Recently Static Nonsense related their adventure with webcomic author Ryan Sohmer and an ableist comic he wrote for his well read LFG Comic. Static Nonsense submitted a polite letter to Mr. Sohmer and received the following reply from him:
I do apreciate the feedback and can understand your feelings.
Still, I stand by my work. Not to make offense in any way, but that the world of LFG is set in it’s own one, not ours, where we constantly strive to be politically correct. This is the language they would use in the middle ages, and I try to keep it in that time frame.
I hope that made some sense.
One can already hear the furious scratching of pencils against bingo sheets, but today we’re focusing on one fallacy from this letter: the bit about the Middle Ages. Several of us who are veterans of many arguments about problematic nonsense in fantasy video games and other media are quite familiar with this line of reasoning. When I or friends of mine have pointed out Dragon Age’s whiteness as a problem, many of us were immediately met with cries of “but it’s supposed to be like the Middle Ages!” Let me explain why this is patently ridiculous using my usual flawless logic.
Or, perhaps more appropriately, using their logic.
I have heard this used about World of Warcraft’s setting of Azeroth more than once, and it was indeed this setting to which Sohmer was hearkening when he implored Static Nonsense to stop being so PC and accept that cheers like “Woo! Woo! Woo!” and Lord of the Rings references were commonplace in Earth’s European Middle Ages. Let’s also not forget that warlocks are real, and so are undead, and Elves, and Gnomes, and Trolls… what? Read a history book and open up to the Medieval bit! Arthas will be there, right between Charlemagne and William the Conqueror.
Snark aside, there’s nothing wrong with a good LotR reference or a little woo woo in a fantasy comic, or RPG, or novel, or what have you. But do not then insult my intelligence and defend something prejudiced with a veneer of “Uhh, Middle Ages!” If you made an excuse for a joke based on a modern movie, you can easily excise unnecessary bigoted nonsense.
This goes for any number of video games as well. Dragon Age’s Ferelden had absolutely no reason to be mostly white. At all. While the setting was inspired by Earth’s Medieval England, it wasn’t the same place. Dragon Age is not a game of historical re-enactment. It is a fantasy game. If we use the world of fantasy to liberate our creativity and add dragons, phantoms, goblins, sorcerers, and unicorns to our stories, what exactly is tying your hands in changing certain elements of social relations? Nothing except yourself.
World of Warcraft is an even bigger example of the fallacies inherent to this thinking. Leaving aside all other moral arguments, the simplest way to defeat an Azerothian Medieval-Baiter is to simply send them to Ironforge’s Tinker Town and ask them to explain. Check and mate. The simple reality is that these games are not based on Earth’s European Medieval period save in a highly loose way that is confined to some clothing styles, the use of castles, and certain Arthurian and Tolkienesque tropes. But these things do not a society make. To use fantasy as an excuse for dragons, but not use its power to envision different racial, gender, or sexual relations is highly questionable. That list is hardly an exhaustive one. The example that began this entire discussion was about clichés and stereotypes concerning people with disabilities and how they’re often relegated to being the butt of jokes and little else- something I as a trans woman empathise with quite easily. Nothing inherent to fantasy makes any of that necessary.
The highly selective application of “the Middle Ages” excuse is simply another exercise in the denial of one’s own responsibility. “My hands are tied, the setting is supposed to be like the Middle Ages!” This does not wash unless you’re doing a precise historical re-enactment, which no fantasy game, movie, or book has done. Why? Because they aren’t about the Middle Ages. They’re about their own settings and histories. When you create a fantasy world you are not bound to create a world with regressed social relations. If you assert that prejudice is required for verisimilitude in a fantasy world simply because it’s fantasy, that is a prejudiced statement. Period.
This is not to say that we can’t have fantasy worlds that have societal prejudice as cultural textures, obviously, but when good writers do this, they effect complex explorations of those prejudices. The authors may well have no problem giving you a good and detailed explanation for why certain prejudices exist in their world and why exploring their impact on the storyline they created is interesting, and what it can teach. They do not blubber about how their setting is like the Middle Ages.
I grew up loving and admiring fantasy, and a lot of my writing hitherto has explored how the conceptual possibilities opened up by fantasy have been profoundly liberating. It is insulting to me and plenty of other fantasy fans to tell us that some of our favoured settings are based on the Middle Ages and that’s why we have to accept problematic nonsense within them. Look, I’m a geek. I’ve got the D&D manuals to prove it, and I can quote and cite- page and paragraph- thousands of little ways that various fantasy settings are not Medieval. Come up with a better argument or be honest about the fact that you just like resorting to cheap jokes and stereotypes.
It’d save us all a lot of trouble.
- WoW's TinkerTown, done up in rusty orange and gunmetal grey, complete with lots of pipes, trusses, and massive gears. Just what you'd expect from the Middle Ages! [↩]