I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but when a book comes along that is about a field I’m passionate about (the SFF community) and deals with very timely issues, even I can’t resist. I had guessed some of what I’d get to read here from the title alone – anyone who remembers the internet when The Hunger Games casting for Rue was announced will, too – but there was also a lot in this book that was new to me. It was eye-opening.
THE DARK FANTASTIC: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games
by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
Published: New York University Press, 2019
eBook: 240 pages
My rating: 7/10
Opening line: “There is no magic.”This statement, perhaps most famously attributed to Harry Potter’s uncle Vernon Dursley, is also something that my mother has said to me since I was a child.
Stories provide portals into other worlds, both real and imagined. The promise of escape draws people from all backgrounds to speculative fiction, but when people of color seek passageways into the fantastic, the doors are often barred. This problem lies not only with children’s publishing, but also with the television and film executives tasked with adapting these stories into a visual world. When characters of color do appear, they are often marginalized or subjected to violence, reinforcing for audiences that not all lives matter.
The Dark Fantastic is an engaging and provocative exploration of race in popular youth and young adult speculative fiction. Grounded in her experiences as YA novelist, fanfiction writer, and scholar of education, Thomas considers four black girl protagonists from some of the most popular stories of the early 21st century: Bonnie Bennett from the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, Rue from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Gwen from the BBC’s Merlin, and Angelina Johnson from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Analyzing their narratives and audience reactions to them reveals how these characters mirror the violence against black and brown people in our own world.
In response, Thomas uncovers and builds upon a tradition of fantasy and radical imagination in Black feminism and Afrofuturism to reveal new possibilities. Through fanfiction and other modes of counter-storytelling, young people of color have reinvisioned fantastic worlds that reflect their own experiences, their own lives. As Thomas powerfully asserts, “we dark girls deserve more, because we are more.”
As I mentioned, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction because there is simply too much exciting fiction around for me to take the time. What little I have read, however, was always intersting and well written. So the introductory chapters of The Dark Fantastic were a bit of a tough nut. This is clearly an acedemic paper so it is filled to the brim with citations, sources, references to other works and so on. That doesn’t mean the introduction isn’t necessary, quite the opposite, but I didn’t get any particular pleasure from reading it.
Once Ebony Elizabeth Thomas gets into the meat of her book, however, things get more than interesting. She looks at four fandoms and their Black characters to see that they all go through the same cycle. These fandoms are The Hunger Games, the TV shows Merlin and The Vampire Diaries, and Harry Potter; although some of those are examined with more depth than others.
Starting out with the Hunger Games, I already had my first eye-opening (and very telling) moment of truth. I did not object to a young Black actress being cast as Rue but I also had completely forgotten that Rue in the book was described as dark-skinned. It’s been a while since I read The Hunger Games but I had assumed, Rue’s physical appearance just wasn’t mentioned in much detail and the filmmakers had simply decided to cast a talented young girl who did well at the audition. I’m only mentioning this because I – a white cis woman – am proving one of the points Thomas makes in this book. That white people are so used to seeing ourselves in fiction that we not only default to white characters when their skin color isn’t mentioned, but we even overlook when a character is explicitly described as Black and imagine them as white… I am not proud of this but I am grateful that this book even showed me what my brain is doing here.
The Hunger Games chapter also deals with the hateful, disgusting internet comments that followed the announcement of Amandla Stenberg’s casting choice for Rue. You can imagine it’s not pretty but Thomas doesn’t just print these comments so we can all agree that people on the internet are dicks. She actually looks at the arguments people make as to why a Black actress shouldn’t play a role in one of the biggest franchises out there.
Next came a fandom that I had no experience of. I had never seen the TV show Merlin, I only know a bit about Arthurian legend. But before we get into the meat of each fandom, the author always gives a quick summary of what it’s all about, which Black character she is going to look at, and sometimes even dialogue from scenes from the show. So it was through this book that I learned of a TV show about King Arthur and Merlin which had cast a mixed-race girl as Gwen (Guinevere). Again, there was an outcry on the internet, but this time people liked to use the well-known “it’s not authentic” argument. Because you can have dragons, but you can’t have a dark-skinned girl living in Camelot…
Although (or maybe because?) I knew nothing about this show prior to reading this book, I found this the most interesting chapter. It may also be because Gwen seemed like the Black character who had the biggest chance at a proper story that doesn’t end in tragedy.
Another TV show that I had watched a little, but stopped watching somewhere in season 2 or 3, is The Vampire Diaries. And again, to my utter shame (but also a little bit the showrunners’ fault), I had almost forgotten that there even was a Black character in that series. Bonnie Bennet, Elena’s best friend, is a witch of great powers but she clearly never got to be the focus of the show. Sure, the love triangle and the teen angst are what it’s all about, but this chapter examines that Bonnie gets the short end of the stick, no matter what. The show, after all, gives other side characters interesting story lines, their own love interests and teen drama, but Bonnie always remains on the sidelines and isn’t ever presented as a desirable young woman the way her white peers are. I don’t intend to ever continue watching this series but reading about how Bonnie’s characters was treated – especially when compared to her book counterpart who was a red-haired Irish girl – I want to watch it even less.
If you’re like me, you’ll be most interested in what this book has to say about the (lack of) Black characters in Harry Potter. Sadly, this was the weakest chapter for me. It mentiones Angelina Johnson a little bit, but it is mostly concerned with the fandom surrounding Harry Potter in general, not specifically dealing with Black characters. Thomas describes her early days as a fanfiction writer and the reaction to her using another author’s words in her own fiction. She also talks a little about her private life and her niece – all of which was interesting and nice to read about but it didn’t really have anything to do with Harry Potter.
The amazing depth that is used to look at the three other fandoms is just gone at this point. Of course, one reason is that Angelina Johnson just isn’t a very prominent character in the books but neither is Rue when you look at the entirety of the Hunger Games trilogy, and Thomas had penty to say about her. So the part of this book I had been most looking forward to was the most disappointing in the end. Then again, if you want to truly examine race in Harry Potter, I guess you’d need a whole book and wouldn’t fit everything in a single chapter anyway.
If you plan on picking up this book – which I highly recommend – be warned that every single book and TV show is spoiled! So either read/watch these things before you pick this up or do it like me. Check to see if you’re interested in these four fandoms and if you’re not, then go ahead and enjoy the spoilers. 🙂
Although the Harry Potter part of this turned out to be weaker than I had hoped, this was still an amazing book. It taught me to look at Black characters from a different perspective, to examine their story lines more closely and see how they are treated on TV. Because as nice as it is to have representation, to see Black characters in interesting roles, if those characters exist simply to sacrifice themselves for the white hero, or to further a white character’s plot line, then there is a lot of room for improvement!
I also appreciated the many, many recommendations for good examples of Black characters. Thomas mostly recommends authors rather then specific works but she recommends so many of them that there sure is to be something for every taste.
This is an important work that pushed me to look at myself more closely, to look at Black characters on TV, in movies, and in books from a new perspective, and that made me want to dive into the topic more deeply. I certainly hope to find more books like this and I’d love to see one about LGBTQIA+ characters in SFF fandom.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good
(Rating this feels very weird because it’s non-fiction. So I’m going mostly by whether my hopes and expectations were met and how readable the book was.)