Imagine being able to build a world from scratch by simply writing words on a page. If reality could be whatever you decide, would you allow the world you create to mimic the oppressive systems that exist in the real world today? This is a question that many readers will benefit from when reading different fantasy authors. These authors create their own worlds with fantastical elements attached, and yet, when fantasy elements are stripped from them, systemic oppression is often revealed as a centerpiece of the work. When an author seeks to carve out their own reality within a novel and they allow it to resemble the same stereotypes and power structures that exist in reality, their ability to create anything must be questioned altogether.
George R. R Martin, author of the “Song of Ice and Fire” series, has achieved great success for his books and their subsequent TV adaptation. Yet, his work is an excellent example of how the fantasies of most straight, cis-gendered white men rarely differ from reality. When you push aside the fantasy aspects of the novels and show, there are several less-than-desirable aspects that parallel reality. Among these elements is the rampant misogyny that exists both within the novels and the TV show. Women are characterized as objects to be owned whose actions are at the whim of the men around them.
As in any culture where women are viewed as objects rather than people, sexual assault poses a serious threat. Within the entirety of the “Song of Ice and Fire” series, a total of 214 acts of sexual violence are committed. The sheer volume of these instances buttresses the fact that, within the series, women are mere vessels for the character development of the men within the series.
Is this the kind of fantasy that society allows to become a TV show with a budget of upwards of $10 million per season? The violence against women in “A Song of Ice and Fire” stems from one of the many aspects of Martin’s identity overpowering his writing. For people who have identities similar to his, it could be that there is simply not much left for them to create. What more could a man have to imagine or desire to make reality when his ancestors paved the way for his success through the colonization and exploitation of anyone who was considered “other”? Regardless of Martin’s background, the popularity of his novels speaks to what audiences across the world will allow to pass for fantasy. In reality, when the dragons are extracted from Martin’s novels, they are less fantastical and more of a showcase of the basest and most heinous parts of the human experience.
Martin is far from the last author who will achieve great success despite their capacity for creativity being relatively nonexistent. Jennifer L. Armentrout, author of “From Blood and Ash,” is well known to anyone who is familiar with BookTok. Armentrout’s book is too often praised and rarely criticized for the shamelessly racist characterizations of the only two Black people in the novel.
The first of these characters is named Tawny — a Black woman (as her name would suggest) who is a servant. The other is named Kieran, another servant whose name also alludes to blackness. Unlike Tawny, Kieran is bound to his white master and has the ability to shapeshift into a wolf. If attaching these traits to the only Black characters in this novel does not immediately strike the reader as wrong, I would encourage them to review the history of slavery in the United States. Aside from this, an overwhelming amount of information about the author is revealed in her sparse characterization of the two Black characters she so graciously includes in her novel.
The success of Armentrout’s novel begs the question: Why do people support her? The answer to this may be very similar to the reason that people support Martin’s works. When people allow themselves to become immersed in a fantasy world, the real-life implications of the politics and social atmosphere that are created are rarely acknowledged. After all, the false reality that exists in a fantasy world would seem to have little impact on reality. However, this is far from the truth. From Hallmark, to Disney, to Martin, the entertainment we create and consume reflects the values we uphold in our day-to-day lives. Entertainment not only mirrors the values of our society, but actively reinforces them. This is the danger that exists behind the seemingly innocuous stereotypes or oppressive systems that exist in fantasy novels.
Outside of the danger of uncritically echoing oppressive institutions and ideologies, the fact that Martin can create a series with something as heinous and unnecessary as over 200 instances of sexual violence and Armentrout can become famous when the only two Black characters in her novel are slaves reflects the privilege that white people hold within the United States. These authors, due to their identities as white people, need not be bothered with considering the plight of people who do not look like them in any world that they set out to create. Rather, anyone who is “other” is an object to be used for the development of the main, normally white, characters. To uphold writers who directly reinforce these concepts, even when they are seeking to create a reality that is separate from the one that already exists, speaks to what is okay to ignore in our society.
V.E Schwab is one of the few white authors I have come across to actively turn minorities into majorities and shift anything having to do with issues of race or sex in her fantasy worlds to the opposite of what they are in the real world. Her “Shades of Magic” series is an excellent example of this. The ruling family in the series are people of color and are often described as having darker skin and dark curly hair. The prince in the family, Rhy Maresh, has both male and female love interests — his sexuality and his racial identity do not lapse into stereotypes. He is allowed the chance to exist as a fully rounded character with a complete arc throughout the trilogy. Schwab’s writing in the series provides an excellent example of the importance of causal representation and exploring the gray areas of sexuality, race and gender identity.
When dealing with issues of politics and representation in fantasy novels, there is a long-term and short-term solution. In the short term, readers who are a part of minority communities would benefit a great deal from supporting and reading from authors who share a similar identity. Reading books by an author who looks like you or shares other aspects of your identity is a fantastic way to read a book and experience it comfortably. The long-term solution to these issues will arrive when society is structured in such a way that white people cannot live in blissful ignorance of situations that affect people in marginalized communities.