Fantasy. Science Fiction. The whole Speculative Fiction umbrella. A genre or genres that are very much apart from this lame boring realistic world were you have to get a job and not all the lasses are buxom and not all the dudes are hunky and you only get to hunt dragons a few times a year. These stories present their own worlds, with their own rules, that can be as separate from meatspace as the writer’s skills can stretch believability. At the same time, though, they’re close enough that they can actually speak to the real world. Allegory and metaphor are powerful tools available to this medium, with the writer offering familiar situations in an unfamiliar setting to help the reader see them from completely new perspectives and in a completely new light. Lots of authors feel strongly about lots of things, lots of authors write speculative fiction, so lots of authors bring these two great tastes together.
But lots of authors don’t think things out the whole way through. And therein lies the problem.
So, racism is bad. Sexism is bad. There’s a whole lot of –isms out there that are bad. You know what? Let’s just go ahead and say screw prejudice as a whole. That will be our platform. Screw Prejudice 2024. Then if anyone argues with us, we can prove that they’re really a racist elf. That’s how you win politics, people. Anyways, the roots, causes, and impacts of it are an incredibly complex subject, far more than any self-proclaimed expert can just pick up from Tumblr, but we can still go out on a limb and say prejudice is a bad thing. We all on the same page here? Good.
Lots of other people think prejudice is a bad thing, too. So they decide to use their medium of choice to change hearts and minds around it. Get people to understand it better, look at it from a new perspective. Make the world a bit of a better place. Speculative Fiction is a ripe ground for metaphor, so it seems to fit right in.
But in the process, it’s easy to change too much, and tie a whole lot of other implications into that metaphor as well. It’s easy to inadvertently give ammunition to the counter-point.
Elves and dwarves just hate each other. You can find entire slave races all over the place. So many people have to deal with a world that hates and fears them for having powers they never asked for and can’t control. And all too often, these aren’t meant to just make a plot point in and of themselves, but to remind you of the plight of a specific strain of humanity.
Real world prejudice is a blight because it assigns poor treatment to people because of traits that really don’t matter. A lot of speculative fiction prejudice impacts people with real, tangible, physical differences that set them apart from other races. That weakens the metaphor drastically. Having races with different capabilities and stats makes them interesting, but if you’re trying to use them to create a real world analog for racial treatment, making them differently capable just starts implying that there’s maybe a reason for that prejudice. Like, you remember in the Elder Scrolls, where Khajiit just get treated like an entire race of thieves but that’s what their stats lay out? And you know, that was all fine, until they started brushing, lightly brushing, but still brushing, against the real world “racism is bad” metaphor in Skyrim, where wasn’t it such a shame that all the Nordic cities treated all Khajiit like thieves even though EVERY SINGLE FREAKING KHAJIIT NPC WAS A MEMBER OF THE THIEVE’S GUILD!
And then when you go further than that, start giving races access to weapons and tools that others don’t have, that they can’t even control themselves, and yet isn’t it such a shame that everyone else is so phobic to them? X-Men is a big offender here. Back in the day, it just made itself more realistic by grounding itself in the more recent civil rights movement rather than directly confronting it. The struggle of mutants was something that the team was working on, was a major focus of the plot, but they didn’t start trying to make the real world parallels right away. And when they did get around to it, did start saying that “these are your blacks! These are your gays!”, the whole comparison rang a little unfortunate, because really, by that point the humans were at least partially justified in their fear. The comics have spent story upon story detailing characters with little control of their deadly, dangerous, powers, showing people who first realized they had these mutant powers in the first place by nearly murdering those around them, and have spent years showcasing mutant characters who were unabashedly, openly evil. Trying to make that analogy, trying to say you have no reason to treat a population that way, just makes things worse when you give the people in your story plenty of reason to fear and be wary of them in the first place.
That doesn’t mean there’s not a good reason or a good way to handle this topic in media. Honestly, there’s a lot of works that do it well. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Final Fantasy X, and Tales of Symphonia all hit those notes quite well, for example. Just, when you’re dealing with it, keep in mind that you’re walking into a very complex subject, and make sure you’re paying attention to all the elements you’re bringing to it, as such.