When I heard the theme for this month’s Pelican issue I must admit I got a little (read: very) excited, because fantasy is kind of my special interest. My ideas ranged from writing about Why Hufflepuff is the Best Hogwarts House, to letting loose to the world that really cringey but brilliant Eleventh Doctor/Rory slash fanfic I wrote in 2012. In the end I decided to be realistic and write something that would appeal to a wider audience than just myself – which is the lack of diversity in entertainment media and why the Young Adult fantasy genre in particular has no excuses for Writing Everyone As White.
Lately on Tumblr (and I assume the wider internet) there’s been a movement towards interpreting some of the Harry Potter characters as non-white – most commonly, Harry as part South Asian and Hermione as black. And it’s not just fan artists playing with the designs once or twice as a fresh idea – many draw them as non-white all the time now. There’s even a Zine featuring characters both described in the books or imagined by fans as non-white (see pocharrypotterzine.tumblr.com). What the Harry Potter fandom has found is that in some ways ‘racebending’ Harry and Hermione just makes so much sense (Hermione’s ‘bushy’ hair!) and in other ways it breaks down racial typecasting. It’s great that people are taking it into their own hands to remedy the lack of diversity by reinterpreting old favourites, but it’d be even greater for media to have more diversity in the first place.
Diversity should be present in all media, and I really don’t think there are any excuses for excluding minority identities from existing in narratives and consistently representing heroes as white/cisgender/straight/able-bodied. Sure, people love to cite reasons like ‘historical accuracy’ for pasty casts of characters, which itself is quite the cultural construction (read: bullshit), but there’s one genre of fiction that I think is free from all the lame excuses for exclusivity. That genre is fantasy.
Now, I know that people whine about supposed ‘historical accuracy’, especially when it comes to ‘medieval’ fantasy. But didn’t anyone get the memo? Hint: it’s in the name. The whole point of fantasy is to construct an altered version of reality – whether this is by changing some fundamental truth in our world (think the existence of magic in Harry Potter) or by constructing a totally new one (think Middle Earth). Unfortunately, the majority of fantasy fiction reproduces oppressive real world hierarchies and social norms when it comes to world building. Yet as a genre that goes out of its way to imagine a world different to our own, there’s no valid reason not to have more diverse characters. How is it any more ‘accurate’ to have dragons in fantasy than to have a black lesbian protagonist?
By not needing to conform to reality, fantasy offers the potential to imagine a world that is better than our own. This provides the prospect of including oppressed groups without portraying them as oppressed in the fantasy world. To steal an article title from the Diversity In YA website, fantasy has great potential for ‘Gay Without the Gay Angst.’ To use the example of queerness, while narratives where characters face discrimination and come to terms with their identity (or not) are significant, it can be demoralising if this is the only frame queerness is presented in. Though all genres should do this anyway, fantasy is in the perfect position to have narratives with central queer characters without the conflict being about their queerness. It’s refreshing and validating to read a book about two Asian girls who fall in love during a quest to save their kingdom, without struggling against discrimination and internalised homophobia. (The book exists and it’s called Huntress by Malinda Lo. You’re welcome.) Instead of making queerness a struggle, books like Huntress make it a positive identity.
The potential for framing minority statuses in a positive light is why it’s important for Young Adult fantasy in particular to be diverse. Fantasy is often understood as a form of escapism, where readers can imagine themselves into their favourite fantasy worlds. But, to steal another article title (this time from Huffington Post), ‘It’s Hard to Be What You Can’t See.’ For kids and teens to see someone like them represented as a hero sends the message that they have the potential to be heroes too. The first African American woman in space, Mae Jemison, was inspired as a child by Lieutenant Uhura, a black female character in the Star Trek series. Not only is it important for minority youth to see themselves reflected in media, but for all kids and teens to learn how to relate to and empathise with people who are different to themselves. Through fantasy fiction, we might just be able to imagine a better, more diverse world into existence.
Words by Miriam Crandell