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Fantasy, Reality, & ‘Ism’s

In the wake of the Fuck You Jim Butcher post a lot of the “It’s fantasy, don’t get offended” rhetoric is circulating again. Nothing new, but I’m a little perplexed by the argument that using real racial slurs (like Injun or Tar Baby) for fictional characters means that those real slurs are somehow neutered. That using real cities as backdrops and rewriting them to erase millions of people of color doesn’t mean anything…because it’s fiction. That including real sexist tropes & real rape culture is somehow a-okay because…it’s fiction. Fiction that is built on real racism, real sexism, & real classism is likely to be real offensive.

No one is saying that authors must write books that please everyone. That’s impossible. Fiction is supposed to be an escape for readers, (that is especially true of genre fiction) and when you use real social issues in your work you need to be aware of that fact. After all when your idea of an escape is a world where those social issues are present and often unaddressed or poorly handled? That says something about you. Don’t like what people think it says or that they’re angry when they discuss it? Might be time to examine your work and yourself a little more closely. Among other things, ask why your fiction needs to be rooted in real ‘isms. And just what are you & your readers trying to escape?

12 thoughts on “Fantasy, Reality, & ‘Ism’s”

  1. Erin says:

    See, this is what I don’t get – it’s easy enough to replicate racism, sexism and other “isms” in fantasy worlds. It seems much more difficult and more important to me that one imagines worlds where these kinds of things are upended. I mean, that’s the point of fantasy – to imagine something different. This is one of my biggest complaints with the Game of Thrones series.

  2. Emburii says:

    I remember bringing up his use of ‘tarbaby’ on the Jim Butcher forums and getting the usual, ‘you’re overreacting!’ or ‘how dare you impugn his character by calling him racist!’ It was even more discouraging, though, to see how many of my white friends and white people in general just…didn’t even process it as a problem. Or they said ‘it is a big, black, sticky creature, why not call it a tarbaby?’.
    At least it does tell people exactly who Jim Butcher is writing for. He’s writing for white people. He’s writing for straight people (can we get a gay person who isn’t some kind of people-eating monster, please?). He’s writing for Catholics. At least he’s made all that pretty unambiguous.

  3. joe says:

    I agree with some of the OP’s points. His work would be better if he learned more about Chicago geography and he does need to include more POC as characters / part of the Chicago background. I also understand that they’re pissed because he took a neighborhood they liked and made it darker and more dangerous than it is in their experience. But is it really odd that he gets defensive when the conversation starts with “FUCK YOU JIM BUTCHER!!” and includes the false claim that he has no POC characters? (3 of the 5 supporting characters in the last book weren’t white. Later in this book 2 new non-white re-occurring characters are introduced, but again he needs more)

    What I got from the scene in question is
    The neighborhood is dangerous with lots of criminal activity.
    Artimus Bock is a Tough Guy™ because he’s been able to do business in a bad neighborhood for so long.
    In this setting magic and the supernatural are marginalized and only welcome in places that are outside the mainstream.

  4. Ellen Kushner says:

    Erin: You’d really like Laurie J. Marks’s ELEMENTAL LOGIC series, which does exactly that! Check it out:

    Small Beer Press published Book 3 and will do Book 4 as as soon as Laurie can finish it – meanwhile, Books 1 & 2 are available used and will be out as eBooks soon.

    (And if you already knew all that, sorry to be preaching to the choir!)

  5. Emburii says:

    ‘Magic not being accepted outside the mainstream’ is a whole ‘nother pack of problems in the book series. The number of times Harry Dresden goes into rants about science, or rather the character (author’s?) strawman view on its arrogance and blindness, is truly depressing. It’s even worse because he’ll start criticizing the scientific method right after he notes how people can lie to themselves or draw false conclusions because of what they want to believe, which is exactly what the scientific method and science as a discipline is trying to correct for. I half-expect him to imply that vaccines are some White Court plot. Then there’s the painting of skeptics as deluded at best or monsters at worse; most skeptics I know would accept the proof that his fireball spells and creature summonings would represent, so the oppression of magic folks by ‘scientific consensus’ and so forth that he uses is really quite grating. The human tendency towards convention and blindness might silence these people, but that’s what science has always had to contend with as well.

    And I still want someone who is gay and not a people-eating monster. We haven’t seen any gay male characters, and the lesbians we’ve seen have been vampires or ‘college experimenters’.

    Oh, and as for characters of color, he took out one of the more awesome ones to put a spotlight on a ‘milk-white’ (his words) FBI agent. So yeah, why shouldn’t people be criticizing Butcher? It looks like there’s plenty he’s getting wrong.

  6. joe says:

    Fist, I agree that his writing would be better if the setting were more diverse. He only seems willing to use POC characters as monster hunters; Never victims, rarely supporting cast, and only once as a villain. But I’m not following what you’re referencing with what you wrote below. He’s taken out shiro and Susanne and Meryl, but none of them had much to do with the FBI.

    Oh, and as for characters of color, he took out one of the more awesome ones to put a spotlight on a ‘milk-white’ (his words) FBI agent. So yeah, why shouldn’t people be criticizing Butcher? It looks like there’s plenty he’s getting wrong.

    Also, I didn’t really think that there were any lesbian characters in the books (maybe one in a short story) I’m not really counting white court vampires as having an orientation. Butcher’s made it really clear that they don’t see people on ‘people’ but rather as livestock…and that most of them seem happy to eat either men or women.

    I’d have liked to see Waldo Butter’s be gay. If played correctly it would have added some more confusion/humor. Although, if he were gay than he’d have to be changed substantially to avoid re-enforcing a lot of negative gay stereotypes. With him straight the cowardice, lack of physical prowess and lack of a social life are just random traits.

    I’m not really reading the science stuff in the same way that you are. For the set up to work there needs to be some reason most people don’t know about the supernatural. Honestly I like “they’re in denial” a lot better than Men In Black or some other massive worldwide flawless conspiracy. I’d be happy to have a nerdfest with you on this but I think it would be a thread jack.

  7. Emburii says:

    When Murphy was in the police force, one of the people Dresden talked to was Rawlins. In ‘Changes’, he added in Tilly the milk-white FBI agent who believes Dresden and is obviously going to be more involved in the series. With the police department much less of a factor, I’m really worried that we won’t see Rawlins even the little as we have. This is the same book where Butcher used ‘tarbaby’ for a pictch black animalistic servant creature. Maybe you can get past your knee-jerk reaction and begin to see why people have issues with his treatment of race.

    Marcy from ‘Aftermath’ experimented in college, which is a straight man’s fantasy and not representation at all. As for the vampires, it makes it worse that they’re utterly inhuman and yet they’re the closest thing we’ve seen to a gay person. This does not reflect well on Mr. Butcher’s treatment of LGBQTI situations, so I’m not quite sure why you bring it up as if that’s a defense or something. Especially when the female vampires are bisexual at least and yet all the male ones appear to be straight; Bianca went crazy over a woman. Lara’s got some stuff going on with Justine. Madeline had a thing for Justine. Meanwhile The White King and Thomas have never been with guys or been referenced as having a same-sex attachment. There’s a definite double standard, a bias of what applies to straight males and not much consideration for anything else.

    Lastly, there is a conspiracy. Beginning of Death Masks, Paolo Ortega is cited as a ‘world-famous skeptic’ who’s debunked many fakes, including vampires, when he is one himself; the implication is that the skeptic movement is a malevolent scheme designed to discredit everything our hero believes in.

    Our back-and-forth might be turning into a threadjack, though, so I suggest we hold off addressing each other again until/unless Karnythia lets us know if we should proceed.

  8. Emburii says:

    Erf, quick note since the ‘straight man’s fantasy and not representation at all’ comment sounds kind of bad; within the framework of the series it’s one more example of straight male titillation rather than being a good faith depiction of non-straight sexuality. Within the context of Mr. Butcher’s demonstrated privilege and biases, I personally don’t count it as respresentation.

  9. joe says:

    I’m going to assume that as long as we keep the discussion focused around race and gender in the Dresden Files we’re okay. If not I’m sure ABW will tell us.

    Since I started both of my comments by saying I agreed butcher needed to do better with race I’m not sure why you’re calling my reaction ‘knee jerk’. The tar baby description was offensive and ignorant.

    Now that you’ve pointed out what you meant about taking the spot light off of Rawlins I agree with you that it will be bad if it happens. I’m hoping that with Karen out of the police force that might give him a larger role. But, I think the story is going to leave Chicago and that Tilly will be his new contact. So you’re probably right ?

    I skimmed aftermath in the bookstore so I’m not that familiar with it. I remember one of the werewolves was a suspect because she might have still had feelings for one of the other’s who was just experimenting. I’d thought one of them was maybe a lesbian and the other had just been messing around in college…but like I said I’m not that familiar with it. Now that you brought it up I want to go back and re-read it.

    I brought up the white court because I didn’t see them as having a sexual orientation with respect to their food. I wasn’t trying to say it was an example of JB handling the subject well, but rather that he was ignoring it. I think the best explanation of how the vampires view humans was by Thomas at the end of Turn Coat. He made a big point that everyone they could see was just food to him; Young, old, female and male. Anyway, I was reading vampires as “inhuman monsters that eat humans.” Not as “unusual people that form relationships with humans.” So I wasn’t reading them (except Thomas) as gay or straight. But, looking at vampires in the context of there being no other examples of same gender sexual activity I’ve got to agree with your criticism.

    Ortega was actively engaged in a cover up. Someone made the tape of the werewolf attack disappear as well. That’s another examples. So it looks like it’s a combination of active cover up and denial. I’m still not getting the same hostility to science that you seem to. I do see a lot of passion around the idea that people want to believe a comfortable lie and rationalize away anything that doesn’t make them feel good about the world. This seems pretty accurate to me. To be honest, it wouldn’t be hard use this theme in conjunction with social justice themes in the Dresden files. He’s already worked in some discussion of wealth/class and conspicuous consumption. I’d like his stories better if paid more attention to race as well.

  10. Emburii says:

    It occurred to me that the Hyde Park description is even worse; if I recall correctly, he says the neighborhood has been somewhat ‘cleaned up’ by the (all-white) Alphas. So what this black neighborhood needed was some white people to save it from its violent inhabitants.

  11. Michael Swanson says:

    If it is important to the story you’re telling that a character be a racist, sexist or homophobe, then I think that it’s perfectly acceptable to use the atrocious language that character would use. For instance, you can’t write an effective story about the black experience in the early 20th century South unless your white characters sound like the ignorant, hateful pricks that they were encouraged to be. You can’t write about homosexuality any time before the last few years without the average citizen using denigrating terms without a second thought. It’s also dramatically important that characters use language appropriate for their time, as we can see socially accepted terms (like colored, Negro, black, African American) change over time.

    But if that’s not the case and a writer just wants to throw out bigoted terms to sound cool, or hip, or flippant or because they are indeed racist, then they can just go to hell.

  12. joe says:

    Must need more than just white saviors if it’s still such a dangerous place.

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