I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories . . . Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.
J. R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” from The Tolkien Reader, Ballantine Books, 1966.
Escapist storytelling has been with us even before Homer and his audience sat around the fire spinning tales. The human soul needs both serious works and books that are purely intended to entertain. But even nowadays, escapism apparently is allowed only to certain groups.
While it is not difficult to find excellent novels about homophobia and coming out, it is much harder to find books in which, for example, a teenage, Hispanic lesbian discovers that she has inherited magical powers— a plot trope for which hundreds, if not thousands, of books exist for straight, white heroines. You can substitute any social minority in American society, and similar issues apply. If you’re not part of the ruling class, you don’t get to escape. (This essay focuses primarily on American books because that is what we’re most familiar with.)
Serious literature focusing on social and individual problems is good and necessary. But it should not be the only type of reading that’s available.
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Rachel: I’m Jewish. It is almost impossible to find Jewish protagonists in my favorite escapist genres. I can literally name to you the titles of every book ever published by a major publisher in America, with a Jewish protagonist, in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, adventure, and romance. Those are all genres which are commonly considered escapist. In young adult, children’s, and adult mainstream fiction— all genres which are not inherently “escapist”— there are far more Jews, but, almost inevitably, they only inhabit novels on serious subjects like anti-Semitism or the Holocaust.
When the only fiction you can read about people like yourself is exclusively concerned with how hard it is to be an oppressed minority, it sends a number of subtly toxic messages: you don’t belong here; people like you are not allowed to have fun; if you want to escape, you can only do it by imagining yourself into a gentile identity.
Sherwood: When I was a kid in the 50s and 60s, it was very difficult to find stories whose kid heroes did not reinforce the majority status quo. I didn’t think about that. I just accepted that adventuring kids were pretty much like me. The first heroine not like me that I recollect loving passionately was Mara in Mara, Daughter of the Nile. Now there was a heroine to root for! She didn’t look like me, but I wanted to be like her.
The only way to find stories about people who were not me was in travel books or historical novels, like Mara. But when it came to cool adventures and magic, everybody was literally, or at least implied, a WASP. People who didn’t fit that mold were either caricatures, or singled out to stand on the sidelines cheering. Sometimes both.
Now, there are wonderful choices to be found for young readers, which please the kid in me, but you know what I can’t find? Escapism for old women. When they show up in stories, they are figures of derision, helpless, boring, unsexed.
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Now that both of us have discussed our individual identities, we’d like to talk about one we have in common. We are both women.
There have been many arguments about the tendency of women in fantasy novels to be portrayed solely as powerless victims, to be raped and sometimes murdered to motivate the hero or demonstrate to the reader that the world of the book is gritty and “real.” Those in favor of such portrayals argue that such portrayals are realistic— in medieval times, the average woman was powerless and often raped and murdered— and that realism is a literary virtue.
Leaving aside the dubious historicity of such arguments, it is only female characters whose portrayals must be “realistic” and must reflect the experiences of an average woman. The average man in a medieval setting would have been a powerless peasant or craftsman who never left his village or had adventures.
But the male heroes of fantasy novels are not average people, and do not have average lives. They are not merely the heroes of the genre of fantasy, but heroes of fantasies— heroes of escapist imagination. They have special powers, secret royal heritage, astounding fighting skills, or magical talent. If they truly are ordinary in themselves, they are thrust into extraordinary circumstances and rise to the occasion.
Aragorn, Kvothe, and Jon Snow are not representative of the average straight white man. They are intended as fantasy figures. But in countries where straight white men hold the power, only their fantasy figures are common, respected, and hold iconic status.
These male heroes were not written to be average examples of their demographic, and we’ve never seen anyone make the argument that they should be. But that argument is applied to female characters constantly, to make the case that they should be average and demographically representative. It is a case for denying women escapism while lavishing it on men.