This article was originally posted at Feminist Borg.
They look like us, but they are not us. They have powers we don’t understand. They don’t trust us. We don’t trust them. Out of fear of what we might do, they have concealed their existence from us. They are the Oppressed Magical White People.
You’ve seen this media trope everywhere, from the wizards in Harry Potter to the X-men to the vampires in Twilight. On a technical level, it can be done well, thoroughly exploring insider/outsider dynamics and the fear of the Other, or poorly, kludging together a flimsy excuse why these really cool and powerful people have to remain in hiding. But no matter how well it’s done, there’s always a problem: These works always star white people.
Most often, the stars and most, if not all, of the supporting cast are white, straight, and male. There are individual exceptions (eg, Storm from X-Men), but the makeup of these fictional oppressed groups is generally the same as the makeup of book and movie casts in general. It’s rare for the cast to even approach the demographic makeup of the country where the story takes place, and essentially unknown for the superpowered people to be, say, all black.
You may be thinking that this doesn’t sound any different than media as a whole, and you’d be right. However, the Oppressed Magical White People (OMWP hereafter) are a bigger problem than the general preponderance of straight white dudes in fiction for one key reason: Because the oppression narrative on which the stories hinge is taken from the experiences of marginalized groups.
Civil rights metaphors are a common template. In some of these stories, the “normal” people react with fear against the OMWP, attempting to restrict their civil rights (reminiscent of Jim Crow), demanding that they be registered so that they can be easily identified (reminiscent of the Holocaust), holding witch hunts against suspected OMWP (reminiscent of the Lavender Scare), restricting them to certain locations (reminiscent of the Holocaust again, Japanese internment, and American Indian reservations), violently attacking them (reminiscent of the KKK), and even committing full-scale genocide (reminiscent of many historical atrocities, but particularly the genocide of Native Americans — especially if the OMWP were the rightful original inhabitants of a place). And in the many stories where the OMWP have concealed their existence from the rest of the population, it’s usually out of fear that the above will happen*.
You see the problem: The story is taking real things that happened to real people and recasting them with, well, Harry Potter. Even if the creators are actively trying to make a point about the original form of oppression and how it’s wrong, there’s always an unfortunate implication that people wouldn’t care about the issue unless it’s happening to a straight white guy.
As a case study, consider the X-Men film franchise. Writer-director Bryan Singer, who is gay, has made the franchise a gay-rights metaphor, as seen in scenes like this one from X2, where Bobby “comes out” as a mutant to his parents.
The X-Men films, especially X2 and X-Men: First Class, are well executed as metaphors and they raise a lot of interesting points. But the fact remains that, Charles and Erik’s epic bromance aside, there aren’t any gay mutants in the movies. We can have a conversation about gay rights. But it can’t feature actual gay people**.
Simply increasing representation doesn’t really solve this problem, because the work is still fundamentally taking the story of a marginalized group and recasting with mainly people from the non-marginalized group. For instance, adding the openly gay Northstar to the X-Men film lineup wouldn’t eliminate the problematic aspect of those films: He would still be a token character in his own story.
As an example of an alternate approach to magical oppressed people that doesn’t invoke the OMWP, consider the cultish 1984 film, Brother from Another Planet.
The titular brother looks human, but isn’t. He has superhuman powers. He’s being hunted. But in this movie, he’s black and the bounty hunters who pursue him are white. Casting a black person as the escaped alien slave and setting the story in Harlem makes the metaphor far sharper and more poignant than it would have been if it had starred a white man.
*I’m not fond of the Masquerade as a plot device in general, as it always feels like it’s cheapening the experiences of real-life groups who weren’t resourceful enough to go into hiding en masse.
**I’m not blaming Singer for this, since he’s shackled to both the existing canon and the demands of the studio. But regardless of who’s at fault, the X-men are still OMWP.