Jonathan MS Pearce on Representative Casting

So, there’s been a fair bit of discussion over some attempts at diverse casting in the Amazon “Lord of the Rings” show and in the “Game of Thrones” prequel show “House of the Dragon”.  In particular, “Lord of the Rings” has added black characters to all races — including the elves who, traditionally, have been presented as being pale-skinned — and “House of the Dragon” has presented a member of the Targaryen family as being black even though the family is known for having silver hair and pale skin.  The response to people arguing that this misrepresents the characters and races as per the original works or authors is, basically, that they are all just racist and that these sorts of casting decisions are things that are needed to promote diversity.  Along the same lines, Jonathan MS Pearce has chimed in with a post titled “Why a Black Targaryen makes more sense than a white Jesus” attempting to justify it as well, which will rely heavily on the argument that, hey, this is just fantasy and so this shouldn’t be that unbelievable.

Which is of course the same sort of reasoning that the creators use, as per this quote (that I got from Pearce’s post):

Defending the decision, and poking holes in the rationale of critics, Toussaint told Men’s Health. “It seems to be very hard for people to swallow. They are happy with a dragon flying. They’re happy with white hair and violet-colored eyes, but a rich Black guy? That’s beyond the pale.”

Toussaint is using the common tactic of pointing out things that are stranger than this and trying to make the racist point by saying that it’s making a claim that these people find a rich and powerful Black person incredibly unbelievable, which is then used to imply that it’s the racist implications of the character violating a “Black person’s place” that is doing the real work and causing the issue.  Pearce is more explicit about that later in the post:

With historical individuals, there is certainly a case for them to be played by appropriate actors, especially if accuracy is an important criterion. The same goes for culturally framed legends. That is where these angry internet individuals should be focusing their wrath.

But outright fantasy that is for all intents and purposes made up from whole cloth? That is a different kettle of fish. It is somewhat more difficult to argue that this must adhere to what was in the mind of the author. In one case, the author has long been dead, and in the other, he can be asked if this is an issue. George R.R. Martin has yet to make a comment, though he was intimately involved in the creation of the series.

The problem with this reasoning is that even though it is a fantasy world, a fantasy world is still one that runs on rules, and in general the things that are done in those rules, then, need to be consistent with these rules.  Some of the rules are explicit, but a number of them are implicit.  And since humans try to wring consistency out of any reality that they are confronted with, a number of those rules will be things that they derive from their own experience in this world and what seems to be the logical implications of the world as presented.  A writer can, of course, break any of these rules — especially the implied ones — but if they do so they risk breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief — to use a term coined by Tolkien himself, dragging them back into the “Primary World” — if they do so without explanation, which then would cause the audience to demand an explanation.  Shamus Young in his Mass Effect series went through an exhaustive analysis of why the production capacities of Cerberus made no sense, and ended it with this:

Okay, this is science fiction where “anything can happen”, but this is still ostensibly a universe based on rules. Unless stated otherwise, the audience will assume that the normal rules of entropy, thermodynamics, and economies of scale apply. Your job as a storyteller is to bridge the gap between what the audience intuits should happen with what does happen in your story. This “secret army” idea is so preposterous that you can’t expect the audience to swallow it without explanation.

So the fact that we have a science fiction or fantasy world that is completely different from our world doesn’t mean that you can simply do anything and the audience should just accept it since they are accepting things that are more divorced from their own common experience.  A proper work in these fields sets up a world that is consistent and that we understand, and so we can put aside how things work in the real world and immerse ourselves in this new one.  Once this is properly done, we as the audience have expectations of how things are supposed to work in that new world, and if our expectations are contradicted we are going to want an explanation to maintain that consistency, or else we will feel that this is a consistent world which means that we will have a hard time seeing as a real world, and so we will no longer be immersed in that world and taking it on its own terms but instead will be looking at it from outside the world and analyzing it as such.  And this will make us not enjoy the work as intended.

And small things can break immersion if they demand an explanation and are not explained.  For example, a recent “Fantastic Four” movie decided to recast Johnny Storm as a black character, to some criticism, but you could argue that, hey, if we can believe that he can become enshrouded in flames without burning up or hurting himself why can’t he be black?  But as I noted in discussing it myself:

Making Johnny Storm black raises the immediate question of him and Sue being siblings and how you handle that. In the comments, most people react dismissively to that by citing adoption or interracial marriage, but these are very, very risky. In the adoption case, since they are supposed to have such a close bond it developing through adoption puts that, at least, at risk. Remember, Sue is supposed to have raised him after their mother died (if I’m recalling correctly) and this way it says more about her than about their relationship. And them not being close in terms of race is something that cries out for an explanation, even if some assert that it happens.

Because of the relationship between the characters, if they aren’t the same race but are close siblings we are going to ask why that is and how that happened, and so as I noted that will cry out for an explanation.  If it isn’t explained, then it may well drag people out of that world back into the real world, and here it would do that because it violates the implied rules of the world that we are observing.  You can risk doing that for really good reason, but that is the sort of thing that should be done only when you need to.  And in the case of Johnny Storm, my comment was that if they wanted to do that, in order to avoid the issues all they needed to do was make Sue black as well.

But the “This is fantasy!” argument doesn’t wash at all, even in these cases.  In the “House of Dragons” case, the argument is that Martin never really said what the colour of the character’s skin, even though he’s a member of a family known for having pale skin.  This, then, is an implied rule of that family that the work is blithely breaking for no real reason and with no real explanation.  That will break immersion, and the response of “It’s for diversity!” is not going to satisfy anyone who, rightly, notes that the work is breaking the implied rules of the world.  For the “Lord of the Rings” cases, adding black characters to all the races breaks an implied rule about elves, raises all sorts of issues around how race is considered among all those races (is there still racism, for example) and clashes with the other and later works where there were no such characters (for example, whether they no longer exist or just weren’t there).  By just dropping them in with no explanation they make the world inconsistent in a way that they can’t be bothered to resolve.  And before anyone claims that this is only an issue for race I have one word for you:  midichlorians.

Pearce also tries to tie into the title by trying to make an argument that the people objecting to this are being hypocritical:

Jesus was Middle Eastern (if he was not himself fictional). Pharaohs were Egyptian. Tonto was a Native American. So on and so forth. And yet they have all been played time and again by white actors. With historical individuals, there is certainly a case for them to be played by appropriate actors, especially if accuracy is an important criterion. The same goes for culturally framed legends. That is where these angry internet individuals should be focusing their wrath.

But, alas, tumbleweed. Instead, it is the “woke” crew who get accusations of “do-gooding” in bringing this up.

But there are some crucial differences here.  First, Jesus is a terrible example here because the dominant cultural representation of Jesus is as white.  You can point out that that is also a reflection of racism, but presenting Jesus the way He’s always been portrayed is not at all the same thing.  There is no contradiction with how people think of Jesus and, in fact, to do anything else would, in fact, create the same inconsistency in the minds of the audience that people are complaining about.  Now, I think that in general you probably could cast a Middle Eastern Jesus without causing that great an inconsistency and, in fact, likely being more consistent, but there are two issues with doing that.  First, the main audience for works about Jesus are religious people, who can be awfully prickly about changes.  Second, it could easily come across a trying to mock those religious people by making their representation more “realistic”, and given how often atheists explicitly do things like that to mock them they might have a point.  So you’d need a good reason to violate the cultural expectations and recast Jesus, and in general we don’t have them.

As for the other cases, the big difference is that in those cases cast actors of a different race but didn’t change the race of the characters.  If you look at the images in the meme, they used makeup and other things to try to make the actors look like a member of that race.  The much derided “blackface” was the same sort of thing:  an attempt to make white actors look black so that they could portray black characters.  Thus, no matter how poorly it was done, it was at least an attempt to reduce any such inconsistencies by keeping the race of the characters consistent.  It also minimized audience pushback by trying to change things as little as possible.

That’s not what’s happening in these cases.  These cases are making clear and notable changes in the characters themselves, which thus ends up making clear and notable changes in the world itself.  Thus, they are changing the world itself in the name of representation and diversity.  As noted, this risks introducing huge inconsistencies that demand explanation.  But it also shows a lack of respect for the world that they are entering into, feeling that they can blithely change things about that world for the out-of-world considerations of diversity and, as we’ve especially seen lately without feeling the need to even explain the changes or make them consistent in any way with the world, preferring to deride critics as being racist or sexist instead.  If you aren’t going to make a work consistent with the world you are attaching yourselves to, why not just create a new world instead?  The reason, it seems to me, is that they want the boost that comes from attaching themselves to an existing and popular work but have no love or even respect for it, and so are perfectly willing to change anything about it at their own whim and then dismiss the original fans as “being behind the times”, or “not seeing their vision” or, in the case of things done for diversity and progressive values, “just racist and sexist”.  But fans are perfectly justified in being upset at newcomers are coming in and changing the things they love just to satisfy their own personal whims.

Pearce, as he has done before, then talks about why doing these things is important:

We must also recognize why some of the choices are being made. This is largely about representation. While some may argue that it is tokenism or wokeism, I don’t think they understand quite how important representation and normalization is, and how well it works. Almost to a tee, these people will be white, and part of what they implicitly see as the default.

I set out the importance and success of normalization in my recent piece “Normalizing sexual diversity: How ‘meh’ can save the world.”

While for some not used to seeing a diverse cast on their screens, these choices might seem forced. But this really isn’t for you so much as it is for the young, and for generating a society ten years down the line. In a decade, there won’t be this forced nature to make sure there is representation, there simply will be representation naturally because there will be so many diverse actors and writers inspired by positive role models, and equality of opportunity. Diversity will be baked into the system by then, representing a more obviously diverse society.

The issue I have with this is that it presumes that it is crucially important that people can only see themselves represented by people who share these sorts of characteristics, race in particular.  On the one hand, this ends up maintaining the racial divisions that we are supposed to be getting rid of with anti-racism policies.  We are supposed to stop thinking that the only people who can represent us are people of the same race, sex and gender as we are.  After all, progressives certainly criticize white men in particular who are annoyed when a character is changed from a white male to something else for holding to the outdated and racist idea that only someone of their race and sex can represent them, so why doesn’t it apply in reverse as well?  On the other hand, this also implies that as long as a character is the same race as them people should feel that they are represented.  But a lot of people may not feel that way.  I can say that despite all the “representation” I’d get as a white male I don’t feel that pretty much any character properly represents me.  The closest I get is Jeffrey Sinclair from Babylon 5.  But that’s okay.  I don’t need to feel that the characters are like me or represent me to like them.  But for people who think that they need to feel properly “represented” by the characters in the media they view, they are likely to feel unsatisfied by the characters that are the same race as them but are in general nothing like them, and wonder why because, hey, characters of the same race as them should be enough like them to have them feel that they properly represent them, right?  But as noted, that’s almost never going to be true, and we all may find that people and characters of a different race or sex or gender than ourselves are more like us than those that are of the same race or sex or gender.  That is not a bad thing.  That is not something to view with chagrin.  That is a good thing.

So, in general, I don’t buy Pearce’s arguments.  The argument that we can do anything we want in fantasy and science fiction doesn’t work because while those worlds are different than ours, to work they need to be consistent worlds and the criticism is that these moves make the worlds inconsistent.  The argument that critics are being hypocritical doesn’t work because the cases given for that aren’t ones that are changing the world and so don’t risk making the world inconsistent, which is what the cases they are criticizing are doing.  And it is dangerous to argue that we need diversity for representation because that implies that people can only be represented or like people who are of the same race, sex or gender as them which is the heart of what causes racism in the first place.  Ultimately, these blithe changes are the precise wrong way to go about doing this.

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