Friday, December 14, 2018

POC as Origin Story

An ubiquitous element of the superhero genre is the origin story. How did this extraordinary individual get these amazing powers? Is he an alien from a dead planet powered up by our sun? Was he bitten by a radioactive spider? Was she forged from clay and empowered by the Greek gods? Did he have a ridiculous budget and some deeply unhealthy coping mechanism after the death of his parents?

In Urban Fantasy we see a trend of another origin story to explain the special magic a protagonist has. Being a POC - or having a POC ancestor at very least.

To be clear here, we’re not talking about having a magical POC protagonist. This is Urban Fantasy, your characters will have magic or other woo-woo, it’s kind of what this genre is about and we’re definitely in favour of several of those characters being POC.  Awoke, The Shadowmancer, The Keys Trilogy, Rayne Whitmore Series, World of the Lupi and many others are not problematic because they have POC who happens to have magical abilities - far from it. They have magic and are POC but at no point did the books try to suggest that their woo-woo exists BECAUSE they are Black or Asian.

Equally we’d expect many of these POC, their lives and their magic to be affected by their ethnicity and culture. We love and celebrate books like The Black Dog’s Drums, which excellently incorporates Yoruba derived religions into the setting, the world building and the characterisation. The same applies to the Habitat Series and the Egyptian elements of the Shadowchasers Series. The Jane Yellowrock Series links a lot of Jane’s woo-woo to her being Native American - but being Native American also informs her characterisation and her history. It’s not just a convenient label to justify her accessing exotic woo-woo. The Changeling Sisters has a lot of the magic related to Korean, Latinx and Hawai’ian culture - but that’s because it has Korean, Latinx and Hawai’ian characters whose ethnicity is an integral part of who they are, the world building and the story. Ultimately they work because there is considerable research and respect for the source material - something we can see with depictions of western mythologies like Irish and Norse in, for example, the Iron Druid Series.

We want more of this, so much more; with both white and western dominated media there are so many stories this genre could be telling by integrating POC and the mythologies and magic of other cultures and I’m still mourning that some of these series have come to an end.

But that isn’t achieved by having books treat Voodoun beliefs, Rroma heritage, or Native American ancestry as the same as a Freak Lab Accident, super-soldier serum or a Green Lantern Ring.

A glaring example of this, as well as why it’s so problematic, comes from Midnight Texas. This has the special prize of having Manfred have his psychic powers in the books because of a Native American ancestry. And in the TV series because of his Romani ancestry. It says a lot about how a minority culture has been represented that you can easily exchange one for another and not really change the story, magic or anything else.

Ancestry is a common trick in these origin stories - after all, if Superman can get his powers from being an alien, why can’t Jeremy in the Otherworld series get his hands on some quasi Japanese Ofuda from his absent Japanese mother? Hemlock Grove threw in some basic Romani stereotypes to go with their using being Romani as why characters were psychic and… werewolves somehow. Twilight is also notorious for creating an entirely fake Native American mythology to justify the presence of a pack of werewolves. The appalling on several levels Houseof Night series also went with that Native American woo-woo - deciding to have the protagonist, Zoey, be Cherokee - but only so they could introduce lots of woo-woo and turquoise and smudge sticks and a whole fake mythology while the Mercy Thompson Series is pretty notorious for treating all the Native Americans in the book as walking avatars of woo-woo. Literally all of them.

In all of these cases the actual ethnicity, culture or characterisation that should stem from having a POC character is absent. The writers weren’t interested in creating fleshed out, well researched and developed POC characters or in respectfully portraying and representing non-western cultures in a way that showed research and regard. They want the woo-woo. They want the different, the exotic, the alien.

In many ways it’s similar to how many book and TV series will introduce a monster from a non-western culture for a more “exotic” episode-of-the-week that we’ve spoken about tbefore… why have a werewolf when you can have a wendigo? And it shares the same flaws -  deciding one of your main characters is POC or has POC ancestry purely so you have some backstory for their woo-woo isn’t representation or respectful. It’s appropriative and it’s belittling - it clearly sends the message that the writers are pretty indifferent about these actual cultures and just wants something suitably dehumanised and “exotic”, something that is sufficiently “other” to most of their readers to justify why they would have such different powers. For DC that meant an alien from Krypton. For Urban Fantasy a Romani or Cherokee are considered alien enough.

This is backed by and propagates harmful stereotyping, promoting the idea that POC are both inherently Other and also inherently Mystical. While being “mystical” sounds like a positive, or at least neutral, trait, it comes with baggage. The Mystical is often regarded as the opposite to science, knowledge and modern civilisation. Our seeing POC as more believable as magic users than a white person ultimately stems from us not seeing POC - or POC culture - as civilised, as seeing them more backwards, more savage and barbarous and credulous (or if you want to use euphemisms “closer to nature” or “in harmony” or “spiritual”). We’re able to see POC as more inherently magical than white people because we’ve decided that science, technology, reason and modern civilisation is a white person realm. And if you want your character to tap into that sweet woo-woo, then we need to get that character hooked up with some non-western connections

There can be no greater proof of just how little these writers care about the cultures they are drawing from then by how little the woo-woo they portray actually reflects the beliefs of the culture they’re appropriating. The Anita Blake Series regularly refers to Anita’s dead Mexican mother for angst - but also as a link to her necromancy and vodun in general. In fact, all vodun practitioners in the books are non-Black Mexican characters. At which point it’s hard not to think that the author has seen one too many Dia de Muertos parades and had an almost hilarious misunderstanding of where vodun comes from.

The, again dreadful, House of Night Series invents and entirely new mythology to attribute to the Cherokee people for the sake of her plot - which Twilight similarly does to the Quilites.

This is especially egregious because these cultures and mythologies are not dead or historic - or fictional. These faiths still have adherents - there are numerous practitioners of voodoo, santeria and other Yoruba-derived religions who deserve better than to have their religion be used as a cheap trick to give a character woo-woo. This faith, along with the cultural and religious practices of Native Americans and Rroma continue to be suppressed and persecuted - these fictional portrayals, appropriations and outright ongoing colonisation, further demeans and disrespects that, reducing them to some fictionalised and unimportant that is free to be taken and twisted however the consumer desires. These people, these beliefs, these cultures are real, they continue and they are suppressed and twisted - and when included in media it must be with the greatest respect and acknowledgement of this otherwise you are just furthering this suppression.

Especially since continued depiction of something as fictional, or even as historic, contributes to the erasure of these cultures and people. By presenting them as fantasy stories that can be easily and casually manipulated, we are undermining their actually reality in the minds of the reader - we’re presenting them as something as unreal or unimportant as the author’s own fictional world building.

You can’t pretend to be respecting or representing a culture when you do nothing to include it beyond stealing the name - or when you just make shit up and attribute it to said culture. If you need to create a justification for why your character has powers, name them the chosen one or expose them to cosmic rays - but don’t take an ethnicity, a culture, a faith, a history and reduce it to the same level of depth and importance as a radioactive spider.