Elves, Dragons, and the Pushback Against Representation in Fantasy
A new adaptation of The Lord of the Rings story was recently released on Amazon Prime. The series, The Rings of Power, expands on the well-loved series created by J. R. R. Tolkien. Unlike previous film adaptations of his works, this show centers on characters played by actors of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, which has received significant backlash from the fandom (The Guardian). Now, the actors, other stakeholders in the show, and the community are pushing back, emphasizing that everyone has a place in the fantasy series. This backlash reflects a long history of excluding marginalized identities from fantastical realms.
Generally, Hollywood has struggled to cast diversity in shows. But representation in fantasy specifically has been an issue — as if fictional worlds have to reflect whiteness more than the reality we know. When John Boyega, a Black man, was cast to play Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, fans were outraged. The controversy forced Boyega to defend the inclusion of both his character and himself in the story (GQ).
• Explore stories that offer diverse representation in fantasy. Here’s our recommended reading list.
• Support Periplus, a collective dedicated to mentoring BIPOC writers.
Much of this is because, as in other industries, the fantasy and sci-fi stories we know are written by white men and center white people and narratives. From superheroes and outer space to historical fiction and tech-enabled futures, the visions and stories embedded in popular culture were created through the lens of whiteness. Marginalized people, if included, are often in servitude to the dominant culture or cast as villains.
It never ceases to amaze me that people will accept fairies, wookies, dragons, and space lasers, but a single person of color is simply inconceivable.”
Because of this, it’s not merely enough to cast diverse talent; they’re often left playing characters that don’t reflect their lived experiences. There’s some truth to the controversy around Lord of the Rings; it is difficult to see people of color playing elves when the lore places that species in a position of power because of their light skin. The criticism shouldn’t be against the skin-deep efforts to diversify and add representation in fantasy, but against systems that created this hierarchy in the fictional world.
We’re often drawn to fantastical stories because they feel impossible and foreign to our lives. And yet, the ones that resonate in dominant culture reinvent the realities that oppress us, instead of setting us free. I hope we can, at minimum, diversify the narratives we choose to see magic in — like the works of Darcie Little Badger, NK Jemison, and Leigh Bardugo.
We’ve also seen existing stories reimagined. Lovecraft Country, a sci-fi story that was written to critique the white stories of H.P. Lovecraft, centers Black people as the protagonists. When adapted for HBO, the story was directed and rewritten by a Black team that cast Black actors for the roles. The Man Who Fell From Earth, a new television series on Showtime, reimagines a 1976 film of the same name. In this case, the story leans into the “alien” plotline by referencing the immigrant experience, contextualizing the narrative for today’s time.
Without more diverse perspectives, dreams, and visions, we won’t have the capacity to imagine a future as radical as we deserve.
• Amazon’s The Rings of Power received racist backlash for casting non-white actors.
• Most popular fantasy stories were created by white men, with people of color absent or cast as villains.
• BIPOC fantasy stories can help us get free instead of reinventing real-life oppressions in fictional worlds.