The very word brings to mind the impossible, and is so wildly popular because it involves taking a piece of our world and juxtaposing it with literally anything your imagination can come up with. We’ve done this for thousands of years, telling stories of how the warrior slayed the dragon, how the enchantress trapped the magician, how it was the poor orphan who was the Chosen One all along.
It’s a genre where literally anything can happen, and where most things have, because the imagination of humanity is vast and deep.
So why is it that when a non-White actor or actress is cast in a Fantasy movie or TV show, so many people flip their collective lids?
Well, most Fantasy Fiction stories are set in Medieval Europe, or Britain, or a place that’s clearly based on such.
You’re correct, Devil’s Advocate Voice. There’s still a Eurocentric base to the Fantasy genre (which in itself is weird, given the aforementioned vast, deep imagination of humanity.)
And certainly, for example, the SyFy show Merlin obviously takes place in a fictitious version of Britain. It’s the millionth re-telling of a classic piece of the public domain, but it seems to be playing by the traditional storyline for the most part.
What’s that you say? The role of Guinevere is played by a Black actress?
And there’s a contingent of people on Tumblr who like to fan-cast Sophie Okonedo as Helga Hufflepuff from Harry Potter?
This is all historically inaccurate, you say? Well goodness me, don’t we have ourselves a pickle here.
Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that it’s completely not weird to have magic and dragons but definitely weird to have Black people in fictional versions of Medieval England.
Let’s do that for a second. Are we doing that? Good.
Because Black people have totally been in Europe, and England, for a really long time.
There exists this strange belief among otherwise well-educated people that from the time hunter-gatherers migrated from Africa and settled in their respective niches throughout the Earth until Europe got a bug up their ass about exploration in the 1400’s, nobody went anywhere. Everyone remained at home, in pure ethnic isolation.
Go Google a map of the Earth, specifically the Old World. Look at how close Africa is to Europe, and how Europe and Asia are connected. They’re connected so closely one might even say they could be considered one continent.
Isolationism has happened before, but mostly on island nations because inland isolation is difficult to enforce. There’s been so much movement and war and enslavement and migration through these continents that listing every major inter-cultural event would be impossible, so here’s a bit about Rome:
The Roman Empire, at it’s height, ruled the Mediterranean sea, much of North Africa, Western Europe, the Eastern bit of what’s now the Middle-East, and left a bunch of walls in Britain. Rome is fun in this context because often, the people they conquered were absorbed into Roman society, climbing high in the ranks of Roman nobility and military. Like this woman here, who was at least partially African, and was found buried with clear markings of being a noblewoman. In York, England. Hmm.
And they weren’t the only ones to do crazy things like move around a continent. The Huns originated somewhere in the Steppes of Central Asia and went on to tear Europe a new one, eventually giving the entire country of Hungary its name. The Scandinavian Vikings sailed around the known world, taking slaves from literally everywhere and trading them, as well as goods, with the Arabs. The Muslim Arabs themselves took advantage of the power gap after the fall of the Roman Empire to spread across Eurasia, absorbing the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and developing a center for learning in Baghdad that rivalled anything the Europeans were doing at the time. The Moors of Northern Africa get talked about a lot in conversations like these, and not for nothing. They waltzed into Spain and stayed long enough that their culture infuses Spanish life to this day. (Almost everyone read Othello in high school. I wonder if the English thought it was pandering for Shakespeare to have the main character of a play be African.)
And if you think for one second that these armies came in, killed whatever standing army was there, and then left nobody behind to rule the roost, and that these conquered people, who were at least second-class citizens of their new nation, didn’t travel for trade? Then there’s no hope for you and we should just turn back now.
Now answer me this:
- Do people like to have sex?
Yes. Yes people do. The vast majority of humans throughout history have enjoyed having sex. Sometimes, ethnocentrism and racism has kept people from inter-ethnic lovin’, but if you think that was the rule rather than the exception you’re underestimating the overwhelming desire humans have to get laid. Aforementioned Othello went into how Othello and Desdemona secretly got married, because per-marital sex was way worse than interracial marriage in Renaissance Italy.
Additionally, there were several conquerors and marauding armies, on every side of the equation, who ignored and/or promoted rape as a tool of war. For example, the Mongols did so much of this whilst pillaging across Eurasia that Genghis Khan, by himself, has about 16 million descendants today. The idea of consent meant basically nothing to most people at the time, given the extremely low status of women.
So, inter-ethnic sex was had, consensual or not, and heterosexual sex generally meant babies back then.
Ok, sure, says the Devil’s Advocate Voice, there were people of other ethnicities in Europe and Britain. There were interracial children. But certainly this wasn’t the norm, right?
I’ll give you that, because census data from the year 1000 AD is pretty sketchy.
But if you acknowledge that it did happen, that non-White people did exist in Europe, did work their ways up into nobility, you can’t turn around and say that having a Black actress play Guinevere is unrealistic. You can’t say that every single representation of a non-White British or European person is somehow “affirmative action,” or unrealistic, or pandering of some kind. To pretend it is is to erase the historical experiences of these people.
If there were a danger of there being no more White people on television or books, I wouldn’t be writing this. But there clearly isn’t.
Go read this post I did on how having a Black and Hispanic Spiderman matters. If you don’t want to, I’ll summarize it: it’s important that people, and especially kids, see positive portrayals of people who look like them represented in media. It’s important that kids of any ethnicity see a variety of people doing a variety of things.
And besides, all White people all the time is fucking boring. It’s boring and lazy and unimaginative to present one narrow view of history, and even more so to repeat, over and over and over again, the same narrow view of fictional lands that have never existed where the good guys are automatically White, and if there’s any Non-White people they’re presented as bad or primitive.
Beyond the tinge of racism that colors every debate about the “realism” of having people of color in Fantasy stories, there’s just a level of oh, I’ve read this story before, #shrug. Will the White protagonist of this Europe-analogous land triumph in the end? Will he?!? Fantasy exists because we wanted to plumb our wildest imaginations for adventures, and I think there should be a little more looking at actual history, more reflections of the lives that people really did lead.
It is 2011. Guinevere can be Black.