Selective Accuracy in Fantasy

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Some guy on the Daily Wire reviewing Netflix’s The Witcher: ‘No woman can fight with a sword. Zero women can fight with a sword.’

His complaint is, by the way, inaccurate. Many people have brought up Julie d’Aubigny, a bi opera singer/swordswoman who – among other adventures – attended a ball dressed as a man, kissed a woman, got challenged to a duel over it by three men, beat them all in succession, then went back to the ball.

Everybody knows that, on average, men have a strength advantage. But that’s an average, and besides skill in weaponry is supposed to make it possible to defeat someone who may be stronger than you. His reference to a ‘5 to 10-pound sword’ is also a joke, considering even claymores were around 5.5lb, with most swords much lighter.

More importantly, fantasy isn’t real. That’s sort of the point. Why is this fairly mundane area the point where his suspended disbelief snaps?

In Taking Artistic License I considered times when strict accuracy may or may not be convincing or entertaining. But there seems to be a particular trend for selective demands for accuracy in fantasy, based in reinforcing certain social attitudes. This can be at the expense of actual accuracy, or represent an arbitrary block on imagination:

‘But this historical period…’ Are you absolutely sure? Really, no foreign traders or anything? Nobody’s in the closet? You might be right, in which case fair enough. But if your version of Ancient Greece is completely straight, your research slipped up somewhere.

‘Ah, but in my fictional world of…’ So your worldbuilding has the full details of a steampunk society powered by burning the blubber of sky-whales – daily life, ecology, politics, history, five paragraphs about perfumes made using sky-whale bile. But you can’t (or didn’t choose to) imagine [multiple demographics or alternative social attitudes]

Samantha Shannon pins this down in her essay:

[E]ven in fictional worlds, the oppressed must remain oppressed. Any attempt to do otherwise is evidence of liberal fragility, box ticking, the sanitization of history or the shoehorning of unwelcome “politics” into entertainment. […]

It is typical that the same critics often base “historical accuracy”—both in historical and fantastical stories—on the fiction of a white and heteronormative past. In their minds, people of color, queer people and powerful women only had the nerve to exist in the last couple of centuries. […]

Creators can and have used fantasy to highlight both modern and historical inequalities to great effect, and they must always have the opportunity and space to do that—but, lest we forget, fantasy is not history, and is therefore not beholden to it. It can be exhausting to read about the same racist, homophobic and sexist worlds over and over again.

Fantasy as a genre is rooted in being able to picture radically different realities, where not only history and geography, but the laws of reality itself, can be reshaped from the ground up. So to me there’s something very petty about insisting that issues such as gender have to match with the comparable real-world place and time.

I’m of course not saying that every work of fiction has to be actively progressive, or that there aren’t ham-fisted ways of trying to be that can detract from entertainment or believability. But I can’t relate to the mindset where things like a medieval society being cool with gay people are less believable, and need more justification, than the dragon flying overhead or the dead raised from their graves.

8 thoughts on “Selective Accuracy in Fantasy

  1. Entertainment is without boundaries isn’t it. It’s in the mind of the audience, surely. Therefore physical limitations are null and void along with conceptions of beauty.

    Like

  2. I definitely agree with you here- it seems a bit ridiculous to find fault in a fantasy simply for women wielding a sword (I mean, this is a world with magic). And actually, I’ve personally talked about things like this before, because I don’t like when fantasy *only* has women who wield swords (therefore shoehorning women into only one role), but I think Witcher isn’t a good example of that, as it had a really fantastic range of characters. And yes, I agree that it’s a bit ridiculous to be more bothered by gay people in the medieval period (and I hate to break it to people, but that’s historically accurate anyway 😉 ) than a dragon flying overhead.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A really insightful post Alex! I really enjoyed it.
    “ Fantasy as a genre is rooted in being able to picture radically different realities, where not only history and geography, but the laws of reality itself, can be reshaped from the ground up. ”
    You’re spot on with that! It’s a huge part of why readers of the genre love it. And if girls, from little girls to grown women, draw inspiration from female characters who fight with swords, or anything else, then who really cares about the likelihood of it happening in reality?
    Xx

    Liked by 1 person

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