I would have liked if you respond to those parts too.
Okay. You may not like what I have to say, but you have asked, so I will provide. This will get long
I would like to understand what is cultural appropriation and what is being insensitive to someone!
"Cultural appropriation" is a complex and difficult topic that, IMO, a lot of people discuss poorly, even when they mean well and wish only to prevent problems. In the best sense of the term, people use it as a gentle but firm reminder that (a) not every story is appropriate for telling in every context/situation, (b) many cultural things require context or background information that is too complex/nuanced to work with easily, and (c) it's very
easy to be very
hurtful by talking about something you don't fully understand, even if you have done research first. At its worst, "cultural appropriation" becomes a form of gatekeeping, refusing to let anyone mix, borrow from, or connect with cultures other than their birth culture, chilling creative expression and condemning anyone who takes interest in outside cultures (ironically, thus fighting against the very goal of the term, greater inclusivity, respect, and understanding.)
In practice, most discussions are in the middle somewhere, and thus very fraught. But here's a useful starting point: People who come from powerful, often colonizing cultures (which, unfortunately, includes most of the major cultures that comprise "Western culture" collectively) have a very bad history of taking deeply important beliefs, practices, or artefacts from cultures they have subjugated and colonized, and then using those things in simplistic, exploitative, or even derogatory ways. Consider, for example, the enormous amount of Egyptian artifacts....that are kept in England, because England excavated them and then took them away. Whether or not you agree, the Egyptian people believe their culture has been appropriated (physically, in this case) in order to enrich foreigners (museum entry fees, scientific research, etc.)
There are some stories which are not intended to be shared with outsiders--ever. The "skin-walker," for example, is a Navajo cultural concept that often gets employed as a more exotic, fancy-sounding term for "shapeshifter" or the like. But this story is considered deeply private
by the Navajo people. They do not
talk about it with non-Navajo, and it doesn't matter to them why an outsider might want to know. As one Navajo scholar (and tribe member) put it: "these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems 'unfair,' but that’s how our cultures survive." Using this term in this way is, simply, "cultural appropriation" and frankly pretty lazy--it's a no-effort way of adding exotic spice to a story. We can, and should, do better.
BUT. As I said above, that doesn't mean we cannot draw on other cultures. That's something we should be able to do. We just need to be considerate when we do so. Doing research, talking to actual members of that culture, reading books written by them, etc.--that's part of how you do your due diligence and show respect and consideration.
Pseudo medieval settings are caricatures of Europe.
Not particularly. They are not precisely historically accurate, but there is a difference between being a caricature
and being a fantasy
. A caricature is, by definition, distorted to the point of being unrepresentative. Most pseudo-medieval settings are not so; indeed, many of them are rather modest in what alterations they make. (The bigger problem is that pop history tells us that the Medieval Period was the Dung Ages, when it emphatically was not.)
They do a miss-mash of countries and cultures.
Not too much. Usually, they are instead represented as distinct components
of a world. So the Druids come from one area, the Monks from a different area, the Clerics from a third, etc. Further, while it is true that (for example) Italy and France and Spain have different cultures today
, in Ye Olden Dayse, they were much more closely linked, because they retained their Roman roots to a stronger degree than they do now. That's...just sort of how culture works. "French" (or "Frankish" if you prefer) as a completely distinct culture is less than 1500 years old, because 1500 years ago, Rome had only just fallen
, and many people at the time didn't even realize it had! (Rome's fall took a lot longer than most people realize. It wasn't abrupt.)
Further, because of the unifying influence of Catholicism on Europe, there was a very strong sense in which, while Europe did
develop (many!) individual cultures, those cultures retained numerous common identity elements, which only began to really fully split apart when Martin Luther started the Reformation...which was only about 500 years ago. So, while it is correct that many elements are drawn upon, they are not a "miss-mash," but rather (in general) intentional and careful selection of specific elements being mixed together for a specific, intended experience.
They missrepresent religions, concepts, values, etc. And no-one blinks an eye.
Not...really? None of the religions in pseudo-medieval fantasy fiction have any real resemblance to...any religion at all, actually. Hardcore henotheism is a relatively rare form of religious practice. I'm not sure what you mean by "concepts" and "values," since both of those things actually were
pretty pan-European during the Medieval Period. Courtly love wasn't just a French thing, it was all over the continent. Catholic values weren't just a Papal States thing, they were enforced everywhere Catholicism could reach, which (for basically all of the Medieval Period) was all of Europe
. So...yeah, I don't really agree with any of this.
Why is it that we feel that we can bastardize, twist, misinterpret someone else's culture and heritage if those people has a similar skin hue? By claiming that all Europe is just one culture, we do exactly the same mistake as treating all "Asians" as either samurais with different named weapons or monks with different martial art style.
It's not a matter of skin hue. The Sami peoples, for example, generally would not be included in this sort of thing. The Romani definitely
wouldn't be--they are very frequently depicted in horrible, stereotypical ways in fiction, despite being (to my eyes) frequently indistinguishable from various European groups. Conversely, Egyptian mythology is generally considered to be a part of this whole kit and kaboodle, despite native Egyptians being non-White (IIRC, the actual peoples of ancient Egypt saw themselves as having reddish
Again, the problem isn't
that we treat Europe as though it were one singular monolithic culture. It's that we are inside
that culture (because there is "Western" culture, and "European" culture within that, and "Greek" or "Roman" or "Egyptian" etc. within those, and further and finer subdivisions from there!) By being inside the European milieu, we necessarily have different awareness. That doesn't mean it's all totally cool, as I noted with Rick Riordan and his unpleasant surprise at learning that modern Hellenism exists. But it's necessarily easier
because we share tons of common backdrop that we don't
share with, say, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, or the cultures of North/Central/South America.
It is never about the number of people you offend, but the fact that you offend. If you use real world names, places and cultures then it is a problem. If they are not real world just "inspired by" then there should be no offense.
That is not true. It's quite easy to erase names, but still evoke something quite offensive nonetheless. E.g., "Ming the Merciless" may be an alien and you could remove the name "Ming" and it would still be a yellowface portrayal. You could re-name the "wendigo" to "danwegi" or something and it would still be lifted out of the context where it has meaning and used as a lazy form of exoticism.
The true way to do all this is...show respect and understanding. Think of it like being a guest in someone else's house. You ask politely where the bathroom is, rather than hunting through every room to find it. You don't eat the last slice of pizza without asking. You clean up after yourself without being asked, because that's just basic politeness. Etc. The same applies here.
We think we know these European tales. But our knowledge is probably 90% false,
Not really. Greek and Roman mythology is actively taught at public schools in the United States. (I actually read the Odyssey
my freshman year of high school, and various other works of Greek and Roman literature in later years.) Norse mythology is somewhat less understood, but this is in part because no one
knows the absolute truth there--all we have are filtered, biased, way-late secondary sources.
and our caricature of Asia might be more accurate. Most supposedly Greek stories in cinema nowadays are utterly wrong. And they are like a Norseman vowing on the river Styx because they are true believers of the god Buddha.
Except that we never see that former thing. You never
see Norsemen do that. That's why I used it as an example. The closest thing that has ever been like
that are God of War 2018
and God of War: Ragnarok
. And in those, it's explicit that Kratos has left his homeland behind--and that the people he's talking to know
what happened to Greece and how much of a mess
Kratos made of things. There's still no Norsemen swaring on the Styx.
Yet we really, actually do get caricatures--things completely
distorted far, far away from anything remotely like representation--that mix things like (as Red from OSP put it): the rigid caste system and social structure of Vedic period India (aka thousands of years ago
), the honor code of a highly fictionalized form of bushido
(Renaissance-era Japan), and the opiate addiction of 19th-century China. That happens...a lot in Western fiction. Prior to the Civil Rights movement, it was effectively all fiction about Asia
. This is why I'm saying the depictions simply aren't comparable. The former never ever
includes caricatures on this level. The latter almost always did
until we started caring about accuracy. At which point the stereotypes flipped to a new and different thing (as stated, "model minority" status for Asians in the West.)
Each fantasy representation is a caricature.
No. Each one is an adaptation
. Some adaptations are caricatures. Others are not. That is the key difference here.
It is based on our knowledge and how much we want to tailor it to our own need.
Correct. Most Westerners are woefully ignorant about the East, for a variety of reasons--not all of them entirely our fault. Japan did
spend a couple of centuries refusing to interact with the outside world, after all!
Knowledge of resent Asia can be way more accurate than our knowledge of ancient cultures.
It "can," in the sense that it is physically possible for this to be true. However, in the VAST
majority of cases, it will not be. It will be significantly worse, for many different reasons: language barriers, historical patterns (the aforementioned sakoku
period of Japanese isolation, Communist China purging its own history under Mao, terrible wars, etc.), poor demographic interaction (Asian-Americans are almost exclusively found closer to the West coast, where they tend to migrate to the US, much as British-Indians tend to be found more toward the south of England where their ancestors were more likely to make port), racism in either direction
, intentional efforts at obfuscation in either direction
, etc. It's a difficult and complicated thing, doubly so because the geographic separation means there has been far less literature exchange than there was between the regions of Europe.
If you want to represent Shinto you can talk to people following it, your can read books by Japanese writers, go to Japan and try to experience it. Want to know how a samurai is dressed? There are photographs of them from the 19th c. early 20 c. They might not be the same as 17th c samurais, but there is a continuous, living tradition behind being a samurai.
Sure. But you're also going to find it a lot harder to find reliable, unbiased sources in your native language
. That's a serious stumbling block. Pictures are good and talking to individual people is useful if possible
, but many people need to make use of books and other media sources, and those sources are notoriously difficult to acquire. By comparison, literature about ancient European religious traditions is EVERYWHERE in English. Like, literally. Much of our modern English is built on the work of Shakespeare (and the KJV Bible, but that's not relevant here), and Shakespeare wrote multiple plays about ancient Greek and Roman characters!
Nordic religion, Celtic religion, Polish religion or Hungarian religion (list your favorite European culture here) has no or very few written record, their practice was forcibly eradicated by Christians hundreds of years ago. There is no continuous tradition. And now tell me that if I want to have a depiction of an Asian culture (and admit that, like all fantasy, it will be a caricature) it cannot be way, way more accurate than anything I can come up (after finishing a PhD in the said ancient European culture) with regard to old Norse, Greek, Egyptian, Baltic, Slavic, Finno-Ugric, etc. culture.
Again, I deny that every fantasy is a caricature. Caricature is not the same as adaptation
. Some adaptations are caricatures. Some are not.
I never said it was IMPOSSIBLE for it to be more accurate. But in order
for it to be more accurate, you're going to have to do tons of research on something that, likely, won't have even one
written source in your native language. You're gong to have to do a ton of digging, and dubious translations, and (if you're lucky) interviewing real people with expertise on the subject. In other words...you're going to have to do all the things that you would do to avoid cultural appropriation
. All the things I've explicitly said
were the ways to avoid it earlier in this thread.
The key is can, if I invest the time and effort. I never claimed that if I think up a fantasy empire with yellow skinned orks with devil faced masks wielding halberds that will be called sai, then I have a perfect depiction of Laos.
But that's the problem. People LITERALLY ARE still using "yellow-skinned orks with devil faced masks" etc. Those blatant caricatures
--not just fantasies, ACTUAL, completely lazy caricatures--are STILL being used. Hence why I gave an example of a major film produced in the US by a major company (Universal) with a yellowface character.
If you do real, serious research, rather than just inventing stuff based off what you've heard; if you talk to actual members of the culture(s) involved and get their stories; if you ask for help from an editor who can review your stuff and point out mistakes; if you take the time to actually understand
the context for the things you're drawing upon; then OF COURSE you aren't engaging in cultural appropriation. Because you've done all the things necessary to NOT be that. That's literally what I've been asking for people to do! Repeatedly!