The other day I stumbled upon a blog post where someone expressed frustration over the facf that so many fantasy writers incorporate institutionalised sexism in the fictive worlds they create. Why bother putting energi into creating a whole hypothetical world and in the end incorporate in it the same oppressive structures that exist in the real world? I can’t remember the name of the post or of the blog but it got me thinking.
I recently finished writing the first part of my first fantasy series and in the world of this story there is sexism. And homophobia. And racism. And many other oppressive structures such as slavery and religiously based oppression. Why did I incorporate this things when I didn’t have to?
The beautiful things with speculative fiction is that you can make up almost anything and this allows you to experiment with concepts and ideas that you might not be able to in other genres. Want to make your hero ride on a dragon while battling orcs? That’s fine. Want to make alien robots fight each other in outer space? Nothing’s stopping you. Want to theorise about what a world without racism/sexism/transphobia etc could look like? That’s sound like a plan.
I think that trying to imagine a world without certain institutionalised forms of oppression sounds like a really interesting idea and a great way to show that maybe such things don’t actually have to exist. It’s definitely one way to go about it and I’m personally quite interested in exploring this in future projects.
But back to why I didn’t in the particular series I’m working on right now. One of the beautiful things about literature is that it can shed a light on the struggles people face in real life. None of us will ever face the challenge of having to slay a fire-breathing dragon or fighting off invading alien forces. But many now all to well the challenges of discrimination and oppression. And sometimes this things can feel as unsormontable as fighting monsters.
Having your own struggles mirrored in those of a fictional character can be, oddly enough, empowering as it reminds us that whatever we are going through is rarely unique. Many others know them all too well and we aren’t alone in this battle.
I was reminded of this recently when I was reading a fantasy novel with a gay male protagonist. The animosity from people who know of his sexuality, the not even concealed homophobic disappointment from his family and the violence he had faced growing up just because he was who is was felt all too real; because it actually happens to so many every single day.
Art can help us for a moment escape the evil in the world and it can show us how the world could or ought to be. It can also point us to the real monsters in the world, the ones all or many of us actually face, and remind us that we are not alone in the struggle. It can give us the strength to, like the valiant warrior who picks up their shield and sword to face the dragon, grow in our determination to never give up and to continhe fighting for those we love and for what we believe in.
Or in the wise words of G.K. Chesterton:
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”