Diverse folk diversely they demed;
As many heddes as manye wittes there been.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Squires Tale

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Racist Discourses in Fantasy Fandom

Amid the usual flurry of other things – not least organising session proposals for the 2014 Kalamazoo IMC – I have been thinking about inclusion and exclusion and how they work in fandoms. It seems to me that being a fan is not the same as being part of a fan community, or that at the very least, being the former doesn’t guarantee membership of any given iteration of the latter. In Textual Poachers (1992), Henry Jenkins wrote about the conventions of interpretation common to fan communities, and those conventions have been shown to be the basis of identity work within those communities – reading the ‘right’ way means you are in (e.g. Bury 2005). I’ve been looking at the ways that discourses which exclude people from fan communities get attached to discussions of race and racism on westeros.org. When threads which raise problematic issues around race in either George Martin’s novels or HBO’s Game of Thrones are raised, community members tend to respond by challenging the fandom of the original poster using discourses that align very closely with those identified by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in his Racism Without Racists (2006). The eurocentricity of the fictional world is justified in a few main ways (in varying order):
1)    the personal choices of Martin as the creator of that world – the OP is constructed as not a real fan for criticising Martin’s choices.
2)    the monochrome Middle Ages argument which says that the works are based on medieval Europe which was populated by whites and that therefore only a majority white cast of characters should appear – the OP is not a real fan because s/he is more concerned with political correctness than the authenticity of the story.
3)    dismissed as unimportant without a reason, or on the basis that it’s made up and not ‘the real world’ – the OP is pathologized as an over-zealous, ‘rabid’ fan who cares too much.
4)    said to be non-existent – the OP is constructed as ignorant, or as having not paid enough attention to the text, and is, in either case, not a real fan because s/he lacks knowledge.

The first  and second fit very closely with Bonilla-Silva’s Abstract Liberalism framework which, he says, consists of “using ideas associated with political … [and] economic liberalism in abstract manners to explain racial matters” (28), “the idea of individual choice is used to defend whites’ right to live and associate primarily with whites” (36). This argument is used to justify writing and reading about whites and cultural heritage – the Middle Ages – which is identified as white. The second is a clear example the “Anything but Racism’ rhetorical strategy Bonilla-Silva identifies; history, rather than racism or exclusion, is used to explain eurocentricity. The third and fourth fit closely with the framework of Minimization. For Bonilla-Silva this “suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances” (29); on westeros.org, minimization suggests that the experience of the OP, or any who takes that perspective, is either not important, or not real.

Westeros.org is far from the only fan site where this happens – I’ve found very similar patterns in other fantasy fandoms, especially on forums for games like World of Warcraft and Dragon Age. I’ve written before about using Bonilla-Silva’s work to explore RaceFail 09 – a project that’s on the backburner right now but will come to the front later this year I hope. It’s not that there are no voices challenging eurocentricity as the default setting in fantasy and the racism that results, but the arguments are ongoing, and in some places they are being fiercely resisted.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. 2nd ed. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Bury, R. 2005. Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online. New York: Peter Lang.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Diverse Game Characters

While I catch up the great things that happened at Kalamazoo, here is a link to a video from GDC of Jill Murray talking about writing diverse characters in games. Some interesting insights into the process of writing race in games.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Going to the (Kalama)zoo

In less than a week I'll be off to the Kalamazoo International Medieval Congress - my second visit. It's been a very busy lead-up in the month between when I got back from my last trip and now. I re-visited a couple of the Middle English romances I worked on in my thesis for an undergraduate course, which was great. Looking at Of Arthour and of Merlin and Guy of Warwick - both in the versions from the Auchinleck MS - was, I think, a challenge for the second-year students who hadn't read a lot of Middle English before, but they seemed very engaged. When I asked a couple who were whispering in the lecture if they had a question, it turned out the two of them were arguing about whether the translations of "hores stren" I'd put in my Powerpoint slide was correct. They were right that it was a loose translation not a literal one on my part. After not doing a lot of teaching last year as I was getting my research project really up and going, it's been great to get back into it. I'm also supervising a PhD project - on Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy and Frank Herbert's Dune - which is different to Middle English romance, but a lot closer to the research I'm doing now.

But Kalamazoo is on the horizon now - not quite literally until I'm on the Amtrak next week - but close enough. I'm really looking forward to it. There are the two panels I organised on "Tales After Tolkien," and all the panelists I don't know yet to meet, as well as some medievalism panels, the roundtable I'm in, and the general round of sociability that is Kalamazoo.

My paper, as they are often wont to do, has developed from what I originally had in mind. Perhaps evolved would be a better word. With some focus on my part, it will still fit the session though. I've been thinking a lot about medievalism, and neomedievalism, and if there are really differences that can be pinned down. And about what 'the Middle Ages' really means, not just to scholars, but in popular culture, and in which sections of popular culture. Is it the same to fans and authors and publishers and game-makers? Or to the different groups within those groups? The obvious answer is no, culture is just not that homogenous. But if that's the case, how can medieval references possibly be so powerful and omnipresent right now? If there aren't some core similarities, certain 'things' (and I really do lack a better word right now) that are common to all invocations of 'the medieval' wherever they occur and whoever uses them, how can those invocations have any meaning? 'The Middle Ages' is like any other linguistic sign - it can have multiple overlapping and sometimes contradictory meanings. But are there constant denotations among the connotations? Or vice versa? My paper at Kalamazoo (8:30am on Sunday morning for anyone attending) will try to answer these questions.

Medievalism - neo or otherwise - never happens just for its own sake. It's always attached to, or deployed in the service of, some other discourse. My research focuses on racial/ist discourses, but there are multiple, multiple others. Medievalism is so adaptable, and so are the Middle Ages.