There seems to be a common misperception that fantasy as a genre is by definition unpolitical. In fact it has often been called “escapist”. That, I think, is absolutely not true. There is no such thing as unpolitical art. And even escapism is a political choice.
Some expressions of the fantasy genre – though by no means all of them – seem to me to be something worse than escapist: Under the guise of a supposedly “unpolitical” art, they all too often promote a very particular world view. I won’t even go into the ubiquity of unlikely-shaped representations of the female (I won’t call these images women) in unlikely attire doing very unlikely things. “Fantasy” is a fitting name for those – fantasy as in “teenage wet dream”. At least they are so blatantly sexist that hopefully no thinking person will mistake them for the real thing.
But some of the blunt, knee-jerk assumptions that are made in much fantasy art, illustration, literature and movies, are less obvious, and therefore more insidious. These are often assumptions about gender roles, and ethnicity. This was brought home to me sharply when I was looking up some of the illustration work that has been done for Ursula Le Guin”s Earthsea series – themselves books that make no secret of being deeply rooted in the author’s world view and political convictions.
In my last blog post two weeks ago, I looked at some of the cover art for Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books from the late 1960’s and 1970’s, when the original trilogy was first published. It was quite evident from these covers that artists – or their editors and art directors – had great trouble visually imagining a fantasy hero who does not fit the then usual mold of blonde, blue eyed, tersely muscled, clearly Caucasian hunk. Or at least they seemed to have great trouble putting such a character on a book cover!
Surely this is no longer an issue in our day and age, the enlightened New Millennium, when – according to some – racism has become exclusively the domain of a few radical, uneducated, red-neck hicks from the backwoods who just can’t be taught any better? Surely artists, and lovers of books, and educated people generally, these days would not be racially biased?
Let’s look at some more recent visualizations of the Earthsea series then. Opening this article is the cover of the Atheneum re-edition of The Tombs of Atuan from 1990, with a cover illustration which, as far as I can ascertain, is by Gail Garraty – the same artist who also illustrated the first Atheneum edition from 1971, in quite a different style. Finding reliable information about the illustrators of the various editions on the internet is a bit of a challenge, so please correct me if I have attributed any of the images wrongly!
This image does a good job sticking with the description of the character’s looks and clothing. But this edition has not been nearly as widely distributed as some of the editions by larger publishing houses, with their associated cover art – particularly this series of cover illustrations by Rebecca Guay, which appeared on the covers of several re-editions of the original three Earthsea books after 2001:
What do I see? Compared to the pale British school boy types that decorated some of the editions from the 1970’s, Ged has now acquired a healthy tan – but that does not make him any less Caucasian looking. A Mediterranean type rather than a Northern European one, but clearly not someone who looks remotely like an American First Nation person – i.e. the way the author visualized and described this character.
On the first cover, Ged’s hair is still subtly blonde. On the following two covers his hair gets progressively darker and his tan deeper, and he contrasts distinctly with Tenar, who is conspicuously pale (after all, she spends much of her time underground). But ethnicity is not just a matter of skin and hair colour – features and proportions, and body language, are all things that go into the mix, and where are those? I don’t see them. Do you?
If I still haven’t managed to convince you that whitewashing is a thing, here is how Rebecca Guay’s painting appeared on the 2001 Alladin Paperbacks edition. Just to make sure that this is not just a matter of desaturating the colours, I have included a black and white version of the original painting, for tonal comparison.
Yes. They made Ged’s skin white, and his hair blonde. In 2001.
Then, of course, there is also this:
This is a widely published publicity shot for the Earthsea TV mini-series produced for the Sci-Fi channel in 2004 (and a ream of new book covers is based on those faces, as they tend to be when a book is turned movie).
Frankly, I have no idea who this blonde and blue eyed Luke Skywalker type is supposed to be, for he sure does not look in any way remotely the way I picture Ged, after reading how he is described in Ursula Le Guin’s books. For that matter, I don’t have any idea who the other characters in this shot are supposed to be, either. The one on the left, one might suspect to be Tenar – at a stretch, I could imagine her to be a Karg with a dash of Archipelagan genes (though nothing of this kind is mentioned in the books). The tall fellow in the back? No idea. He looks too trim and muscular, and too old, to be Ged’s friend Vetch, and surely he could not be Ogion, or could he?
Oh, the author has actually described her main characters quite carefully? Aww, bah, who cares. “People” want to see blonde blue eyed young Siegfrieds with tall, muscular, black sidekicks, and besides, we can’t find no actors who look like the author describes the Archipelagans. Right? Well, I suppose, if you’re not blond and blue eyed (or at the very least Caucasian and good looking), or else an African American resigned to forever doing the oh so politically correct sidekick thing, or happy to be restricted to minor or comical roles, bad guys/gals, and the odd art house movie, it is somewhat naive to try and be a professional actor in Hollywood. More on THAT topic here: Avatar: The Last Airbender casting campaign. Earthsea was by no means the only fantasy world that got butchered by studio executives who have suddenly turned “colorblind”. And it doesn’t go just for fantasy movies, either.
I don’t suppose an argument about politics or diversity or responsibility or morality would impress the people who make these decisions, but does it not occur to them that they are alienating their own fan base? I find this image offensive, much in the way as I would find it offensive if someone incorporated a swastika as the emblem of their hero. And I am certainly not the only one – the Earthsea TV series, I am quite happy to report, turned out to be an outright flop.
The author, who was shunted aside when the production decisions were made, has made it quite clear that she in no way wishes to be held responsible for what the TV producers have made from her books – and she wasn’t too happy about some of the choices that were made for her book covers, either. Read here in her own words what she has to say about all of this.
This article is based on an article first published on my blog at asni.net in March 2009.