How does fantasy fandom treat black women?

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I have no clue, but I just learned some stuff.

When I was a kid, I read a lot of science fiction. There wasn’t much fantasy back then (Lord of the Rings?). Then I left fiction behind entirely for a very long time, unless you count Archaeology as fiction which it sometimes is. When I did re-embrace fiction in literature it was mostly classic feminist stuff (Marge Piercy, Rita Mae Brown, etc.) which I read for the humor and humanity, trash adventure fiction (yes, including Tom Clancy) which I read because that was the best way to understand a world that I had interest in (for reasons I may discuss another time) and be entertained at the same time, or whatever was local (William Kennedy for Albany, Melville, Kidder, Thoreau, and various historical fiction). But not much of any of it.

But a few years ago, it occurred to me while talking to my friend Emily, who was a voracious reader of juvenile fantasy fiction, that a way to maintain cultural connection and overlap with my daughter, Julia was to read her stuff, at least to some extent. So now, I read (or re-read) much of what she is assigned in school, but also, all that great literature that was not available to me when I was a kid, like Harry Potter.

And this has extended to TV. So, pursuant to this, I’ve watched the first couple of seasons of Merlin and a whole Tardis full of the neo Dr. Who (way, way, better than the original, though the original is quaint) and a few other bits and pieces.

One of the things I like about British TV, including Merlin, Dr. Who, as well as a few other recently produced series (MI-5, for instance), is that they do something American TV has either not discovered or does poorly (most of the time, though there are exceptions): That is to be mostly “color blind” in a rather intriguing way, while still (and this part might not be important) occasionally dealing with race. This includes actually having dark skinned characters in significant roles other than in “black shows” as well as having people act culturally/ethnicaly mostly independently of their stereotypes.

So, in Merlin, Guinevere is black. I’m pretty sure that brown people were hanging around in non-significant numbers in Europe at various times in the past and with varying degrees of identity separation or status vis-a-vis people of other colors, but in Arthurian proto-Britain, I’d be surprised to find Africans at all, though I have no opinion as to how people from the southern continent would be regarded or how they would regard their pinkish compatriots. But I could be wrong about that. I don’t have expertise in that time period and geography. But in the TV series, she seems to be just a person who happens to be “black” and there is not a mention of her ethnicity of which I’m aware. She is a servant, which is kind of a black thing to do in white society, but I’m not sure what that means in this case. (Please feel free to educate me on what I’m missing here, i.e., is Guinevere African in the original myths? I have no idea).

Dr. Who is even more interesting. For instance, the pairing in couples of people of contrasting completions is almost routine, yet never mentioned. Do Americans notice “interracial marriages” or other relationships while Brits don’t? Or does everyone notice it but not say much about it? Regardless, I’m glad that Dr. Who is watched widely by kids in the US because the nonchalant interaction of people who look rather different (not even counting aliens) is good, basic, progressive modeling.

And, I have to tell you, although everyone loves and appreciates Rose, and Amy Pond really needs Rory in her life or there would definitely be funny business between her and The Doctor, three is no doubt in my mind that Martha is the best companion ever. I don’t know the whole mythos (does anyone?) but it seems to me that Martha has become the most Dr.-like, but in her own distinctive Martharian way, to the extent that I could easily imagine a spin-off based on her, but not for the other women.

And that’s about it. I have very little knowledge of pop fantasy beyond what I’ve just alluded to. And, most importantly, I know nothing about fandom. I don’t read fan sites, I don’t read fan literature (is there even a fan literature?). This is why a recent blog (re-)post by RVC Bard was enlightening to me. Bard discusses the treatment of Martha Jones, Tara Thornton, Guinevere and Mercedes Jones (and I have no clue who Thornton and Jones II are) … all “Black women on major network television shows,” in relation to fandom. Apparently they are not treated well (at least to some extent) in ways that match the pattern for not being treated well for racialistic reasons, rather than, say, being a secondary role reasons or being female reasons (though that too, but not to the same extent) or other reasons that fandom may treat one badly, whatever they may be.

Since, as I say, I have no exposure whatsoever to “fandom” I did not know this. And it makes me not want to bother with fandom even more so than I was already not bothering with it … a sort of negative-bothering, if you will. Also, I am not surprised. Had I thought about it, I would have predicted it.

So even when (and if, but I think when) producers or creators of pop culture bother to at least try to model racial indifference they get racialized behavior at least to some extent. Shame on fandom for that, assuming RVC Bard is correct.

You don’t have to take my word for it. You can read the post here.

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27 thoughts on “How does fantasy fandom treat black women?

  1. I’m pretty sure that brown people were hanging around in non-significant numbers in Europe at various times in the past and with varying degrees of identity separation or status vis-a-vis people of other colors, but in Arthurian proto-Britain, I’d be surprised to find Africans at all

    Well, “Arthurian” (as it is usually understood) is of course completely anachronistic, but if we’re talking post-Roman mid-ish first millennium, I would certainly expect some brown people… There is plenty of evidence of people from all over the Roman empire and beyond (including Africa and the Middle East) being present as part of the Roman military forces throughout the entire period of Roman rule, and it would seem highly unlikely that all of them (and all their descendants) left with the legions around the end of the fourth century.

    Guinevere / Gwenhwyfar doesn’t appear at all in the very earliest surviving Brythonic Arthurian material, as far as I can recall, but when she does make her appearance (Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, IIRC) she is certainly not a servant and equally certainly not black. That’s the sort of thing that he would have mentioned.

  2. FYI – historically, Gwenyvere (or any of a dozen spellings) has been portrayed as the daughter of a British Isles high noble. The specifics change from story to story, but I have never heard of any where she was from anywhere other than the Isles.

  3. If Gwenyvere was the daughter of a noble (and she’d pretty much have to be, otherwise no king would have any good reason to marry her), then there’s no way she’d be African. AFAIK, there was absolutely zero African royal lines ruling any part of England, ever. As for the genpop, I suspect most of what few Africans would have been living in England back then would have been descendants of Roman soldiers of African origin posted in England. (Hadrian’s Wall was garrisoned by Syrian units.)

    So no, Gwenyvere could not have been African, unless you rewrite the whole legend so that Arthur marries an African peasant woman purely for love, without regard for the political consequences of not using marriage as a nation-building tool, which is what marriage was for the feudal lords of that time. King Arthur could have had an African lover or concubine, but not an African wife.

  4. Tara Thorton is a Sookie Stackhouse’s best friend in the “True Blood” TV series (although a relatively minor character in the books).

    Merecedes Jones is a character on TV’s “Glee”.

  5. I just read the article, and I notice there’s no reference to where, specifically, all this hatred is being voiced. And that leads me to ask: how do we really know if this is representative of fandom in general, or just a handful of vocal haters gumming up one or two locations?

    It’s like an Internet poll: they don’t really tell you shit, because all the participants are self-selected and there’s no way of verifying, or controlling, how representative of “public opinion” the results really are.

    That said, I suspect that in the case of Dr. Who, that’s an old show with a longstanding fan base; so those fans are likely to be hostile to ANYONE or ANYTHING new, and, well, the blacks are kinda new to this show. That’s probably not racism so much as the same kind of pissing-match you get between Kirk and Picard fans.

  6. Raging Bee: Your argument leads to “Almost certainly was not” but not to “Could not have been” … given that there may have been Africans via roman armies. After all, there were Jewish Conquistadors during the Inquisition. Well, at the beginning, anyway.

  7. Greg: Is there any record of African royal families in England back then? I say “could not have been” because I’ve never heard of African royal families in post-Roman Britain.

    I also say “could not have been” because post-Roman Britain was at the mercy of Viking, Norse, Saxon and other white migrations/raiders. They had the real power in England, and they would never have installed a ruler who was not of their own tribe. The only way an African family could have achieved royal status in England was by an African invasion/migration; and I’ve never heard of such an event anywhere in Europe, up to the Moorish/Muslim conquest of Iberia. (Do the Arthurian legends mention Muslims at all?)

  8. Check out the spin-off of Dr. Who, Torchwood. Sexual preference is treated the same way as race. Basically a non-issue.

  9. Martha was all right as a companion, but the very best of the new series, I’m quite sure, was Donna Noble (played by Catherine Tate). She had a way of undercutting the timelord’s arrogance and stopping him when he went off on rants, was funny, and adapted well to outré situations. She punctured his ego, kept him grounded, and for the most part kept right up with him. I just loved the hell out of her character.

    I liked Rose the least, what with all the mushy snogging and weepy girly shi’ite. Seriously. Watch one of the shows from her second season with Tennant sometime – just random and out of sequence – and see if it doesn’t make you a bit queasy. (Most effective if you haven’t seen any Billie Piper for a while.) It was a good choice to shoot her off permanently into a separate universe. If only it could’ve happened sooner.

    Rose’s relationship with Mickey was problematic only to the extent that Mickey was a doofus. Once he got past that, things went better. My sense is that mixed-ethnicity relationships of any kind are more acceptable to UK audiences, hence to the society at large. I’d be surprised to learn, for instance, that they ever had laws there specifically forbidding blacks and whites being married.

    There are two Who spinoffs, neither of which is funct any more, I believe. The first was Torchwood, whose more or less lead character, Captain Jack Harkness, was quite unrepentantly bisexual, to the point of sexual harassment (IMO) on one of his male colleagues.

    The other was Sarah Jane Adventures, which featured a cross-ethnic ensemble cast of youth doing … youthy things while foiling aliens, led by a slightly dotty former Who companion (Dr Who #4, actually, the inimitable Tom Baker). This series would probably be on the air still if Elisabeth Sladen hadn’t died last year.

    The point is that there are youthy attractions of sorts in some of the SJA subplots – as I recall – and there’s a nice range of ethnicities, and it’s the crush that gets noticed, not the ethnicity.

    Now it’s fair to say that SF and fantasy both have room for a lot of rule-bending, and it’s fair to say that things are probably a bit more relaxed in the UK, but I still wonder just how much of a non-genere audience might have been watching these shows – and what they might have made of it all.

    SF and fantasy audiences like to pride themselves on being diverse (whatever the evidence might say to the contrary), but it’s more or less a given that the muggles are going to be more uptight, not the least because they aren’t steeping themselves in a culture where it’s normal for a ship captain to bang a green chick.

    Try to air something like this cluster of shows in the States on Fox on Sunday, in other words, and you’d see a shitstorm the likes of which would make the Red Scare of the 1950s look like a wet fart.

  10. Raging Bee: Again, this is not my area of expertise, but I’m pretty sure there are virtually NO records of any kind of any royal families in England of that time.

    You make an interesting point with Vikings. Vikings are probably pretty relevant to that time, and that would increase the chance of Africans being significant. (I’m not actually sure of the timing of Vikings. The viking texts are not as early as the Viking archaeology so there is a lot lost there.)

    Muhammad is the first half of the 7th century in the Arabian Peninsula. King Arthur would have been around, just a few decades before Islam could have even existed. The real islamic expansion was probably mid 8th century. So, no, not likely any connection there.

  11. It’s really hard to sort out what’s what in hardcore fandom. Everybody feels possessive about the various properties and various characters, so everyone is always upset about something.

    “I hate you because you mucked up my adventure show by adding that squishy social stuff.”

    “I hate you because you dare to have the tiniest criticism of something I love.”

    “I hate you because your wish-fulfillment fantasy that I love doesn’t give me enough places to project myself based on how I look.”

    “I hate you because the people who look like me aren’t as awesome as I want them to be.” Note: I don’t get this one with Martha. Martha rocks. She wasn’t sold as hard as Rose, but that was a virtue for me.

    This is complicated by the fact that there is a strain of fandom that runs very close to literary criticism and is where you find a lot of minorities of one sort or another. Not sure exactly why, but it’s there. There is already a culture clash between that part of fandom and the “leave my cool stuff alone” part, and sometimes one between creators (where privilege affects who gets published) and critics. Both of these more general clashes can end up with actual or perceived race and gender elements due to the different group makeups.

    And, of course, there’s always the libertarian wanker faction of fandom, where most of the accusations are dead on.

  12. Hanchman, good point. I’ve seen the first few episodes. In fact, a still from Torchwood was my facebook shot during “show a picture of people of the same sex kissing” week.

    Warren: Excellent demonstration of fandom conversation, thanks!

    I hated Donna Noble when she first appeared because she was almost typical of a female archetype that is common in fiction, that I really hate. “My womanhood can’t stop me from being a bitchy shrew only interested in you doing this one stupid thing I demand even though if I just dropped that for a second I could push this button and save the whole universe…. but oh wait, I got my high heels stuck in a hole.”

    I.e., much like Rose’s Mother.

    But she (Donna) got way btter.

    I’d be surprised to learn, for instance, that they ever had laws there specifically forbidding blacks and whites being married.

    Maybe back in King Arthur’s time.

    “Sarah Jane Adventures”… what? Who? Ah, there it is on Netflix. Looks a little kid-oriented (more so than Torchwood, that is). Explicitly a children’s series.

    I still wonder just how much of a non-genere audience might have been watching these shows – and what they might have made of it all.

    For the later Dr. Who series, I think it may be substantial, given its ratings, but I’m not sure.

  13. In the earliest material, Arthur is not referred to as a “king”, because the concept hadn’t really been invented yet. That’s another of Geoffrey’s retcons. (The main point of Geoffrey’s work was to provide a local mythological backstory for the concept of a unified Britian under a single king in order to legitimise the new Norman elite at the expense of the Anglo-Saxons.) He appears to be a war-band leader, but in mid-first-millenium Britain, that doesn’t imply “nobility” in the sense we now understand. Basically if you’re talking about “King” Arthur as a “noble lord” in anything like the conventional sense, you’re still talking about the Arthur of the continental Romances of around a half-millennium after the last possible time any historical proto-Arthur could theoretically have lived. He was certainly a widely-known mythic character by the middle of the ninth century, and there is a pretty solid argument to push that back to seventh or early eighth century, depending on your opinion on the likely date of the (lost) first recension of Y Gododdin. The Annales Cambriae gives the year of Arthur’s death at the battle of Camlan as 537. There is ample evidence that the intra-tribal politics of the time were extremely complex, and most likely did not really involve the concepts of nobility or kingship in the sense we normally understand them.

  14. Also, the term “Viking” is maybe a little problematic here… It’s usually used to refer to the Danish and Norwegian sea-raiders of the mid-to-late first millennium, but that’s more of a political distinction than anything else. Culturally and ethnically, they’re virtually indistinguishable from both earlier and later waves of raiding and migration from continental Europe from the late Iron Age through to (and including) the Norman conquest. And the people others referred to as “Vikings” probably didn’t regard themselves as a single cultural unit, at least not until the establishment of the Danelaw in the ninth century (and even then, the Danes didn’t really get on that well with the Norwegians). From the point of view of the Britons (since the early Arthur is specifically a Brythonic hero, militantly opposed to the “English“) the distinction between “Viking”, “Angle” and “Saxon” was probably irrelevant.

    It’s very important to be wary of “historical foreshortening” – the differences between sixth and ninth century Britain may seem minimal, even inconsequential to us now, but they most likely would have seemed quite significant to the people who actually lived at the time. And similarly, the distinctions we make amongst the various cultural and political groupings probably bear very little resemblance to how the people involved actually understood them.

  15. Yeah, when I first saw Gwenivere had been cast as a black woman, I shrugged and said “21st-century PC casting. Whattaya gonna do.” And that was all the thought I gave it.

    Merlin is a sweet family-oriented fantasy show, and it already rearranges the myth to make Arthur and Merlin contemporaries, to define Merlin as not being a wise and revered wizard when he steps onto the scene, to have Arthur reared by his father Uther and have Igraine dead, to have Mordred not as Arthur and Morgan’s son, and to seriously bury the Arthur/Gwenivere/Lancelot love triangle. What’s taking it one step farther by changing Gwen’s origins to make her a commoner, and African to boot?

    I find all the actors on the show to be refreshing casting, to be honest. None of them are Hollywood perfect, but they’re all attractive in interesting ways, and they’re all pretty good actors, which is a helluva lot more than can be said of some casts on this side of the pond. I’ll take several more seasons of Merlin‘s charming silliness over, say, Camelot‘s broody and meandering self-indulgence.

  16. Oh yeah, whilst I’m feeling didactic – Merlin (Myrddin) originates from a completely different cycle of Brythonic mythology / psuedo-history and only got pasted into the Arthurian cycle much later. By Geoffrey, again. Naturally.

    I’m getting the feeling that nobody’s really interested in any versions of these stories which precede Geoffrey… 😉

    But, just for the sake of absolute clarity – all of the stuff you think you know about Merlin and Arthur was invented in the twelfth century by one bloke with a political axe to grind, and bears about as much resemblance to the original mythology (and historical reality) as Mel Gibson’s Braveheart does to the actuality of the First War of Scottish Independence. Which is to say: none whatsoever. What you’re calling “myth” is actually “historical fiction”.

  17. Greg –

    It helps if you know that Catherine Tate is also a comedienne who’s had at least one series of her own, and who is really quite funny. It was nice to see her play a more or less straight dramatic role, but of course the insanity did ooze out here and there as well. It’s also possible that they were still trying to settle her into the role at first.

    Her initial appearance was, as I recall, in a Christmas special – so she and the Doc had a history prior to the regular series flow.

    I was just a little too tickled to see her at all to really notice any flaws in the performance.

    Yeah, SJA was a kids’ series – actually, I got my regenerations off a bit; Sarah first appeared with Doctor #3, Jon Pertwee. She continued with DW#4, and was eventually left on Earth – by her request – along with a robot dog called K9. (Get it? Get it?)

    Sometime in the third season of the DW series reboot (as I recall), we learn that she’s spent her time since then chasing after bad guys, and that she’s kept K9 (Ha ha I get it now damn that’s clever!) around. The SJA series spun off sometime in there.

    There’s been a trend in DW lately to get involved with family and romance subplots that strike me as being a bit squicky, actually. If you look at the first eight doctors, they were quite above it all. I like the human interest to an extent, but dammit, the show has always been about foiling nasty aliens, not friggin’ pregnancy tests.

    (And yes, the regeneration on DW #8 comes from the movie starring Paul McGann, which was aired once on Fox in the 1990s and which can be found now on DVD and, hence, BitTorrent. If you’re really in the mood for a laugh, and particularly if you’ve seen a fairly substantial block of the old series shows, check out Rowan Atkinson’s Doctor Who sendup for Comic Relief, ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’.)

  18. Warren, interesting.

    I wasn’t suggesting that there were flaws in her performance. It was the writing that I was objecting to. Consider Rose’s mother. She has all these characteristics that are found so often in female roles (perhaps more in sci fi and fantasy than elsewhere, perhaps mainly in fifties and sixties drama?) which facilitate the male lead’s ability to, well, lead and stuff, to be more rational, to the one who knows what to do. The male “just do what I’m telling you to do and never mind understanding why” and the female “I’m not going to do what you tell me to do until I first complain that you din’t remember my favorite color” are the yin-yang of leading man/leading lady dynamics in older cinema and seemingly much sci fi. It happens fairly often in Dr. Who, but Rose’s Mother and early Donna more so for the female roles and never with Martha.

    By the way, the original Dr Who and Companion did this quite a bit but the companion seemed to quickly and early understand that she should just follow instructions. Probably mostly out of fear of Dr Who’s hair.

  19. Tara Thorton is a Sookie Stackhouse’s best friend in the “True Blood” TV series (although a relatively minor character in the books).

    In keeping with the theme of this thread, I’ll point out that in the books, she’s white. Making her black in the show was a good idea IMO.

    Also, Lafayette (the gay black cook) was killed off early in the book series, but they decided to keep him alive and on the show. (And make him Tara’s cousin.) Also a good move IMO.

    There are lots of black people in Louisiana, so it’s not particularly PC casting, just not being all white for no good reason.

  20. Greg –

    Good point. Russell Davies was still helming the show at that time, and I think there were several problems that various people had with his writing and story choices, so it’s entirely possible that Rose’s mother and Donna were affected, as characters.

    It wasn’t the hair that kept the oldschool companions in line. It was the scarf.

    …well, for that Doctor, anyway. Don’t forget the TARDIS is huge. Huge enough to include entire dungeons. With chains in the walls. And long-desiccated skeletons attached to those chains.

    That’s the sort of thing guaranteed to take the starch out of any uppity companion…

  21. Basically the writers said hey lets put this black woman in there it will ruin the history but keep the pc nazis off our back. Then they went out and found the ugliest black woman they could find and cast her as a woman so supposedly so beautiful she attracted a king and made lancelot betray his honor. Seriously look at her face. Ugly skin color ugly hair ugly big nose pointed chin ugly lips. Anyone who finders her even remotely pretty is blind.

  22. It’s always rather interesting when blacks (or any other race for that matter) bring up the subject of their representation in mainstream media, there is always a significant number of people who will quickly tell them that they are wrong, or try and give a logical reason why they aren’t represented. I find this happens in fandom more than most places, which while I don’t think this means that fandom hates black people, I do thinks that it shows that fandom has a very limited and stereotypical concept of black people. I also think it suggests that a good portion of fandom don’t want ethnicities in their fantasy or Sf unless they are aliens.

    Often fans want to go for hyper-realism about the race of characters in film (i.e. Arthurian, or Norse mythology, but this seems to be very selective. Look at any Hollywood film that takes place in biblical times, but have no people who look in the least like Middle Easterners. How many times are English actors used as default European characters for any European drama/ or generic fantasy setting(when is someone going to do a 3 Musketeers films with actors who are French)? Look at that retched Avatar film. Of course you had some fans crying foul, but I honestly belief the majority of fans would have been A-okay with the casting if the movie had actually been good.

    A lot of it comes from simple ignorance. I am amazed at the number of “smart” people in fandom that don’t know facts like English census records show that blacks were indeed living in London and all parts of England during Victorian times, yet I hear all the time from fans that there was no blacks in England which is why you never see them in historical dramas, and any attempts at rectifying that is just “multicultural, p.c. BS!” So I guess people like Colridge-Taylor and Mary Seacourt were just myths?

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