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Appropriating culture for plot points

2012/03/21

Today, I am responding to this article about appropriation in the urban fantasy genre. First, I should define the terms, since she doesn’t. Wikipedia describes appropriation as “the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group.” TV Tropes defines urban fantasy as ” a genre that combines common fantasy conventions with a modern setting.” I actually disagree with most of what she has to say here because of two key problems: She doesn’t seem clear on what appropriation is and she think it’s always bad.

To give an example: I ate stir fry last night. I’m having spaghetti for dinner today. If someone hadn’t appropriated Chinese and Italian cuisine, we Americans would be far poorer for it. If China and Italy hadn’t appropriated elements of indigenous American cuisine , their cuisine might not be worth re-appropriating. It’s also unavoidable to a large degree in fiction unless you want a lot of books about struggling writers. Incorporating elements of other people’s lives is necessary to write fiction with any sort of scope. This includes other cultures. For instance, a multi-national team like the X-Men couldn’t exist without the writer dealing with characters whose ethnic background is different from their own (unless it was written by committee, but that doesn’t usually turn out well). It certainly can be bad if the writer doesn’t know or doesn’t care much about the culture they are dealing with and gives it a superficial or inaccurate treatment, but there is no reason that has to be the case. For examples of bad appropriation see How to Write about Africa and How to Write about Japan.

The whole idea of appropriation can be a bit thorny to begin with because who really owns culture? For instance, Renee criticizes Rebecca Hamilton for incorporating the Salem witch trials into her novels. This wasn’t a conflict between culturally distinct groups. Whose oppression is she capitalizing on? Witches? It’s doubtful that any of the executed actually practiced witchcraft. Women? Women got the worst of it, but plenty of men died too. White Americans? Everyone involved except Tituba was white. It’s not like they were oppressed for being white. Besides, Rebecca Hamilton is a white, American witch-woman. Unless you’re running with LP Hartley’s idea that the past is a foreign country, it’s not clear who she is appropriating from. Some of the examples do seem to fit the definition better, bur still don’t make sense.

A writer must interweave their version of our world into their story, to ensure that there is enough context, to allow the reader to relate with the characters.  Sometimes, this can be achieved with things like having characters go to a specific location, or participate in a very popular cultural activity like checking email.  Some writers however take these connections too far by engaging in revisionist history, and appropriating the experiences of marginalised people.

This can include inserting their protagonist into real historical situations, in an attempt to convey the age of the supernatural in question. Unfortunately, this usually leads to some sort of revisionism as an imaginary character, would have had no role to play for the allies in WWII. Yes, I am looking at you Sanctuary. Kevin Hearne, had his protagonist Atticus play a role in the French resistance.  In Eternal Law, Zak became the Angel of Mons (which is based on a real legend), who guided soldiers to safety in WWI, and was then punished for his action by being forced to defend soldiers accused of going AWOL.

Why is this a problem? First, I’d point out that getting offended on behalf of other groups is appropriative, She’s using things that happened to other groups as a way of criticizing literary trends she doesn’t like. I’m not aware of anyone who’s actually hurt by this. I’m also not sure how the genre is supposed to work without this. She seems to think this isn’t inevitable, but if you add fantastic elements to the world, then by definition, your history will be revised. I suppose that you could keep them away from anything interesting, but that will hardly make for good fiction. Her complaint also hardly seems restricted to urban fantasy. It would apply even more to historical fiction. She seems to think that using history as background to tell any sort of fiction disrespects the history. It can, as she details later, but there’s no reason it has to.

Another gross element of appropriation, is appropriating human disaster and atrocity and putting a supernatural element in them – or worse – attributing a supernatural motive for them. The strongest example of this I can think of is Grimm, which recently presented Hitler, as a supernatural creature. Lost Girl has had its share of fuckery by attributing the genocide in Darfur to supernatural causes.

I don’t think appropriation is the problem here. Would this be any less problematic if the writers were Jewish or Sudanese? In fact, David Greenwalt, one of the Grimm executive producers. is Jewish. The issue here is that by attributing atrocities (or crediting achievements) to supernatural forces you are undermining the very engine of history. More importantly, you are shying away from the fact that humans do evil and infantalizing people who deserve credit for great works by saying they couldn’t do it on their own. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is potentially a good example.

This may be a problem because there are quite a few people out there who try to say the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. It was a power grab by the government and slavery was a cover story. Putting out a movie saying it was about vampires and slavery was a cover story trivializes this. You don’t want to give credence to white nationalists. However, I’m not sure this is going to be the treatment. A lot of times the fantastic elements of fiction are just metaphors for aspects of humanity, so it isn’t necessarily a problem, but you need to be careful. The metaphor sometimes breaks down as she details below:

Of course, very glaring is that vampires, werewolves et al aren’t oppressed and weak even in their fictional worlds. Quite the opposite, they are hyper-able, capable of things beyond even the strongest and most powerful human being – constantly it is presented that the only way humanity can bring down these creatures is through overwhelming numbers.

The thing is, it doesn’t need to be a perfect analogy, just good enough for people to see themselves. This doesn’t have to be an insulting appropriation of disadvantaged groups. It can be a power fantasy for those groups. Natalie Reed recently commented on this with regards to super heroes. Perhaps Renee would have been clearer exactly what she was talking about if she gave some positive examples, but she comes across as saying that you shouldn’t use real events or issues for fictions because a few people used it badly.

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