In her introduction, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas says, “The Dark Fantastic is intended to be the opening of a conversation, not the culmination of it” (p. 13). It’s a line I’ve visited repeatedly as I struggled with this review, having returned to the book, checked my notes, and traced out its trajectory of ideas twice over. Eventually I realised that the problem lay not with the book itself—I recommend it with minimal caveats—but with me. My own experiences as a teacher, fangirl, scholar, and critic meant that The Dark Fantastic refused summarisation for me; instead I found myself wanting to annotate it, echo it, yell “I remember this!” at the page, or pause to shake my fist at the ceiling. By my third attempt at a review, I’d realised that I couldn’t really be coherent about this topic; by the fourth attempt I realised that, for me, engagement had long arrived at the point where condensing Thomas’s ideas felt not unlike trying to empty out the ocean with a bucket. There were too many points of connection to other critical moments, to transmedia narratives, to racebending, to (Black) fandom history, to Black American history, to myth-making, and to a variety of moments where I found myself wishing the book would expand into spaces it gestured to but could not cover.
So I’ve decided to take Thomas’s statement about The Dark Fantastic being the opening to a conversation to heart. Somewhere between conventional review and response, this is more a tracing of the echoes I heard each time I read this book. If the fantastic is the space to dream, then this is the constellation I’ve mapped to chart my own way home.
In her introduction, Thomas says, “When people of colour seek passageways into the fantastic, we have often discovered that the doors are barred. Even the very act of dreaming of worlds-that-never-were can be challenging when the known world doesn’t provide many liberating spaces” (p. 2). A month after I finished my first read of Thomas’s book, I began Isiah Lavender III’s Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction (2014). In his introduction, Lavender traces out the way in which he, as an eight-year-old, was first introduced to science fiction at about the same time that he was first made aware of what the N-word meant as a group of violent sixth-graders mobbed him and tried to beat him to death after school. Following that event and his parents’ intervention with the school, he describes another encounter with the slur, this time in an SFnal context. The protagonist of Ray Bradbury’s “June 2003: Way in the Middle of the Air” (The Martian Chronicles, 1950) uses the word for Black people escaping the South for Mars. Lavender notes, “I often wonder why my mother gave me that book [The Martian Chronicles], but it left another indelible impression on me” (p. 5). Lavender’s recounting of this event is painful context for why science fiction and race have always been related for him, and his edited collection is a response to that context and to the work of Elisabeth Leonard’s Into Darkness Peering: Race and Color in the Fantastic (1997). Black and Brown Planets' deconstruction of science fiction is a talking back to imaginative futures previously presumed to be defaulted to whiteness, and Lavender specifically sees this as a radical political and necessary act; in much the same way, Thomas recounts how needing magic was part of her world, yet her mother conveyed that magic itself, or the possibility of the fantastic, was inaccessible to her as a Black girl.
As Thomas says, the fantastic is already restricted or cordoned off in a multiplicity of ways. There is a noted lack of diversity and representation in Anglophone media, and the issue extends far deeper than the oft noted lack of narratives or character representation. It extends perhaps into the use of language that is marginalised, into the fact that when representation is offered, it is often problematic and draws on stereotyping, caricature, and the marginalisation of those already at risk within these systemic structures of power. And beyond these issues, a larger question looms regarding whose narratives and voices are published, and who is involved in the process of this publication. Distinguishing the dark fantastic from multicultural fantasy, Afrofuturism, and the Black fantastic, Thomas argues that the vast majority of mainstreamed speculative narratives read and viewed in the United States are written by white authors and screenwriters and consumed by mass audiences (p. 9) and these tend to be the focus of young media cultures like fandom. These mainstreamed speculative narratives, then, are her focus when it comes to The Dark Fantastic.
Her argument cites and echoes initiatives like #WeNeedDiverseBooks (launched by Ellen Oh, Malinda Lo, Aisha Saeed, and others) and asks whether the racialised disparity in literacy attainment isn’t perhaps linked to this failure in our collective imaginations to address the entrenched lack of diversity in children’s and young adult literature. Throwing out a gauntlet, Thomas says:
Here is a radical, potentially dangerous thought: Maybe it’s not that kids and teens of colour and other marginalised and minoritised young people don’t like to read. Maybe the real issue is that many adults haven’t thought very much about the racialised mirrors, windows, and doors that are in the books we offer them to read, in the television and movies we invite them to view, and in the fan communities we entice them to play in. […] One way we can begin this conversation is by exploring the dark fantastic. (p. 7)
Lavender’s and Thomas’s books begin with a demand to not only reconsider what this denial or what these cultural contexts mean for Black audiences, but also point out that these were systems that they were already part of even while this access was being denied or restricted in distinct ways. Black audiences were already here. This, I think, is the central point of these books themselves, my own review, and a larger guideline for the selection of voices included. That these arguments are not new, they are an echo and a tracing and a carrying forward of a variety of works that have come before and are themselves going to be connection points for those that come after. For Thomas, as for Lavender, these books are deliberately the voices of a community and a tracing of personal and shared history—somewhere between critical theory and testimonio, i.e., a Latin American critical term to denote an account of personal witnessing used to speak for a community and a shared living memorialisation for the purpose of building solidarity (Patricia Derocher, Transnational Testimonios: The Politics of Collective Knowledge Production, 2018). This, then, is the work.
In Race After Technology (2019), Ruha Benjamin states:
[…] the presumed blandness of White American culture is a crucial part of our national narrative. Scholars describe the power of this plainness as the invisible “centre” against which everyone else is measured. Upon further reflection, what appears to be an absence in terms of being “cultureless” works more like a superpower. Invisibility, with regard to Whiteness, offers immunity. To be unmarked by race allows you to reap the benefits but escape responsibility for your role in an unjust system. (p. 4)
Benjamin’s concise summary here covers a vast amount of ground and allows us to think about how a demand for inclusion can be co-opted to the colonial racial project of Othering. While Blackness is marked as non-normative in fantastic settings—or indeed, in the sort of basic everyday semi-fantastic of worlds like Hallmark TV’s The Good Witch (2015-present) which I watched for two seasons only to find less than five Black characters in total and inclusive of crowd scenes—the reality is that Blackness is normal and present, and that the manner in which whiteness is not marked allows it to assume a deliberately constructed but inevitably false positioning as universal (as Jamaican anticolonial thinker Sylvia Wynter notes).
That this ideology is so constant and so subversively present and performed in the everyday spaces of the United States often leads to an unconscious internalisation of this ideology. This provides a certain base for what Thomas suggests, that the fantastic may already be restricted or cordoned off in a multiplicity of ways, by adults who have internalised these ongoing colonial narratives of race, to children and young adults who are growing up socialised this way. We all live in worlds where these things are so prevalent that undoing that pattern of thinking necessitates constant and ongoing work. During a 2019 interview with Ashley Blackwell and Tananarive Due (for the Black Horror documentary Horror Noire, based on the book of the same name by Robin R. Means Coleman), an audience member, Rhea, mentions that their own creation of Afrofuturist and/or Black stories is often questioned or receives push back in the different literary spaces they occupy. In her response, Due acknowledges this struggle and notes that she herself has experienced similar moments. Citing her own history as a young college student, Due recounts that she began by writing Black narratives, but as she went through graduate school and was further exposed to the canon, she felt a subtle pressure to conform, so much so that she eventually found herself writing white male characters and excluding herself from the spaces of her own novel. She acknowledges that it took her time to notice this and realise that she wanted to write about herself and her own history and find her way back to that.
I bring this up because this example underscores the points Benjamin makes and could perhaps go some way to explaining reactions of young Black audiences, like those of Thomas’s niece Daija to books positioned as explicitly Black and about the experience of Black girls in particular (such as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give , Ibi Zoboi’s American Street , and Renee Watson’s This Side of Home ) (p. 137). Daija demonstrates her awareness of the books being marked in particular ways and feels an implicit expectation that she could/would/should/must immediately relate to them as a Black girl experiencing Blackness in the United States. As whiteness is constructed as universal and unmarked, inevitably surviving and centred, while Black characters struggle, die, are forced to overcome, or haunt narratives, Thomas asks us to wonder whether the responsibilities of this need only be marked, yet again, onto Black selves when so many other white narratives propose the fantastic as escapism. As Helen Young notes in Race and Popular Fantasy Literature (2016), whiteness in the fantasy canon is not only performed and reproduced through imitation, adaptation, and repetition (p. 41), but through the willingness of reader-responses to view whiteness as normative (p. 79).
[I question whether this explains the Kylo Ren phenomenon in Star Wars fandom: the idea that that people are so used to white men being redeemed in narratives of this sort that they would willingly identify with him despite the knowledge that he clearly stands for fascism. I wonder if others, like me, have had a moment of connection with a character because they look like me and then immediately refused to invest in them because loving a PoC character in fantasy media is a recipe to getting your heart destroyed when they inevitably are evil/ sacrifice themselves/ are killed off/ abruptly disappear when the show’s budget gets tighter. I wonder if the recognition of this urge for self-preservation on my part as a young critic led to my abrupt reversal into investing heavily in these characters, because if I don’t care, who will? Both ends of that spectrum felt intensely personal, though one ends in outward apathy and the other in far too many emotions. As Thomas notes, “For many readers, viewers, and fans of color, I suspect that, at the level of consciousness, to participate in the fantastic is to watch yourself be slain—and justifiably so, as the story recounts” (p. 23). Writing this less than a week after the finale of Game of Thrones, I nod bitterly.]
Thomas’s question is then twofold: not only the radical question of whether the sorts of racialised mirrors offered entice children and young adults to read, but also the question of what kinds of fantastic are even possible to imagine when Blackness is constructed without the radical freedoms whiteness assumes as inevitable. Due’s story of writing white brothers excluded her as a young Black woman, but the choice of whiteness and masculinity points to what selves are presumed to be the most convenient to imagine with—a subversive system that propounds racist colonial practice. Instead of seeking to reconcile wholly with the fantastic itself, Thomas offers an autoethnographic and phenomenological construct she terms “the dark fantastic” as part of the larger Afrofuturist project, to denote the role that racial difference plays in storied imaginations that feel immersive (p. 7). Examining narrative depictions of Black femininity and its reception through Rue from The Hunger Games, Guinevere from Merlin, Bonnie Bennett from The Vampire Diaries, and Hermione from Harry Potter, she posits that the marginalisation of these fictional Black characters exists in parallel to their marginalisation in the real world. Pointing out the ways in which engagement with Black characters seemed to be segregated to duty and historical education in contrast to the fantastic which appeared primarily white, Thomas asks:
Although it is generally assumed that audiences are positioned to identify with the heroes and heroines in “stories about stories,” I began to wonder how the fantastic shapes the collective consciousness toward perceptions of difference. When might young readers experience moments of dissonance? Specifically, when might young readers of color realize that the characters I am rooting for are not positioned like me in the real world, and the characters that are positioned like me are not the team to root for? How do these readers respond to this absence? Do they assume an assimilationist stance? People are people—I can relate to any character. Do they assume a stance of resistance? This story contains no one like me—therefore, it is not for me. More research is needed on what happens when children and teens of color read texts where either they are not represented, or their representation is problematic. (p. 19)
Notably, the pervasive socialisation of whiteness as normative encompasses not only the arenas of fantasy fiction (per Young), or technology (per Benjamin), but is also a part of the intermingling of old and new media forms that currently give rise to participatory cultures (what Henry Jenkins terms convergence cultures). These are not only the spaces where imagination, dreaming, and the fantastic are possible, but they additionally become spaces in which racialised difference is only noted when there is a “glitch” (as Benjamin terms it) through an interruption of or challenge to presumed white hegemony. In effect, while digitally networked cultures provide an appearance of egalitarian and democratic systems within these participatory forms, the reality is often far otherwise. Blackness is rarely viewed as normative in the majority of these spaces unless deliberately made so.
In Squee from the Margins: Fandom and Race (2019), Rukmini Pande notes that these interruptions then become ways in which to study the ways in which whiteness itself is produced and reified as normative and aspirational. In a recent interview on the subject, she states:
I think the most blatant problem with the position of “The heart wants what it wants” is the accompanying unwillingness to name that “something” as whiteness because that would imply that fandom spaces are not neutral. White fans have, as decades of evidence proves, consistently chosen white characters to devote their fandom energies towards. Fannish pleasure and fantasy therefore are already fundamentally implicated in questions of race. It is simply a matter of acknowledging that fact. But, as is evident, naming whiteness triggers a deep defensiveness that manifests itself in trying to prove that those that point out the problem are the real location of disruption.
Pande’s point extends as well to the manner in which Fans of Colour within these spaces may frequently imbibe the subversive ideology of colonial white pupremacy (wherein whiteness is aspirational, desirable, unmarked, powerful, innocent, loveable, natural, knowledgable). They may find themselves internalising the idea that, in order for media to be escapist or enjoyable (producing “squee”) one must localise it to Whiteness (but never name it as such). She recounts her own version of this experience—discussing her original reaction of seeing the Spock/Uhura shipping of the Star Trek franchise as diluting Uhura’s strong character and preferring the fan favourite pairing of Kirk/Spock, only to realise that much of her reasoning drew upon subversively racist tropes regarding the strength and desirability of Black women:
This experience was extremely foundational because once I was made aware of the racialization of my choices it gave me the chance to work through my own defensiveness. I realized that fandom had always encouraged me to be self-reflexive about my attraction to certain character archetypes and shipping dynamics in terms of gender and sexuality but had worked to elide their whiteness. This in turn helped me to value characters of color who also offered me the exact same modes of pleasure but which fandom had deemed to be uninteresting. This was a huge turning point for me, not because I was being policed into appropriate modes of fandom, but because I was able to actually expand notions of my own fannish pleasure.
My experience in fandom would suggest that Pande’s willingness to decolonise her perceptions of desire and to view this process as an expansion of pleasure rather than a reduction and policing of it make her an outlier. And, as Thomas shows in her discussion of BBC Merlin’s Queen Guinevere (more on this later), accusations of heterosexism and heteronormativity are brought in as shields to defend against any examination of potentially racist practice. I believe this to be a versioning of Jasbir Puar’s theory of homonationalism (within the bordered and policed spaces of fandom) where systems of queerness are positioned as acceptable or even necessary to combat the figure of the Other (in Thomas’s argument, the Dark Other). Black queerness is positioned as an outlier at best, and queerness itself becomes subversively coded to the cultural interests of whiteness within the United States.
Black fans have spoken repeatedly about the hostility and racism they and the actors of various media properties experience, particularly as Black women (both trans and cis) and as Black non-binary and/or trans people. Anjelica Jade Bastién points to audiences using racist “monkey” descriptions of Candice Patton, who plays Iris West on the CW show The Flash (2014-present), and questioning her pairing with a white main character because they perceive her as undesirable. Zina Hutton has chronicled a range of similar responses to properties like DC’s Titans, and more recently Halle Bailey’s casting as Ariel in the live-action Little Mermaid by Disney has brought racists out in droves. (Ignore the racists, have a wonderfully informative set of tweets on non-white mermaids here). The act of inclusion angers racists not only because they see themselves as being decentred in a world that has always centred and validated their whiteness, but also because their imagination and fantasies inevitably revolve around non-white subjugation or extermination.
Te, a fan who has been active in fandom since the mid-1990s, notes that Black fans found ways to create their own communities away from the presumed defaulted whiteness of online and fan spaces. She remembers meetings at fannish events where, upon meeting her, people would remark, “I *never* imagined you’d be *Black*,” seemingly aghast at the very possibility. This example echoes other responses by Fans of Colour in this 2019 set of interviews with Mel Stanfil. She notes in a 2006 social media post that having a separate community was and is necessary, and that it was valuable to not only have cool characters of colour on the shows they were watching, even tangentially, but to also be in a community that was fannish about them. Te’s point is significant, as Pande notes, because having interesting characters of colour in media forms does not mean that the inherent whiteness of fandom and its spaces will grant these characters the traction and fannish squee so easily granted to white characters, even in minor roles (Squee from the Margins, pp. 30-31). And indeed, this is a point that both Pande and Thomas make in their books.
I note this to point out that the mapping of desire, whether in media, fiction, transformative fanworks, or pornography, remains intimately connected to the overall cultural systems that inform our world. Writing specifically about race and porn, but easily applicable to a wide variety of media and transformative fanworks, Zoé Samudzi warns that there is a:
[…] danger of creating any vacuum-like space beyond politicization or reproach. It shows how easily the space between fantastical sexual performance and “real life” racist aggression is collapsed. That collapse is a reminder that porn cannot be considered distinct from broader cultural production or our overall racial imaginary—rather, these spaces are actually intimately linked, constantly informing one another.
Convergence cultures thus mean that lived spaces and online spaces are constructed to be violent and exclusionary in a multiplicity of ways because they are created within existing social systems. There’s a vast amount of work on the different ways in which global cyberspaces are coded by race and therefore, through social systems, are inevitably racist, but the process of laying those ideas out is too involved for this review (though the Benjamin is a good place to start). Suffice to say, when one markets any online space as democratic and egalitarian without sustained and self-reflective critique of how those spaces inevitably reproduce societal biases, they’re selling you a bridge (slightly used).
Original media representation is positioned as potentially being a site of reparative pleasure—with numerous anecdotes existing about how this is the first time someone got to see “someone like them” onscreen—but to extend that same ideation of pleasure into spaces of transformative fanworks is to seemingly out oneself as someone speaking about race/ism. In many ways, even before Black fans enter these spaces, they are marked by the possibility of disruption, by disruptive potential, by an anxiety that they may be a “killjoy” (per Sara Ahmed) for choosing to prioritise themselves and their pleasure over whiteness. Thomas notes this from her time in the Harry Potter fandom, and this echoes discussions I’ve had for years with other Fans of Colour about what is deemed acceptable to call out (queerbaiting and heterosexism) and what isn’t (racism). An example that comes to mind is the racist 16,000 word meta “Your Vagina Is a Bigot, My Vagina Is a Saint” by Franzeska, or the massive fan campaigns around the Clexa pairing that arose in the aftermath of CW’s The 100 (2014-present) killing off one half of a white lesbian pairing while ignoring Fans of Colour who had long noted the show’s many issues with race. As tumblr user distressedcinnamonroll puts it:
I kept thinking, “Sure, a lot of dead lesbians are on TV. And that sucks. But there are even more dead POC on TV. None of the Clexa stans I followed gave a shit about Wells. Or Anya. What makes Lexa different? What makes the death of a white queer woman on a show more bigoted than the repeated torture and death of POC characters?” […] If we kept watching despite the death of POC after POC until a queer woman died, what makes us different from those who would continue to watch after Lexa died? (2017).
Thomas recounts Paul Ricoeur’s argument that imagination must be uncoupled from memory, and locates this as a potential source of hesitation when approaching the fantastic because there seems little way in which one can collectively imagine a space uninfluenced by the trauma of collective history. This leads to an imaginative dilemma that eventually becomes located in the self of the Dark Other (p. 26). Thomas’s argument here feels like it not only resonates with imaginative spaces (like media texts and their fandoms) wherein Black characters (particularly Black women and/or Black trans characters) are excluded completely or contained and destroyed, but also the fandoms themselves: the idea that Black characters are difficult, unlikeable, that they demand too much of viewers, that those calling out racist (lack of) representation are fandom “antis,” that creating spaces and imaginative scenarios that celebrate and centre Blackness is somehow “reverse racism” or “social justice run rampant” rather than joyful, and more complex scenarios.
Drawing on similar (but distinct) arguments and theorising from the perspective of the monstrous, Thomas notes that the body of the Dark Other in the fantastic is cultural, it escapes categorisation, it shifts, it is always Other, fearing it is a form of desire, it polices the body of the possible, and the monster exists at the threshold of becoming in that its presence haunts us. Thomas says:
Everything in our culture, as well as in modern history and contemporary life of the West, demands the positioning of the Dark Other as an antagonist. As Edward Said observed, “Without empire … there is no European novel as we know it.” Within American literature, Morrison contends, “there is no romance (and no Gothic) free of what Herman Melville called ‘the power of blackness.’” Connecting Morrison’s observations to Maria Nikolajeva’s claims that fantasy’s origins can be located in Romanticism, I believe there can be no fantastic without the Dark Other. The Dark Other is the counterbalance, the counterweight that makes the entire enterprise of the fantastic work (p. 28).
Yet within these narratives the monster’s perspective is rarely the one we hear. She asserts that even in stories that are populated entirely by white characters, the Dark Other exists as a source of the uncanny. Whitewashing the fantastic or the imagination only indicates darkness lingering at its margins. The Dark Other occasions heart-stopping spectacle and is the source of hesitation essential to storytelling. The Dark Other becomes a focus and a sacrifice, purging wrongs but inevitably returning to haunt the narrative and its ending. Inevitably, the Dark Other must die, but returns as its presence is essential to the machinery of the narrative. This notion of the Dark Other constitutes the cycle of the dark fantastic (p. 25). Within the texts Thomas has chosen, the Dark Other is the self of young Black womanhood. (While the examples Thomas cites in the book are cis women characters in mainstream media, the argument can be extended to womanhood in general.)
[Considering this, I wonder if the cycle of the dark fantastic exists not only in the texts she inhabits or haunts, but also extends into fannish production; whether the Dark Other is constituted also in the Black audiences consuming these products whose fannish investment offers the possibility of disrupting whiteness in these mediascapes. It’s something I’m still mulling over, the ways in which the presence of People of Colour itself is disruptive and a haunting of whiteness. I’m thinking of a recent conference in the United States where I was approached on seven separate occasions, always by white cis women and largely without previous interaction on this point, so they could assure me that while they did think about race, their paper just “didn’t have the space” to name it (and therefore refused to name whiteness as raced). By simply existing in that space, I became the site of a haunting, a focus for discussions of race, and an odd sacrificial tourism where white cis women acafans could come to claim penance and forgiveness in advance of their papers, destroy the possibility of my response by pre-empting it—as though I, standing in that moment for all People of Colour, could offer absolution. None of them comprehended as racially coded or as a racial microaggression their repeated assurance to me that while non-white existence was important, it really wasn’t important enough.]
While The Dark Fantastic makes a case specifically for the ways in which young Black girls and women begin to navigate desires, race, sexuality, acceptance, and representation in different ways through the mainstream media landscape and online communities, I’m reminded that desire itself is always political and politicised; that as we discuss the Dark Other in the fantastic, there has to be a sustained and repeated refusal to fetishize, to tokenise, to other, to not re-evaluate defaulted perceptions of “acceptable” bodies, selves, and desires even within this endeavour. The majority of representation within this book, and indeed within mainstream media, plays to particular types of Black female embodiment that are viewed as “acceptable” and even those are subject to violence and policing in these forums. We should all remember that disruption of the normative has a variety of constant costs, and I urge everyone reading this to pause here and go read Taylnn Kel’s “It’s Not Insecurity; It’s Society… And Sometimes That’s You” and consider the fact that without undertaking radical decolonisation and anti-racist work, the promise of representation and the expansion of desire is still buying into the kind of embodiment that allows only certain Black selves to be seen as “acceptable.” That is not emancipation—we are all here, and we are all here together.
In her analysis of The Hunger Games, Thomas begins by drawing a parallel between the franchise’s depiction of District 12 and the 12th Street Rebellion of 1967 in Detroit, noting that “my interpellation of the dystopian Panem as a fictionalized version of my hometown is deeply rooted in my childhood experiences of attempting to make sense of a city that appeared to defy American notions of progress” (p. 38). Thomas notes that her particular identification mirrored that of Roxane Gay: both saw a speaking to power, a desire for liberation, and a carefully nurtured hope. This led to a sort of cognitive dissonance when the films themselves featured a majority of white actors in both the main cast and crowd scenes: a fact noted by many fans at the time the casting was announced.
Amandla Stenberg’s character Rue was an outlier to this, and the widespread negative response to this casting showed that, in contrast to Gay and Thomas’s perceptions of presumed identities based on historical and cultural narratives, a large section of the franchise’s audience believed that race, ethnicity, and visible markers of difference had no place in a narrative dystopia about stolen and hoarded resources. I’ll pause here to allow you to roll your eyes with me. Moreover, as Medium user Gabi points out, this reading is in contradiction to the book’s own descriptions:
I honestly don’t understand how you could read the books and conclude that District 12 was predominantly white with little to no visible racial division, but then again, that’s apparently how most people perceived it, which is incredible. But whatever you concluded, you can’t argue with the things that are literally stated in the book. It is stated in the book that District 12 is racially divided, with the black-haired, olive-skinned residents working the dangerous, low-paying jobs, and the blonde-haired, blue-eyed residents being slightly better-off business owners. It is stated in the book that District 11 is predominantly black. It is stated in the books that people like Peeta and Madge are visibly different from Katniss and Haymitch (2017).
The presumption is that race or ethnicity then must be deliberately stated and established (in terms understandable and translatable from the fictional constructs of these worlds) to establish “deviance” from whiteness. As Bogi Takács pointed out in eir feedback on this review, even when the text sets up these systems (albeit in brief ways), readers choosing not to read outside of whiteness may simply ignore these descriptions, indicating the moving goalposts of reading race in these fictional worlds. (This discussion within a fictional franchise echoes Te’s experience within a real-world fannish setting: a defaulted presumption of whiteness unless one sets about to deliberately establish non-whiteness pre-emptively.)
Writing in 2012 about The Hunger Games, Anna Holmes draws attention to the different ways in which youth, innocence, and potential carry different connotations when carried by raced bodies and identities, specifically Black selves:
If the stories we tell ourselves about the future, however disturbing, don’t include black people; if readers of “The Hunger Games” are so [willing] to skip over the author’s specific details and themes of appearance, race, and class, then what does it say about the stories we tell ourselves regarding the present?
The article discusses the website Hunger Games Tweets, a repository of racist tweets in response to the film’s casting choices and audience member perceptions of the books. Holmes notes a quoted tweet in which the user @JashperParas stated that they felt less upset at Rue’s death once they saw her as a Black girl. Numerous others noted that they would invest less in the character as a consequence of her being cast as a young Black person, and this is its own evidence of how deeply racism is embedded in culture and consumption. Years after this racist backlash, Stenberg noted (in a conversation with Alanna Bennett) already being aware of how “that there was resistance to having black girls in films, and that black women are dehumanized and their lives are seen as less valuable than white lives.[…] The irony of the whole situation was that Rue was one of the only characters I could find in the content I loved that was literally written as black” (2018).
Writing in “Against Innocence: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Safety,” Jackie Wang notes that contemporary anti-racist politics appears focused on “an empathetic structure of feeling based on appeals to innocence” and that such a structure is flawed as it stems from an appeal to the white imaginary:
Within this framework, empathy can only be established when a person meets the standards of authentic victimhood and moral purity [...] Social, political, cultural, and legal recognition only happens when a person is thoroughly whitewashed, neutralized, and made unthreatening […]A liberal politics of recognition can only reproduce a guilt-innocence schematization that fails to grapple with the fact that there is an a priori association of Blackness with guilt (criminality). Perhaps association is too generous—there is a flat-out conflation of the terms.
I bring up the Wang and the Holmes here to note that once Rue was cast as a Black girl, a significant part of the franchise’s audience assumed that she couldn’t evoke the same sort of innocence as a white actress in the same role. Blackness was seen as incompatible with innocence and so her death was assumed to be more legitimated than it would otherwise have been. If we shift this to cover the identities of Black cis boys and men, Black trans and non-binary people, Black fat people, Black old people, what additional parts of humanity would be seen as negotiable or lessened? This was Kel’s point earlier and it echoes Wang’s point now—the policing of access asks that Black people constantly prove they are human enough which means they always begin from a place that is less than. This is violence. It’s racism.
Thomas notes that this casting of Rue stood alongside the casting of the blue-eyed and blonde white actress Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, a character whose book descriptions describe her as having dark hair and an olive complexion. Thomas links this to “strategic whiteness,” a concept theorised by Sarah Projansky and Kent A. Ono, wherein white people are narratively recentred and attention is called to this in order to reinscribe our own cultural hierarchies. Katniss could only be perceived as innocent enough, heroic enough, desirable enough, morally pure enough, if she were white. Black girl Rue’s death could inspire a moral revolution, but Rue herself cannot be identified with it or the leader of such a movement. Talking back to audiences who saw this discussion of race as unnecessary or a distraction from the events of the book, Medium user Gabi says:
[…] here’s the thing I love about this idea that race is a distraction. In the films, Panem is presented as post-racial. It is presented as a world in which race isn’t a problem. It’s purely a class issue, with generic evil dictators being evil for the sake of being evil. Does that mean that the films have no power or no thoughtfulness? No. But the whole problem with the post-racial dystopia is that it essentially takes the suffering of people of color and says, “I know this mostly happens to black and brown people every day, but what if it happened to Jennifer Lawrence?” Oppression becomes entertainment, and it’s presented as progressive because it “transcends” race. But it’s not transcending race. It’s placing white people at the forefront of the narrative. It’s doing the same thing we’ve always done since the beginning of Hollywood. It also shows where our priorities lie. We can talk about child death and and desensitization to violence, but god forbid we bring race into it. Why? Why is race this subject that is so unthinkable? (2017)
Within the books, Katniss characterises herself as the dark one, less beloved than her sister Prim, who is the fair one. Additionally, within the films there is a contrast drawn between the richness of the Capitol and the honourable (white) poverty of District 12, suggesting that while the former is an ill-gotten and inauthentic whiteness the latter, by contrast, is authentic whiteness and morally deserving: a division of class identities that traces itself to historical narratives of colonialism. For Thomas, this is underscored in the fact that Rue’s sacrifice allows the audience to place deeper faith in the character of Katniss who, unlike so many others, was able to recognise Rue’s value and innocence. In an echo of Wang’s deconstruction of racial innocence as a constant appeal to the white imaginary, this recognition of Rue’s worthiness becomes the means by which Katniss’s own white authentic morality is reconfirmed.
Rue is thus a Dark Other, and occasions the dark fantastic’s cycle of spectacle (as she gives Katniss pause when they first meet), hesitation (as Katniss links her to Peeta), violence, death, and haunting. Rue’s inevitable death onscreen then haunts the rest of the text as it inspires Katniss’s actions. Thus, while the mockingjay is associated eventually with Katniss, Thomas argues for Rue to be read through the dark fantastic as the trilogy’s first mockingjay, though she sees this as co-opted within the film by Katniss’s white positionality:
In the film, the people of District 11 are so moved by Katniss’s devotion to Rue that they rise up against the Capitol. Leaving aside the discomfort that the West has had with Black uprisings from the onset of modernity until now, the visual effect of this scene in the film changes the meaning of Katniss’s actions in the text. It diminishes Rue’s selflessness as the sacrificial mockingjay and as impetus for revolution, and makes Katniss’s unselfish devotion the center of the narrative. (p. 54)
Yet Thomas notes, this narrative choice doesn’t always work the way it is intended for some readers. Rue continues to haunt The Hunger Games even after her fictional death because her Black innocence is radical. In a world wherein Blackness must always establish innocence rather than have it presumed, Rue’s innocence is disruptive and necessitates her death and the transference of this innocence to Katniss. That said, the problem with the Dark Other being interpreted through the white protagonist’s perception is that it still inevitably centres the white protagonist, normalising social hierarchies of race. Moreover, a refusal to ground dystopian science fiction within race plays to “postracial” ideologies that invisibilise the violences of racism while constructing these violences as not only normative but necessitating participation and preservation.
I should note here that the naming of race has often fallen into its own pitfalls of exoticisation, with descriptions of People of Colour falling into various wood chip shades of Brown or Black while whiteness itself remains unmarked. The choice to have multiracial worlds is not so much radical as genuinely reflective of our lived reality; as Bim Adewunmi says in her response to racist readings of these media texts:
I recall reading Enid Blyton's boarding school books as a child and knowing that none of the girls in those books looked anything like me. Years later, I went to boarding school in Nigeria and enjoyed many a midnight feast and eluded many a strict teacher, just as the Malory Towers girls did. I don't recall ever looking around my dormitory of young brown-faced girls and thinking that we weren't "right". We didn't look like Darrell, Sally, Mavis or Gwendolyn. But that's okay. We were real too (2012).
Adewunmi’s concluding statement “we were real too” is its own resistance to audience presumptions that characters of colour, or indeed People of Colour, are only inserted into these mediascapes as a nod to political correctness. Strange as it may seem to racists, People of Colour weren’t invented in the 1960s. We were always here.
Angel Coulby’s racebent casting as Guinevere in BBC’s Merlin series (2008-2012) was the focus of considerable controversy during the show’s run and in its fannish aftermaths. Unlike previous constructions of the Dark Other within the fantastic, Gwen is notable as she disrupts perceptions of whiteness as the only mode wherein Guinevere might be desirable, beloved, and accepted (and indeed, remain so for the duration of the show), while also offering a reminder that medieval Britain was likely far more multicultural than white supremacists would have us believe. As Helen Young points out:
The idea that the Middle Ages was a kind of “pre-race utopia,” where discursive constructs of race did not exist, but the races themselves—as biologically related cultural groups—did is very strong in Western culture. It stems chiefly from the ethno-nationalist discourses which developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and saw the Middle Ages as a chaotic, but essential originary crucible. (2013).
Gwen’s casting, then, refuses this construction and is already radical and disruptive of a kind of necessarily white “pastness” to which historical fantasy adaptations default. As a Dark Other, Gwen cycles through the different iterations of the dark fantastic: spectacle (she is trustworthy and willing to speak truth to Arthur’s father, Uther’s tyrannical regime that cost her father his life), hesitation (as Arthur and Gwen begin to develop feelings for each other while Gwen demands that Arthur reassess the kind of king he wants to be), violence (where Morgana’s torture and mind games lead to a brief Evil Gwen storyline that is resolved by Arthur’s constant and unconditional trust) … but stops long before death. Gwen’s construction as a Dark Other is unusual as she survives Arthur. Gwen haunts, but not as an afterlife; instead the final scene we have is of Gwen having become largely unrecognisable from her previous self (and, Thomas notes, echoing Uther’s regime in her actions), sitting alone atop the throne as Arthur’s death is announced.
With Gwen we return again to Adewunmi’s point of “we were real too” as pleasurable representation, as well as part of the seeming disruption of (racist) audience pleasure. The disruption stems not only from the possibility of Gwen’s existing within Arthuriana (though numerous stories within the mythos mention Saracens and Moors), but the fact that Coulby’s Guinevere was a Black woman central character rather than the more usual marginal character cast to satisfy representational concerns. Numerous Black fans of the series have noted that disparaging viewers willingly accepted magic, dragons, and some genuinely terrible writing, but baulked at even the possibility of a Black woman existing in this setting, let alone being accepted or loved.
For obvious reasons, I found myself placing racist reactions to Coulby’s Guinevere alongside the ongoing racism aimed at Meghan Markle. If there remains any assumption that refusal to accept Coulby as Guinevere was solely due to (false) disbelief that Black women could exist in Britain in (extremely inauthentic constructions of magical) medieval times, then contemporary racist attacks focused on Markle that repeatedly note disbelief that a Black woman is now British royalty speak to the fact that this isn’t about history or “authenticity,” but race. Markle was originally positioned as a gold-digger, from “the wrong side of the tracks,” and “(almost) straight outta Compton” (predictably, a quote from The Daily Mail in 2016), with the implication that she would always be Harry’s social inferior. This resonates with fan perceptions that Merlin was the first Arthurian adaptation to position Guinevere as a character who needs to work her way up a social ladder, beginning from a position that sees her at a disadvantage when it comes to the other primary white characters. The implication that Gwen has to earn her role as Queen within a narrative that has never demanded this of whiteness can be seen as its own subtle racism, and it disregards the possibility that Gwen could have been as easily introduced as an equal—as a dignitary or something of that nature. While the series never obliges racist audiences with an extended explanation for why a Black woman might exist in medieval England of the time, it also does little to consider the possibility that Black women might have existed as more than servants during that period; a subtler and more dismissive form of refusal to position Gwen as powerful in her own right from the show’s opening. In effect, as Thomas notes, it combines the role of glorious future queen with that of a servant, and thrusts Gwen into a central role despite a Black female servant’s usual position as a background character in narratives of this nature.
Livejournal user zahrawithaz articulates her conundrum when it comes to the character of Gwen, noting that despite her radical potential the character is consistently sidelined in the plot, used to serve the emotional needs of white characters (Arthur, Morgana, Merlin) while papering over her own father’s death; and that her transition between servant and queen is fraught by a narrative wherein morality is conferred by her willingness to expend time and emotional energy on bettering the white characters around her. They note, "I don’t want to forget that all of these things are recurring tropes of racism, and that they shape what real people of color have to face in a white-dominated world far beyond the range of this show" (2009). Similarly, blogger Tassja notes that seeing Coulby as Guinevere, a character historically portrayed as beautiful, pushed back against traditional cissexist racist constructions of “beauty”:
I admit that the reason I love Angel Coulby's Guinevere is because I can see an image of myself reflected back to me, which is rare for a woman of color. […] but unless we decode the centuries of meaning embedded within its definition, then we are only constructing an ideal that controls and disciplines our marvelous human potential. We use beauty to police which women we listen to, which women we consider 'real' women, which women we recognize, and which women are 'unrapeable'. Decolonizing our concept of beauty, and disrupting its cultural connection to worthiness, would mean our cultural myths would also have to shift. They would no longer include only the rich and powerful, the white and able-bodied, the heterosexual and cis-gendered (2012).
Tassja suggests that though Coulby falls very much within traditional parameters of beauty, her casting could offer an origin point into decolonising erotics and further, decolonising the consumption of Black people’s bodies as sites of only particular narratives of desire. Their statement stands alongside of Samudzi’s and Kel’s in this.
Gwen’s desirability became a particular nexus around which fans could discuss racism and the exclusionary systems of the fandom’s focus on cis white male characters (Arthur/Merlin). The pairings that featured Gwen ranged from het (Arthur/Gwen; Gwen/Lancelot) to femslash preferences (Gwen/Morgana) and the fandom’s OT3 , i.e., One True Threesome (Arthur/Merlin/Gwen). Many of these discussions questioned the need to position Gwen in transformative fanworks as un/willing beard or desexualised best friend to Arthur and Merlin’s grand romance, citing the ways in which a narrative that, for once, positioned a Black woman as central and desirable was still being co-opted to white desire. Responses to this argued that not shipping Arthur/Merlin was a form of heterosexism--c.f. my earlier use of Puar and homonationalism, wherein white queerness is positioned as normative in order to justify racist violence on the now non-normative-coded Other. The issue of race is not absent within the queer community, as is noted here. Asher argues that the rejection of the interracial heterosexual ship doesn’t in itself make someone racist, but the form that the rejection takes, such as shippers attacking it for even existing or anger at it being seen as viable. Eri adds to this by noting that the queer community has a variety of issues that often go unaddressed, such as racism, cissexism, and ableism (2019).
In addition to Asher’s point, my own experience of different fandoms has meant that I’m conscious of how often fanworks that exclude characters of colour (particularly Black women—trans or cis—trans, and/or non-binary characters) retain marginal white characters or only ever include characters of colour as a means to advance the plot of the white characters. It’s worth looking at a range of juggernaut fanworks in Merlin fandom and seeing how the majority of these stories not only refuse Gwen the role of desirable woman (even if she is not desired by these characters), but sometimes eliminate her entirely (despite often retaining other women characters like Morgana in empathetic roles). As Pande noted, “Ship and Let Ship” is itself often a mobilisation of desires that repeat exclusionary systems of anti-Blackness. The process is not innocent even when not intentionally used as such.
In CW’s The Vampire Diaries, adapted from L. J. Smith’s novels of the same name, white Bonnie McCullough is racebent to Black Bonnie Bennett (played by Kat Graham). Thomas notes that McCullough in the novels is auburn haired and of Irish descent, with magical ancestry dating back to the Druids, whereas Bennett’s line traces itself back to colonial Salem, and then further to a Greek ancestor Qetsiyah (played by Janina Gavankar). I remember pausing my reading of The Dark Fantastic here to sort of stare directly into camera. Having not read the book series, I hadn’t known of these changes, and I wish that Thomas’s chapter had spent more time unpacking the idea that, in order to cast Bonnie as Black, the series could no longer position her as having Irish ancestry or the surname McCullough. This choice not only subversively propounds the impossibility of interracial relationships, but participates in an ongoing history of racism in Ireland, something that the #IAmIrish project is part of challenging.
While it’s possible to suggest, as Kristen J. Warner does, that the rewriting of Bonnie’s character was to allow a discussion of Virginia’s specific histories (more on this later), I can’t deny that the implication for Irish Black people has left rather a bad taste. Having an ancestral link to Virginia’s histories does not preclude Bonnie’s having Irish ancestry as well, and implies that this sort of mixed race ancestry would be impossible despite the narrative never actually precluding the possibility. (Bogi noted in eir feedback that the manner in which Greek-ness is presumed to be compatible with Bonnie’s ancestry, while the same doesn’t hold for Irish-ness, is linked to conceptualisations of Mediterranean-ness in Anglo-American spaces that refer to “swarthiness,” “olive skin,” and more.)
While in the novels Bonnie is positioned as a counterpoint to Elena’s journey into the vampire world and is a foil and eventual love interest for Damon Salvatore, the series often sidelines her in favour of another character, Caroline Forbes (who, fans have argued, received many of Bonnie’s plotlines from the novels), and Bonnie is rarely presented as a sexual romantic interest until the last two seasons of the show’s eight-season run. Notably, Bonnie is one of the few characters not to be granted a happily ever after with a living romantic pairing—a recurrent factor in all of Bonnie’s romance subplots. Instead, it’s understood that she will be reunited with her romantic partner eventually in the afterlife.
Much of Thomas’s chapter traces out the different ways in which Bonnie is sidelined or punished by the narrative itself, reminding me of Zina Hutton’s recent series on media and fandom’s misogynoir. The term “misogynoir” itself was coined by Moya Bailey and further elaborated on by Trudy from Gradient Lair, who describes it as:
Specific anti-Black misogyny. Race and gender, together, intersectionally are factors. This type of misogyny has a binary with White women (who still face general misogyny) where White women represent “good” womanhood and Black women do not or has hierarchical levels that include other women of colour, but only insofar as Black women are placed at the bottom because of anti-Blackness. It’s especially virulent historically and can be proliferated by anyone in a social sense though in an institutional sense how it’s articulated by others varies based on White/male privilege etc (2013).
Misogynoir is a useful framework to talk about the manner in which The Vampire Diaries repeatedly penalised Bonnie physically and emotionally as “character development,” while also having her repeatedly sacrifice herself in terms of her physical and mental health, and eventually repeatedly sacrifice her life, for white characters. Hutton notes that fandom’s response to this penalising—that would often have been woobified in white characters—is to view Bonnie herself as either boring or bitchy.
Hutton’s argument regarding Bonnie’s desirability becomes a nexus around which to consider fandom’s self-positioning as a reparative space for desire, particularly desires that are narratively un(der)explored or un(der)examined in source texts. Thomas points to the manner in which Bonnie’s relationship with Jeremy, at its very outset, is beset by unfaithfulness as he spends time with his ghost ex-girlfriend, Anna. Bonnie and he avoid physical intimacy until far later in the season while most other characters are positioned as sexually active and desirable (p. 122). Thomas notes that given the various travails of their relationship, the two spend more time apart than together, with physical and emotional intimacy a constant challenge. The Vampire Diaries’ refusal to see Bonnie as desirable and loveable is one element, but the fact that many of her plots offer tropes that are popular within fandom spaces—hurt/comfort, intimacy, the overcoming all odds even death—suggests that Bonnie also isn’t positioned as desirable outside of the show’s problematic settings. And notably, the same rules have not applied to other, far more problematic and far less scripted pairings.
Thomas writes of co-watching the series and sharing a fandom with her niece, Daija; whereas Thomas’s own fannish investment lay in Bonnie, Daija felt more drawn to the character Elena. Thomas acknowledges the possible reasons behind this: Bonnie is not a main character and is on the sidelines for much of the show. She is often positioned to be the series’ killjoy in her negative judgement of the show’s vampire characters. She is chaste for the majority of the early seasons on a show largely about achieving adulthood, independence, and sexuality. And Bonnie is largely present to serve the interests of white characters. With Elena the central focus of much of the show, Thomas acknowledges that Daija’s choice to identify more strongly with Elena is all but constructed through the narrative’s positioning. This choice is echoed by another of Thomas’s respondents, Selah, who says that since Bonnie’s desires are often in counterpoint to Elena’s and the show centres Elena, viewers are being conditioned to reject Bonnie’s wants and needs (p. 131).
The evocation of the dark fantastic in Bonnie’s case is one of spectacle, and Thomas argues that Bonnie’s Africanist ancestor Emily haunts the spaces of Mystic Falls (the small town where the series is set) and the world. Later, as Bonnie dies following her use of the blood magic Expression, she too becomes part of the haunting, though she returns in later episodes. Thomas traces the cycle of the dark fantastic through Bonnie’s journey of spectacle (as she achieves her powers), to hesitation (as these are linked to her ancestry, her family history, and the town’s history), to violence (as she is pushed to use magic beyond naturally imposed limits as she kills to bring Jeremy back and then dies herself), to haunting (as she returns), to an eventually thwarted possibility of emancipation (wherein equality, love, and respect for the character would exist).
Arguably Bonnie functions through the series as various racist tropes focused around Black women; that is, the magical negro figure (as she exists solely to assist the white protagonists), the tragic mulatta (as she comes to terms with the hesitation her Black ancestry is intended to provoke in the viewer through Emily and Quetsiyah), the mammy figure (as she is desexualised yet her body serves white needs and white advancement), the Jezebel figure (as, being desexualised yet available, she exists somewhere between pathetic Other and exotic Other; i.e., as either ridiculous for expecting that her desirability would be the case or somehow deficient when placed alongside white women). These tropes are part of a history of control with regard to Black women’s representation and independence. Kristen J. Warner states that the dualism of hypersexuality and desexualisation that undergirds much of Bonnie’s presentation as a Black woman “fits squarely at its intersection. Bonnie is rarely desired by her white male co-stars yet her body is always accessible for their possession and use” (pp. 113-114).
I’d argue there’s room here as well to consider the manner in which her own narrative, particularly as she becomes the gateway between the show’s “real” world and the afterlife, begins to coincide with disability (a frequent facet of the magical negro trope, as Leroy Moore notes). Dead supernatural creatures passing into the afterlife quite literally pass through Bonnie’s body, which causes her excruciating pain each time this occurs, and characters without knowledge of Bonnie’s role as gateway could read this as chronic pain. Bonnie’s plotline is one wherein disability is always positioned as punishment, and moreover, as deserved. As Bonnie experiences chronic pain and loss of ability as part of her experiences as a gateway, viewers are meant to understand that this is sacrifice and must not be disclosed to seek care or affection. Bonnie, like the vampires of the series, takes on death and her body becomes a liminal space, but unlike for the (white) vampires of the show, this liminality is burden, punishment, service, and necessity. It simultaneously evokes Bonnie’s vast powers but is used narratively to leave her powerless and isolated in her suffering.
Bonnie’s portrayal as a Black woman with a disability that is physically incapacitating and emotionally taxing (and which is, problematically, later magically resolved by her no longer being the gateway) reiterates that service, pain, and sacrifice are not reasons enough to seek out care and affection; that her own body is secondary to the happiness of her white friends. Flashing back to Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals (1980), I’m reminded of the myriad ways in which the care of Black bodies, and specifically the bodies of Black gender-marginalised people, is positioned as subordinate to the needs of the white supremacist state and white bodies; that self-care is radical in this context because to care for the Black body is to prioritise oneself while refusing service to bodies prioritised by the state. That her own Black community (through her grandmother) finds a way to save her becomes a narrative of Black women’s love and solidarity, and is a loving haunting, a preserving haunting.
I was particularly interested in Thomas’s argument that vampirism, functioning as an analogue for European bloodlust and consumerism, is harder to map onto characters of African descent since their bodies are most frequently positioned as the sites of extraction, consumption, and death (p. 114) and where the monstrous is located as a site of overt desire. Following on the heels of The Vampire Diaries, two subsequent spin-offs—The Originals (2013-2018) and Legacies (2018-present)—have aired. The former follows the narrative of Klaus Mikaelson (played by Joseph Morgan) and his family in the city of New Orleans, while the later follows the narrative of Klaus’s daughter, Hope (Danielle Rose Russell), at a boarding school for supernatural beings run by Alaric Saltzman (Matt Davis). Notable among both of these spin-offs is the manner in which vampirism is increasingly mapped onto Black masculinity. The shows repeat the racialised stereotypes of compliant and subservient Black boys (with the hidden potential for terrifying and extreme violence, such as the character of Milton Greasley in Legacies) or narratively positioned as a threat to (violently) legislative whiteness (Kaleb on Legacies, Marcel Gerard on The Originals).
The shift from a narrative where Bonnie is not allowed to consume (as Thomas notes) to this narrative of (abusive) consumption by Black men and boys appears to suggest a change in the original series’ position on the sites of vampirism and the normativity of Black desire for consumption. Yet arguably this is overtly raced and gendered while also being historically decontextualised even in its repetition of stereotypes and tropes. For example, Milton’s hidden self as a “ripper”—a vampire that cannot control their bloodlust, eventually ripping through the necks of their victims—is intended to mirror that of Stefan Salvatore (and, to a lesser extent, Lillian Salvatore) from The Vampire Diaries. But the narrative of a dangerous and hidden violence is contextually distinct when located on a white male body versus on a Black male body given a history of racist fictional portrayals of threatening Black men. The show’s inability to contend with the specificities of these racial histories means that multiracial casting does not lead to emancipation, anti-racist, or decolonised media but is instead implicated in racist stereotyping.
Kristen J. Warner unpacks this idea in in The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting (2015). She points out that the language of colourblind casting makes a lack of awareness of racial identity paramount to the assumptions of an egalitarian playing field; yet an awareness of non-white identities is maintained so as to deviate from a defaulted privileging of whiteness (p. 36). This system of casting, that refuses to rewrite and reconsider the character after a racebent casting choice, suggests inevitably that all ethnicities are interchangeable so long as the universality of whiteness undergirding these systems remains unchallenged. Casting that ignores ethnicity “obliterates cultural specificity because if race is not written into the script after an actor of color is hired, the script will inevitably result in a normalization vis-à-vis the whiteness of characters” (p. 155). Warner’s point here ties back to the earlier discussion with Benjamin, both noting the manner in which “cultureless” whiteness is presumed as a superpower that remains unmarked.
Notably, in her chapter on The Vampire Diaries, Warner says that Bonnie’s role is used as a means by which to offer a pretence of engagement with Virginia’s ugly racial history, offering “the look of diversity at the expense of an erasure of racialised cultural difference” (p. 95). The show both reduces Bonnie to a series of stereotypes and tropes while also claiming that “because the character was never intentionally written for a Black woman” (p. 95) it cannot be racially motivated or racist. As a result of this, Warner argues, Bonnie’s character is both a moment of success and a moment of failure when it comes to racebent casting; it functions as a form of racial liberalism (defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Charles Mills as relatively small changes to obscure the preservation of the overarching injustice of the system and the racial contract). Warner’s argument is that Black fans and critics were meant to be staved off by the CW’s deployment of racebent casting, yet the fact that Black critics and fans were outraged at the character’s treatment stemmed from the show’s refusal to understand the cultural specificity at the heart of the Black history evoked in the show (p. 97).
As a consequence, Black Southern identity is rarely depicted on the show itself, though we’re to understand that Bonnie’s ancestral history was written specifically to invoke this following the racebent casting. Bonnie’s ancestor Emily Bennett is termed a “handmaiden” (and not a slave) to a vicious white woman, Katherine, though Katherine displays no concern for human rights and slavery is an established practice during this period. Thomas notes that depictions of Emily make the viewer hesitate, and question why such a powerful witch would (seemingly willingly) serve Katherine; yet this remains unexplained (p. 119). As Warner points out the show’s racebending in this manner deliberately creates and draws on a politicised Black identity, but is unable to consider what the realities of such a politicised identity would entail. Black viewers seeking escapism may not wish to identify with a character that only offers them flawed representation, even as they deal with the realities of global anti-Blackness. As a consequence, fans identifying with Bonnie often found themselves both cheering her inclusion while calling out her representation; a double bind that is at the heart of Thomas’s ideology of the dark fantastic—and a demand for more. As Pande and Hutton have pointed out, being critical of media doesn’t mean fans are less fannish; if anything, it means they are deeply engaged.
Months after I first read Thomas’s nuanced argument, I found myself coming back to it and mulling over it alongside Rebecca Wanzo’s timely intervention in the field of Fan Studies. Wanzo articulates that studies of fannish behaviour would benefit from approaches within Black fandom, and I felt this was particularly key to Thomas’s recorded responses of young Black fans who didn’t like Bonnie and either continued to feel that way, or were eventually reconciled to her at a later period. The idea that “fannish pleasure,” so integral to Fan Studies, could be deconstructed in responses to Bonnie specifically in ways that centred Blackness meant that this wasn’t just about “Ship and Let Ship,” but a larger question of Black anti/fandom as part of fannish praxis.
Wanzo moves from Fan Studies’ first wave theorisation of “pleasure” as purely positive to one wherein pleasure may be conditional, relational, intermingled with displeasure, might be fraught, based on one’s experiences as a Black fan of a media text. As such, she calls for:
[…] including African American cultural criticism in remapping the genealogies of not only acafandom but also fan criticism. Such reframing would both augment and complicate our understanding of much of the vocabulary of fan studies and definitions of fans and antifans. If we privilege African Americans in the story we tell about fans in the United States, how might that change our understanding of what a fan is, our understanding of how they are producers as well as consumers, or the role identity can play in the importance of identifying as a fan? I am not claiming that black people are central to all kinds of fandoms; nor am I arguing that they are absent from the kind of cult fan communities privileged in fan studies (although they are indeed rarely discussed). Rather, I am suggesting that we apply what I term an identity hermeneutics—interpretation by placing a particular identity at the center of the reading or interpretative practice—and explore the possibility that a different kind of fan, as well as different issues of concern to fans, might be visible if we focus on African Americans. Despite their invisibility in fan studies, African Americans are often hypervisible examples of fandom and demonstrate affective relationships to fandom that complicate existing studies of fans. Many claims in fan scholarship about alterity, fan interpellation, ambivalent spectatorship, and antifandom become more nuanced if we look at particular traditions of African American fandom and black cultural criticism (2015).
In many ways, I feel like The Dark Fantastic is a response to Wanzo’s call for this centring. Given Thomas’s own position as a Black fan (discussed in more detail in the next section), her de/construction of her own fannish experience speaks (loudly) to concerns that have been traced from RaceFail ’09 through to recent and ongoing issues within Fan Studies itself.
In the final chapter of The Dark Fantastic, Thomas turns to her time in fannish spaces, focusing specifically on her time in Harry Potter fandom. Following accusations of plagiarism in her Harry Potter fanfiction (which she contextualises), she notes that the processes of policing, punishment, and public defence were themselves largely racially coded. White fans who experienced similar situations were eventually viewed as rehabilitated and reconciled to the community while she remained on its margins. This realisation then prompted a revaluation of her time in the fandom and its quiet but in/visible hostilities:
I had only glimpsed that side before but it was always there. It was there in the way that I was taunted in an otherwise fun AOL chat when I code-switched into African American English. It was in the argument that I had over Dean Thomas’s name signalling his Welshness, one in which I retorted that my last name is Thomas, and I’ve never been to Wales. It was in being unaware that my special status in Harry Potter fandom as the Black fan was a form of tokenization as much as my chosen name in fandom—Ebony AKA AngieJ [after Angelina Johnson]—signalled the presence of the only named Black girl character. It was in my inability to see that I was hypervisible while inside Harry Potter fandom but still marginalised in ways that surfaced only after I withdrew from the community that defined my twenties. (p. 149)
Thomas’s experiences of racism echo those of other Fans of Colour, particularly Black women; problematic white fans are granted repeated chances and systems of defence that are denied to other Black fans in similar circumstances. Hutton and Pande have both previously discussed the sort of hypervisibility Thomas points to, which exists not only for Black fans who transgress, but also Black fans and Fans of Colour whose repeated drawing of attention to racism within the community is positioned as more problematic than the racism itself. As Thomas’s experience shows—as she was marginalised within fandom as well as within the acafan community of San Diego Con following these events—the problem doesn’t restrict itself solely to fandom but also to the field of Fan Studies. While this is overt, the ways in which recognition of this aspect leads to self-policing and self-exclusion are more subversive. Rebecca Wanzo has previously spoken about not realising that her work would fall within the field of Fan Studies, not because it didn’t engage with similar theoretical praxis regarding “textual poaching, desire, and resistance” but because Fan Studies didn’t seem to extend into Black acafandoms in the same manner. More recent work addresses this lacuna, considering the different ways in which ideas of fandom themselves require cultural deconstruction in ways that make whiteness visible and refuse it its defaulted superpowers (per Benjamin).
As an overarching argument, I think the points that Thomas makes are incredibly valuable, and add to and echo so much work done over the last fifty years at least (and probably more) about the fact that Black fans are here. They have always already been here. Thomas asks on Twitter, “How can fandoms know how many fans of color there are if most of us have been passing for decades? The answer is that they have no idea.” The recent approach of “if you build it, they will come” in different academic fields is its own rewriting of histories to centre whiteness. (Imagine an approach that said “if we stop setting up moving goalposts and exclusionary systems, maybe being here wouldn’t be a constant fucking nightmare for them.”)
As I begin to read Paul Ortiz’s An African American and Latinx History of the United States (2018), every page reiterates a historical centring for African American and Latinx working class communities who have been written out of North American histories over and over, and whose histories span more than the borders of the United States. I’m struck by how much the Ortiz, the Benjamin, the Warner, the Wanzo, the Thomas, all speak to each other despite being texts I’ve read for hugely different reasons: all of them argue that centring oneself, reading or writing oneself back into these spaces is radical and necessary, but that it was always already a space Black selves were present in. One of the ways I see myself thinking through the dark fantastic is the ways these texts have come to haunt the spaces of my other work, my other readings.
As a result, I am drawn intensely to Thomas’s echoing of Vivian Vasquez’s theory of restorying the self into the popular imagination (159) by reading and writing oneself into existence in spaces that are otherwise exclusionary or resistant to Black girl presence. The process of racebending largely white texts can be a reparative means of talking back to an imagination that refuses the lived reality of a multicultural world. As Megan Justine Fowler notes in her article on fandom’s racebending in Harry Potter and the Raven Cycle:
The challenge to the assumption of whiteness that racebending fan work offers is vital. With their racebent fan work, fans critique the overwhelming whiteness of Rowling's series, contesting the predominant association throughout the Harry Potter books of Britishness with whiteness. Karin E. Westman argues that, in spite of accusations of the series' being extremely Edwardian and Rowling's own insistence that the wizarding world is not informed by the politics of the muggle world, "The wizarding world struggles to negotiate a very contemporary problem in Britain: the legacy of a racial and class caste system that, though not entirely stable, is still looked upon by a minority of powerful individuals as the means to continued power and control" (2002, 306). This struggle is entirely metaphorical in the series. The magical politics in the series, in which a war breaks out over blood purity and purebloods seek to exterminate mudbloods, obviously parallels white supremacist rhetoric and the racism that people of color experience in the real world. However, because the victims of this prejudice in the text are largely presented as white, the series falls into the narrative trappings of what is colloquially known as fantastic racism, or the use of fictional forms of racism in fantasy and science fiction as a metaphor or parallel to real-world racism without centering this narrative around actual characters of color. (2019)
At the same time I’m very wary of the ways in which fetishization, orientalising, and othering (that can be participatory both within and outside of these communities) can be its own complex issue. Lori Kido Lopez has previously pointed to the ways in which the fan activism that surrounded the live-action film Avatar: The Last Airbender both called for representation, and yet much of it repeated orientalising discourse. Her work noted that:
Given that the arguments of these fan-activists are centered on proving that the world of The Last Airbender is specifically Asian and should be populated with Asian bodies, the group is put in the difficult position of defining what and who counts as Asian. They also struggle to describe how the show’s Asian identity impacts their own fascination as fans, since they represent a wide spectrum of racial backgrounds and can be seen in some ways to view the show through an Orientalizing lens. Through a careful assessment of their discourse, we can see the term ‘racebending’ as part of a long history of racial masquerade that can work both to destabilize the fixity of identity, as well as to shore up racialized hegemonic power structures. (2011)
Moreover, the writing of Blackness into transformative fanworks demands engagement with the dark fantastic and the Dark Other if it is to be emancipatory. Writing in 2019 about the ways in which transformative fanworks approach Blackness, Poe Johnson reiterates many of the points Warner makes: that the depiction of black bodies in transformative fanworks without actively accounting for histories of racism directed towards Black bodies in North American media texts is as likely to repeat or propound racism, overtly or subversively. Johnson seems to urge caution and notes:
In order to avoid this reification, creators must make a deliberate and concerted effort to use antiracist and decolonial methodologies. Simply wanting to be inclusive is not enough; it has never been enough.
Historically, black people have had limited control over how their imagistic and textualized bodies are encoded with meaning in mass media culture. Transformative fan works of the black body can lead to a further destabilization of the authority that black people have fought so hard to obtain. At best, this means that predominantly black fans will have to spend time and emotional labor in correcting those fans who are reproducing white supremacist logics without intending to. At worst, it leads to a violent participatory culture in which the images of the black body are used either as a justification to terrorize or as the terror itself. Of course, as Rukmini Pande (2018) has pointed out, this is a similar argument that racist fans have used to deflect from their racism. I am not suggesting that the racism of white fans and white fan studies scholars who have ignored black characters and black texts should be disregarded. I am, however, suggesting that when we call for greater inclusion within fan spaces, we must be careful what we are asking for, and from whom we are asking it. (2019)
Additionally, there’s also the question of complications even within the spaces of reclamation and representation. I return again to TaLynn Kel and this powerful statement about the processes of control and suppression work in places that seemingly celebrate the imagination and, in certain cases, Blackness and the fantastic:
I’ve had a modicum of success, but not without losses. I’ve seen some progress, but not without cost. I can be me, but I’m not supposed to call attention to it. I can center Blackness, as long as I don’t state that’s what I’m doing. I am allowed to exist as long as I remember my place and make space for those who historically and currently do not make space for me. As long as I remember whose sandbox I’m playing in, and act in ways they approve, I can stay. (2019)
The process of portioning oneself up into acceptable pieces for public consumption comes back not only to theorisations of the Black body, but also suggests that seemingly emancipatory spaces for Blackness have their own systems of violence, suppression, and exclusion. These spaces need their own decolonial systems as the celebration of Blackness that only counts particular versions of desirable Blackness as seemingly worthy of inclusion or acceptance only reproduces the same violent systems of policed bodies and identities.
In the aftermath of unpacking The Hunger Games, Merlin, The Vampire Diaries, and Harry Potter, Thomas notes that Black girl characters are both impossible and necessary, are presented within narratives but not present within these at the same time, are seen as inconsequential but are nevertheless vital to their functioning, a case of constant superposition wherein they are the Schrodinger’s cat of the fantastic (pp. 150-151). Thomas notes that there are a myriad of ways in which Black writers, fans, and audiences have always had to imaginatively read themselves into canons that have excluded them, pointing to Rowling’s nod to fandom’s Black Hermione in The Cursed Child as well as the racebending of Hamilton: An American Musical.
While I agree with Thomas’s larger points, I find that I disagree with parts of her reading here. My annoyance with Rowling’s willingness to meta-introduce aspects that she couldn’t be bothered to put into her texts themselves aside, I found myself paused in particular at Hamilton as a wholly positive example of the powers of racebending and imagining oneself into exclusionary spaces. Perhaps this is because pushback to Rowling is very much part of fan cultures that I see every day (and my own time in Harry Potter fandom and its discussions of magic schools means that this review would rapidly derail into an extended rant if I am given even half a chance), but pushback to Miranda’s vision is far more complex and policed in public forums. I remember Warner’s warnings regarding the pitfalls of being read into a text without a willingness to allow for the specificity and complexities of identity, alongside the discussions I’ve witnessed by Lyra D. Monteiro on the racebent and reimagined history of Hamilton. While many of us celebrate the play’s reading of non-white selves into the white supremacist founding mythos of America, it remains that numerous critics have noted this ideology has important flaws that have to be grappled with.
In an early section of The Dark Fantastic Thomas points to the violence of propounding “happy slave” narratives, and I find myself placing this alongside Hamilton’s single scene of Sally Hemings, smilingly and silently twirling in and out to give Thomas Jefferson his letter. I remember reading about the novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings and its romanticisation of rape. I think about how often internalising colonial racial narratives leads to an assumption that representation itself is enough, even if that representation is deeply flawed. There is work that’s pushing back against this, such as Annette Gordon Reed’s research on the complexity of Hemings’s actual history, or Ishmael Reed and his fantastical play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, which uses hauntings to confront the rewriting of the past and its use in contemporary histories. As the dark fantastic returns to this liminal space of haunting, I think about how Reed’s approach to emancipation has created a distinct trajectory from Miranda’s; that after Hamilton, Reed would see these ancestral voices and bodies haunt not only the spaces of Miranda’s play but, in different ways, Miranda’s public persona and his character within the production. As always, the question of decolonising representation shows itself to be entangled and messy. The problems stretch themselves from creation to participation to reception and involve inter- and intra-community issues.
Fannish responses to the play are themselves complex and ask viewers to pause between reading racebent Angelica Schuyler as positive Black representation and historically Black Sally Hemings as silenced and haunting only a single scene. The question of representation forces us to stop and wonder (as fannish Tumblr user fiercynn does here): which Black woman are we making space for and what underlies these ideas? Would we reject one set of narratives in favour of another, and what purposes would that serve? Who does this matter to? If this becomes a question of fidelity, how does that work within these spaces of community? When we imagine fantastic worlds for Black people in the mainstream, who and what do we prioritise?
I have many additionally complicated feelings about how the play’s racebending affects its staging in the US versus its staging in London, as well as fandom’s responses to the play (which I explore with Deepa Sivarajan in a forthcoming article), and no doubt these affect my ability to buy into Thomas’s positing on this point. I enjoy Hamilton very much, but I am deeply suspicious of it all the same. I think it would be incredibly powerful to see oneself represented on stage, yet I remember Debbie Reese asking us to think about whose stories we willingly erase and what violences we have to perpetuate to feel that pleasure. I am wary of a dark fantastic that would allow emancipation on the one hand through suppression on the other, and the idea that we can’t pause to think about who we take with us. To be clear: I pretty emphatically don’t think this is Thomas’s point—she argues powerfully and repeatedly through her book for historicisation, decolonisation, imagination—but I wonder if this too isn’t something that Wanzo’s articulation doesn’t ask us to conceive of: the possibility that “pleasure” itself might need to be deconstructed here, that some may hear themselves for the first time and others may hear a call to action in the same space. It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this last month.
How lucky for me then that last week, when Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology arrived, its second page offered me the words I’d spent five drafts searching to say. She says:
As activist and educator Mariame Kaba contends, “hope is a discipline.” Reality is something we create together, except so few people have a genuine say in the world in which they are forced to live. Amid so much suffering and injustice, we cannot resign ourselves to this reality we have inherited. It’s time to reimagine what is possible. So let’s get to work. (p. 2)
The process of decolonising the imagination and our spaces is a long-term commitment and constant process of work, and practising hope as a discipline (as Kaba offers) is necessary unless we see ourselves pulled under by the process of fighting, healing, and loving. TaLynn Kel says:
It’s no accident that we have an economic system rooted in social currency and that the currency is regulated by self-appointed gatekeepers who do not rely on that system to support them. Every time you challenge a social norm, you put yourself at risk, yet the most honest change has come from people being willing to take that risk. Often, it’s a risk only experienced by those who cannot afford the risk and I find myself humbled when I see them refusing to be silent in the face of infinite obstacles and deterrents. It is not an easy choice to make. […] We don’t break normal with silence. We don’t bring change by being passive. We bring change by empowering people to live their truth and challenge oppression in its myriad of forms. (2018)
Angela Davis offers the plan, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time,” and in this there is radical hope, the work, and the imagination. In “Charting the Journey,” Audre Lorde, in conversation with Pratibha Parmar and Jackie Kay, offers:
What you chart is already where you’ve been. But where we are going, there is no chart yet. We are brave and daring and we are looking ahead. Our Black women’s vision has no horizon. […] Our lives are political, and our very existence as Black women. Wherever we find ourselves over the earth, a network is being born of Black feminist survival, and I applaud it. We are going to make it no matter what […] It won’t be easy. But all our strengths together are going to turn this whole world around. (pp. 130-131)
At the end of things, all of these echoes are part of my understanding of The Dark Fantastic: Demanding a better world requires imagination as praxis. Building a better world requires imagination as praxis. Sustaining ourselves through this requires hope as a discipline.
As a final note: I urge you to consider not only donating to Strange Horizons to allow them to continue publishing the amazing work that they do, but to also consider supporting the various writers and content producers referenced in this review through Patreon, Ko-fi, or PayPal.
I am extremely grateful to Aishwarya Subramanian and Bogi Takács for their feedback on drafts of this review.