Harry Potter has been, and always shall be, my favourite fandom. It was my first, and my screen name on the discussion board that saw my first interaction with fandom was Pottermaniac. I would fight with my friends because they liked Lord of the Rings more than Harry Potter, and that was unacceptable. I tried to get the people who haven’t read the series to be socially ostracised. Yeah, I was a shitty person as a tween.
Anyway, naturally as one gets older – I read the first books of the series when I was eleven – one sees the faults in one’s favourite media, and one sees the problems. And in this case, there are many to choose from.
Now follows a part where a white girl talks about racial issues. Sorry about that. Leaving it out seemed like it would be even more problematic, because one of the most cited problems of Harry Potter is the problem of cishet white West-centric privilege just permeating the series. As for blaming Rowling for it, well, there is a post doing rounds on tumblr that sums up my feelings on this pretty well. She created that world and the basic characters of the story in the nineties. Many things were very different back then, many things were less discussed, people were less aware of them, and it’s not fair to judge Rowling by today’s standards for something she wrote that long ago. We can look at her newer work to see how she’s doing now. Far from perfect, as it turns out – not a week ago, she posted some info about famous magical schools in the world on Pottermore, giving us the whooping one school in each continent except Oceania, which doesn’t have any, while Europe boasts three – but that is a separate issue. She doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned, really deserve censure for what she did back then.
However, there’s a difference between blaming the author and critiquing the books, so I think it’s perfectly fair to say that this is a problem. It’s not, thank Merlin, as if Rowling made Britain completely whitewashed. In fact, when you look at the demographic numbers of the UK, you’ll see that she sort of got that right. The problem, of course, is the role of these characters, in light of the importance of representation of real world groups. While from the Watsonian perspective, someone could argue that if eighty-seven per cent of British people identifies as white, it’s statistically likely that all the protagonists would be white as well, the thing is, Hogwarts doesn’t actually exist.
It’s not life, it’s a story, and narratively, there’s no reason for all of not just the main trio, but the “secondary trio” (Ginny, Neville and Luna), as well as all of the ten or so significant adults, to be white, when having them be people of colour would enhance the experience of reading and made identification easier for non-white readers.
The only PoC characters of note, if memory serves, are Cho Chang, Angelina Johnson, Parvati and Padma Patil, Kingsley Shacklebolt and Dean Thomas. Out of these, Kingsley and Angelina are probably the most interesting. We don’t see much of Kingsley, but he is cool and capable and personally he has always been my favourite Order member. Plus he becomes the Minister at the end. But he is still a very minor character. Angelina is in the story more and she is fantastic, a great Quidditch player and a team Captain, a laid-back, fun girl to be around, good at her captain duties at the same time. I’m sorry she didn’t play more of a part in the story.
With Cho we can sympathise because of her tragic romantic history and because of Marietta, but identify with her? She’s a good Quidditch player, so there is that, but so are Angelina and Ginny and those, I think, are easier to relate to. Cho had a potential to be a relateable character for people suffering from depression, but for me at least, it falls a little flat, because of all the stereotypically girly and ‘boys will never understand girls’ aspects Rowling decided to give her, which, for me, detract from her humanity. Not that I think people who like frilly tearooms and get jealous aren’t human, but in this case it seems more like a strawman to me. Cho’s character, to my mind, is sidelined in favour of the type she is meant to represent.
And the rest of the characters…well. Perhaps I am wrong, but I find it a little difficult to imagine that anyone would particularly want to identify with them. They are not very fleshed out, barely feel real, and don’t have any actual good qualities one could latch onto (well, that’s not fair. We know Dean is artistically talented). Maybe the best thing about them is that, at least in some cases, they’re vague enough that one can project anything one likes onto them.
It’s of course even worse with LGBTQIA characters, since there is no one directly identifying as gay (let alone any of the other letters of the acronym) in the books, and the one character who Rowling straight-out said was gay ended up basically ruining the world by the one relationship of his that we know of. Narratively, not the least problematic choice.
So all this is a problem, yes, and if Rowling wrote another book series now, I’d certainly hope she did better with it.
But then there are all the things that were problematic in the nineties already. For one, the House divisions at Hogwarts, and the way she works with them.
The books give a very clear impression that she herself prefers Gryffindor to all the other houses, which is fine, of course. We all have a preference for one of the other, I guess. But the way she chose to depict that is another thing.
For one, the Gryffindors are overwhelmingly painted as the good guys, and not just by the Gryffindor characters – which would make sense – but by the story itself. In perhaps the most obvious display of this, Dumbledore tells Snape that “I sometimes think we Sort too soon” (DH, The Prince’s Tale) after commenting that Snape was brave, as if the only brave people were in Gryffindor. Gryffindor is also painted as the most ‘light’ house, which is very strange to me, because bravery as such does not necessarily have to be connected to the Light side, it depends on what are you brave in service of. For example, it always seemed to me that Bellatrix Lestrange had many very Gryffindor qualities. There’s nothing particularly cunning or subtle about her, but unquestionably she is very brave. Repulsive, yes, but she has courage. But Rowling’s personal bias makes Gryffindor the good house, with almost all of the prominent characters affiliated with it (the exceptions are Luna, Snape and Tonks – the remaining ten or so are all Gryffindors), and the marked exception to the goodness being Peter Pettigrew – and a very strange exception at that, too, since it’s patently clear Peter’s downfall was his fear, so how he ever got sorted in Gryffindor is a true mystery. There were many other ways a Gryffindor could have fallen that wouldn’t have negated their trademark characteristic, on the contrary, would have made use of it. You could turn into a merciless killer on the battlefield as a Gryffindor, for example – and we get a glimpse of that in Harry’s anger and his torture of Bellatrix, but we never actually see a Gryffindor go fully down that way. Instead, the fates of different characters make it seem like bravery is the only good quality truly worth of having. If you don’t have it, you will fall, or at the very least be useless; if you do, then yes, there are other dangers to overcome, but you’re on the right track.
And of course, Rowling’s treatment of other houses reflects her marked preference for Gryffindor. I’d argue that her second favourite was Hufflepuff, but she seems to regard it with a sort of fond condescension. There are two most prominent Puffs in the story: Cedric and Tonks (in whose case, however, it’s never stated outright in the text). Cedric, of course, is a paragon of perfection – good looks, great Quidditch player, skilled wizard. That is his job in the story. To be the unimitable competition for Harry when it regards Cho, and to make his death that more tragic. He is admirable, but he is also very much a plot device. Or perhaps it is just me, but I have trouble seeing him as a real person.
Tonks is better in this way, and in spite of her clumsiness, she is said to be a badass Auror and we even see her in action a few times. Not much, but we don’t see that much of any Order member fighting, honestly. Plus in her we have what I think is a better depiction of depression – we see her she suffer from it in the Half-Blood Prince, while still soldiering on in her job. So I’m happy with that representation, and my only objection is that her house affiliation was never mentioned in the text – and that she is the only one.
The Puffs we see in Harry’s year…they’re treated with barely hidden scorn, mostly, and serve as a sort of comic relief or simply as background characters. Plus there is Zacharias Smith, who is an unpleasant jerk. Once again, an odd sort of weakness for a Hufflepuff. I imagine a ‘fallen Puff’ as a SJW gone overboard, something we I think all have experience with, perhaps something we’ve all been, on occasion. People who get so enraged by racism and misrepresentation and misogyny and homophobia and similar vices that they resort to bullying the perpetrators, even though they’re often perhaps just unaware and uninformed and really meant no harm. I can see a Puff doing that (a Gryffindor too, for that matter). Or being blindly loyal to their friends and ignoring their faults. Or I can see them simply becoming a workaholic. Smith is a bit of a mystery, but well, Hufflepuff is also, by Helga’s original designation, a place for those every other house rejects. So maybe he ended up there on those grounds.
Oh and there’s Teddy Lupin, of course, but he can hardly be called a real character in the books, and his House affiliation is post-canon as well. In summary, there are very few Puffs depicted, and even fewer of any actual interest or depth, or seen displaying the qualities Hufflepuff is supposed to be known for. Even Tonks seems like more of a Gryffindor.
But to be honest, I’m even more angry about the depiction of Ravenclaw. It’s probably my personal bias (full disclosure: I identify as Slytherclaw), and the Puffs could certainly convincingly argue that at least Ravenclaw gets one proper supporting character. It’s true. Luna Lovegood is a fully fleshed out, wonderful young lady who should be treasured.
However, I have strong issues with her being the only properly depicted Ravenclaw.
She is an embodiment of some of Ravenclaw qualities, like the association with air, free thinking and so on. But I highly doubt she is a typical speciemen of a Claw (after all, her being bullied by her house implies otherwise). She holds a lot of silly and nonsensical beliefs, making her brand of smart a very special one. Just imagine her being given the job of doing the research about Horcruxes instead of Hermione. The idea sounds very absurd, and yet research is the sort of thing the usual Ravenclaw should excel at. Some more mainstream examples are badly needed as a counterweight.
And when we look at the other Ravenclaws, the prospect is very meagre. Probably the second most prominent character from that house is Cho Chang, and during her entire relationship with Harry, we see barely a hint of why she was sorted into that house. And it would have been so easy, too.
Give me Cho that tries to talk to Harry about books on their date, only to find out that he never read a book that wasn’t for school or about Quidditch. Give me Cho that tries to discuss classes, only to discover that Harry doesn’t care or only wants to complain about too much homework. Give me Cho wanting to talk about the electives, only to learn Harry picked the two classes Ron did to be with his friend and thus ended up in Divination.
Don’t give me Cho that just clumsily tries to make Harry jealous, because I just don’t see any traces of her having a particularly ready mind, wit or learning in that. The same goes for Padma, and for every other Ravenclaw present in the story – and what others are there, really? No one of import, and certainly no one showcasing any Ravenclaw qualities except Hermione, who is not in Ravenclaw.
And then, of course, there is the complete disaster of Slytherin.
The entire idea of how this House is treated is absurd, down to the Hogwarts origins story, which purports that Salazar held anti-Muggle-Born views seven hundred years before there was such a thing as properly separate Muggle and wizarding cultures, and that the other three founders were for some reason cool with starting a school with a racist jerk – and also a psychopath who puts a monster in a school with a vague murder-plan that doesn’t even work. Right from its founding, Slytherin is not shown as a house that values ambition and cunning, but as the racist, murder-happy house. There’s nothing particularly cunning or ambitious about antagonizing your three co-workers to the degree that they kick you out of your project and then putting a revenge monster in your old job site out of spite. Plus, the idea seems to be that while to be in Slytherin, you need certain qualities just like with other houses, you also can’t be Muggle-born to get there. There is no way any sane school administrator would find that acceptable. Godric, Helga and Rowena would have told Salazar to go to the devil.
And the depiction doesn’t get any better when we come to Harry’s time. The only supposedly good Slytherin character we get is Severus Snape, and even in his case it’s bought by a Death Eater past, and by bullying children, not to mention his problematic attachment to Lily. I don’t want to dwell on him too much, since he deserves a separate article – he was mentioned briefly in the last Fanwankers episode, and I might write an article about him in the future, unless someone else does it first. Suffice it to say, he’s not exactly a role model.
Then there’s Draco, not evil enough to do murder in cold blood, but a nasty piece of work nevertheless (what does it say about the picture of Slytherin Rowling painted that for someone to be considered as good, it’s enough for him to be not fully comfortable with murder?). Pansy the Bitch and her giggling gang that doesn’t ever deserve personalities of their own. Blaise I-Hate-Blood-Traitors Zabini. Crabbe and Goyle, who have zero Slytherin qualities and yet still ended up in that house, probably because they’re racist and murder-happy enough. All of these people’s parents, who are Death Eaters and it is quietly assumed were Slytherins – I mean, other houses don’t have a prevalence of Death Eater names. The implication is that someone who is cunning and ambitious will, more likely than not, also be happy to join a mass murderer.
One character that salvages the House’s reputation a little is Slughorn, of course. He’s honestly my favourite Slytherin, because I think he is the only one who truly shows the house’s qualities. He’s amazing, but there’s only one of him, and he’s very clearly a grey character. Regulus Black should also probably be mentioned in this context – I could go on for hours about him, he’s seriously the most under-appreciated person in canon – but he’s not actually in the story, and he has to be Death Eater first, too, before he can be good. Once again, backing out when witnessing the full scale of Voldemort’s brutality seems to be the requirement for “good” Slytherins, with the exception of Slughorn.
And there’s the treatment of Slytherins by other houses and by the teachers, too. These cases are pretty notorious in fandom, but just to refresh your memory: Dumbledore letting them think they were going to win the House Cup till the last minute at the end of Philosopher’s Stone, only to snatch it away from them. Everyone always cheering for Gryffindor because they want Slytherin to lose. McGonnagal simply ordering every Slytherin to leave in Deathly Hallows, not giving them a chance to fight, because everyone knows those jerks would just join the mass murderer. I could go on. Slytherin, in short, is universally hated, and assumed to be a House full of future Death Eaters, and the story cheerfully confirms this opinion, apparently without finding anything wrong about it.
But there is. So much.
When you look at the Hogwarts crest, it is symbols of the Houses united by the large H. It should be about that, it should be about unity in diversity. We each have our own talents and qualities, and the combination of them is what makes the school great. It’s what the Sorting Hat talks about, but it’s not just those evil Death Eaters hampering it, it’s the author, the story itself.
And look, dividing people into groups based on some similarity does have its pros and its cons. It makes forming bonds easier, but you lose the chance to be inspired by difference. You can make the best of a given talent, of the similarity in question, but you are in serious risk of also getting the worst of the flip side of the same thing. So any sane school that worked with this sort of division would try to gain the most of the benefits while minimizing the drawbacks, especially if they’ve had a thousand years to work out the kinks.
There’s a post floating around tumblr about each House being taught in a different way. That’s one option, and we see no hints of that. You could also have different disciplinary approaches. You’d need activities specifically designed to have the houses meet and mingle, to have some of that inspiration and to counterbalance division. You’d have House heads especially watching out for the weaknesses of each of the Houses and trying to prevent their students falling into that trap.
Instead we get animosity and bigotry and division that none of the teachers does anything about, which ends up sending the message that diversity is bad, that diversity is a problem, because look at the conflict it breeds. With some groups, you can just ignore them because thy are merely lesser, not bad, but with some, well, you have to eliminate them, because they are downright evil, right? Certain contemporary parallels come to mind.
I’ll tell you what I’d have liked to see. Different Houses contributing differently to the war, according to their strengths. I get that Harry was a Gryffindor, so his closest friends were always likely to be ones as well, but what about the rest? What about the Order members? I want to see the Claws doing some important war-related research, I want to see the Puffs take care of safe houses and healing and other background work that is not so shiny or heroic as what the Gryffindors do but just as necessary. Snape was spying, so I guess that’s one thing for the Slytherins to do and it was included, but I also want to see them in the political arena, fighting the Ministry or Lucius Malfoy there. I want to see Order members arguing about the methods because some prefer the Slytherin ones, some the Gryffindor ones and so on, but working it out, and finding strength in their differing views. I don’t want to basically have to have everyone turn into a Gryffindor to be useful for the war effort, the only difference of opinion being how much to tell Harry.
So yes, the message of diversity got a little bundled here, to “one type of human is better than most others, and one type is worse.” Something I think we can agree is not exactly desirable.
It is also still not the last diversity-related problem to be encountered.
Rowling makes racism one of her themes, against the Muggle-Born and Muggles and non-human beings. But the thing is, not even the supposedly good characters are free from it. And Rowling sometimes addresses this, and sometimes she doesn’t.
Let’s look at Muggles, for example. While anyone badmouthing the Muggle-Born is clearly shown as a bad person, the ever-present condescending attitude to Muggles is never really challenged. Right at the beginning, we have Hagrid’s condescending comments and Mrs. Weasley’s throwaway remark that King’s Cross is full of Muggles, which rather set the tone.
So then we get Arthur oh-so-cutely not being able to remember what are the different Muggle inventions called. The man’s profession has to do with Muggles, and it’s also supposed to be his chief hobby. Try to image that you were an expert in a field, were getting paid for working in it, and couldn’t even remember the essential terms. Or the way the Minister for Magic arranges a meeting with the PM, which is very far from being respectful and equal. They slip him Kingsley as a bodyguard without telling him first, too. What is being done to the camp owner in Goblet of Fire is way beyond mere disrespect and is absolutely monstrous. I’m not talking about what the Death Eaters do to him, mind you, but about the constant wipes of his memory. I could go on. This casual disregard of the weaker and defenceless (against magic) is realistic in many ways, of course, but to never have it called out by anyone? That makes it problematic.
And there are other cases apart from Muggles. With ghosts, we have everyone just ignoring Sir Nicolas’ wish to be called Sir Nicolas, and instead going with Nearly-Headless Nick, a nickname he clearly finds irritating, and we have Myrtle’s death being treated with what can hardly be called gravitas. Goblins frankly have overtones of a racist caricature, and Bill, who spent his entire adult life working for them and owes his career success to them, has doubts about there being a possibility of goblin-human friendship and, while warning Harry, just casually mentions that apparently the goblin idea of what ownership and sale means has been always ignored by witches and wizards. Centaurs are only shown to be in the right when they abandon their own principles or neutrality and non-interference and join the fight against Voldemort, or do the right thing according to the wizarding moral standards. House-Elves, of course, get the roughest end of the deal, but at least mistreatment of them is always called out, as far as I recall. But there are certainly traces of condescension, and Dobby’s noble self-sacrifice is a very troubling narrative (imagine a person of colour there instead of him to see it more clearly). The Merepeople playing the ‘angry natives’ in Triwizard Tournament is far from ideal as well, even though it was staged. The whole notion that there are intelligent creatures ‘incapable of overcoming their own violent nature’ (Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them) is very problematic. I could go on. Part of this criticism is probably unfair to levy on Rowling, since as with the issues mentioned at the beginning of this article, many of these troubling narratives were not so well recognized and talked about twenty years ago, but some of them should have been transparent even then, and at any rate, like I said before, even if we give the author a break, the problem with the story remains.
So once again, let me tell you what I’d have liked to see. Arthur who is an actual expert and helps the Grangers feel comfortable in Diagon Alley, making useful Muggle-wizarding parallels for them to help them understand the things Hermione, as a twelve year old, didn’t know about. Arthur outraged at what the Ministry does tot he camp owner and filing a complaint, even after everything that happened at Triwizard Tournament, because some things are simply wrong. Bill who tells Harry that he can’t do this thing, that he can’t just use Griphook to what he needs to be done while completely ignoring the goblin’s requests, not because it’s dangerous for Harry but because it’s wrong, and because Griphook is his friend. And Griphook actually acting like Bill’s friend, even if he was unpleasant to everyone else. Harry being shocked when seeing Myrtle, realizing that it’s a student who died at Hogwarts, how tragic is that? And how tragic is it and she is constantly unhappy even after her death? Dobby getting to live and starting a school for House-Elves. And so on.
I understand how all these things might seem like much less of a problem than the lack of representation for people of colour or LGBTQIA. Ghosts and Muggles and Slytherins are not real groups we need to be worried about, after all. But the thing is, that’s one of the strongest things speculative fiction can do. It can explore some issues in our society via allegory, thus allowing us to see them more clearly. It’s not even particularly hidden in case of Muggles and Death Eaters, the second world war parallels are there very clearly. Recently when Drumpf’s spokesperson asked where are all the “pure-breeds”, JKR retweeted it with a commentary saying “Death Eaters walk among us.” So the way the designated heroes of a story act towards oppressed groups and minorities and simply those who are different does actually serve as a model for how we should act towards them, even if they are different particular groups. When the heroes act racist and condescending and are never called out for it, it’s a problem, and it makes the story problematic.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Films
Faerie Tale Aged Poorly
Once again before starting this article I must once again confess that I do not own Faerie Tale in its original langage. This shouldn’t be a problem for the following article which as more to do with the story than with the style of the book. Nevertheless because of it some names might sounds strange. I apologize for the inconvenience.
There is nothing worse, speaking of books, than getting utterly disappointed by a book that seems written for you. The other day, when I pitched the story of Faerie Tale to my best friend, he asked me playfully “why are all the books you are reading always so you?”. And that is true. On paper, Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale had everything to please me. Folklore, slightly gothic ambiance, horrific set-up, fantasy, a focus on a coming of age story, an entrapment situation… Everything! I even read it in the best mental conditions possible to welcome the story warmly.
And yet as I progressed in the story, an increasing amount of elements irked me. Until the final of the mystery of the ex-owner of the house was reveled. I wasn’t just irked at this point. I was laughing. Laughing because what I was reading was laughingly bad.
In the end if I were to grade Faerie Tale I would give it 5/10 because there were things I really like so it doesn’t deserve to be under average. And I wanted to like this book. Still, after my encounter with the laughingly bad twist I came back on everything that irked me about Faerie Tale. It’s not good and it doesn’t deserve more than the strict average.
But maybe there is more to Faerie Tale. Maybe it isn’t a disappointing book after all. Maybe it simply aged poorly.
The Hastings in Fairy Land
Faerie Tale follows an American family, the Hastings, relocating to the father’s hometownin the 1980’s. The Hastings are five. Phil, the father, is a popular screenplay writer. Gloria, his wife, was a actress without real career who dropped everything to take care of her sons. Gabbie, Phil’s daughter from a first marriage, is a young college student who came to spend the summer with her father. And finally there are the twins Sean and Patrick. The Hastings are rich, in the case of Gabbie crazy rich. Is it important to the plot? Not really. If anything, it makes the Hastings will to endure what is thrown at them weirder. But it allows the initial situation and its mention a lot (A LOT) so I figured I should mention it.
Thanks to their sweet sweet money, the Hastings bought the house and land of an eccentric German who passed away without heir. On the land stands the Hill of the Elven King, a place, which in the local legends, is renowned for hiding the faerie court. Of course, as it turned out, it isn’t a legend and the fairy living there are trapped and want nothing more than to be free. And for that they are more than ready to manipulate the Hastings into helping them (I guess they are also doing all that they are doing because they are fairies and therefore assholes).
After several very severe incidents (Gabbie being nearly rapped, the family cat being gutted, Sean being swapped for a changeling) the Hastings (let’s be perfectly honest Patrick and Phil) helped by some secondary characters (all men) defeat the evil fairie. They also make a pact with the less evil one and the status quo is restored. The world is saved.
Still, the international secret organisation that secretly rules our world makes everyone forget everything about what happened, except for Patrick and Sean. Then, the Hastings are magically manipulated into moving back to California.
Everything for Nothing
Here you already might see one of the issue with Faerie Tale. What was the point of the books? We have five main protagonists and two are virtually unchanged by the 370 pages of development they just undertook. Gabbie has development (and I will come back to it later), but it isn’t linked to the faerie business. So if we exclude the twins, what was the point of the story?
Most of the characters, who weren’t really interesting to begin with, didn’t progress because of it. The villains—who are unnamed, unseen, and whose goal was already reached at the beginning—have already won. It wasn’t scary. It was mildly distracting (I might be harsher with my books that I am with my TV-shows, but it’s like that). And it didn’t have any sort of profound meaning.
So yeah, the plot of the book has its issues already. But that’s not the only problem with Faerie Tale.
Being a story of urban fantasy (rather rural fantasy… please someone stops me) Faerie Tale deals with myths that are real.
Fairies as archetypes
One the things I really liked in Faerie Tale is that the fairies are fairies. They aren’t human and don’t have a human sense of morality. Their essence isn’t the same as ours. And frankly it’s refreshing. Considering the current craze around fairies in YA where the fairies are mainly pseudo medieval humans with powers and a penchant for misogyny, I am delighted to be facing creatures that are really different and troubling.
The fairies in Faerie Tale are archetypes. They play a role and when they have been beaten, another steps into their shoes assuming their role to the point of taking their identity. They are immutable. And they are monsters that are egoist and takes pleasure from human inconvenience and misery. Some of the members of the fairy courts are humans, but they are humans who have suffered the corrupted influence of the fairies for years. They are unhappy, twisted, wrong, etc.
So, Feist did create an interesting fairy court. The only complaint I have is that it is made pretty explicit in the book that the degree of horror inflicted on the Hastings is linked to the will of the fairy to break free. Meaning that if the master plan wasn’t set into motion, the family would just have suffered harmless pranks. None of the pranks they suffer in the book are harmless (except one) and they are all linked to the master plan. Which leads me to believe that this fairy court is super lazy on a daily basis. But that’s just a detail.
One folklore to rule them all?
My main issue with Faerie Tale is the refusal to explain where the fairy court stands in a complex cosmology. I mean the book states that fairies, as conceptualized in Ireland and Germany, exist. Apparently Christianity might be correct too, since Christian prayers are efficient against fairies. But what about other religions that have different folklore traditions (Islam, Judaism)? Are their prayers efficient against fairies, too? Do their folkloric monsters (Djinn, Golem) exist too? The story explains how the fairies were brought to America, but what happened to creatures from the various Native American folklores? Did they ever existed? Or is this a case of ‘Germano-Celtic culture was right all along and every other belief is superstition’?
A good example of that is the presence of White Ladies in Faerie Tale. You see, in France White Ladies are probably one of our most famous folklore creatures. The issue is that they aren’t fairies. They are revenants. They announce death (or they might lead to yours if you see them, it depends on the legend you are considering). The myth is old and persistent. The Louvres and Versailles were and still are known to have their White Lady. The current urban legend of a vanishing hitchhiker has been fed in France by the White Lady mythos (most of these stories in France are about women who warm you about the place they died leading you to your death or avoiding it, it depends).
So when I saw the White Ladies of the books depicted as sexualized fairies in a fashion reminiscent of the Brides of Dracula, you have no idea how disappointed I was. “They suck” was my honest reaction.
To be perfectly honest, the issue I have with Faerie Tale‘s lack of a complex cosmology that refused to acknowledge the diversity of myths might have been enhanced by the fact I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods just after. Still, there is something missing here. And it’s annoying.
If I tell you a story put fairies and a conspiracy theory together, you might answer me that doesn’t sound like a good mix. And you are right. As a general rule, I am not a fan of conspiracy theories. I think they are way of shifting the blame from the actual people responsible for the situation to someone else (sometimes a disadvantaged minority) and preventing systematic changes. I also think that they are often anti-science. If we add to that our current political context of fake news and post-truth, I would find any story cheaply relying on it distasteful.
Unfortunately that’s what Faerie Tale does. The ex-owner of the house was a member of a secret organization using fairy magic to rule the world. The members of this organization are super rich and super powerful and they use all this power to remain secret and keep the fairies from hurting humanity. Wait… Are they the good guys? No, they aren’t because they are still a secret evil organization that rules the world for its own gain and that’s all… They just want to be rich and powerful. They are the GAFA without internet and with pixie dust.
They are uninteresting. They are unoriginal. They don’t add a lot to the story considering that all their influence undoes the story. From a storytelling perspective, they are useless, stereotypical, and dumb. This is the laughably bad distasteful part of Faerie Tale.
Faerie Tale’s characters aren’t unforgettable. Far from it. Every time I sensed something interesting could be done with one of them their potential was utterly wasted. But I will focus on two main issue in this section
Money, money, money
Thank you Faerie Tale for making me feel like Lady Violet Crawley.
Never would I have thought that a book about fairies would talk so much about money. Never would I have thought that characters could talk so much about money without having their story center around it. The Hastings are rich. Gabbie is more or less the equivalent of an heir to the Rockefeller fortune. Despite that they are presented as humble people. I mean, the book tells us they are humble and they do welcome everyone in their home.
But everyone must be ready to hear about how much money they have. Phil explains to a perfect stranger (let’s be honest, he spoke to him twice before this) how much his daughter is rich. They have their own lawyer, their own agent. They can pay a doctor to came to a study specifically for them… But rest assured that they don’t spoil their children and raise them to value real life. They just allow their daughter to drop out from college because she won’t have any problem starting again later. They buy a house on a whim. They postpone their children’s extravagant fancies to teach them rationality. They dropped a promising career because they don’t think the story they were writing was good enough…
You know normal stuff from normal people who aren’t literally made of money. How did they get this money? Well Gabbie inherited it. Phil wrote extremely popular movies fro Hollywood. What are they doing with this money? Phil is doing normal things for an 80’s American: not paying taxes that would finance public universities, public healthcare, etc and indulging in an lifestyle of over-consumption. Gabbie is buying horses and an expensive car (paying for her little brother’s treatment) and not learning how to do anything significant for the companies that create her fortune. Relatable stuff that will definitively make them sympathetic to an average audience.
Sure, it could be forgotten in the narrative. But they talk about money all the time! This is ridiculous. You just want to shake them violently and scream “You are rich idiots without real problems who put their children at risk and need to move out of the bloody estate!”.
This constant mention of the Hastings’s fortune ended up making them despicable in my eyes.
Faerie Tale has a deficiency of female characters. If I had to give a percent of the gender balance of the book, I would say that 65% of the characters are men and 35% are women. To gives you an example, there are four named doctors in this book, the four of them have dialogue, all of them are men. Among the fairies, four of them are women. All of them are sexualized and none of them really have an agency linked to the master plan. The three most important fairies are men. And despite Gabbie having a strong sexual reaction to them, none of them are describe in any way as sexualized as the female fairies are.
Among important female characters, we have Gabbie, Gloria, and Phil’s university mentor. Let’s start with the last. The first thing of importance to note is that I have forgotten her name. But let’s put that aside. this character could be an interesting one. Indeed, having a woman scholar who guided several male characters in their literary/professional progression is pretty progressive. Having men being inspired by a woman’s work and ethic is great. It’s a nice reversion of the “I don’t want to fuck him, I want to be him” trope, and I think it essential for boys and for girls to see it done more often in media. However, your devoted servant would argue that it isn’t that well done here.
Phil’s university mentor has a maternal relationship with both the men she has tutored/is tutoring. She even misses the true calling for one of them: being a dialogist. And of course the person who notices this oversight is… a man. In general, she doesn’t do a lot of mentoring despite the evident respect both her students have for her. A huge missed opportunity.
Now to Gloria. Gloria isn’t a bad character. Once again she had a lot of potential. She is the only one of the adults Hastings that feel there might be something deeply wrong with the estate. She even witnesses a fairie’s activity, which allows her to connect with Patrick after Sean’s disappearance. Clearly, or at least from my point of view, Gloria was built to be the parent who ultimately assists/saves Patrick in his quest to get his brother back. But in the end, it’s Phil who gets the mission of finding his sons. Phil, who never showed any instinct for the supernatural and who had no progression—no real mental progression—linked to it. Why from a narrative perspective is Phil chosen to go and saves his sons? Well I guess it’s because that’s what fathers do, while mothers fall into a hysterical state…
Finally, let’s discuss Gabbie. Gabbie is an 18-year-old woman currently studying in California. We have already discussed Gabbie’s financial situation so we won’t do it any further here. There are a lot of things done properly with Gabbie: a subversion of the spoiled rich girl trope, a good relationship with her step-mother, a positive treatment of the rape attempt she suffers, and a positive depiction of her sexuality. Still, no character infuriates me as much as Gabbie.
Gabbie has two important arcs that are connected: her love story with Jack and her relation with her mother. You see, Gabbie’s mother married Phil young. They had a bad year professionally and Gabbie’s mother also broke with her family, who didn’t approve of her lifestyle (she was disinherited). Then Gabbie was born and her mother changed her profession to journalism, more precisely to be a war reporter. She then decided that her career was more important than her daughter and husband, leading to her leaving Phil and not taking care of Gabbie. Here I must emphasize that Phil also put his career before his daughter and Gabbie was left to her maternal grandmother, who raised her.
Now that her grandmother is dead and she is an adult, Gabbie has bonded with her father but not with her mother. Partially because her mother, too caught up in her career and in her importance for the “American left” (yes, that phrase in the book; take it as you want because I really don’t know what I am supposed to do with it), hasn’t extended any hand for her daughter to grab. Therefore, Gabbie’s arc deals a lot with her coming to terms with her insignificance to her mother.
This is once again an incredibly important narrative to explore. Once again, it’s a gigantic wasted opportunity. The career of Gabbie’s mother is constantly denigrated by the book. Her principals and ideologies are ridiculed when Gabbie learns that her mother is to marry a French millionaire (who is also a pedophile since he hit on Gabbie when she was 15) that she should normally hate if if she wasn’t a total hypocrite. As a consequence, Gabbie has no trouble with and no regret leaving at her mother behind her since she is irredeemable. Indeed, none of the reasons Gabbie’s mother had to abandon her daughter have any sort of value. (Note that Phil, who also left his daughter behind for his career, has to be a decent human being to be allowed back in her life with open arms.)
Therefore Gabbie has no trouble to make the decisions she ends up making. She decides to marry a man she has known for 5 months (her first sexual partner if I might add). He is an aspiring writer being tutored in college by the same tutor as Phil. She also decide to stop her studies for now. Does she have a better idea of who she wants to be as a person, except than being Jack’s wife? No, but I guess it’s okay because she is going to be someone’s wife; what else could she aspire to be? In the end, Gabbie rushes into marriage without knowing who she is, with a man who is a younger version of her father (yes, Jack even admires Phil). She is making exactly the same choices her mother did, but she’ll be fine because she is being a good sport about it, unlike her mother.
I can’t even begin to explain how much I despise this narrative. Even if it hasn’t directly touched me, the idea of coming to term with one’s insignificance to one’s mother is something that has influenced a lot of people I love in my family. I can guarantee you that it’s not fixed by making all the same choices as your mother but not being a total hypocrite about it. People are complex, yes, even people who abandon their children. They can’t be summarized by using two overused cliches, and the impact they had on you can’t be brushed aside by simply reducing them to these overused cliches. Besides, do I have a to explain why I find it distasteful to see a woman bloom in domestic bliss when her mother is vilified and mocked for pursuing a career? No? Great!
The twins, Sean and Patrick, are the saving grace of Faerie Tale. Not only are they the more connected to the fairy court, they have the most interesting progression as characters. More Patrick than Sean but still. Patrick is a shy little boy that ends up finding the courage to save his brother. Sean learns that he can rely on his ‘weaker’ brother and shouldn’t lash out at him because they both have strengths and weaknesses. By teaming up, they save the world, kill the villain, and free their perverted double. And of course for all of that, they are graced by the capacity of remembering what happened.
All in all, the twins’ story is a well-crafted, interesting storyline. I just wish I didn’t have to suffer the rest while reading Faerie Tale.
As you have probably gathered by now, I didn’t really enjoy my read. But while thinking back on Faerie Tale, I came to the realization that I might be part of the problem. Raymond E. Feist is an incredibly popular author. The last time I went to a bookstore, one of his new works was heavily advertised (I mean, as much as a fantasy book can be in France). I don’t doubt that he has great qualities as an author.
A quality he can’t have though is creating a book that pleases the taste of a public that will be born 8 years after its original publication and will only read it 30 years later. Nothing is ever perfect, and age is never tender. Trust me on this, even fine wine that isn’t properly preserved ages poorly. This doesn’t absolve Faerie Tale of its mistakes. But I must be honest.
When it was first published in 1988, Faerie Tale might have been an above average book. It might have introduced a new concept: a sort of gothic horror based on fairy tales taking place in our time and adding an ‘international context’ to it. But everything I saw Faerie Tale trying to do, I have seen done better in other books since then. Time has been cruel to Faerie Tale, and, unfortunately, I paid good money to discover that.
Image Courtesy of Doubleday
Avatar, Spirits, and Spirituality
Here on The Fandomentals we like to talk about Avatar: the Last Airbender (ATLA) and its sequel, Avatar: the Legend of Korra (LoK). But while many of us have talked about the strides the franchise has made in LGBT representation, its portrayal of a mental healing and recovery, complicated family dynamics or deconstruction of the superman narrative, I would instead talk about something that has concerned me ever since I saw the second season of Legend of Korra: spirits. After all these years, it’s time to finally put my concerns into words. And I will unfortunately continue to be the resident malcontent when it comes to the show.
To start with, let me lay down some groundwork and my central thesis. See, there’s two ways that the word “spirituality” is used in the franchise. One is the meaning we associate with it in the real world – concerned with immaterial things rather than material ones, inward-looking, meditative, contemplative. The other is the setting-specific meaning of being connected with the spirits and their world. But here’s the rub – the spirits aren’t actually very spiritual. Why do I say that? Let’s begin…
Avatar: the Last Airbender
Spirits certainly exist in the world the original show portrays, but they only sometimes play any major role – the biggest is perhaps the Book One finale. They’ve got their own worlds, but they also have a rather vague relationship with nature. In “Winter Solstice” we see a spirit named Hei Bai go mad after humans devastated a forest.
Vague it may be, it’s also significant, as we find out during “Siege of the North”. Zhao killing the Moon Spirit causes the moon itself to grow red and waterbending to stop working. If Yue hadn’t become a new Moon Spirit, presumably it would have become even worse from there.
In the same finale we also meet Koh the Face-Stealer, a spirit whose brief appearance nonetheless made him memorable. Just as his name implies, he steals faces, and the only defense is to maintain an entirely neutral, emotionless expression. This is the kind of thing that spirit stories tend to run on, after all – taboos and specific behavior that protect you from malevolent spirits. He was genuinely creepy and threatening in what little we saw of him.
The other spirit who plays a major role is Wan Shi Tong, the cranky owl who runs the spirit library. He accuses humans of always trying to use his knowledge for their own brutal ends. In his defense, Zhao used the library to find out about the Moon Spirit’s physical form, and we know how that ended up.
The Painted Lady only appears very briefly, after the rest of the episode might make us suspect she doesn’t actually exist. Like Hei Bai and the Moon and Ocean spirits, she has a connection to the natural environment, in this case her lake.
The show’s finale involves Aang receiving energy-bending from a Lion-Turtle, but… are they spirits? It’s kind of ambiguous what they are, what they aren’t and what they want. Still, they clearly do have some spiritual connections and they allow Aang to resolve the conflict without compromising his beliefs… even though the way they do it leaves something to be desired.
Spirits are, in general, the more outwardly “magical” element of the world in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Bending is by design rather predictable and we generally know what works and what doesn’t by the time we’ve seen half of the first season. Spirits introduce stranger and more fantastical things with them when they appear, but they’re not particularly central.
Legend of Korra Book One
The first book of the sequel contains no spirits. Amon says that they sent him to bring balance to the world, but he’s lying. So none of them appear or do anything. However, the word “spiritual” crops up frequently, mostly in terms of Korra’s lack of this trait. But why is she lacking in it and why is it a problem?
Well… that’s a good question, actually. “Not spiritual enough” seems to be a catch-all term for Korra’s struggles with airbending, connecting to her past lives, entering the Avatar State and her general combative attitude that focused on fighting and bending rather than the Avatar’s duties as a leader. Basically, every character flaw and struggle the show outlines for her.
Unfortunately, as we know, none of it really goes anywhere. Korra receives her vision from Aang long after it ceases to be useful, her airbending comes to her when Mako is in danger and she connects to her “spiritual side” because she’s depressed. This moment is just the first of many where the word “spiritual” is thrown around without any meaning. She became more “spiritual” in the sense that she got access to all her Avatar powers, but she gained no spirituality in the other sense of the word.
Sadly enough, you can see some ultimately unused plot hooks in this story. Korra receives her first incomplete vision of Yakone’s trial after Amon knocks her out during their “premature” confrontation. She receives her second vision after Tarrlok bloodbends her into unconsciousness and the final, complete one when he holds her hostage. It seems clear that Amon also used bloodbending on her, but subtly and maybe in combination with chi-blocking. Thus opening a way for Korra to figure it out on her own. But that was not to be and instead all the relevant information came from Tarrlok’s exposition dump.
But let’s not dwell on it too much. Instead, let’s move on to the second season, where spirits come to the fore.
Legend of Korra Book Two
And they do so in style, by attacking right in the first episode. The dark spirits prove difficult for even strong benders like Korra, Tonraq, and Tenzin to handle. Non-benders are entirely helpless, even though we saw Sokka best Wan Shi Tong with a heavy book and gravity. This is in keeping with LoK’s treatment of non-benders, really. We also find out there’s some tensions between spirits and humans and that corrupt spirits attack more and more often.
Either way, Korra’s uncle, Chief “I’m not a villain, I swear” Unalaq pacifies the spirit with a waterbending technique. Korra is impressed and wants to learn from him, since she feels she’s not spiritual enough to be the Avatar and a bridge between worlds. Sensible, one might think, and a logical progression. And yet… something doesn’t add up.
It once again comes down to the issue of spirituality and actual spirits. Unalaq complains about how the Southern Water Tribe turned their spirit festival into a festival of commerce. Which sounds plausible on the surface. He’s a crusty old traditionalist, of course he’ll complain about it. But what do the sprits even care? It’s not as if they have any concept of economy. As long as humans don’t go around destroying the environment or infringing on “spiritual” places (not that we know what makes a place qualify as such), they seem to be indifferent. Korra’s father, Tonraq, got on their bad side by doing the latter.
I feel like the show sort of expects us to take it as face value – they call it spiritual, so obviously spirits should care, right? But real-world religions give a reason why the spirits or deities they believe in care about the ceremonies and rituals. Here, we see no such reason.
As I mentioned at the beginning, ATLA got around spirits by being pretty vague about them. They do spirit-y things, they get angry if humans mess around with things they shouldn’t, they have a connection to nature… in the end, they’re not what’s important. But the second season of Legend of Korra puts them front and centre and makes them tangible… well not literally tangible, but much more real and relevant.
It doesn’t exactly get better when it turns out that Unalaq– who is absolutely not a villain, trust him on that– arranged for Tonraq to destroy a spirit-grove in the first place. Later on, it further turns out that he’s working with the spirit of darkness. It’s the two of them together that are responsible for the dark spirits attacking people. Which means… there’s no actual tension between humans and spirits, no crisis of spirituality or anything of the sort. Just two bad guys doing bad guy things.
Or… not exactly. After Unalaq spent many episodes doing various terrible deeds, and competing with Hiroshi for the title of the franchise’s second-worst father, he asks Korra if Avatar Wan had done the right thing when he separated the worlds. So it suddenly becomes a question we’re meant to care about. The relations between spirits and humans become an actual topic rather than just Vaatu being a big evil kite. But this happens right before the finale, so there’s not much time to talk about it.
As we know, Korra agrees. Why? Good question. The decision to keep the portals open gave her agency that the Book One finale had never given her. Her becoming the first Avatar of a new age is also appropriate. But as far as motivations and sense go… well, it has none. Which brings me to the second massive problem with the spirits in the show, and requires me to start at the “Beginnings”.
In the two-parter we see humans and spirits living in the same world. Or rather, humans surviving seemingly thanks to the protection of the Lion-Turtles. Everything beyond the four settlements huddling on their shells is a hostile jungle full of spirits who won’t give them an inch. We see proto-firebenders go out to hunt using their power. Again, the only reason they can do even that is because the Lion-Turtles help them. Why? Like I’ve said a few times already, good question. But one we have no answer for.
When Wan is exiled from his town and ventures into the wilds, he earns the spirits’ trust by not eating a gazelle he encounters. Which… well, I suppose gets us into the whole argument about whether or not it’s moral to eat meat. But still, he had to risk starvation for them to give him a chance? This starts the general trend in which it’s humans who have to put all the effort into harmony between the two species.
We do later see that there was a tribe of proto-airbenders who live in harmony with the spirits. But how? Once again… good question, no answer. There’s really nothing here except a vague feel-good “spirits are great” message.
After Wan accidentally frees Vaatu, he later fuses with Raava permanently to fight him, becoming the first Avatar. He seals Vaatu into a tree and decides to forever separate the world. Which… isn’t a perfect solution, perhaps, but certainly looked better than what was, at best, a perpetual war. At worst, it was spirits oppressing and bullying humans. So why are we supposed to believe that this wasn’t the right choice and that the one Korra made was right?
Aside from the spirits’ behavior, there’s still the major disconnects between them and being “spiritual”. We still don’t really know what it means. Yes, Korra is woefully unequipped to deal with spirits. But that’s just part of her general immaturity and rashness at this stage of her character arc.
Tenzin, her mentor, is however also unable to mediate into the Spirit World. For… some reason. It seems connected to his general psychological turmoil and massive pressure he’s under to live up to his father’s expectations. The Spirit World is governed by human emotion, so I suppose it would make sense.
While the inability to enter the Spirit World this way is yet another failure dropped on the large pile of Tenzin’s issues, his daughter Jinora can do it. Once again, we don’t really know why Tenzin can’t do it, but she can. All we get is that, you guessed it, she’s more spiritual. Except we still don’t know what that means and why being spiritual is even of any concern.
I’m also not entirely sure why only benders seem able to enter the Spirit World through meditation. If we accept that it requires peace of mind, concentration and inner balance, non-benders are as capable of them all as benders are.
When Korra actually enters the Spirit World, it turns out to be a realm where reality is something of a subjective matter. Human emotions affect it, particularly those of the Avatar. It more or less adds up, is visually interesting and makes some intuitive sense. Still, I’m not sure how much it adds up with the spirits’ connection to the environment that we saw in ATLA.
We also see Iroh in the Spirit World, which raises the question of whether human souls end up there after death. We know the Avatar reincarnates into new bodies every time, but what about everyone else? Maybe Iroh was special – “spiritual” enough to transcend into the Spirit World after death.
This kind of exemplifies the problem I’m talking about here. Yes, Iroh was spiritual in ATLA, in the more conventional sense of the word. There were some hints that he’d travelled to the Spirit World, but for the most part his spirituality was very down-to-earth. He told Zuko to look at what’s in front of him and think about what he wants, instead of chasing some lofty destiny someone else had imagined for him.
The wisdom of spirit-Iroh in Legend of Korra feels a lot like platitudes. Light, dark, staying true to yourself and all that. There’s just not much to it. His earthly wisdom and vague mentions of having had dealings with spirits are turned into some sort of deep connection to the spirits. Which allowed him to effectively become one.
What it adds up to is that the season tries to build up to Korra keeping the portal open, but the attempts just don’t work together. We don’t have a clear idea of what the relationship between humans and spirits should be. Korra’s decision feels like a big plunge for no good reason.
Legend of Korra Books Three and Four
The first episodes of Book Three deal with the consequences of the worlds reuniting. Korra spends a lot of time trying to contain the spirit-vines growing in Republic City, with the help of her friends. And the spirits… well, they don’t do a thing about it except yell at Korra, as if Raiko and the press weren’t enough. It seems that, once again, it falls to humans to work for harmony and peace, while the spirits are just going to complain about everything they do.
The spirits themselves take a backseat as Korra has to contend with the Red Lotus, so she never gets the chance to properly solve the problem. Which instead happens off-screen – we find out that in the period between Books Three and Four, while Korra was recovering from the horrific beating she took from the Red Lotus, Republic City integrated the Spirit Wilds. We see no real evidence of the spirits doing anything to help here, but at least they didn’t get in the way, I suppose?
Still, when Korra goes to ask for their help with Kuvira, she gets the cold shoulder. Kuriva is abusing the spirit vines to power her weapon and she’s invading the city where spirits and humans live together. But what do the spirits say? They’re not going to help, since they don’t interfere with human matters. But aren’t spirits and humans supposed to live together now, so there’s no “human matters” and “spirit matters” anymore? The worlds are back together and they’re all in it together, aren’t they?
I feel like it’s pretty common that whenever humans and more supernatural beings are in conflict in stories, the pressure is on humans to do something about and find common ground. The others, in this case spirits, are seemingly allowed to be aloof or outright hostile instead.
And of course it bears mentioning that humans have a lot more to fear from spirits than the other way around. They can hurt humans in many ways, while humans struggle to retaliate or attack. The biggest danger spirits seem to suffer from humans is their tendency to twist and corrupt when around humans who feel strong negative emotions.
To bring it all to the central point, I think the treatment of spirits in the Avatar franchise is one of the cases where a previously vague and ambiguous element gets more attention. Which doesn’t serve it well. Legend of Korra seems to expect us to take a lot at face value. It’s a lot of talk about spirits, spirituality, change and harmony without a whole lot to back it up. I got the distinct impression the show just skips over it all so we don’t have time to think about it too hard.
Images courtesy of Viacom
Suspension of Disbelief, Representation, and You
Suspension of disbelief is a key element for fictional stories to work. This is our willingness to believe something surreal, that goes against logic or reason or the way we know the world works. It’s the act of suppressing our criticism for the sake of enjoyment and immersion, if you will.
We know that a bite from a radioactive spider won’t give people superpowers. We know there isn’t a secret wizarding world right under our noses. We know mechas shouldn’t be piloted by angsty teenagers. Actually, we know mechas aren’t even a thing. Our willing suspension of disbelief is what allows us to ignore all this knowledge and be carried away by the narrative. It’s our brains saying what if.
Speculative fiction in particular wouldn’t work without this, because it plays with elements distant from our reality. There are entirely invented worlds, or technology that humanity is far from developing. We have zombie apocalypses, alien invasions, time travel, alternative realities, monsters, and magic. It’s not that we don’t know those things aren’t real, we just want to see a story in which they are.
Opening our hearts and minds to the universe presented by the creators is our counterpart, as audiences, to allow stories to touch us. We need this to be fully invested in them, and that emotional engagement is when stories matter.
When there’s friction in your fiction
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we’re willing to accept everything. If the audience’s job is to be open to the impossible, the creator’s job is to make the impossible seem plausible. Stories don’t need to be realistic but they need to be internally consistent in their setting, characters, or plot.
If you establish your fictional society as heavily patriarchal, you cannot expect us to believe that a female character could be sassy without social consequences. When your character is commanding a fleet, that fleet cannot simply show up on the other side of the world a day later. You can’t have a character being stabbed in the guts and dumped into a dirty canal, then soon parkouring around the city and fighting as if nothing has happened. And yes, these are all the same show.
When creators break the rules they set for their stories, our suspension of disbelief breaks as well. Just as it’s not fun to play a game with someone who cheats, it’s hard to be invested in a story when we can’t follow its internal logic. Thus, we’re less engaged and we trust the creator a little less.
What makes or breaks the suspension of disbelief will depend on the audience. A good example is when creators mess with specific knowledge that most people don’t have, but experts in the field will find hard to ignore. It’s simply easier to suspend your disbelief when you don’t know enough about a topic to dispute it.
People also have different levels of tolerance to absurdity and inconsistency. To continue with Game of Thrones example, for us at the Fandomentals the show has defied logic for years, but for a good part of the audience it took a character gumbo and their unlikely quest to raise eyebrows. There’s no right or wrong answer in those cases, since we’re all different. If the story still works for you, then it still works.
It’s worth questioning, however, what breaks our suspension of disbelief and why.
I want to believe
Follow fandom discussion for long enough and you’ll notice that sometimes what breaks suspension of disbelief for audiences is the presence of certain characters in the story, particularly when they belong to socially marginalized groups. Why would the agency or protagonism of these characters bother our immersion more than all the absurds we buy into when consuming fiction?
Cast an actor of color for a period drama and you’ll hear people complaining about “historical accuracy.” Have a mostly female cast in your story and you’ll be accused of being “politically correct.” Write multiple LGBT+ characters and people will cry there’s “too much diversity.” The list could go on, but this diversity happens in real life and it’s actually much more realistic than your typical homogenous cast. Then why you can always count on part of the audience to look at it with incredulity?
In the past I’ve complained about gratuitous sexual violence in stories, especially when used as a shortcut for “gritty historical realism” in fantasy. This complaint is sometimes met with “that’s how it was back then;” people that defend the decision because it supposedly adds realism and credibility to the story. Wait, so you can believe in dragons or ice zombies, but that one rape scene “had to happen” because otherwise “it would have been too unrealistic”? I’m sorry, I just don’t get the metric for realism here.
Perhaps the easiest example for this relative suspension of disbelief would be Mary Sues. There’s a lot of debate on the validity of the term and this deserves its own separate piece, but we can all agree that a Mary Sue is the type of character that forces our suspension of disbelief. So why is this label often used to undermine competent female characters when we would be a lot more forgiving with a male counterpart? Star Wars is a great example of that, because since the release of The Force Awakens audiences have accused Rey of being a Mary Sue. Have you ever seen Luke or Anakin being called Mary Sues? I haven’t, even though their abilities were much more of an asspull than Rey’s. Then why is Rey the one breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief?
Why do those examples threaten our suspension of disbelief? Why is it so hard for us to simply accept these characters as part of the story, to extend them the same open mind we would to others? If we can’t conceive a fictional society that is diverse or accepting, then maybe the problem lies in our imagination.
It would be tempting to say that this happens because people are sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. To be fair, that’s true for a good portion of the audience that has these reactions. But I think there’s more to it as well: we’re too used to be sold a single narrative, and we’re too used to buying it.
We have come to naturalize certain actions, or characters, or beliefs. Now, when we find a story that goes against what we internalized, that story hurts our suspension of disbelief. In a way, it’s easier to believe in elements clearly distant from our reality, like hobbits, evil robots, or superheroes, than to go against a social narrative we’ve been taught since a very young age.
Yet we have to do exactly that. When something breaks our suspension of disbelief, we have to ask ourselves why. Why is this, of all things I’m being asked to believe, the thing that bothers me? Does it make sense for this particular setting that this specific group is being oppressed? Is this an interesting story to tell or consume? If I changed the race, gender, orientation, etc. of this character, would they still feel unrealistic? Does my belief belong in the 19th century and should I send it back there?
We may not be responsible for the narratives that are created, but we are responsible for examining how we interact with them. This is key for demanding better stories and for engaging with stories that challenge our world views. Especially when said views are in dire need of being challenged.