I’ve been thinking about how magic is often represented in fantasy.
I’ve written previously about how many SFF stories (poorly) represent post-racial societies. My issue with magic is a close cousin to that topic.
Magic is frequently connected to oppression within the story world. Often it’s illegal, with practitioners doing so in secret while on the run and/or in hiding from the armed forces of a state-sanctioned death squad seeking to exterminate them.
It’s an obvious attempt by fantasy writers to draw a thematic comparison to the real-world oppression of marginalized people.
It doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work firstly because magic, by definition, is a superhuman ability. It’s something that makes users of it strange, abnormal, and—notably—puts them outside the normal range of human experience and possibility.
Although this may seem positive on the surface (magic is special! It’s cool and fun!), it’s a terrible comparison with real marginalized people, as if to say being BIPOC, queer, disabled, neurodivergent, etc. is something Other to a default state of humanity that is white, cis-straight, able, and neurotypical.
Using this thinking, equating marginalized people to magic users is no different from equating them to animals—another group of living things that exist outside the bounds of humanity.
Super-human, in its full Latin meaning, could easily be replaced with inhuman.
And secondly, using magic as a locus of oppression doesn’t work because magic, unlike being BIPOC or queer, is in reality the complete opposite of marginalization.
Magic is a form of power.
This fact announces itself upfront in the way we describe its users: “She has magical powers.” And people who hold power over others cannot be oppressed due to that power.
This defies both the definition of oppression and, frankly, common sense.
I’ve always loved the live-action X-Men movies. I love the various characters and their different mutant powers (there’s that word again), and how Magneto, the ostensible villain, starts out as something of a freedom fighter for whom the means come to justify the ends a little too much.
The backstory of him and his mother, both Jewish, having been imprisoned in a concentration camp when he was young, and him watching his mother being dragged away, ostensibly to her death, is compelling and heart-wrenching.
But the parallels the writers try to make between Magneto’s mutant powers and his past is pretty specious. There’s nothing dangerous about being Jewish; in fact, Jewish people are more commonly themselves endangered by the hatred and prejudice of others.
Yet Magneto’s mutant powers are a legitimate threat if misused. He’s able to manipulate magnetic fields and control metal so that with a wave of his hand he can—and does—tear metal barriers apart, turn a soldier’s own gun upon him, and send cars careening off the road into fiery wreckage.
It’s the same situation with the grisha from the Netflix series Shadow and Bone—magic-using soldiers who are apparently forced upon pain of death to fight in the non-magical king’s wars.
The grisha can do things like shoot fire or fierce gusts of wind from their hands, slow or stop someone’s heart with a thought and, in the case of their leader, General Kirigan, manipulate shadows and use them to literally slice a man in half.
Yet at the same time, we’re shown grisha easily being killed by barbarians with bows and daggers in their crusade against so-called drusje (witches).
There’s no way that someone like Magneto—several someone’s like him of comparable power, as many of the mutants are—could be systematically oppressed by non-mutants in a realistic way.
Individual mutants could be disliked, excluded, or even bullied, perhaps, if their powers were more so of the weird or visually disturbing variety. But the mutants are not entirely without recourse the way marginalized people are in real life.
Marginalized people are only human, the same as their oppressors. A group of marginalized people coming together to support and advocate for each other still operate within, and are still hindered by, various systemic barriers erected against them by the oppressor.
But a group of mutants coming together can smash those barriers entirely—the broader plot of X-Men derived from its faulty premise: not that the mutants can’t overcome their would-be oppressors, but that Magneto and coexistence-driven Charles Xavier have opposite philosophies on how this should be done.
Because in reality, humans could be entirely at the mercy of mutants, and are thus not wrong to fear them and want to segregate themselves. Any eventual accord between humans and mutants would be a complex and tenuous agreement indeed, built with the same level of intention and compromise as real-world peace talks, requiring dramatic reshaping of social structures and human/mutant nature as a whole.
Nested (perceived) oppression
People often forget when writing about oppression that it is indeed systemic, that an individual who is picked on, denied an opportunity, or gets their feelings hurt, while unfortunate, isn’t actually being oppressed. Not unless their mistreatment is both strengthened and enabled by institutionalized inequality within the core pillars of society (i.e. government, law enforcement, media, health care, education, etc.).
People who hold a lot of privilege in society, particularly those who refuse to acknowledge it, tend to struggle the most at recognizing this. Largely because they do have so much privilege, any deviation from this condition is unfathomable and therefore surely the worst situation ever.
This oblivion further exists in these same portrayals of fantasy oppression I’ve been describing, where those with all the power are painted as victims. Those who tend to get their stories published or produced as shows and movies are already among the most privileged—those with the time, resources, and connections to both create and get their work before the powers that be.
To have stories from people with privilege who often deny it write about characters with power who are painted as victims is so meta as to feel like satire.
It may be that creators tell these stories as a means of acknowledging systemic power imbalances in the world, whether to atone for their own benefits from oppression or for their ancestors who built these systems.
However acknowledging and understanding are not the same thing, to the point that a poorly-done representation will often end up perpetuating the same unjust systems you mean to critique.
(Image source #1, #2 and #3 – J.G. Noelle)