Review of The Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
The lack of diverse characters, stories, and authors in fantasy fiction and its related genres of science fiction, speculative fiction, and gothic fiction is deeply problematic. In The Dark Fantastic, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas discusses this issue and puts forward a convincing argument that there is an “imagination gap” (5) which causes children and teens of colour to avoid reading and to avoid engaging with the fantasy genre–a genre that encourages us to dream and imagine–because they do not see themselves represented. Thomas draws on her experiences as a young black girl born in Detroit in the 1970s who grew up reading fantasy fiction, as an author of fantasy fan-fiction, as a school teacher, and now as an associate professor specialising in diversity in children’s literature, youth media and fan studies. Thomas coins the term ‘dark fantastic’ (7) to refer to the “role that racial difference plays” (7) in fantasy fiction. The link between the lack of diverse representation, including the racist stereotypes and caricatures of characters of colour in the fantasy genre, and the racial and ethnic achievement gaps in literary and education in America is explored by Thomas throughout the book.
Thomas evaluates the work of white, mainstream writers from the UK and USA as the vast majority of fantasy narratives that are consumed in the USA are written by authors who fit this demographic. She focuses on four popular children’s and young adult fantasy series from the twenty-first century: The Hunger Games trilogy, BBC’s Merlin, The Vampire Diaries,and the Harry Potter series. Thomas decided to analyse the screen representations of these popular narratives, often in comparison to the source texts, because she argues that racial difference is often more evident in visual narratives. She distances her research from “Black Fantastic” (6) and “Afrofuturist” (6) authors, artists, activists and researchers who create and analyse diverse representations of fantasy stories that challenge mainstream fantasy fiction. Instead, she is interested in deconstructing the mainstream fantasy genre, highlighting the representation and the reception of characters of colour in popular fantasy fiction, who are often negatively portrayed and perceived.
Throughout the book, Thomas engages with and builds upon Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory (1996), stating that, in Anglo-American narratives, the “Dark Other occupies the same space in reality that the monster occupies in fantasy” (20). By focusing on the characters who represent the Dark Other, Thomas shows how this figure is “central to both the fantastic and the construction of imagined whiteness” (25). She suggests that there is a “cycle of the dark fantastic” (26) wherein the Dark Other is firstly seen as a spectacle and then, after a period of hesitation, they are subjected to violence, which usually results in their death. After their death, the Dark Other haunts the narrative, and this is where fantasy stories usually end. Thomas suggests that there can be another stage of this cycle where the Dark Other is liberated, but this stage is rarely achieved. This is because the Dark Other is viewed as unlikable, and readers and viewers fail to understand or sympathise with them. Furthermore, audiences and critics view the settings, circumstances, and resolutions of the emancipation of the Dark Others as unbelievable.
In each chapter, Thomas traces the development of these stages of the dark fantastic cycle in the narratives by focusing on one or two characters who represent the Dark Other in each story: Rue in The Hunger Games, Gwen in Merlin, Bonnie Bennett in Vampire Diaries and Angelina Johnson and Hermione Granger in Harry Potter. For example, Thomas notes that some fans of The Hungers Games book series were surprised that Rue was played by a mixed-race actress in the film adaptation despite the fact that Rue is described in the books as having dark eyes and brown skin. Thomas claims that the description of Rue’s appearance combined with the harsher treatment of citizens in district eleven and her tragic end make explicit that she is “descended from the contemporary Black US population” (61). This begs the question, why did some readers assume that Rue was white? For Thomas, the answer is that Rue is the symbol of innocence in the novel and, historically, innocent children in fantasy literature are typically blonde haired, blue eyed white children. Thomas claims that Rue’s story arc and the fan responses of the readers and viewers show the continuation of the cycle of the dark fantastic. This is because some fans were, at first, hesitant to accept Rue as the innocent child as she is seen as a spectacle of the dark other rather than as the symbol of innocence (62). Then, as the audience begins to sympathise with Rue by seeing her through Katniss’ eyes, which is problematic as Rue is relegated to the status of a secondary character, Rue is subjected to a violent death (62). The memory of Rue then haunts the rest of the narrative (62) in the subsequent books and films.
There were similar objections from some fans to Gwen, the future Queen of Camelot, being played by a mixed-race actress, as some fans claimed that the presence of a mixed-race person in England during this time is inaccurate. Thomas suggests that the reason these fans insist that there were not any people of colour living in England during this time is because they are relying on depictions of the early medieval period in Arthurian stories, which only show white people, rather than on demographics, which show that people of many cultures lived in England during this time. This demonstrates the importance of storytelling on our collective consciousness and the problems caused by older fantasy narratives that exclude characters of colour. By showing in each chapter how the Dark Other is constructed in fantasy narratives written before the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, such as the Arthurian stories, and by demonstrating how these contemporary fantasy stories continue to use the trope of the Dark Other, Thomas makes us aware of the cycle of the dark fantastic in order for us to break it.
As well as discussing the racist reactions of some fans who objected to the casting of actresses of colour in these roles, Thomas includes the reactions of fans who embraced these casting choices and who have been positively influenced. She claims that many fans have written fan fictions continuing Gwen’s story, have made fan art of her, and have cosplayed as her (106). This shows the importance of including characters of colour and the importance of casting actors of colour in fantasy stories. Although Thomas did not intend to discuss the ways that gender and race intersect in her book, she discovered that the majority of black protagonists in twenty-first century fantasy stories, not including comics, are female. Through critically analysing the stories of young, black female characters, Thomas aligns herself with those working with the “Black Girls’ Literacies Collective” (33) who research the ways these girls are treated in schools and in the media. This is because the way these literary characters are represented affects the real lives of young, black females, as demonstrated by the reactions of fans—both positive and negative–to Rue, Gwen, Bonnie, Angelina and Hermione.
The Dark Fantastic is an important text for authors, researchers and readers of fantasy fiction and related genres seeking to understand the problems with diversity in these stories. In order to make these genres more inclusive, authors and readers need to first understand how characters of colour were turned into the antagonistic monsters in earlier fantasy stories and how this trope persists today. Whilst the work of Black Fantastic and Afrofuturist authors and activists encourages diverse representation and storytelling, this is only half the solution. The other half of the solution is provided by Thomas. By reading Thomas’ book, authors can learn how to break the cycle of the dark fantastic to ensure that everyone can read and watch fantasy stories and see themselves represented regardless of the age, gender, race or sexuality of the author.
The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. New York University Press. 2019. 225 pp.