Monday, May 27, 2024

Superpowers and Oppression

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Greetings, readers of the Fandomentals. Today’s article is going to be perhaps riskier than any I’ve ever done. You see, I’m going to tackle an issue I’ve had on my mind for a while. Namely, the tradition of using people with superpowers or magic as stand-ins for oppressed minorities in the real life. I don’t think it’s a good idea… or at least, I think it comes with a lot of baggage we have to be mindful of.

The key to this idea is simple and almost too obvious. No oppressed, discriminated against or marginalized minority (or majority, for that matter) in the history of the world has ever had supernatural powers, even if those attacking them accused them of such. It should be so obvious as to not warrant mentioning, but still. This changes the dynamics considerably, and I’ll try to split it into two threads: danger and advantage.

Of course, I know people find such portrayals empowering and enjoyable, so I’m not going to get on a high horse and tell them they shouldn’t. I’m just going to lay out my logic as best I can, and let people make of it what they will.

The Danger

Let’s start with the first one: the danger such groups present to people around them. Minorities that face oppression are no strangers to accusations of undermining society and threatening “normal” folk.

The most visible example of it nowadays is, perhaps, the way many in our society perceive Muslims as potential terrorists until proven otherwise. Others include how many perceive LGBT people as spreading diseases and corrupting the youth – the most modern form of it being the scare around transgender people wanting to use bathrooms. Mentally ill people, many would tell you, are ticking time-bombs who can flip out and become violent at any moment.

I’m not saying anything new here by pointing to these perceptions, am I? But there’s a world of difference between bigots accusing you of being able or likely to do something to justify their behavior, and really being able to do it.

Statistically speaking, a gay person or a Muslim person (or a gay Muslim, for that matter), is in danger from me, not the other way around. But if I were a human or elf commoner living in Dragon Age’s Thedas… a mage could set my house on fire by waving a funny-looking stick at it. Or, if they’re particularly hardcore, literally control my mind and use me as a battery to control more people’s minds.

This isn’t an endorsement of locking people up for what they might possibly, hypothetically, do. But it does significantly change the dynamic. The fear in situations where stand-ins for marginalized communities have actual power isn’t just the unfortunate human tendency to bare our teeth at everything that doesn’t toe the societal line. They’re literally capable of destroying or causing lots of damage to those around them.

On the flipside, being more personally powerful doesn’t exactly shield a mage, mutant or superhero from social reprisal. Many members of persecuted groups could probably fold me like a pretzel in self-defense. And yet, it’s not that simple, because not only do bigots attack in superior numbers, but any defense on the part of their victims comes under intense scrutiny. Was it really necessary? Who started it? Shouldn’t they be better than than their attackers?

It’s easy to imagine the same thing happening in a fantastical setting. A group of bigots attack a mutant, who uses their power to defend themselves, quite likely overpowering the attackers easily. But the wider, non-mutant population may well see it as abusing their power against defenseless ‘normal’ humans.

It’s easy to turn such actions into an apology for oppression by saying the mutants/mages/etc do deserve it on some level. Which is part of why I’m not fond of this approach, really. When we see one group oppressing the other, do we really want reason to think “well, they’ve got a point, really”? But even if we avoid that, the dynamic is just different from real life.

Yet we don’t want to abandon the notion of societal tensions between those with powers and those who don’t. There’s just too much rich potential here, not to mention that a situation where everything is fine and dandy is just boring. A tension between the “supers,” the “normal” people, and perhaps a group of the latter whose job is to keep an eye on the former is too juicy a conflict to pass up. As long as we manage not to make the “mage-minder” group evil, inept, or fanatical, as it so often happens.

Templars from Dragon Age are a good example of a group who had a lot of narrative potential, but whose writers took the easy way out and just made them paranoid bullies who push around innocent mages. Witch-hunters from Witcher 3 make them look sane and competent.

As a bit of an aside… a particularly terrible example of using superpowered beings as stand-ins for marginalized groups is portraying vampires as a metaphor for LGBT people. Vampires, well, hurt people to live. Kill, potentially. And the vampire myth has strong ties to sexual taboos, particularly sexual violence. Is that what we want to associate LGBT people with?

Another outright painful example of it is the old-school D&D Ravenloft setting, which had a Roma equivalent who really did cast curses and do witchcraft. Or that old World of Darkness gameline about supernatural Roma… though here I’m talking about a well-meaning, but in my opinion flawed, attempt not outright blunders.

The Advantage

As we can see, putting “powerful” people in the position of a persecuted minority comes with a slew of issues and caveats. But now, let’s just ask: why are they there in the first place?

What sets them apart from the society isn’t a difference in appearance, language, religion or sexual identity. It’s power that most people simply do not and will never have. A power that can be leveraged in many ways – societal, economical, military, even religious.

Imagine all the terrible people you’ve met in your life. Not the abstract villains of fiction. Just the jerks, the bullies, the tormentors, the petty people reveling in whatever power they have over others. Now… imagine if they had more power. Super power, even.

Kilgrave from the excellent Jessica Jones is the perfect example of what I’m talking about here. His power is immense and inhuman, but his motivations aren’t. His behavior towards Jessica and other women is that of an obsessive man who believes she, and other women, exist for his pleasure. That he deserves her simply because he loves her that much. The difference is that in addition to the methods of a regular stalker, which arevfrightening enough… he can control people’s minds at a whim.

There’s already plenty of kinds of power in the real world, power that people concentrate in their hands and use to press down on those who have less of it, or none at all. Add to that superhuman power, and people will find ways to abuse it pretty quickly.

Now, of course, that’s basically what supervillains do in superhero stories… but, well. That’s just it. They’re opposed by superheroes. The people’s only hope against wicked people with powers are good people with powers. So can we blame them for maybe trying to find some way to have some control over it?

Of course, it works both ways. Kilgrave is a creepy, entitled man with superpowers. But Jessica is a woman who fights such men… with superpowers. Magic, superpowers and the like are, after all, a power fantasy first and foremost.

For marginalized, persecuted groups, a power fantasy lets them imagine themselves fighting back against their tormentors. Whether those tormentors and oppressors also have powers, or not. I mentioned different kinds of power a few paragraphs back, and it’s no coincidence that the opponents of superheroes are often people who wield more mundane kinds of power – political, financial, military.

In real life, those kinds of power are depressingly difficult for us common folk to even take a good swing at. Superheroes let us imagine individuals who can stand up to them with power that’s theoretically available to anyone. If they happen to be born with it, bitten by a radioactive spider, pick up a magic hammer, and so on. It has even more value for members of groups who have less access to the conventional means of power in society. Case in point: Superman and Captain America were both created by Jewish authors to punch Nazis.

This is empowering to them, and I’m not going to deny or downplay it. My job here is to lay out the perhaps less visible side-effects of it, while also honestly portraying the advantages.

Jessica Jones presents another important scenario in this equation. At one point, Jessica is the target of some… misguided people who blame “supers” for what happened to New York in the blockbuster Marvel movies. It’s clear they’re not very smart and target a person who had nothing do with it, and in fact has enough to deal with already. But it’s not hard to imagine people being desperate to do something after seeing gods, aliens, and superhumans tear their city to pieces. Anything not to feel quite so powerless.

Bringing it All Together

There’s a famous exchange in X-Men: The Last Stand that encapsulates what I’m talking about. When hearing about a possible way to turn mutants into “normal” humans, Rogue (whose powers include killing people with touch) is excited. Storm (who controls weather), tells her that they need no cure, because there’s nothing wrong with them.

The appeal of Storm’s perspective is obvious to LGBT people or mentally ill people, who face accusations of being “broken” and in need of “fixing” on a regular basis. She argues that no, they don’t need to be ‘fixed’; they’re completely whole as they are.

And yet… Rogue does kill people with touch. Not only does it cause her distress and ruins her relationships, but, well… she kills people. Those around her have every reason to be concerned that she might kill them. By accident, if not on purpose.

Storm, meanwhile, is effectively a demigoddess who controls weather. Her power is purely a boon. One beyond the wildest imagining of any human. What she can do extends beyond the reach of even modern science: affecting the climate through decades of pollution isn’t quite the same as taking weather by the collar and telling it to behave.

Is it really fair for Storm to talk to Rogue like this? Her power gets her nothing but benefits. She can help or destroy people as she pleases; there’s not much people can do to her without either superpowers or overwhelming advantage. Rogue can’t control how dangerous she is to others, and it’s perfectly fair for her to not want to worry about killing someone if she kisses them or shakes their hand. Both of them affect the world around them far more than a “baseline” human, but in different ways. It’s not fair and neither of them asked for this. But that’s what they got.

There’s a deep and rich potential for storytelling in examining societal effects of supernatural and superhuman power. Intertwining it with real-world power dynamics and inequalities offers another layer to it. However, I think we can do better than just slot people with magic or powers into the place of the downtrodden of our world and expect it to fit perfectly. It doesn’t.

Plus, I think trying to see fantastical universes from the point of view of the common people in it would do us good, too. (Maybe even a better analogy for those who lack power in our world?) Ignore those who claim it’s “boring.” Is a fantastical world boring just because of whose eyes we look at it through?

Images Courtesy of Marvel, 20th Century Fox, and Bioware

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