CSotD: Diversity and Appropriation

(Benjamin Slyngstad)


(Pat Bagley)

Here are two closely related commentaries on the negative response to diversity and inclusion in fantasy productions, but, while closely related, they differ in some interesting ways.

Slyngstad rightfully draws his character as a bigot, but the fellow has half a point: Elves, trolls and orcs are all derived from Norse and Germanic folklore, and so it’s not completely unreasonable to expect that they would be white, at least until you toss in the talking trees.

(I’m avoiding the Magic Rings because I don’t have any intention of defending Richard Wagner.)

From a purely folkloric viewpoint, you could argue that trolls, orcs and elves are Northern European, but, to do that intelligently, you’d have to show some reason they are exclusively Northern European.

The fact that Norse and Germanic people told stories about them doesn’t mean they couldn’t have existed elsewhere, perhaps under different names, in different shapes and, yes, in different colors.

For example, the Iroquois and Mohegan spoke — and still speak — of “the little people” who seem very much like the little people of Ireland, though my impression is that they are more consistently benevolent and helpful, while Irish little people range from the gentle to the mischievous to the genuinely malevolent. As for actual existence, the classic Irish comment is “I don’t believe in them, but they’re there.”

And if they can be both in Ireland and in the Eastern Woodlands of North America, there’s no reason they can’t also be in Southern Africa, in South America or in Asia, and, if the big people of those lands are differently colored, why wouldn’t the little people be equally diverse?

Bagley approaches it less as an anthropologist and more as a storyteller himself: The creatures may have folkloric roots, but the people at Nerd-Com have already morphed them so far beyond their roots as to have long-since surrendered any standing to criticize accuracy.

There are whiffs of Gamergate in criticism from people who think pneumatic women can perform unlikely feats of battle without falling out of their ridiculous outfits, and perhaps the exemplar of that particular branch of adolescent fantasy is the fellow who put Princess Leia into just such a costume: Bloated, inarticulate and readily defeated when push comes to shove.

The world Bagley mocks contains far more Jabbas than Skywalkers and, more to the point, more Skywalkers than Calrissians.

Though even a single Lando blows holes in their objections.


In today’s Carpe Diem (KFS), Niklass Eriksson indulges in some mockery of Vikings, or, to be more accurate, he mocks the stereotype. As a Swede, he has plenty of license to do so, while I’m inclined to think that my ancestors on that side of the family were more likely to have been raising Danish hams than Viking hell.

After all, the majority of people in medieval Japan were not samurai.



And, coincidentally, Frazz (AMS) is in a story arc on the same topic, though I will protest the colorist putting a Minnesota Viking — horns or not — in Pittsburgh Steeler colors.

But I like the sequence because, when bigots were defending the Washington Redskins mascot, they often brought up the Minnesota Vikings as an excuse. A particularly stupid excuse, given the number of Scandinavians living in Minnesota compared to the number of Indians living in Washington, DC, plus the minor detail that “viking” is not a racial slur.


But now let’s flip the coin so I can piss off everybody who has, so far, been nodding their heads and agreeing.

There is a very significant difference between saying that a mermaid could be Black and saying that the race or ethnicity of a particular character in a particular story is arbitrary.

Don Quixote is Spanish. “War and Peace” is set in Russia. And The Little Mermaid is Danish.


Like Don Quixote and Natasha Rostova, she’s not a creature of folklore but the product of a particular author, and a character who, while fictitious, has been adopted as something of a national symbol, one who sits on a rock in the harbor at Copenhagen.

Granted, Andersen never specified that she lived in the Baltic. But that is canceled out by the fact that he described her as having blue eyes and white skin.

The justification for declaring her a character of no ethnicity is that Walt Disney portrayed her as a rootless white girl, just as he portrayed Robin Hood as being from the American South and Winnie the Pooh as sounding like Sterling Holloway rather than Stanley Holloway.

As this Lio cartoon from 2007 suggests, it would be wise not to cite Walt Disney Productions as your source for accurate, respectful literary interpretation.


Accuracy matters. When Christopher Baldwin and I were re-telling the Legend of Perseus for young newspaper readers, we had to figure out if, when sources said Andromeda came from “Ethiopia,” they meant she was an Arabic woman from what is now Libya or a black woman from modern Ethiopia or, for that matter, a black woman from what is now Libya.


It never occurred to us to take the Clash of the Titans approach and make her a blue-eyed blonde, but, as it happens, the pushback we received was not that Perseus was marrying a black girl but that his mother, Danae, didn’t look like a stereotypical Hollywood beauty queen.

Christopher had depicted both her and Perseus as looking Greek, since they were Greek. Yeah, I know: Odd choice.

The argument for making Disney’s version of Andersen’s character Black is that it will inspire young girls of color, though I can think of two counterarguments, without adding the third, which is that Disney’s adaptations of his animated films into CGI-augmented reality have universally sucked.

The crusty old man argument is that kids should be inspired to read, but Andersen’s prose is not geared for 8-year-olds, so forget I said that.

The more important — most important — argument is that Europe is not the only source of story materials, and even Disney has figured that out, as have Pixar and a number of other production companies:

It’s possible to inspire young children of color by depicting actual characters of color.


Granted, it takes more respect and effort to research folklore and stories of other cultures than to simply pirate things from the Usual Sources.

But if you can’t tell a white beaver from a tanuki, try hiring people who can, even if they, too, don’t come from the Usual Sources.

That’s called “Diversity.”


6 thoughts on “CSotD: Diversity and Appropriation

  1. Andrea, that you for that video. I wasn’t previously aware of Beau of the Fifth Column. I’ll take some time to watch more of his posts.

  2. Beau is cool. But he should’ve pointed out that Ariel is still a redhead in the new film. Hard to see in the trailer, but look for images from on the set. Not nearly as bright as the animated film, but it’s pretty clearly red.

    I’ve seen a play that had our founding fathers all sort colors except white. Colorblind casting is normal for Broadway. Nothing wrong with it in movies.

    The movie has Daveed Diggs as Sebastian. An Ariel with red hair and a beautiful voice. That’s enough for me to want to check it out.

  3. “The Little Mermaid is Danish”: no, the _author_ was Danish. What is the nationality of a non-existing character? Is there some legal penalty for Danish authors so inclined as to writing novels that contain any character other than Danish? ?

    What is the problem with a “little mermaid” movie showing her as Asian, African, or with multi-colored scales? A director should have some artistic freedom. You might like the movie or not, but judging on the basis or a mermaid skin color is highly laughable.

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