The Erasure of Black Women from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Why It Occurs and How to Fix It

Today’s guest poster is the lovely Jasmine Shea Townsend, author of Fairy Tales and Space Dreams, who discusses the issue of black women being erased from Fantasy & Sci-fi and how to correct it.

The Erasure of black women from fantasy and science fiction: why it happens and how to fix it

I have always been fascinated by fantasy, by magic and castles, dragons and princesses. One of the first stories I wrote in elementary school was a tale about an elf and a unicorn.

My elf character, whose name I have long forgotten, was pale-skinned with blonde hair and blue eyes because that’s what I thought elves were supposed to look like. It wasn’t until years had passed that I began to wonder why no one in the fantasy worlds I loved so much looked like me.

These days, I’ve come to realize that the virtual non-existence of black women in fantasy (and, to a smaller extent, science fiction) doesn’t necessarily come from a conscious malicious intent. Simply, no one thinks to include us.

Classic Fantasy:

Sometimes, a black character appears, but there is only one (in other words, a token) and he is usually male.

In this way, black women are typically barred from having access to fantastic realms and space adventures, and virtually no one seems to notice but us black women. No one thinks of us as love interests or princesses or fairies – and these were all things a younger me so desperately wanted to see.

Whenever I read or watched fantasy anything, even if I enjoyed it, it sent the message that I and girls who looked like me were not considered desirable or good enough to be included.

So, let’s go back to my elf character. For most of my childhood, I wrote elves who were pale with long, straight blonde or red hair.

I saw Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies and swooned with the rest of the girls. And, although I still appreciate a young Orlando Bloom as a hot, blond elf, I realize I have a bit of a bone to pick with Tolkien.

Well, not Tolkien himself, but his ghost. The apparition of grandfather Tolkien haunts the fantasy genre even today, as many of us fantasy writers are still head-over-heels in love with Middle Earth and his depiction of elves. (If you’ve ever seen Bright on Netflix, you’ll notice, too, that being an elf meant being pale with Eurocentric features.)

Because of this, a lot of fantasy stories still take place in Medieval England or Renaissance Europe, or similarly based settings. But this is fantasy! I feel like so many of us are stuck in these sorts of classic realms when we could be writing, I don’t know, dragons in space.

My first suggestion to fix this issue would be to change the setting or create your own entirely. I’m not saying you should never base any regions in your world off of Europe – I still do sometimes! – but there are so many other parts of the world to research and explore and use as a foundation for your fantasy worlds.

If you’re steadfastly married to the idea of a Tolkien-like setting, though, it’s worth noting that black women did, in fact, exist in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (although obviously not in large numbers), so it wouldn’t be all that strange to include them.

One of my favorite examples of black women in historical England, although this occurs during the Victorian era, is the story of Sara Forbes Bonetta, a West African princess who was orphaned by tribal warfare and subsequently adopted by Queen Victoria herself.

Often, if I managed to find dark-skinned elves, they were, much to my dismay, gray or purple (still with Eurocentric features) and always evil.

But again, fantasy is what you make it! If we can write griffins and wizards, then, surely, writing in characters with Afrocentric features is a reasonable feat. That the world is what you make it is precisely what makes the fantasy genre so alluring!

However, I will concede that the idea of representation does become a little complicated when you’re trying to portray a world much like our own – with its existing cultures and social issues – as pertains to science fiction and urban fantasy.

Science Fiction and Urban Fantasy:

I find the lack of black women in science fiction is especially interesting because it conforms to the notion that black people don’t have a future, that we aren’t allowed to dream of a future of our own.

There is where Afrofuturism come in to play – providing a future through the lens of the African diaspora, as opposed to the white Western perspective that we’re used to. The future can be black.

And the best example of our time is Wakanda in Black Panther. When we flew to the theaters in droves, we saw ourselves in these characters – smart, beautiful, witty, dynamic – flourishing and free from the taint of colonialism.

The one caveat is that we shouldn’t look to Black Panther as the end-all, be-all of black representation in science fiction because Wakanda, unlike, say, the United States, has never experienced systematic racial oppression and is therefore devoid of the traumas that come with it.

That’s the hard part. Writing in a dark-skinned Afrocentric princess is easy in a made-up fantasy world.

We’re people – just write us as people. It’s a different story, though, when you’re writing a science fiction story that takes place some years in the future of this world. When writing marginalized people in this situation, representation is difficult and requires research.

So, when writers tell me they’re afraid of backlash for misrepresenting marginalized groups, I can understand.

Many people portray black women as hard, fierce, and loud, but it’s important to note that we’re not a monolith. We’re so much more than that.

These stereotypes stem from the fact that Western society has historically denied us conventional femininity (slave women were expected to work as hard as the men; black mothers post-slavery had to work to support their families since the fathers didn’t bring home enough income for black mothers to be housewives; black men are incarcerated at an unfairly high percentage, forcing black mothers to develop a “strong” persona; etc.), but we can still be soft, cute, nerdy, awkward, elegant, or graceful.

And, to be completely honest, we are tired of being:

1. the one-dimensional “strong” girl,

2. the wise old woman who helps the white protagonist, or

3. the black friend who sacrifices herself for the white protagonist.

We are multidimensional and we want to exist for ourselves, not as someone’s stepping stone to success.

Recommendations and Conclusion

I realize I’ve just dumped a boatload of information upon you, but I will recommend to you two shows, a graphic novel, and a YA fantasy novel that will help you digest everything I’ve just said.

For watching references, I recommend “Black Girl in a Big Dress” (about a black woman who is an Anglophile and LARPs as a Victorian lady) and “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl” (which is exactly what it sounds like), both of which are available on YouTube.

Adorned by Chi also has a wonderful manga series about a black magical girl, a “painfully shy Nigerian college student who discovers she has Goddess-like powers.” This you can purchase at comic.adornedbychi.com.

And fantasy novel Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is another wonderful example that showcases interesting and dynamic black female protagonists, Zelie and Amari.

Bonus: I’m also particularly fond of genius tech-savvy black girls such as Effie from the game Overwatch and Princess Shuri from Black Panther. And if you haven’t seen the 1997 classic, Cinderella, starring Brandy herself as the iconic princess, go do that right now. It’s the only version of Cinderella in the past three decades that matters.

And those are only a few examples. I challenge you to find more.

Of course, I’m not saying every single story ever has to have black women in it. I’m just saying, it would be nice for writers to acknowledge that we exist, we are diverse, and, darn it, we want to dispel the silly notion that we don’t enjoy fantasy or science fiction!

And if, after reading this, you’re still afraid of backlash, just know that you can suffer a backlash from anything as a creative, not just from representing people of color and other marginalized groups.

I believe that, yes, if we want to see ourselves in these stories, we ought to write them ourselves.

But sometimes… we just want to read them, to watch them – we want them to already exist, which means we can’t be the only ones to think of including women who look like us.

With proper care and sensitivity (and research!), you’ll do just fine.

About Jasmine

Author-Jasmine-Shea-Townsend-photoJasmine was born in Toledo, Ohio on 5 July 1992. She was almost born on the 4th of July, but life isn’t always fair.

She received her BA in 2013 from The University of Toledo with a major in creative writing and a minor in Japanese. In 2015, she earned her MA in English literature from The University of Toledo as well.

She currently lives in Ohio with her boyfriend and two mischievous cats, Tantan and Lulu (short for Lucrezia Borgia).

She enjoys ballroom dancing, ballet, video games, j-fashion (especially Fairy Kei and Lolita), working out, reading, and, of course, writing.

Youtube   |   Twitter   |   Facebook

Fairy Tales and Space Dreams

Book cover for Fairy Tales and Space Dreams by author Jasmine Shea TownsendDelve into faraway lands and galaxies with these whimsical fantasy and science fiction tales, from vivid fairy tale reimaginings to a mermaid falling in love with a star, to lively trips across the wide expanse of the cosmos.

Join the likes of Sophie the space unicorn and Rapunzel the Night Maiden on their adventures and journeys full of discovery (and plenty of mishaps!).

Pre-order the book (release date 15th June 2019)

Share your thoughts in the comments below :)

Big thanks to Jasmine for sharing her insight into this important issue.  Please check out her links and if you have any questions for Jasmine, please drop them in the comments section below.

Happy writing

Signature & logo of Ari Meghlen

Ko-Fi ☆ FacebookTwitterInstagram ☆ GoodReadsPinterestLinkedIn

ari-meghlen-newsletter-banner

25 thoughts on “The Erasure of Black Women from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Why It Occurs and How to Fix It

  1. “Dragons in space” like Anne McCaffrey’s Pern stories? 😉

    Very much with you on this. Space travel stories in particular just aren’t realistic without diversity and tokenism isn’t enough. I tried to depict mixed heritage humans in my Goblin series because in reality, if a handful of people in London survived a planetary catastrophe, their descendants would be a very mixed lot. If the movie version ever comes about most of the actors will be mixed race, including leads! Not just black/white, one of my best actors is Chinese/Scottish.

    One of the things I love about Shanna Lauffey’s time travel series is that her main character is part Pakistani and other important characters have been various ethnicities.

    But you make a good point about Fantasy. Fantasy characters can have any description the writer chooses. Why not write characters that black or other ethnic groups can identify with? Being a bit mixed myself, I’m often considering how to work with diverse characters in my stories. The Steampunk is a little challenging as Victorian England didn’t have a lot of diversity, but the third book of that series takes us to Egypt. 🙂

  2. That interesting, and very useful, thank you. I was talking with Roland Clarke last night about the difficulty of writing diverse characters when you belong to the WASP set!
    One of the things I have about scifi, is that by the time a few hundred years have passed, human genes should be so mixed up that there is no issue about black or white. Aliens are another matter! But that doesn’t excuse Euro-centric cultures pervading the galaxy.
    I must check out Jasmine’s website for more help on this matter.
    Thanks for the post!

  3. Excellent post, and with apologies, it’s something I never really thought about. Another place you’ll find black anybody missing is westerns with the possible exception of a limited few (I’m thinking The Cowboys with Rosco Lee Brown opposite John Wayne). I know a lot of folks would say he was merely the cook, but if you study the old cattle drives, “The cook” was more an Operations Manager, or even a second in command – so it was an extremely important job. Old John Ford Westerns not withstanding, at least a third of the hands on a cattle drive were black, maybe another third Mexican, and the rest white. Cattle drives were equal opportunity employers long before the word was even thought of.

    You also don’t see many black lawmen in those old westerns, though they were most definitely there in real life. Bass Reeves comes to mind, and this guy was the real deal when it came to an old west US Marshal. Let’s just say he could scare Wild Bill Hickock, but fortunately they were on the same side of equation.

    There was never doubt in my mind that Jonesy would be a black cowboy in my series. The real surprise was Terri. She’s got almost every blood this planet has to offer in her veins. The earliest description we get of her is “Rae Dawn Chong in BDUs”. The daughter of wealthy Montana Rancher, she can ride, been a rodeo queen, and so qualifies as western royalty. Just so you know, in the series, she’s FBI, and has black belts in more Japanese, Chinese and Korean words than you can shake a stick at. Interestingly, she and Will are distantly related through a Cherokee woman.

  4. I love Tabitha from the TV series Gotham City, she’s gorgeous and badass. I’ve used her as inspiration for a character in my current WIP, and I included more diversity in the last novel I write.
    Posts like these are great because they teach us how to incorporate diversity into our fiction.
    Unfortunately, I fell foul to write stereotypical elves too. But I’m determined to do better.

  5. Great post! I struggle with the same thing with Latino representation in sci-fi and fantasy. My only recourse was to start writing my own stories with Latina protagonists that look more like me than what people generally expect (I’m Afro-caribbean and too often my “Latina-ness” is met with surprise). Thanks for the recommendations especially Black Girl in a Big Dress–I’m an Anglophile and it’s nice when I know about others! Looking forward to your book!

    • Aw yaaay! I’m glad I helped you find “Black Girl in a Big Dress!” It’s such a gem of a show. 😊
      But yes, POC in general struggle with representation in fantasy and sci fi, and I’d like to see more people talk about it.

      I’m actually interviewing various people of color about what they want white writers to know and what they’d like to see as far as representation, for a video I’m planning for my YouTube channel.

      I can talk about black girls all day, but I only have a general idea of what accurate representation would mean for Asians and Latino POCs, so I’m interviewing them for a better understanding.

      Anyhoo!! I’m happy you’re looking forward to “Fairy Tales and Space Dreams,” and I really hope you enjoy it!

  6. I appreciate that you take on the issue of “backlash”- I’ll admit, when I try to write anyone with a different background, I do worry about getting things wrong. Thanks for a post with lots of great encouragement! 🙂

  7. I can relate to your argument about elves being attractive white males while the dark-skinned elves are evil. Because of that, I created a black elf with a white elf heart.

    I love your perspective on how to fix the issue of black women being excluded from fantasy and science fiction. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I loved how one of the things I have a problem with – figuring out how to make sure I’m not just including a character as a token – was addressed in this article. As a white writer, I really do want to have non-white people included in my stories, and I really want to do better. But you’re right – until there’s more presence of non-whites in popular culture and in our stories, it’s hard not to shove people into stereotypes or not rely on a European/White American backdrop for everything. So, in case all that sounded stupid or weird, suffice to say that I enjoyed this article and found it encouraging to keep trying to have a plethora of people types in stories.

    • Thank you!! Nothing you said sounded stupid or weird at all!
      Wanting to write a more diverse cast but also wanting to avoid stereotypes and tokenism is a complicated issue, so I’m glad you found my words encouraging!

  9. “One of my favorite examples of black women in historical England, although this occurs during the Victorian era, is the story of Sara Forbes Bonetta, a West African princess who was orphaned by tribal warfare and subsequently adopted by Queen Victoria herself.”

    Wow! I learned something new today! 😊 Loved your perspective, and I’m looking forward to your book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.