Exclusion and Fetishism
Broken Kingdoms, a fantasy novel by N.K. Jemisin, was a delight to read for many reasons, amongst them for having a woman of color as the lead character. When one considers the tropes of fantasy, they may think of Tolkien’s elves, dwarves, and dark lords. Few, unless they personally feel that inability to identify with the characters, would consider the absence of characters of color to be one of most common aspects of fantasy novels.
It is interesting that for all “darkness” figures into the thinking of fantasy authors, it is conspicuously absent from the features of the characters. The exceptions are perhaps the “dark lords” and such, who play off of the fact that darkness equates to evil in the white literary imagination. Tolkien himself even took it a step further, equating not only darkness with evil in the abstract, but designing his evil characters – goblins, trolls, and the like – with Africanesque features.
So, again, it was refreshing for the main character in a fantasy story to be a woman of color. Truly, for all the lack of protagonists of color in general, the absence is even more pronounced for women. It is as if “the darkness” obscures the authors’ ability to see the possibility for merit in such characters, or perhaps more mundanely, the prospect of profitability in the mainstream market.
One could say, and certainly it has been argued, that such exclusion is the product of experience, or lack thereof, that for fantasy authors – the vast majority of those who have been published being white men – people of color simply do not factor into their frame of reference. It is an argument with some validity I am sure, but it seems to falter when we consider the preponderance of ethnic fetishism, that is, the exoticization of the “other”.
For their distance from white beauty standards, black women are the most often excluded, while their Asian counterparts are more likely to be exoticized. Still, it is more likely for a black woman to be fetishized for her blackness – and moreso any meaning ascribed to such a quality – than to be regarded for her personhood. This phenomenon is a reflection of Western culture as a whole, one that Jemisin in a suitable twist uses fantasy to illuminate. The protagonist, Oree, says:
Men praise parts of me endlessly – always the parts, mind you, never the whole. They love my long legs, my graceful neck, my storm of hair, my breasts (especially my breasts). Most of the men in Shadow were Amn, so they also commented on my smooth, near-black Maro skin, even though I told them there were half a million other women in the world with the same feature. [p. 24]
There it is in the first sentence, “always the parts, mind you, never the whole,” a commentary on how a person can be viewed in fragments, the imagination taking the pieces it wants while discarding the rest.
While this sort of objectification is common in general for men in their regard for women, it is particularly poignant in the case of women of color, who are often altogether invisible. Again keeping in mind their disqualification from the white beauty standard, even the “parts” viable for recognition in the imaginations of white men are limited.
To lend some weight to my analysis of Jemisin’s meaning here, in her world, the Amn race are analogous to Europeans, not only for their pale skin and angular features, but for their near world dominance – a hold they achieved, no less, through conquest and colonization. Indeed, Oree’s people, the Maro, were mostly annihilated in one fateful battle with the Amn.
The passage describes how these Amn – white – men lust over Oree’s dark skin, while at the same time demonstrating how Maro women in general are invisible to them. Only when dark skin can whet their sexual appetites does it receive any acknowledgment. And for that fetishism, the minds, the souls, the irruption of culture beneath the skin continue to go unnoticed. Jemisin and other authors of color, as well as more progressive-minded white authors, are the rebuttal to these tropes of fetishism and exclusion.
It is interesting to note that Oree’s invisibility was dangerous, for hidden beneath her dark skin is the very power to unmake the world. There may be a statement hidden here as well, because for all that black women are ignored outside of their sexual merits, black men by contrast are actively perceived as a threat in mainstream Western societies. Oree’s father was murdered for the threat he was deemed to present, while Oree herself remained beneath the radar.
Yet, of course Jemisin’s message probably is not that women of color, more than mere sexual beings, should also be recognized as a threat. Oree is a being as rich and multifaceted and complex as any other, one that should be recognized as an individual for all her merits and flaws – the latter never having anything to do with her skin color. She demonstrates artistic ability, wisdom, vulnerability, perseverance, and unfaltering love. And by the story’s end Jemisin shows that for all Oree’s capacity for destruction, she is more fundamentally a being of creation and preservation, through her art and by way of motherhood.
Perhaps the message then, is that the matrix of potential is far greater than what can be observed on the outside. Fetishism and exclusion – both in fantasy and real life – are equal in their disregard for this simple truth.