I read a story once. It was a good story in the sense of being well written, engaging, with no major plot holes.
The author put a note in the beginning, explaining that this story was set in a fantasy version of the bronze age. This meant (of course) that there were slaves and women were not treated equal to men. That doesn’t make the author or the story sexist, it’s just a setting!
I think the author meant it. I think he had no intention of writing a sexist story. He was just (as far as he was concerned) writing a story in which sexism happened and slavery happened. He wasn’t endorsing these things, he just wanted to tell a story.
That story was Demon’s Gate by Steve White and it, more than anything else, taught me the danger of unexamined biases. And the importance of asking, “Am I creating a bigoted story?”
We, as creators, cannot afford to let our biases or our creations go unanalyzed, uncritiqued.
A nobleman and his loyal slave discover something hinky at the palace. As they investigate they discover a group of noblewomen who are tired of being treated as, well, women. (You know, second class citizens, property of men, that kind of thing.) These women are fomenting some kind of plot against the empire. Except the (male) leader of their little cult is a demon in disguise who has tricked them into opening a gate into the demon’s realm. Once the gate is opened it will flood reality with demons who will turn the world into a literal hell on earth forever more.
The nobleman (and his loyal slave) break the cult by convincing one of the young women that the cult was wrong. The women needed to accept their place, not rebel against the status quo. This woman realizes she needs to tell the nobleman everything she can about the cult. The climax is an epic race against time to stop the women’s cult from opening the gate to the other world and a battle for the fate of mankind. The members of the cult are either killed or imprisoned. The demon is banished with the help of the one woman who is permitted to be a power in her own right (religious figure) and everyone lives happily ever after.
The premise of this story can be boiled down to “a bunch of women form a support group to try to better their lives and nearly bring about the end of the world.”
Just to highlight a few points:
1) Women trying to fight against oppression nearly destroy the world (literally)
2) Women only get the idea to fight against oppression when a man (or demon pretending to be a man) urges them to. Even in fighting against oppression, they follow the leadership of a man
3) Protagonist is a privileged slave owner who is a hero because he is fighting to preserve a corrupt, oppressive empire
The 1920s want their anti-suffragette memes back. And Dixie wants to know where the General Lee doppelganger got to.
There are a lot of issues with the endless calls for realism — especially in SFF! But that’s a tangent, because….
You can write stories in slave societies, in sexist societies, in elitist societies, in racist societies, and not have your story be bigoted!
David Freer does a not-horrible job of this in A Mankind Witch. By the end of the story, the Prince of the Holy Roman Empire gets some of his self-satisfied religious bigotry knocked out of him, a Nordic princess learns that putting a slave collar on a man doesn’t strip away his basic humanity, and a Berber pirate learns that there are things he cares about more than money and the next ransom. All while fighting free of a troll queen, outwitting dwarves, and solving a crime that nearly ends the fragile peace between the Northlands and the Holy Roman Empire.
Awesome story, I recommend it and the rest of the series.
Anyway, as creatives, we need to check ourselves and our work. It isn’t as simple as ‘if there is bigotry in your work it is bigoted’. Life doesn’t work that way.
We need stories that portray bigotry. We A) need to not erase bigotry from history (or current events) and B) we need to have stories celebrating people who triumph over bigotry.
Even if we didn’t need those stories, we still wouldn’t want to shut down all stories portraying bigotry – that would eliminate stories about the lived experiences of most people who have ever existed.
But we need to do the work to portray them well. We can create those stories without reinforcing the bigotry, without resurrecting bigoted ideas and tropes that should have died a century ago.
And we can damn well make our heroes people who are fighting against bigotry or learning important lessons about not being bigoted. Not bigots who are proved right by the stories we tell!
Are you creating a bigoted story?
The ‘Good King’ Makes a Good Fantasy