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Bigotry and inequality in historical settings (with article)

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Feo Takahari, Nov 8, 2015.

  1. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    This thread was inspired by an interesting article, which I'll quote in part:

    I don't write historical settings myself, but I still think this is an interesting question. How would you handle bigotry in an unequal setting?
     
    J. S. Elliot and Russ like this.
  2. Devouring Wolf

    Devouring Wolf Sage

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    When I'm writing about inequality, I try not to make it black and white. For example when dealing with sexism remember that your main character shouldn't be perfect and without fault, I personally would find a female character who even while fighting for equality holds some of her own prejudices much more compelling than one that hold 100% politically correct views (at the beginning of the story, of course, I have no problem with her eliminating her personal prejudices as part of her character growth but she shouldn't start out perfect). Also sexism has varying degrees. Some people will see a powerful and reevaluate their ideas about women as a whole, some will see a woman can do the same things as a man and concede that particular woman is equal to a man, but as a majority most woman are not equal. Some women will harbor internal misogyny. Sometimes men will fight for women's rights. Sometimes those fighting for women's rights will use unethical means to achieve their ends. What I'm trying to say is that in order to write a truly engaging story about these issues, you have acknowledge there is more it than just people who are sexist are evil/ women who want equality are good.
     
  3. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    In a sense, this touches upon my current WIP. The principle characters are from a quasi roman empire type setting, with much of the action taking place in the hinterlands.

    Arranged marriages are the norm - and the women often have no input into the matter. Two of my characters stand out here, one in a sort of positive sense, the other not so much.

    Tia is of the Equestrian or middle class, daughter of a prosperous merchant. Said merchant aspires to the nobility, and orders her to find a suitably noble husband. But he also grants her a bit of leeway - she can choose from a selection of candidates, each of whom she gets to visit in turn. (She's also charged with seeking out potential profit for the family.)

    Bao (whose scenes I am writing now) is the daughter of a native provincial governor. The major imperial families keep a hand on things in her province, but normally grant them a fair bit of autonomy - the province is at the edge of everything, pretty much,
    so they don't care. Bao was seeing a scion of another local noble family. But, prior to the story proper, one of these imperial officials died. At the time, Bao was being educated in the central empire - then she gets told out of the blue her old arrangement is off and she is being married to an imperial scion (the stories MC, actually). She's not thrilled. She's even less thrilled when she discovers her old flame is married but says they can still see each other.


    Said empire, in normal times, has ten standing legions, all male. Via a historical quirk, there is also an 11th all female legion, a sort of refuge for malcontent women. Said female legion - the 'Amazoni' did serve honorably enough in a long, devastating war. Upon the wars conclusion, though, they were reduced to token strength and authorities at all levels tried to write them out of the history books.

    Likewise, there were a number of noblewoman who donned armor and fought as knights in that conflict. Again, a deliberate effort was made to expunge them from history.

    In compensation, after no small amount of thought, I did grant (some) women potential avenues of advancement in keeping with the culture.

    First, finance. Historically, in a lot of cultures, women have held the purse strings. That is...sometimes...the case here. Female treasury officials are not uncommon.

    Second, intrigue. Women, to me, seem better suited for this, and some of the brighter male lords employ female spies and spymasters.

    Third, the clergy. In a straight 'imperial Christian' setting, this wouldn't work - females were denied clerical office almost but not quite from the outset in what became Orthodox Christianity. But the church of my world is descended from gnostic Christianity, where women (sometimes) did hold high office. Hence, there are a few 'orders' where women can rise to the rank of Bishop.
     
  4. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    To me, it simply boils down to treat both "sides" not as caricatures but as people. I try to remember rare is anything black and white, as in an individual being perfectly on one end of the spectrum. And as I'm writing this, I'm realizing, I'm about to repeat what Devouring Wolf said. A person can be bigoted, but still be in other aspects a good person. And person who believes in equality can be a vile despicable being.

    Humans are complex, contradictory in actions, attitudes, and in reasons behind those things. I guess all I'm trying to say is don't just use those dilatations of opposing sides as a way of labelling one group wholly bad or wholly good.
     
    Brian G Turner likes this.
  5. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    @Penpilot: I'm reminded of Valkyria Chronicles. The Darcsen are very, very obvious stand-ins for Jews during the Holocaust, and the writers do their best to hammer in the whole "racism is wrong" thing. Every Darcsen character is pure-hearted to the point of near flawlessness, and players actually complained about how heavy-handed it felt. One of the big changes the third game was praised for was introducing Darcsen antagonists and antiheroes.
     
  6. MineOwnKing

    MineOwnKing Maester

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    Is it possible for a man to answer this correctly?

    Write any females with the best dialogue you can, and then run for cover.

    Leave these shark infested waters before it's too late!
     
  7. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    In my first novel, I put in quite some effort into creating believable characters, but I let a lot of the backdrop just come as it went without putting too much thought into it. It's just a regular traditional countryside village. One of my friends who read the story stopped reading somewhere halfway through because she got so annoyed with the stereotypical gender roles portrayed in it.

    I don't feel I'm a misogynist myself, but a lot of the issues that were pointed out to me (by another friend), were things I'd just not considered and that had slipped me by. Most of them are not necessary for the story and can be changed or modified without much difficulty - and the changes will probably even make the story better.

    In my case I don't think that what bothered my friend wasn't that the story was unrealistic or the characters weak, but that she felt I hadn't bothered with addressing gender roles (opinions from another reader go in the opposite direction). I'm guessing she got reminded too much about real world issues she sees and it bothered her enough that it took away from the story.

    This wasn't why I intended and I can understand why she didn't like it.

    In my current story I'm dealing with similar issues. The setting is the same, and the story is about a young woman who really wants to get married and have a family. The same friend has yet to read this story, but I have higher hopes she'll be able to enjoy it even though it's dealing with similar things. My hope is that since I'm knowingly dealing with these issues, I'll be able to present it in a different light than when I thoughtlessly introduced them into the story.

    The the question:
    I think a lot of it comes with the presentation. If focus is put on highlighting the character's negative experiences of inequality it's probably going to be hard to give the story a feeling of jolly good adventuring with elves and orcs and dragons, but then that probably isn't what you're going for either. It also depends on the reader. A story doesn't necessarily have to have a happy ending in order to be enjoyable.
     
  8. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    The best fiction reflects on the human condition, and sadly, racism, sexism and many forms of irrational harmful bigotry has been part of the human condition throughout historic times.

    While every work need not explore this issue in any depth, or even mention it directly, it really does have to factor into world building at some level. If your world has none of these elements for some reason that can be as much of a statement as having a slavery system based on race.

    My WIP deals a great deal with this issues, mostly indirectly, but I hope the message is there.

    Classic fantasy works may well disguise the message well, but negative stereotypes appear in the spec fic genre as far back as it goes.

    If it is a theme that you want to explore in your work fantasy makes an excellent platform to do so.

    The question of how to handle it is a big one. I think the simplest answer is simply have each of your characters have a realistic thought on the question and then when circumstances call for it, speak, think and act in accord with that belief even if it might make the reader like them less.
     
  9. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    There's an assumption in the excerpt that the target audience in Agent Carter is feminists, or women. I don't think that's the case at all. In a quick google search I'm having trouble finding the gender breakdown for the show, but I'm finding several sources claiming that Agent Carter is targeting guys, which is what my first reaction was. (I would cite one, but I don't want to take the time to read it properly first.) If you look away from the perspective of inspiring young women, and consider the impact the show would have on men or teenage boys, I think the article's tone and opinion would be very different.

    Speaking a little more broadly, to the question of fantasy, there's two topics to this. Are we talking about the books we read or the books we write? Because I would generally argue against over-criticizing the books we read for this sort of content, even while the books I write and want to write don't include it.
     
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  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    There is one movie, Boys Don't Cry, that I've only watched once and will probably never watch again. I thought it was a very good movie, but too painful. A handful of other movies fall into a similar category: good but painful to watch. So, yeah, it's possible for a work of art to have this effect.

    I don't think that I, myself, could write something that has the same sort of brutality or tragic tone running throughout. I'd just be way, way too tempted to break the status quo in that world before the end of the book. My current WIP has a society greatly shaped by its goddess worship—well, more of a goddess-inspired philosophy—and so has absolute equality between men and women. This doesn't mean that no individuals are bigoted, but only that the issue of sex or gender equality doesn't typically rear its head. It's mostly a non-issue.
     
  11. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

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    Personally, I don't think I'll ever write a story, or even a world, in which bigotry exists. I can see the value in those stories, as they are able to more directly tackle the issue in question. But personally, instead of writing a story in which a female character has to triumph against a sexist society, I'd much rather just write a story in which there is no sexist society. Same with racism, or homophobia. I'm not trying to directly tackle these issues, so why would I add that horribleness to a story? Even then, I think a better, more deep and lasting way to tackle these issues would not be to tell a story about a character standing against them, but to tell story in which no character has to stand against anything.

    And most of all, never assume that just because fantasy settings tend to have historical technology levels, that they have to adhere to historical bigotry. If you do include that kind of bigotry, then it was a conscious choice to do so on your part.
     
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  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Mine is an alternate history world, so you might think these issues affect me. They do, but only indirectly, and it all comes down to plot and theme.

    My stories have little to do with gender roles. One story is about a runaway who meets a wizard on an empty highway. Another is about an ogre and a sprite who steal an island (accidentally). Another is about a fellow doing a favor for an old friend. Still another is about goblins invading the Roman Empire.

    In other words, although there are relationships within those stories, the stories are not really *about* those relationships. They are about a problem to be solved, a challenge to be faced. I do try to handle the relationships (including one romance) realistically, but to shoehorn modern ideological struggles into these stories would be foolish. At the same time, if I were to write a story that was *about* marriage and love and gender, then of course I would want to explore precisely those themes.

    It's all about the story. And it's not about the expectations of bloggers, however sincerely intended.
     
  13. One thing that you have to look out for and either be prepared to defend or deal with is if you have an MC that is racist or is like the woman fighting against sexism that has a pretty big flaw is the fact that some people will scream at you for perceived bigotry. But even with this one should not, of course, play into stereotypes as applied to an individual. This isn't critical address in the story, but this is something to keep in the back of your mind.
     
  14. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

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    In a historical setting, of course. Bigotry is a prominent part of everyday life, and it was even more prominent in the past. To me, it's very hard to write a story about a secret agent woman in the 40s and 50s without including sexism. That stuff happened, lots of terrible things happened, and I think reminding us of that only helps the feminist and progressive points of view. Now, if you were going to have your story be so escapist that it doesn't even mention sexism, then it better be something made only for kids under the age of 7. Otherwise it comes off as extremely silly to me.

    If it's fantasy that takes place in a different world, then that's a different story.
     
  15. Devouring Wolf

    Devouring Wolf Sage

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    I personally think it still comes off as a little silly in fantasy stories, unless there's a reason for it. Things like racism and sexism, are terrible, but systematic oppression developed for a reason, that's precisely why these things are so difficult to overcome. Fantasy world societies can of course develop very differently, but as far as I'm concerned they're going to have to have a good reason as to why these systems didn't develop.
     
  16. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    I don't think that it is about trying to shoehorn modern ideological struggles into fiction, it is about the fact that virtually every society ever known has had bigotry, gender roles and racism. Those facts are not a product of ideology, but exist independent of any ideology.

    There is certainly nothing wrong with writing fiction where bigotry has little or no role because of the tale being told, but to write any society completely free of bigotry just means that your work ignores what we know about the human condition.
     
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  17. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I agree with Russ... I'm not sure why we would avoid these issues? (I'm tend towards the literary side in fiction though that I like things to get real. I was thrilled as a teenager when Terry Goodkind included a lesbian couple in his Sword of Truth series).

    I like books that say something about the human condition. I loved Margaret Attwoods The Handmaids Take which was all about mysogony.

    I loved Lawrence Hills The Book of Negros which was all about racism and slavery...

    I loved that they were fearless to include the trails that the mc in The Imitation Game faced for being homosexual.

    For me, I think if treated respectfully, these issues are important to explore in fiction.

    Of course, not everyone agrees. My husband prefers purely entertainment and doesn't want an enlightenment every time he reads or watches Netflix.

    George RR Martin, when criticized for the amount of rape in the tv series basically said "drama rests in conflict. If you are writing a utopia you are probably writing a pretty boring book"."

    As a person who loves history, though, I feel that it is important to be realistic about it so we can learn from it. We need to preserve it so that we can go forward being better. Trying to pretend the bad parts didnt exist, or covering them up, or video game-afying them is concerning to me.
     
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2015
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  18. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Actually… today is Remembrance Day in Canada…

    Let us always remember the true atrocities of war. The real, human suffering. The misogyny, the racism, the class differences. The fact that the German's didn't even consider the Russians to be human. The fact that there are still thousands of men and women out there fighting, sacrificing and dying every day. Let us remember these things so that my son does not grow up thinking "war" is Call of Duty, or Halo, or some mystical thing that happens between orcs and elves with no real suffering…
     
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2015
  19. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    Counterpoint: So Game of Thrones won the Emmys | Feminist Fiction

     

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