White heterosexual cisgender men critiquing any woman, lgbt+, or marginalized person as ‘historically inaccurate’ in western medieval fantasy have got to go. They have been determining my space in this genre for far too long and I have had it. I’m way past had it. Mind you, this is nothing compared to what women of color experience in this genre. White cis men like to tell themselves this genre is for them exclusively while also telling us they aren’t racist or misogynistic. It’s not like they get to dominate every other space in the world. This of course includes imaginary fantasy worlds where they get to oggle women’s bodies and go on a grand ol’ quest to reassure their insecurities about their manhood. Taking revenge after a woman is brutally murdered is fine but god forbid a world not rely on sexual violence. The absolute fragility.
Women, BIPOC, disabled and LGBT+ were made invisible or robbed of any agency. Black people, indigenous people, and other people of color have the least amount of representation. I can’t name nearly enough black authors writing high fantasy let alone black people behind the scenes of fantasy tv shows.
Readers give white cis het men too much credit for their ideas on how fantasy is supposed to work. The best and most intelligent criticisms I’ve seen come from women and especially black women, such as Princess Weekes. Scholars Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (the Dark Fantastic) and Kinitra Brooks talked with the Public Medievalist after the last season of Game of Thrones released. Thomas and Brooks both made very valid points about the issues that arise when the creators of a fantasy tv show only see black people in chains and women as the victims of sexual abuse. When you (aka David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) refuse to see women and people of color as complex human beings you get a dry and uncomplex world.
Fantasy should not be a space where white cis men get to escape the diversity of this world into one where white cis men reign supreme. That fantasy is frighteningly real for far too many.
I don’t want to see the very things about old fantasy books that made me so uncomfortable as a woman. I am no longer here for women’s development to be based on sexual violence. I have the right to see nuanced women. Disabled people should get fantastical stories of affirmations rather than torturous transformations. I want to see POC in the same spaces because fantasy is not history. I don’t just want white cis people writing these stories for marginalized groups. I don’t want to see black people diminished to enslavement, or storylines where they are in constant pain. Fantasy lovers should get to see more nuanced character development for BIPOC and acknowledgment that LGBT+ people exist. Or should I put it more simply? Fantasy needs interesting and complex characters.
Let’s try to remember what women, especially women of color, have been saying for a long time. Fantasy is not history.
Inspiration is one thing. History is another.
When I look at all the people of color and women the Witcher gives visibility to, I think about how this is going against what the alt-right in Poland (see also America and the UK) thinks the Witcher stands for. It addresses prejudice, taking its historical influences from the very real anti-semitism of Poland. A valid criticism is that the Witcher games sought to discuss prejudice without visibility for the people that suffer most from it: black people.
Netflix’s version shows medievalism and the brutality of that time as inspiration for the intensity of the anti-immigration and alt-right sentiments of modern day Poland. In 2017, 60,000 white Polish nationalists marched protesting for “pure Poland, white Poland.” Many immigrants, specifically black Polish people have expressed the racism they experience from this white nationalism in their country. POC should be in this imaginary world, inspired by Poland. Prejudice in Poland is majorly targeted towards POC, not just white Jewish and Romani people.
POC were not absent from medieval Europe but that’s not the point I want to make here. Fantasy does not have to use every aspect of history in order for it to be a good story. BIPOC should not have to jump through ‘innacuracy’ claims in order to be in the same spaces. History should never be romanticized but that’s the history white cis men gave the genre. Authors are giving new refreshing stories, many not even set in medieval Europe. Fantasy is no longer here for white heterosexual cis men’s criticisms. Fantasy readers need to keep fighting for one that improves upon inclusivity, diversity, and good representation. I see the Witcher as trying to be more complex rather than digging its heels in.
I don’t think the Witcher is innocent of problematic content (the ableism for one).
The Witcher provides some characters (mainly white or light skinned POC actors) more development than black characters (such as Fringilla and Dara). This is one of the bad things about ‘color blind casting’. It doesn’t acknowledge that white people have internalized racism towards dark toned people. While some characters have representation I’m not so sure darker toned actors are given the same consideration for their characters. POC may have inclusivity but not necessarily representation.
Fringilla’s story is interesting and yet we don’t see much about what made her take the actions she does. We see Fringilla’s experiences through Yennefer’s own experiences but not much development goes on individually. Her storyline and humanity is limited by the white or white passing (Yennefer) characters. We see her storyline as a tool for other characters storylines. Even if the main story isn’t about her, that shouldn’t stop scriptwriters from giving her good development. A good script can create good development in the details, verbal or nonverbal.
The Witcher is doing more than I ever got to see on Game of Thrones. It gives its audience more powerful and magical POC characters than what is average. It’s not often I get to see so many WOC as powerful, with abilities normally given to white characters. Even though I like the Witcher I’m also critical of the things it’s not doing. I hope readers of the fantasy genre can expect better in the future.
An intricate world is more interesting with varied groups of people rather than just a single boring ass identity slogging along like a dried out rag, This is what I see new fantasy shows (like the Witcher and hopefully the Wheel of Time) are trying to do and I’m here to see those imaginative worlds become more and more complex.
The possibility of Fantasy is an imaginative world making us realize the problems and limitations of our own and providing a new landscape in which to understand what a world or a society could be. It can help us explore ideas but it doesn’t have to match our world. It certainly shouldn’t uplift the misogyny, homophobia, ableism and white supremacy of our own. It doesn’t need to be as exclusive as some think it should. Unless you have absolutely no imagination.
Historical accuracy should not be a criticism for fantasy shows which are refusing to uplift the misogyny, homophobia, and white supremacy of our world. People are starting to realize how these old criticisms of authoritative women and black people in Europe aren’t just bad criticism, they’re criticisms that you don’t get to live in your fantasy of a white patriarchal supremacy.
Saying women can’t be good with swords or that black people can’t exist unless in chains is the type of gatekeeping that does nothing for the genre. We should try to be doing something other than relying on history. I’m not saying history isn’t a great resource but if you’re using it to say what Fantasy or “Poland” can’t be then you’re assuming things about a made up magical world which limits the genre. We should also remember that the history white people have learned is a very exclusive and inaccurate version of medieval Europe. If we’re going to use the inaccuracy claim, we’re going to have to talk about how all the old favs of the genre are inaccurate.
This show has lots of problems and yet it has possibility. Hissrich is transforming the expectation that the groups the fantasy genre forgot to give agency to stays in the realm of tropes and places us into this new world: a world of flaws, chaotic princesses and magical, powerful women get beautiful imperfections, fighting for control of their bodies and damn the men getting in their way.
Frankly if you can’t imagine a world with nuance and diversity than you lack imagination and are incapable of critiquing art.