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
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 praying 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.
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
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
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.
(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)