Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Fantasy Ethnicities

So there's a rather humorous youtube video up showcasing the similarities between the Streetfighter franchise and the characters in Naruto.  It's called There can be only one.  Of course, the fact that streetfighter characters are basically raw martial artist archetypes means that it has characters with a lot of similarity to a large number of other franchises, but that it is still amusing to point out where characters are very, very similar to existing properties.

Note, I won't even try to hide the heavy influence that Oh My Goddess! and Full Metal Panic! had on Divine Blood.

On thinking about it, however, I noticed one of their similarities they pointed out.

"Inexplicably blond Japanese guys who never shut up."

This is referencing Naruto and Ken.

The main problem with this is not on the Streetfighter side, while Ken Masters is definitively NOT Japanese, he at least lives in a setting where there is a Japan and, thus, Japanese people.  No, the main problem here is with labeling Naruto as an "inexplicably blond Japanese guy."

Naruto's storyline is not set on Earth.

There is no Japan.

There are no Japanese people.

Yes, the names are Japanese, but that's rather like saying that Luke Skywalker is an American.  Naruto is Asian flavored primarily because it is written by a Japanese man for Japanese audiences, but it is not Asia.

A brief look at the phenotypes in the Leaf village shows a range of hair colors from black to blond.  They basically have the European range of hair colors.  Sandy brown, dirty blonde, pure black, bright blonde and dark brown are all common hair colors in the leaf village with a couple of naturally white-haired individuals as well.  The two standout hair colors are Hinata and Sakura with purple/lavender and pink hair respectively.  In fact, as a hair color, blond shows up in at least two other major nations, the Wind/Sand and Cloud/Lightning.  Red hair is a bit more rare, being only in a handful of places outside the Sand.

It can be reasonably assumed that blond is not a very unsual hair color as a result.  Darker colors like black and brown are more common, however.  Rather like the real world, actually.

Likewise hair colors range from black and dark brown to blue and green.  The Hyuga and a handful of other people with "special" eyes have unusual eye colors, but, again, the range of eye colors is fairly respective of the real world Europe.

It is hard to tell if the facial and body types lean toward Asian styles or if that is simply an assumption we make based on the fact that the art style is manga.  I'd at least say that Sarutobi's family would have features that compare to Asian features in the real world, but for all I know they may more resemble caucasians in feature.  I actually strongly suspect that the Yamanaka family would most fit in with caucasians in the real world.

But the description of the Naruto world-setting's ethnicities is not the main point of this rant.

Please...stop referring to people in fictional world settings as Europeans, Africans, Asians or whatnot.  In a world where there is no Europe....there are no Europeans.  Likewise all the other ethnicities that we are familiar with.  Yes, they can compare to our world's ethnicities, but again, that's because the fictional settings are being written by people from this world.

The most egregious offender of this are the fans of the Avatar: the Last Airbender cartoon series.  When the movie came out there was a big stink about how they were casting white people for "Asian" characters.  The fans had access to some very good evidence of prejudiced hiring policies, but the majority of them ignored the real, practical evidence and instead ranted and raved about how the characters were "Asian" and thus should be portrayed by Asian actors.

Let me just repeat that this is a fictional world setting and therefore there is no such place as Asia in that world.

I've received a little bit about this with Greenwater as well.  Someone once commented upon seeing art for some of the characters in Greenwater that they were glad to see some "ethnic" fantasy instead of just sticking to the "racist" views portrayed by Tolkien.

On the one hand, I agree that a greater variety of characters and settings is appreciated.  One of the reasons that I use characters that aren't white is because of the fact that I'd like more variety.  Granted, I'm only really good at writing an American perspective and faking an Asian perspective (as filtered by an American who has lived in Asia for a time and likes reading the Chinese classics).  Note my use of the verb "fake".

Still, this kind of boggled my mind.   I mean one of the more touching parts of the Lord of the Rings is where Sam is looking at the dead body of one of the dark-skinned Southron men and basically saying that he doesn't think they're any different from the rest of people.  And this was written in the 40s before the biggest social equality movies had gotten started.  Yes, most of the good guys are of a model that is more considered European, but there is a reason for a lack of ethnic diversity in Lord of the Rings.

There tends to be a lack of ethnic diversity in a setting where most people don't travel past the bounds of their own village.

Actually, with the Dunlendings, Dunadan, Rohirrim, Gondorians, Pukelmen, Dale-men, Bree-landers and so on, there is a wide variety of ethnicities within the Lord of the Rings.  The fact that they all tend to be pale-skinned makes sense given the story is set in the extreme North-East of the only continent with much detail and that section of the continent is characterized by extremely biting cold weather with mild summers and lots of clouds.  Pale skin would be more likely to develop in such locales than dark skin.

And, again, we come to the fact that the lengthiest description of any Southron men was someone considering that he was probably just the same as any other man.

But ignoring the question of Lord of the Ring's ethnicities for the moment, let's look back at the comment that a person was glad to see "ethnic" fantasy characters for once.  While I am fascinated by a large variety of human appearance, I have to wonder:

When the hell did people with pale skin equate to being not-ethnic?

Is being white automatically a bar from having a distinct racial and ethnic identity?  What am I, just some sort of blank, undetermined generic product?  Am I bland?  Am I just some sort of shallow person who can only hope to imitate a true ethnic culture when viewed through other people.

You know what bothers me the most?  The people that usually make these comments are usually also white Americans.  I know there's an element of ethnocentricity and self-centeredness in the attitude, but it annoys the hell out of me whenever someone basically implies that ethnicity is something for people who aren't white.  That our traditions and heritage is somehow just something we do and not really a cultural heritage at all.

That said, back to the topic at hand.  Ethnicities in fantasy settings are NOT real world ethnicities and I wish people would stop trying to enforce real world definitions on people that don't fit into the real world.

The closest you can get is a comparison to existing phenotypes in the real world.  Reference my discussion of hair colors and eye colors in the Naruto setting and then my brief discussion of the Water Tribe from Avatar.  Trying to shoehorn a fictional people into a particular real world ethnicity is a disservice both to the real world people, since a fictional ethnicity will never be as complex as a real world one, and to the creator of that fictional setting.

Another example of this would be the Rokugani from the Legend of Five Rings game setting.  While Rokugan is based on the cultures of Japan, China and Korea, they are not those cultures and there are some significant differences in the way things are done even once you ignore the supernatural aspects of the game.



If there is no Asia.

There are no Asians.

If there is no Europe.

There are no Europeans.

So please, stop insisting that Katara is an Eskimo when she's really Water Tribe.

Stop calling Naruto Japanese when he is from the Land of Fire.

They are not people from our world and they would not look exactly like any of our existing ethnicities as a result.

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