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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Representation and Racism in Fairy Media

 I am planning to write a full length article on this subject, however I wanted to offer a brief overview here because I feel like this is an important subject that deserves discussion. This represents my off the cuff thoughts on the subject, with the longer, citation-full article to come.

I've spoken out against racism in various areas, from Irish paganism to Asatru to folklore, but one area that I've found it to be pervasive and often unaddressed in relates to fairies, across 19th and 20th century folklore and into modern media. Despite diversity in folkloric accounts and anecdotal accounts when you ask most people in Western culture to describe a fairy or elf they don't picture this:

'Persephone' by Ashley Bryner, used with permission

But something more like this:

'Little Fairy Girl' by Janny Sandholm, public domain

A Google image search returns results that are mostly inline with the second image and only a handful like the first. The covers of most urban fantasy books featuring fairies or elves also tend to largely show pale characters. Role playing games and the book series associated with them have historically played on the racist association of white with goodness and black with evil, giving us for example the black-skinned Drow elves who are described as being utterly evil and in thrall to an equally evil black-skinned spider goddess. This ingrained idea has created an environment that can be subtly or overtly unwelcoming to people of colour who are interested in fairies which is exactly why it must be addressed.

While there is a valid argument that anecdotal accounts in folklore often reflect the demographics of the populations experiencing them folklore is a diverse and varied thing which also includes an array of beings that break out of any stereotype. We see Western European fairies with green skin as well as literal white*, fairies that are blue, grey, red, and black. Anecdotal accounts into modern times reflect this as well with people mentioning seeing fairy beings with many different skin and hair colours. And of course fairies that are not human-shaped at all. 

Why then does popular culture persist in seeing fairies as normally light skinned and often fair haired? The short answer (which will be expanded in the longer article) is that the Victorians had some ingrained notions of the [false] superiority of Western Europeans and their descendants over everyone else. This was expressed in fairylore through theories by scholars of the time that supposed the origins of fairies in primitive, dark, pygmy cultures and habitually depicted the more agrarian fairy beings as small and dark and the more noble fairies as tall, pale, and stereotypically Teutonic in appearance. This idea became embedded in the fiction that grew out of that time period, reflecting the author's biases and assumptions rather than older folklore and anecdotes. 

We are starting to see an encouraging diversity in artwork, such as the first example in the post, particularly on platforms like Deviantart, but mainstream art lags behind. Still its encouraging that imaginative fairy art is becoming more diverse and that images are getting out there that show fairies as more than just pretty white people in Renn Faire attire. In-roads have also been made in the realms of role playing games, with the recent move by Dungeons and Dragons to reclassify the so-called evil species and the idea of moral alignment so that morality and evil are completely removed from skin colour in game. Fiction has also started to show more variety in fairy depictions and to embrace the idea that this variety is a good thing.

Change can be a slow process but things are definitely moving in a better direction. Fairy fiction, comics, and role playing games are for everyone, as is a general interest in the subject, and the media we consume must reflect that. Hopefully going forward it will.  

*not the term used for fair skinned humans but white like bleached bones or clouds