been a bunch of plots over the years where someone figures out some way, based on the X-gene, to give regular people mutant powers, or to enhance the powers in mutants, there have been ways to scan for it, at least regarding Rogue there have been lots of storylines about how she’d like to get cured since it’s horrible not being able to touch people etc. They’ve been around for so long that pretty much every conceivable storyline has been done at least once, except for something like what Oren suggests, where those with superpowers end up the global upperclass rather than oppressed and hunted.

      • Laura Ess

        “They’ve been around for so long that pretty much every conceivable storyline has been done at least once”

        But that describes most Superhero comics which go on and have no predefined ending, only new volumes and retcons. I’ve been reading a number of Vertigo titles recently, like FABLES and THE UNWRITTEN and because they have a limited number of issues, the stories have a much better (even if extended) arc. Perhaps with X-Men they SHOULD do that storyline.

        • Dvärghundspossen

          This is absolutely true, and is probably one of the reasons I stopped following the X-men and a number of other titles I used to read regularly – that and “event fatigue”.
          “Hellblazer” is a long-running series I actually followed to the end (I mean, the end of the old continuity – it might have been like 9 years ago? and then it was rebooted), but towards the end it often felt pretty tired. It didn’t end one day too soon.

          I still like Judge Dredd actually, but it’s a bit different, since time passes in the comic the way it does in the real world. Dredd himself has had extensive sci-fi medical treatments that allow him to function, physically, like someone much younger (he’s approaching 70 now), but he’s still an older man by heart now. People who were once children are now well into adulthood, etc. And the mere fact that all those events since the comic started aren’t supposed to weirdly have taken place over, like, a 5-10 year time span, but DID happen over decades and decades, just gives the comic a different “feel” than most comics with really long runs.
          Also, I think the genre-hopping helps to keep things fresher; that they’re doing pure comedy, supernatural horror, political thrillers, crime stories etc all set in the same universe.

          But a lot of really long-running comics suffer from it.

          • Laura Ess

            Wow. I haven’t read Dredd since the early 90s. The fact that time passes in real time is impressive imagine if they actually did that in DC & Marvel continuities. Bruce Wayne would have retired as Batman and found a proper replacement (perhaps Damian who hadn’t died). Starke’s illegitimate sons (I’m sure he has them) might be wearing the armour by now. But branding has precedence, so we all know damn well that continuity will bend any changes back to a status quo.

  22. Alverant

    One situation where mages can be oppressed is if the oppressors are even more powerful. A mage may be able to shoot fire out of his hands, but how does that stack up against a dozen military snipers or drones? It’s like some of those gun owners who think their half-dozen rifles can hold off against the US military. But if there’s a bigger stick, then mages aren’t as powerful and oppression flows from power, not to it, so mages can be oppressed. Even mages have to eat and sleep sometime.

    Also what constitutes oppression? I’m working on a setting where the only magic is telekinesis, a “mage sight”, and alchemy. In civilized lands the law states that if a mage kills a non-mage using magic then the mage must be put to death. The law is justified in two ways. First, it’s a way to keep the peace between mages and the normal people (gives them leverage). Second, any mage that does not have the skill to use their powers to use non-lethal ways is a bigger threat. So mages are expected to flee or disable an attacker to prove they have control over their powers.

    • Cay Reet

      Oppression is systemic – rights are withheld from a portion of the populace for no logical reason whatsoever. In some cases, it also features crimes by the government against that group (such as killing them or locking them away, keeping them from certain professions by the law, forcing them to pay extra taxes, etc.). Your example is not oppression. While one can argue about the use of a death sentence in a penal system, it’s logical to a degree to kill someone who has committed murder. The mage first has to do something criminal before they are punished, they are not punished simply for being mages.

      The argument ‘a mage has to eat and sleep some time and a hundred bullets will eventually be stronger than one mage who can control fire’ does not include the fact that oppression leads to rebellion sooner or later and then it’s not one mage against an army, it’s a hundred or a thousand. And armies are also limited – there’s only so many people you can draft and only so many people who can control drones or become snipers. Once they’re dead, the rest of the mages might take horrible revenge on their oppressors.

      Again, the difference between real-life oppressed groups and mages (or mutants) is that mages have powers above the regular. It’s easy to keep a regular group of the populace oppressed, but oppression doesn’t work from the less powerful to the more powerful. You need power over a group of the populace to oppress it and even a government will be hard-pressed to conjure up enough power to deal with powerful mages (or mutants) without the help of other mages (in which case you will not oppress all mages, because you need the help of some and that, as pointed out in the article, will lead to giving them privileges rather than taking away their rights). So it is simply illogical to see that trope so often in fiction. You can create very specific circumstances (and your example looks like one where it would work, because your mages are not that powerful), but it’s used far too often and with mages (or mutants) who are by far too powerful to be oppressed successfully.

      You can create a new oppressed group, if you want to look at oppression in a spec fic setting, of course. But mages (or mutants) are a bad group to use. Aliens, elves, halflings, dwarves, orcs, or what-have-you … everyone whose powers are not above those of the oppressor can be oppressed. Mages could oppress the non-magical people, but not the other way around.

      • Kel

        The thing that surprises me with a response like “A mage may be able to shoot fire out of his hands, but how does that stack up against a dozen military snipers or drones?” is that there’s rarely an explanation given in these stories as to why the mages never took over the human society hundreds, or even thousands of years earlier.
        Unless the powers only manifested in the present day, it seems much more likely that mages would have become the next best thing to gods to regular humans. And in the case of something like vampires, surely they would have started farming humans long before humans had the technology to fight back.

        An anime I watched some time ago, Shinsekai Yori, had an interesting take on what history might have looked like with superpowered humans in control – and the various things done to keep regular humans in line.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          The “magic can’t beat a gun” argument also misses that almost no storyteller has ever deliberately set out to create magic that was redundant with technology. When this happens, it’s almost always an accident of extrapolation. Like how we can all tell that the combat magic in the OG Harry Potter books is often inferior to just having a pistol, or how Quill from X-Men can be defeated by the incredibly advanced technology of a spear.

          We the audience figure out that these powers don’t stack up to modern or even premodern tech, but in the context of the story, we’re clearly expected to believe that this magic is way cool. The author wants to have cool magic fights, after all, not boring gun fights.

          On the rare occasion when magic is deliberately less useful than technology in a combat situation, it’s utility uses are still off the chart, hence mages making bucket loads of money, which lets them have power the same way normal rich people do.

          You’ll almost never find a story where magic is intentionally useless for two reasons. 1, that’s actually really hard to do. Humans can come up with amazing uses for just about anything. 2, if an author does that, it means they don’t want the magic to be cool, a rare motivation indeed.

          • Xzenu

            Hmm. I’m almost certain that one of the Harry Potter books mentioned in passing that very simple protection charms gives a complete defense against bullets. A gun or bullet which can somehow bypass magical defenses would be extremely overpowered in the HP setting. But a regular gun with regular bullets would be quite useless.

          • E. H.

            I’m not arguing against the basic point of your article but I think that even if magic (broadly defined to include superpowers) was generally weaker than technology, it would still have its uses.

            It might be easier to deprive a person of a gun or recording/communication device than interfere with their powers. Say you can attack from a distance with a magical or mutant power that’s roughly equal to a medium sized handgun.

            So you wouldn’t want to go up against the Marines. But you could get into places where all guns are banned. Even after going through all the metal detectors and searches in the world you can still put holes in people.

            Same with telepathy. Maybe a telepath can get into a top secret facility and send out a mental image of classified information or technology they’ve seen there. Sure, they could do the same with a cell phone, but they probably wouldn’t have access to one in such a place or the signal could be blocked.

          • Cay Reet

            For the classified information, a person with a photographic memory would be sufficient already – if they can reproduce all information 100% correct, it could count as a superpower and it’s not something they could scan for or suppress.

  23. Tom

    Sorry, long comment thread, didn’t read everything so if this was answered please lemme know…

    “Mages Can Be Oppressed for Other Marginalized Traits”

    The story I’m working on takes place in an “early Victorian” era spec fic relm where people are generally randomly gifted magical prowess. But access to study/training for their abilities is controlled by entrenched hierarchies. (So men of privilege have the most access and are culturally accepted to use their powers while poor women from marginalized communities are pressured to hide their abilities.)

    I bring this up because I would like to hear peoples opinion on how a hierarchical society would oppress members with magical powers who don’t have a cultural power.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That sounds perfectly logical to me. We have plenty of similar situations here in real life. Even when a poor black child completely aces every test we claim to use as tests of merit, they still have to struggle for access to the resources they need, be that education or housing.

      I would expect magic to work the same way. The more privileged groups portray themselves as “deserving” or it, or claim to be “better” at it. Heck they’d probably develop entire psuedo-scientific theories to explain their superiority.

      If you want to read a novel with this dynamic, I recommend Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. It’s excellent, and it demonstrates exactly what you’re talking about.

      • Tom

        Thanks, I’ll check it out!

        I’m actually planning to subvert the fantasy trope of long histories with dark lords and yada yada and create a mythology used by the dominant culture to explain why institutionalized oppressive structures are in place. Like women who use “destructive” magic will be looked at as/influenced by reincarnations of a demoness from ancient times.
        Though the time period will have a growing cultural movement from their Enlightenment that pushes back against these archaic superstitions. (Hey look, conflict!)

  24. Deana

    I still disagree. It is possible to oppress a group that possesses comparatively more power than society at large.

    I am trying to lay hands on an article (either from Ecclesiastical History or Journal of Medieval History, c. 1985) that talks about the systemic elimination of the Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon (aka the Templars). Templar Suppression is a better model than anti-Semitism.

    The Templar Suppression begins in France, primarily because Philip the Fair wants his considerable debts to the order canceled, and would like a couple of properties that are owned by the Templars. Within ten years, due in part to picking the wrong side in the competing papacies of Avignon and Rome, the order is suppressed throughout Europe, surviving only in small, secret orders like the Knights of Christ in Spain.

    This fall from power, and oppression (including widespread burnings by the various Inquisitions in France, Portugal, the German States, Scandinavia, and the Low Countries) occurs in relatively short order and is the direct antecedent of the Witch Trials of the Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries. Unlike persecution of the Jews, it gains credence even among the people who are being persecuted, because they are convinced that their duty is to submit to the will of the Church.

    Religion is not the only cultural institution that could create common cause between persecuted and persecutor. Given a strong enough government or just national identity, it would be conceivable that patriotic mages would submit to persecution for “the greater good.”

    In a milder form, you can see this in recent studies of relatively affluent minorities who consistently vote against their own interests (particularly in the area of family and marriage) because they believe that a particular party will preserve the economic and/or social privilege they have gained due to their ability to pass for the dominant culture. The logic runs something like this, “I detest party x’s platform as it regards my personal and private life, but because they claim to guarantee a greater return on my investments and protect the privilege I gain on account of my gender and race, I will vote for them, even knowing they will do everything they can to make my family invalid (again).”

    • Cay Reet

      The templars weren’t oppressed, they were eradicated. Oppression is something different.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Also the Templars being destroyed largely at the behest of the King of France (because he owed them money IIRC), would fall neatly into the parallel of mages being oppressed by other mages I talk about in the final section. We’re not talking about peasants rising up and destroying an order of bankers, we’re talking about violent political struggles among the Medieval elites.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, it was mostly the king of France who owed them oodles of money he couldn’t pay back. Since he was close to the Pope (had helped him gain that position), he could move against the Templars.

          As a matter of fact, they were not attacked everywhere – Scotland was ruled by Robert Bruce at that time and he had been excommunicated and didn’t have to obey the Pope (and could do with strong warriors). In Germany, the Templars fused with another order of knights to simply disappear. Portuguese Templars, I think, pulled a similar trick.

  25. Xelian

    Fantastically laid out, great work here!

  26. Kenneth Mackay

    It would be possible to oppress (or at least exploit) mages if their power required lengthy rituals under specific circumstances, or the use of a particular (not readily available) material component. If governments, corporations or wealthy individuals controlled the supply of the material, or owned the sites where rituals needed to be carried out, mages would become just another type of skilled or talented worker and the governments etc would reap the benefits of their magical abilities, rather than the mages themselves.

    I can imagine a situation where an ‘oppressed mage’ is trying to organise a magical workers’ union to strike for better working conditions…!

    • Xelian

      Oooh that is genius, kudos!

  27. Brendan

    I actually had a similar idea to Kenneth’s above, what if magic needs a certain material or materials, or is at least easier with them than without, and the government of an empire wants to take control of the supply, possibly to stockpile for a war, though they may use some excuse, and persecute those who still use magic outside of governmental control?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I really like the idea of magic that requires a special substance to use, that introduces all kinds of fun economic conflict to the story. Who has this substance, and what are they willing to do in order to get it? Is harvesting the substance harmful in some way? Do people who can’t get it turn to dangerous substitutes?

      However, it is not a setup for non-mages to oppress mages. The people with the most magic still have an advantage, whether that comes from inborn talent or better access to the magical substance. Now, this could be a great setup for political conflicts between factions who want access to the magical substance.

  28. bblue

    Ngl this article left me a bit dishearted but only because it’ll force me to scrap some ideas I really like and pour over the drawing board again for some of my story premises when I thought I had things figured out and ready to write out. In the end though I
    the truth of points make can’t be denied so back to the drawing board it is….

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m glad to hear you’re so committed to building a better setting! We might have some articles that would be useful in that area if you tell me what you’re interested, or you can send us questions via our ask a question feature!

      • bblue

        I saw a Q&A post talking about the pros and cons of using a masquerade. Are there any articles that explore ways one can craft one for a story with reasonable basis? And to tie into that question are there any articles which explore why people with magical power wouldn’t move to take over a fictional world?

        I feel question like the above are some of the reasons writer fall into the trap of using the oppressed mage trope. It seemly offers a good reason to keep magical folks away from non magical ones and lessen reason for magical folk to take over.

        As for my story I suppose I can use the ole supremacist reason for why magical folks joined up with the dark lord to take over the land centuries ago which resulted in the dark age preceding my story’s present time (and set the present day antagonist groups motivations) *shrug*

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          I’m afraid we don’t have any full articles about writing masquerades. It’s something I’d really like to do in the future, but I need to make sure I have a proper set of instructions first. Right now I’m not actually sure how to craft a successful masquerade.

        • Bubbles

          Other than the Q&A post mentioned, I don’t think there are any articles focusing specifically on Masquerades on this blog (there might be mentions in other articles however).

          Outside of the blog, there are some other articles dealing specifically with Masquerades, such as the TvTropes one:
          and this one on the Springhole website:

          Note that these also, to some extent, touch on power differentials between the supernatural and the non-supernatural, both arguing that a masquerade will not make any sense if the supernatural beings are the stronger ones. (Also see this other TvTropes article:

          Personally, I’m not really sure whether a masquerade could ever be maintained. There is research showing that in real life, conspiracies often unravel quickly, especially when large numbers of people are in on it. See (“On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs”) by David Robert Grimes.
          Of course, supernatural beings may have access to things that these mundane conspiracies didn’t, but even powerful magic such as mind wiping may not be enough, as the Springhole article says.

          I have personally tried to create something that might be a plausible masquerade in one of my worlds, but I’m not sure how much sense it would really make. I’ve written about it in a comment on “Five Ways Your Characters Can Acquire Magic.”

  29. Bubbles

    Okay, so I have to make what I am thinking very clear and try not to offend anyone. The problem with this article is while its points seem individually plausible, there are at least two statements made in it that contradict each other. One is that mages will not be oppressed by nonmagical people because the mages are more powerful. Another is that mages will not be oppressed because their powers are useful.

    Mind you, these don’t actually inherently contradict each other, as both of them could show that there are multiple reasons why mages couldn’t be oppressed. The contradiction occurs when Oren claims that mages could, in fact, potentially be oppressed by other mages, because those other mages could be more powerful. The problem is that even if the others are more powerful, the powers of mages still have a lot of utility. Therefore, by this logic, mages still wouldn’t be oppressed, even by other mages, because their powers are useful.

    If, then, you want to go with the only reason that mages couldn’t be oppressed is due to their power, then you run into the fact that sometimes, nonmagical people can be more powerful than mages are. For example, if mages are much less common than nonmagical people, or are weak to something that nonmagical people aren’t, and then could be oppressed.

    For what it’s worth, I personally think that power is probably the more important factor in oppression. Economic utility can get people rich and therefore powerful, but only in situations in which workers have enough freedom. For example, when slavery was allowed, slaves were certainly economically useful but not at all powerful and definitely oppressed. And while Oren is correct that even seemingly weak powers can often have surprisingly effective uses, this does not necessarily mean mages will always be unbeatably powerful, especially when things such as numerical advantage of nonmagical people or magical weaknesses come into play.

    • Dave P

      I don’t know, slaves are pretty useful, especially ones with skills. By yours (and Oren’s) logic they “could not be oppressed” which proves how much BS is typically involved in these particular arguments. Anybody can be oppressed even if they have a huge amount of power in one area. Rich people can be oppressed by nobles and religious leaders, nobles and religious leaders can be oppressed by the power and voice of the mob. Oppression is universal.

      • Cay Reet

        Rich people usually finance nobles and religious leaders (and thus have a hold over them). Nobles will not be oppressed by the mob until society completely shifts (which is why the effects of the French Revolution lasted mere years and finally ended in a new monarchy). Funnily enough, rich people still hold power today, while religions and nobles are pretty powerless in many places.

        The problem with oppression and people with powers above the regular is that those people will not be oppressed for long, if at all. There is a difference between ‘being useful’ (by having regular skills such as housekeeping) and ‘being able to do things which normal people can’t protect themselves from’ (such as slinging fireballs, controlling minds, or doing other magical/superpowered stuff).

        Yes, a useful slave with specific skills is likely to be kept well (and even likely to be treated better than a regular slave, which actually proves Oren’s point about the advantages of marketable skills). But you can still keep them enslaved, because, special skills or not, they are regular humans who can’t fight back against the slaver (at least not successfully). To enslave someone who can control minds, sling fireballs, fly, or heal at the speed of thought, you need to be stronger than them – which means the only being powerful enough to enslave a mage or superpowered being would be a mage or superpowered being even stronger. Not a regular human or a regular human society.

    • Cay Reet

      In slavery, all the slave creates through their work goes into the wealth of the slaver, not into the betterment of the slave’s situation (as working for themselves would, no matter how little betterment would be possible). Economically, slaves (and early workers, before they learned to unionized) were completely at the mercy of the person who ‘owned’ them (slaves literally, workers not quite).

      Slaves were economically useful, because they were owned and thus not paid. The slaver had cheaper labour than anyone else could ever have, they only had to pay once for the slave (or ‘breed’ new ones themselves by having their slaves propagate – by force, if necessary) and only pay for the minimum of need fulfilment (shelter, food, clothing). This is far less than you need to pay even the cheapest worker. As soon as the slave stops being a slave, they stop being economically more useful than paid labour, which was why the South lost so much when slavery was abolished. If there only had been few slaves, slaves would have been more expensive and they would have been treated better, because replacements would have been harder to get. As it was, however, slaves who became ‘difficult’ (too well-educated, too rebellious) were simply killed or sold to someone who not yet knew they were getting trouble that way – replacements were readily there and could be bought for a low price. That’s why so many Africans were dragged to the US before slavery was abolished there, to keep the market satisfied and thus the prices low.

      A mage has a marketable skill in their magic. Even if what they can do is relativly little, it will still be useful for someone. And every skill which has uses is marketable. Athletic skills are marketable, mental skills are marketable, physical strength is marketable. And the fewer people can do something specific, the more money they can demand for doing it. If there’s a lot of people who do hard labour, hard labour is cheap. If there were few people who do hard labour (because most aren’t physically able), it would actually be very expensive. In most settings, mages (or people with superpowers) are a rare commodity, not something to be found everywhere. Hence they have marketable skills (no matter which ones) which are rare and thus can be sold highly.

      It is possible for mages (or people with superpowers) to oppress or enslave other mages (or people with superpowers), provided the oppressor/slaver has the power to subjugate the oppressed/slave long-term – which means a huge difference in power levels. Most settings, however, have mages (or people with superpowers) geing oppressed by regular humans – see X-Men or the HP Universe.

      So a mage could enslave a weaker mage and use that mage’s skills to make money, as the slaver uses the slave’s skills to make money. But there will never be as many mages in an average fantasy setting as there were slaves (compared to the populace in general) in the American South before the Civil War, because not enough mages would exist on that world to make them such a cheap commodity as the Africans brought over by ship or the slaves bred somewhere else on their former owner’s orders.

      Slavery and oppression also are not identical.

      • Dave P

        Anybody who is a slave is oppressed, that is inarguable, no?

        The HP universe does NOT have the mages being oppressed? Have you read the books, the only people who were “caught” in witch hunts that were genuine witches ALLOWED themselves to be caught because they found it amusing. Also there were far fewer mages than muggles and the power differential you’re talking about doesn’t really exist. I’ve seen muggle warfare, the mages have nothing close to what we have, even in the 90s. Even in the 30s and 40s. They have nothing that would come close to artillery, nothing that would stop that.

        I’ve addressed the X-men example more in my previous post, but that setting does recognize the nuances. If somebody needs to eat though, they need to buy food, if you make it illegal for them to do that, then you can control them, to escape that they need to leave society (or seize complete control), being ostracized and forced out of society sounds like oppression to me.

        What is also worth noting here is that many workers AGREED to this sort of oppression. Because they believed that it was the best they were going to get. Brainwashing would probably work on magic users as well as on anybody else. It doesn’t matter if the Muggles could actually oppress the wizards in the HP universe, that’s immaterial, what matters is that the wizards believe in that possibility and act out of fear of it. It doesn’t matter that Saarebas could destroy his captors in DA 2, what matters is that he genuinely believes that he should be serving them as he is. Most oppression is rooted more in societal conventions and in belief than it is in pure force.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Just for the record, this post is only talking about the new Fantastic Beast films, in which it is clearly stated that witch trials targeted real witches, and that’s what made the wizards hide themselves from muggles. This is a retcon but it is there nonetheless.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, all slaves are oppressed, but not every form of oppression is slavery. Slavery goes a step further than oppression, not only taking specific rights from the oppressed, but taking all rights from them – a slave has no right to even their own body, much less their own decision where they live, what they do, or whom they marry.

          Brainwashing workers worked until they realized that they actually held a strong power – and it pays not to forget that most workers in early industrialization came from rural areas where they’d been farmhands before. They were used to working hard for little money and perceived the cities with their factories as a better way of working already. Once workers started to realize that they were the ones creating the wealth of the factory owner and that the factory only created wealth while they worked, unionization and strikes happened. That was when the tides turned for workers, thanks to people like Marx and Engels.

          If you take early workers as base for your oppressed mages, there will always be a moment when some of the oppressed mages realize their power – and rebel. That might take the form or a strike, simply withholding the magical skills they’re being kept for. That might also take the form of outright rebellion, using those powers to put themselves into the position of oppression or, at least, equality.

  30. Lace

    The Avatar universe has had some minor plot lines that have danced around Benders being oppressed. For the unfamiliar, the universe has people who are born with the power to bend one of the four natural elements (Fire, Earth, Water, and Air) who are called Benders and people who are born without such powers, who are called Nonbenders. In the Legend of Korra, there is a plot line in season one that shows the rise of the Equalizers, a group of Nonbenders who were framing Benders as dangerous and needing to be controlled. The most important factor is that Amon, their leader is actually a Bender who amassed power through Nonbenders.

    This particular plot line is resolved by the end of the season and isn’t touched upon for the rest of the series but I wonder what is everyone’s take on it, since I’ve rarely seen people discuss this plot in the Avatar Universe. Thanks for the article!

    • Cay Reet

      I wouldn’t say that the idea that benders need to be controlled – ie subjected to rules or laws which forbid using bending in certain ways – is the same as oppressing benders. I remember that the Fire Nation in TLA found ways to keep benders from other tribes (or even their own) from using their powers, so it is possible to keep benders locked up and under control, but the first step to turn this into oppression would be to deny rights which everyone else has (such as free travelling, choosing their homes freely, choosing whom to marry, or many more) to the benders specifically for being benders. Amon’s movement was far from that.

      • Bubbles

        (This response is also for your comment on my above statement).

        Interesting way of looking at it. However, the thing is that in some works of fiction, people with powers have weaknesses that people without powers don’t, weaknesses that go beyond merely blocking or weakening their powers into causing outright harm. This may not be the case in Avatar (I don’t actually know that much about it), but think about the folklore of cold iron being deadly to fey creatures, or even Kryptonite (the DC Database says that Green Kryptonite can weaken or even kill Kryptonians). When nonmagical people don’t have these weaknesses, they gain an advantage in some ways over magical people – possibly an advantage that allows them to oppress magical people.

        I should note that, as far as I remember, I don’t personally create stories or worlds in which people with powers are oppressed for their powers. (The closest things to this are:

        In my psychic-powers world, in times and places when slavery was allowed, some of those with psychic powers were particularly desired as slaves. However, who could actually be enslaved often depended more on what species or nation was oppressed or considered the enemy, and beings aren’t oppressed just for having powers.

        In my world filled with anomalies that defy the apparent laws of physics and seemingly don’t have consistent, overarching rules, there are groups that want to destroy or contain all anomalies, including the intelligent ones, for reasons such as the danger anomalies pose or religious or philosophical ideas. However, such groups are relatively small and while they can be a threat, are generally not a significant one, on a cosmic scale at least. Plus, most of them use some anomalies themselves – especially FTL for the spacefaring ones).

        I suppose my reason for challenging some of this post’s ideas is more on principle, as I don’t like the idea of saying something can never be done in fiction, unless it is either a logical contradiction or could cause real-world harm. Perhaps the idea of oppressed mages comes close to both, but I think there are a few loopholes that can save the idea in certain fictional worlds.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Interesting question, Lace!

      I would definitely not categorize the Equalizer plot as an oppressed mages story. If anything, it’s the other way around. It’s clear that the benders (mages) are the privileged group, and eventually the situation gets bad enough that underprivileged non-benders rise up against them. The fact that Amon is secretly a bender himself isn’t super important here, since the uprising would have happened almost exactly the same if he hadn’t been one.

      At the same time, I don’t think Korra handled this story very well. The Equalists’ concerns are very real, and the show never really addresses them. The characters don’t even seem to consider them much, IIRC. The closest the show comes is by switching out Republic City’s council for an elected president, but that’s more a question of national sovereignty than bender privilege.

      • SunlessNick

        The show never presents any oppression of nonbenders, except as a direct response to Amon’s attacks, like the curfew – the fact that the curfew was considered reasonable could be taken as a sign of bender priviledge, but it appears way too late to make the Equalist position sympathetic.

  31. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I’ve deleted a comment because it continued to further the “wealthy Jews” narrative. I explained in the article why that myth is false, and continuing to spread it is a form of antisemitism.

  32. Von

    I really like this train of thought, but I feel like you’re making a few assumptions in the process of this that are missing a crucial component of human nature. You’re being wonderfully analytical about theoretical concepts, and I’m a fan of applying verisimilitude to the fantastic. However, I feel like you’re neglecting an important factor.

    Human beings fall into two clear categories when assessing risk: Those who focus on what can be lost, and those who focus on what can be gained. Those who focus on what can be lost tend to be conservative, which centers upon defense, protection, security, and apprehension. Those who focus on what can be gained tend to be liberal, which centers upon enjoyment, sharing, overcoming obstacles, and mutual benefit. Your reasoning strongly implies that you’re of the latter group, and seems to disregard the validity of the former – and that group of risk averse people is usually the majority of people, especially in difficult times. Their numbers also increase in proportion to the relative lack of education available as this group fears what they do not understand.

    In many of the situations you described above, you failed to account for the mentality of the risk averse, who would be fearful of magic, and need very little proof to decide that magic is a threat that should be opposed, limited, and otherwise removed. Magic would have to prove itself profoundly useful to such people if it were to outweigh the possibility of a mage getting possessed, causing a dangerous backlash, or other forms of unpredictable side effects – which would drive the people with this mentality wild with paranoia and dread. Unpredictable harmful side effects are quite literally what this group of people is the most attuned to psychologically, and they are compelled by survival instincts to avoid and prevent them. While this can cause them to be needlessly oppressive at times in the real world, it is also the reason we enjoy much of the benefits of modern civilization, as this mentality aggressively overcame what it feared and created means for humanity to prosper in relative safety.

    Both mentalities – the risk averse and the open minded – are needed in order for a society to function properly. Both provide important benefits to everyone, and both keep each other in check. Our current political divide would do well to realize this.

    In a setting where magic exists, these two mentalities would be exacerbated and it is much more likely that they would come into conflict ideologically over the use of magic than not. This would result in one of four possibilities, all of which could exist in the same setting in various regions and factions.

    1: The people of the setting form pro and anti magic factions, and bicker endlessly over what should and should not be allowed, and how mages should be treated. It would mirror our current political climate. Minor and well controlled uses of magic would be the norm, but anything more would be a battleground of debate. The reliability of magic in the setting would dictate where the balance point is in the argument, as would the non-magical majority’s concerns about the economy and other considerations that affect them directly.

    2: The risk averse group comes into power and oppresses magic because it fears the side effects – likely because those side effects proved themselves to be enough of a threat at any point. A famous magical disaster and/or infrequent tragedies would be turned into propaganda against magic. However, so too could subtle effects such as mages using magic for profit to threaten the economic livelihood of non-magical folk.

    3: The open minded group comes into power because of their use of magic because it doesn’t fear the side effects – but in the process creates greater and greater risk of a magical disaster and/or infrequent tragedies. However, the quality of life benefits will outweigh the potential side effects, and magic will only be limited at its most dangerous… and even then, these rules will be broken by the powerful. This could easily lead to economic disasters that topple kingdoms and nations.

    4. A cycle of risk averse and open minded approaches to magic as the open minded inadvertently create disasters and tragedies that allow the risk averse to oppress magic until the benefits of magic lure people into being increasingly open to it. Due to the nature of these two groups being unwilling to strike a balance, instead insisting that their approach is superior, this cycle is effectively infinite recurring once every few decades.

    • Cay Reet

      I completely agree with you on the two kinds of humans. But what you haven’t added to your thoughts it the actual existence of magic. Oppression isn’t just a social thing – it also is a question of power. And your risk-averse humans do not necessarily have the raw power necessary to oppress a mage. Because a mage, unlike any real-world group, has powers which others can’t meet- unless they’re mages themselves. A mage can oppress a weaker mage (and a group of highly powerful mages can oppress the rest of the mages), but your average human can’t.

      • Von

        That assumes that magic is reliable. If it’s unpredictable, then mages have to contend with their own art as much as those who misunderstand it. Magic can’t be compared to the reliability of technology or science. If it were, it would simply be technology and science. This does boil down to an issue of game mechanics, but it stands to reason that magic cannot function as technology if magic can exist in a technological setting and be distinct from it. This means that side effects are inevitable, and those side effects will cause the reactions I laid out.

        • Cay Reet

          Hint: this article is not about game mechanics, but about storytelling. In RPGs, it’s important to limit magic, so there’s balance. Otherwise, your mages would be overpowered and nobody would play anything else. In stories like those above, magic is shown as powerful and, quite often, easy to use. At the same time, magic-users fear being found out or are oppressed by non-mages. That is unrealistic for human beings.

      • Von

        An arrow through the guts tends to end a mage. Mages are often at a sore disadvantage to the mundane unless they specifically prepare for it, and even so, it can easily become a question of numbers. An mob of angry peasants is more than a match for a mediocre mage unless magic breaks basic laws of conservation of effort. The rarity of mages becomes a factor. In most settings, mages are rare individuals that possess a specific talent allowing them to wield magic, even if that talent is simply the ability to comprehend it. This creates a ratio of normal people to mages that far exceeds the capacity for mages to take power without the consent of the muggles.

        In the real world, there have been countless examples of small groups with superior technology being overrun by large numbers with inferior technology. When people get to the point where they are willing to go at a problem with the mentality that “they can’t get us all”, there’s not a whole lot the mages can do other than go down swinging and take as many as they can with them.

        Even the idea that subtle influences could be leveraged has its limits, as the mundane people will sense the power shift and resist it. Even if the mages aren’t using magic to enact it, the muggles will accuse them of doing so. What defense could mages offer to that?

        It’s quite viable that mages could be oppressed by the normal people who fear them, especially if magic has any form of balancing applied to it.

        • Cay Reet

          It depends very much of the kind of mage in the first place. Your examples are based on mages who need a lot of preparation (like in an RPG, where that is the only way of keeping the mages from becoming the only class everyone plays, because they’d be unstoppable without that). If we’re talking about other types, like the instictive and immediate way to control elements, for instance, things are different. An arrow from afar or a blade between the ribs from behind (like assassination on normal people) will work. Mages aren’t arrow- or bulletproof. But once the secret murder of mages has started, others will hear. Others will prepare. And in the worst case, you get a war between mages and non-mages (where non-mages will face mages with shield spells or control of the winds easily taking care of the arrows).

          And, again, I think you do not graps the full point of the ‘oppressed’ part. Oppression is more than just ‘making use of their powers’ or ‘mistrust them.’ It means denying them rights such as free movement or forcing them to undergo horrible treatments to make them more ‘manageable.’ That will sooner or later lead to uprisings which non-mages can’t hope to win.

      • Von

        Lastly, I think the most likely scenario is powerful muggles oppressing mages into service. There are all manner of ways in which mages could be leveraged by powerful non-magical people who have been leveraging talent for millennia. If that’s the case, then mage oppression would be part of how the elite keeps control of their mages. The elite would make sure to keep this element in society by manipulating both sides of the risk mentalities. Here we would see the mages being leveraged into leveraging each other for the good of the wealthy… I mean society.

        • Cay Reet

          Leverage works against people until they realize the leveraging person is not immune to a fireball between the eyes. What goes for mages and arrows (and there might be something like shield spells, which would render arrows moot), also goes for muggles and fireballs. As a matter of fact, there’s many ways in which mages could manipulate non-mages which are far more subtle.

          As I said, oppression and perhaps even enslavement of mages by stronger mages is possible – and even likely in a society where people are afraid of mages and think it’s good if someone keeps control over them. But I would really like to see the means by which mages (who also come in flavours such as power-hungry and rebellious) would be kept oppressed (meaning with less rights than everyone else) for a long time. What you suggest is a muggle using mages for their gain. What oppression means is keeping mages under worse circumstances than the rest of mankind. Manipulating mages so you can make use of their talents or earn money through their magic is possible and even likely. Oppression is not, not long term, because besides being mages, they’re also human and humans don’t take well to oppression long term.

      • Von

        For this reason, I think the Dark Eye has the best approach to how a medieval society would deal with Mages.

        The muggles are suspicious and paranoid, but like the benefits enough to allow mages to form guilds which are regulated by the ‘church’. Using magic in a crime is punishable by death in most cases, and mind control is a crime. Magic can attract demons, so people are right to be a bit paranoid. The guilds are tasked with making sure their members are competent enough to avoid such side effects, and are tasked with policing their own, lest the whole guild be sanctioned.

        Also, the Dark Eye’s magic system is based on a conservation of effort, so while one well prepared mage might be able to deal with a small group of people, once their power is spent, they’re down to relying upon bluff and cleverness.

        • Cay Reet

          That suggests magic has not been around before. Because if people reached the middle ages with magic already around, there wouldn’t be middle ages as we know them. There would have been a different development. I’m aware of the Dark Eye and its way of handling magic – and like most RPGs it makes magic hard to access because of balance (otherwise, what would be a good reason not to play a mage – they’d be gods among men). The fear of witchcraft in the middle ages had a lot to do with the idea that magic is given to witches and wizards by the devil – a Christian idea. Without it in place, magic would have been seen differently, very much the way it was in ancient times (often as a god’s blessing, sometimes merely as something given to a child by fate). And, despite having 12 gods instead of one, the Dark Eye takes a lot of pointers from European (more precisely German) middle ages. For an RPG, that’s okay, because the setting is mostly flavour. But for a world build on storytelling by way of novels (which exist as I know), it is a little on the lazy side.

          As a matter of fact, I could easily counter that with Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories, where magic was codified in the early middle ages and has been around since. Mages are accepted and respected members of society, sanctioned by the church. They take care of criminals in their own group themselves. They provide many useful services to society (including forensic sorcery, which does play a certain role in the stories). They are their own branch of society – some might fear or resent them, but some will also resent the lower classes or the nobles or the church, that’s humans for you.

          • Von

            You basically described The Dark Eye in your last paragraph. If I recall correctly, the setting’s magic developed as follows:

            There was a big bad demon god who was defeated and pushed out of reality. The process caused what would be analogous to the fall of Rome. It also bolstered the church of the 12 gods that banded together against the bad one(s).

            Witchcraft was practiced by humans for a very long time, but it was dangerously unpredictable, required a genetic talent, and was prone to summoning demons (mostly by accident but sometimes on purpose). It was never an exact science, and only those with ‘the gift’ could learn it. As such, it had its limits, which were further limited by the banishing of the big bad demon dude.

            Elves practiced what the humans now consider Wizardry and shared this knowledge with them several hundred years prior to the setting’s present after the fall of the big bad. The result was the Guilds of Wizardry – White, Grey, and Black. Wizards without guilds (and especially witches) are prone to getting chased by the authorities. While all Elves have the ability to weave magic, Elves are very rare, and human wizards must have the rare inborn gift of being a Spellcaster.

            Quite a few of the adventure plots involve dealing with mages who have caused problems, sometimes guild members, as well as the ill effects of magical tragedies, so The Dark Eye a good job of keeping the concept of magic having reason to be ‘oppressed’ to some degree consistent and relevant.

            But, again, this hinges on the relative power level of magic, which seems to be the sticking point in this discussion as a whole. If magic can be whatever you want, then there’s no point in entertaining the hypothetical scenario where mages might be oppressed or otherwise held as separate but equal, second class citizens that wield enough power to be treated civilly by most people who fear and in some cases hate them. Either that counts as oppression or a lot of modern political arguments are invalidated.

            In a setting where magic has a conservation of effort limitation, there’s only so much any mage can do, no matter how clever or subtle. Factor in the rarity of mages, and there’s no way a large part of the population wouldn’t on some level attempt to keep mages in check, if for no other reason than self preservation instinct.

            Lastly, an arrow to the neck or a fireball to the face are both going to kill you. In the real world, people fight each other with weapons that they know can kill each other, sometimes at a clear disadvantage. The means by which people could kill each other are secondary to the will to risk their lives to kill their enemies. A fireball isn’t an insurmountable threat. There are a lot of ways for muggles to counter mages, who will have the will to do so, because if history has proven one thing it’s that people are competitive and willing to kill and die for power – especially when they feel threatened enough.

            There are definitely ways in which mages could be oppressed, and there are definitely reasons to oppress them – especially if the definition of oppression is a lack of equality.

          • Cay Reet

            I mean a series of shorts and one novel (two more were written by Randall Garrett’s friend Michael Kurland later on) set in a different version of the late 1970s and the 1980s. Technology is mostly based on magic (so things like telephones and fridges exist, but work with spells instead of our technology). History has diverge greatly when Richard Lionhead didn’t die in battle, but was severely wounded, reconsidered his life, and went home to rule for 20 more years. His descendants still rule the Angevin Empire made up from Britain plus France plus colonies in both North and South America, but both are not completely under European rule, because the magic of the Native Americans in north and south is strong.

            If you’re interested, there’s a collection of the shorts and the novel “Too Many Magicians” by Randall Garrett which is still available in print and as e-book and the two novels “A Study in Sorcery” and “Ten Little Wizards” by Michael Kurland are also still available. All stories are mystery stories, though, no high fantasy or suchlike. Lord Darcy himself, by the way, is no sorcerer, he doesn’t have the Talent for magic.

  33. Bleu

    If the only way to get rid of a persons magical ability was through their death, and a persons power was generally uncontrollable, would it make sense for people to sentence mages to death to protect their homes/businesses/family (natural disasters caused by powers, ex: a mage with an affinity with water could cause a flood, etc.)?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m not gonna say it’s impossible, but that sort of scenario rarely holds up under scrutiny, since few authors are actually interested in giving their mages power that can’t be controlled with some training. At the same time, that definitely falls outside the scope of oppressed mages, since this is now an issue over a real danger.

  34. SJB

    It’s almost as if the whole “people with magic/superpowers being oppressed” angle is a thin justification for what would otherwise be blatant power fantasies pandering to a privileged consumer base.

    • Innocent Bystander

      It’s a case of wanting to both have your cake and eat it, too. There’s the desire for both the power fantasy of being able to do all these amazing things as well as the underdog fantasy of starting from the bottom and succeeding in spite of that.

      And while both can be done in many ways (the article outlined several of those), most just reach for this trope in a lazy way to achieve it.

  35. E. H.

    The only situation I could think of where people with such powers could be oppressed is if the powers that be (a) have truly overwhelming numbers and devoted followers for a war of attrition and/or access to some some kind of kryptonite equivalent and (b) an established, “legitimate” use for such powers–serving the ruling elite in some way–exists and is mandatory.

    So let’s say I somehow gain the ability to fly. They send me a message that I’d better join the probably very well-paid branch of the military or intelligence community that makes use of unusual powers and had better follow orders once I’m in it.

    But maybe I think they’re a bunch of thugs and couldn’t in good conscience join them. Or I’d rather peruse my current career and just fly around the wilderness for fun on the weekends. So it’s a matter of serving people I’d rather not serve or be hunted down.

    I don’t consider a scenario with legal restrictions on use of powers oppressive as weapons, airplanes etc. are highly regulated.

    • Cay Reet

      Drafting something for a specific job because of a power might be go into the direction of oppression, but it wouldn’t be a full-fledged oppresion, no.

      A restriction on using those powers is a rational idea – but you need a way to enforce it, which would probably also require the help of mutants/mages/superpowered people.

      • Cay Reet

        ‘Someone,’ not ‘something.’ I’m not fully awake…

      • E. H.

        Did you ever read the comic book series “The Boys” about a group of superpowered people who police the more conventional type of costumed “superhero”? I think it’s going to be made into a TV series soon.

        Brilliant deconstruction of the idea that random people with unregulated powers would be a force for good. One of the best satires of the genre. I do have a problem with the one female member of the team which I hope they change in the show.

        • Cay Reet

          I actually think the only way to regulate superpowers (or magic) is to have superpowered (or magical) law enforcement, because there will always be people who have those powers (or magic) and will misuse them.

          What I think is difficult about your first comment here is that people with specific powers are conscripted and forced to serve in a special branch of military or in law enforcement (or in special kinds of industries – there’s a lot of ways to spin that). Someone might have the power of flight, but no inclination at all for battle and will hate that job with all fierceness they’re capable of (and probably slack off rather than do their job). Offering them specific, well-paying jobs which are based on their special power is an option, but telling them ‘either you work for us in that capacity or you go to a special jail’ is a problematic solution which might, sooner or later, result in an uprising of the superpowered (or magically inclined) which even superpowered (or magical) law enforcement or military will be hard pressed to handle.

          • E. H.

            Another story element could be a corrupt organization like Stephen King’s The Shop or the corporation from Scanners getting a hold of them while they’re young or psychologically vulnerable.

            In Scanners especially the powers come at the cost of a high risk of mental instability and the corporation seeking to monopolize their powers can provide drugs and training to deal with it. The drugs can temporarily make them powerless too.

            Then the boss can play benevolent father figure and say basically look at how much I helped you. Wouldn’t you like to go on an exciting adventure for me?

            There was some Dean Koontz story too that I read a long time ago where a boy with powers is hooked up to machines that cause pain if he uses them in unauthorized ways or refuses to use them.

          • Cay Reet

            I can see all of them work for a while, but not for a long time. Unless you ‘use up’ those who possess the powers while they’re still very young and kill them before they become too old and, perhaps, too powerful, there’s no way of controlling people long-term. At some point, risking pain to free yourself is a completely valid option, so using your powers in a forbidden way, risking the pain, and destroying the source that way is something which might happen.

            If you ‘use them up’ in their early years, the problem might be to get new ones – unless the powers are always a spontaneus thing which happens. If you keep them drugged, problems can arise the moment the drug runs out (which can and, most likely, will happen at some point). Technology isn’t completely failsafe, either. One thing which also can come in, is that someone without those powers whose family member or members are in such a system, does all in their power to free them.

            Also keep in mind that your examples here are from horror stories which are always going from the darkest possible way. But horror doesn’t have to last long or explain how a situation can be kept up for decades or even centuries. In a world where mutations or magic are common, there will always be some with those powers and sooner or later that will blow over. All it takes is the children from some influential person being pulled into the system or someone managing to get away and rallying people around them for help.

          • E. H.

            Good point and it didn’t work out so well for the oppressors in my examples.

  36. ED


    I have read through the article and the comments and find this whole discussion very interesting. But I think there is something that is being overlooked: the best magical systems have limitations to them, if you exploit those weaknesses it would be possible to fight or even kill mages. To give an example let take the Grishaverse by Leigh Bardagou. In the story, the Mages are called Grisha and their magic is known as the small science. One type of Grisha are the Corporalki, or the Order of the Living and the Dead. They can control the human body to cure it or to kill it. However their powers only work on humans.

    The witch hunters from a country called Fjendia in setting know this and have found a way around this. They train wolves to fight the Grisha. While a Corporalki might be able to fight a human they would be killed by the wolf if they had no other way to fight back. They have other ways to fight Grisha too such as specialized cells where their power won’t work, drugs to enslave the Grisha and pyres at which to burn them. While such a power can be highly useful and in another country Ravka the Corporalki are trained as medics, soliders and taylors as part of the second army, the Fjendians hate the Grisha because they see such power as unnatural and going agsaint their God.

    In Fjendia the Grisha are no doubt oppressed, the witch hunters track them down and subject them to creul deaths. I think it works because the author shows us just how affective the witch hunters are in her six of crows duology and King of Scars.In another country in the story Shu Han, the Grisha are tracked down and cut upon to discover the source of their powers. Shu Han does not hate Grisha so much as sees them a mythical and they are desperate to discover the source of such powers.

    You might say that the common people have good reasons to fear the Grisha but in setting the Grisha also have very good reason to fear the Witch hunters, being hunted down, experimented on and then killed for something you can do is oppression and it works in story because the author has given the Witch hunters the tools they need to persecute the Grisha.

    I would suggest reading the books and starting with the Six of Crows duology.

    • ED

      Also, I think the oppresed mages trope is better served when the author avoids making it similar to real-world cases of oppresion. In real life no one is cut open to discover why they can control fire or summon water. Similarly no one is drugged so that their supernatural powers can be controlled. Human experiments do exist in real life but not for these purposes.

      I am saying the Grisha verse is perfect either,there are some problems, but I do think the author avoids a lot of the problems that are present in other stories include the Harry Potter Unvirse and the Fantastic Beast films.

      • Cay Reet

        In the past, oppressed groups were often experimented on as well … last time in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Preferably African-American prisoners in American jails were also used for drug tests without consent. You’d be surprised how often people have been cut open to find out how they worked, just because they were considered to be worth less.

    • Cay Reet

      My problem with this: Your mages must by now have realized where their weaknesses lie. History teaches us humans do try their best to cover their bases, which means the mages would have taken steps to protect themselves from the witch hunters. The witch hunters sent out wolves? Hire a bodyguard who will kill the wolves. There are always people who don’t care about who hires them, as long as money flows, and, as pointed out in the article, magic is a skill which can always be converted to money, legally or illegally (and a mage working illegally could probably hire even better protectors who won’t just kill the wolves, but also the witch hunters they can spot). There’s no question that you can enslave a group of powerful people short-term by exploiting a weakness. But the people you enslave or oppress will try to eradicate that weakness, overcome it, or find another way to keep you from using it against them. That’s what arms races are for – every side is looking for weakness on the other side and ways to cover their own weaknesses, so they can’t be used against them. Long term, the mages would either find ways to fight the witch hunters or people who could do the deed for them, explointing weaknesses of the witch hunters in turn.

  37. Innocent Bystander

    This is why I have issues with the mage/templar conflict in the Dragon Age games. While I tend to be pro-mage, I can’t deny that the other side has valid points, especially when there’s plenty of mages throughout the games who are living proof of why most people in Thedas fear magic.

  38. Jeppsson

    I just read “Wytches” by Scott Snyder, which is a great comic book, and also has an interesting take on the whole witch hunt thing in a world where magic and witches are real:

    So the titular “wytches” are actually not human. They’re rather some kind of creepy demon creatures. They live in underground burrows beneath trees. If ginger plants grow out of the bark of a tree (which they don’t naturally do), it’s a sign that a whytch lives beneath (this is where the idea of witches living in gingerbread houses come from). If you give the wytch another human to cook in its cauldron and eat, it will grant you magic favours in return, like curing any illness you have, prolonging your life, and other stuff (we never learn the exact extent). The wytches also have magic mindwipe potions, so if you, say, kidnap a child to feed to the wytches, and manage to get their family and neighbours to ingest the potion somehow, they’ll forget the child ever existed. Even so, it can obviously be complicated to get away with it (seems like fewer people make deals with the wytches in modern times, simply because the human sacrifice part is harder to get away with, but some places still have a lot of people who do).
    We never learn if the wytches get anything more out of the deal than a meal; I would guess so, but they’re left pretty mysterious.

    Anyway, we learn in passing that the victims of the witch hunts during the middle ages were ironically to a large extent wytch HUNTERS who were on to the whole thing and tried to blow the whistle and stop it. Most people who had done magic deals with the wytches for real were powerful, and so it was really convenient for them to claim that their enemies were behind any kind of weird dark magic and disappearing children that people caught on to.
    I think this makes pretty good internal sense.

    • Cay Reet

      I like that take and it does makes sense that powerful customers of the wytches would make sure that those weren’t found. You never know when you need another ‘favour’ from a wytch, after all.

  39. Rabbit12

    The whole oppressed mages trope is overused to a annoying degree. If magic existed in real life no sane country would even attempt to oppress a group of people with supernatural abilities. Also it makes sense to have them on your side as allies rather than enemies.

  40. Jeppsson

    Oh no! I got in a Facebook discussion about the X-men, with a socialist and a queer woman who both think they’re JUST LIKE real-life oppressed people, because real-life oppressed people are also dangerous (potentially, at least, if they organize and demand change) and so both real-life oppressed people and the X-men are oppressed for being dangerous, so the analogy WORKS PERFECTLY.
    Oh no, now I kind of understand what you must deal with always, Oren. *sob* you poor thing.

  41. Arix

    I’ve recently been watching a show that’s quite bad about this. It’s called BNA (Brand New Animal), and the “mages” in question are the beastmen (and yes, they’re all called beastmen regardless of gender) – people who can shapeshift into anthropomorphic animals. With all the benefits that implies – birds can fly, canines have super enhanced senses of smell, pretty much everyone has enhanced strength, speed and agility. Apparently, these people are being oppressed by normal-ass humans.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oh boy, I watched the first episode of that show and noped right out when it seems like the beastmen all have ninja powers, and an asshole wolfdude is basically Superman.

      • Arix

        I mean, it’s not SO bad. Yeah the beastmen have ninja powers, but you know, anime. And asshole wolfdude does get some development and mellows out. And I do like the overall message (no one has the right to tell anyone what to do with their own bodies).

        That said, it also has a whole lot of flaws that prevent me from really recommending it.

  42. Star of Hope

    Hey at least there is no “oppressed” Nazi trope here, Right? RIGHT?! Mages have the excuses of not having to be evil and thus should not be presumed to be evil, unlike for instance the Loptyr sect, who worship literally Satan.

  43. Zep

    1. Not every oppressed mage scenario is meant to parallel something in the real world. It’s totally possible to write a scenario where mages are oppressed, enslaved etc. depending on the mechanics of that world and NOT make it an allegory or metaphor or parallel or whatever to a real-world oppressed group.

    I do agree that when this is the case though, you are totally right and it doesn’t work at all as an allegory or parallel to real-life oppressed groups. I know that you primarily wrote this as a response to stories which are doing just that – trying to use it as a parallel. I’m simply arguing that if it is intentionally done to NOT parallel a real-life oppressed group (and therefore would have to be very creative as to HOW and WHY this is occurring) it could be done and even be interesting.

    I’m sure there are examples but I read more alien-related sci-fi than fantasy or supernatural stories so I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

    A completely fictional setting with a totally fictional oppressed group (maybe even with a compare-contrast to how their oppression DOES NOT REFLECT real-world powerless oppressed groups) could totally work. It would also have to feature a creative type of oppression – and if there is say, a realistic and sympathetic-type fear of magic (since it is in most cases legitimately dangerous or at least criminally exploitable in some way) that is where it fails as a real-life comparison… so if you aren’t doing that you could make it interesting like… is it oppression if there is a real fear of potential danger? Does the possibility of threat or a real fear of danger, even if it is only a small portion of those with magic, justify the oppression? (I mean, I say no, but it could be an interesting thematic exploration of the real implications of such powers) It might be hard to do without accidentally relating it to a real-life group but if it was constructed carefully enough it could be good. Like a grey kind of who’s right kind of scenario. Of course if it did reflect a real-life group (as many of these stories do) it would fail just as you outlined here in this article. Since real-life oppressed groups are not inherently potentially dangerous or powerful.

    2. It’s very strange to assume that in every scenario a sufficiently outfitted military or even a good police force would be unable to fight back against a mage uprising. Of course this depends on the weaknesses/power-levels of mages and what time period/technology level the story was taking place in, but if mages were not overpowered and had limited ability and low numbers compared to the overall population (say, 1 in 100 000 or less) they wouldn’t be much of a threat even as a group (assuming that they could even band together under an oppressive anti-magic or magic-restricted regime in the first place).

    3. It’s true that this wouldn’t work if people always had access to magic throughout history as our entire history would be different and technology would have likely developed differently (or maybe not at all) and our society might even revolve around or revere magic-users if they had existed from early human history. Sudden appearance of magic users could work though.

    4. Ultimately an exploitation-type story-line would likely work better than an oppression story-line, but you could do both. I’m not saying many stories do either well, but it could technically be done with enough effort.

    This isn’t really an argument against your point I guess, since you’re saying it doesn’t work as an allegory for real life oppression, which I agree with. I’m just saying it CAN be done, if you work real hard at it. There are probably more interesting things to be done with a magic story though and I’ll admit it’s kind of overused. I don’t know, just some thoughts.

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