Fantasy is NOT Historically Accurate

Trigger warning for talk of rape.

The phrase “historically accurate” in regards to fantasy fiction is so pervasive at this point that it’s almost inescapable. Given that I hang out on r/Fantasy pretty regularly, I see this nearly constantly. And yes, I know, serves me right for hanging out on reddit. The majority of the time, r/Fantasy is a pretty reasonable place to be. The number one rule is “Please be kind” and the mods are all nice folks who keep the place running smoothly. But that doesn’t matter when someone responds to questions, topics, and article links about the nature of fantasy fiction with shit like “historically accurate” or “realistic.” You might be wondering what exactly provokes these responses. Well strap the fuck in cause this shit is painful. This will mostly be me ranting.

Do you watch that show about throne games? Did you read the books? Is there a shit ton of rape? Sure there is. That’s why the recent outrage against the show saw a lot of people finally throwing their hands up and saying they were done, that the limit had finally been reached. And what do you hear about that? “The rape is historically accurate!”

And what about the basic concept of gender equality? In the year of Lord Cena, two-thousand and fifteen, we’re finally approaching levels of gender equality never dreamed of before in history. Women have 100% always been property, never been warriors, only been baby factories, and never ever left an unhappy marriage. Gender equality is NOT historically accurate.

Or maybe you’ve watched Xena or some other piece of history-based fantasy and loved the idea of a woman whooping literally all of the ass. Every ass within whoopin’ vicinity was kicked with extreme prejudice. You may be surprised to learn that that’s nothing more than a Mary Sue power fantasy and in REAL history, women were never able to best men in combat, at all, ever. They had to resort to cowardly acts like poison and using their bodies to get in close. Women are, realistically, weak and cowardly.

And don’t even get me started on gender and sexuality beyond heteronormative and cis. Didn’t exist except in small, deviant pockets. Always. Without fail. Completely realistic.

According to fans of most fantasy media, these things are all realistic and historically accurate. But what the fuck does that actually mean? There’s a huge conflation between “realistic” and “believable.” They’re often interchanged without meaning to be. In a general sense, realistic means believable and you get there through little ways. One of my kickstarter backers for A Demon in the Desert wrote in her review on goodreads she thought the world felt “well thought out.” Other readers said they enjoyed the characters, who felt real and distinct. And lest you forget, we’re talking about a book where a giant green guy hunts a demon and even willfully takes direct gun shots to his person. Realism for Grimluk is in the dialogue, in his interactions with others, in the little details of the world around him. Those things allow us to believe what we’re reading. It’s realistic for the context and while based a lot on the mythology of the American West (where, may I point out, Westerns are rarely, truly historically accurate), I still do my own stuff.

Turn that over to the standard, medieval-based stuff and suddenly, the view gets tighter. Everything was crappier, you were either a peasant or an aristocrat and there were apparently roving bands of rapists. Girls were married off at 12 to start popping out children and on and on and on. And if you dare to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the use of rape could’ve been tweaked to be, perhaps, less intense and less dismissive of the victim…”that’s not historically accurate/realistic.”

Recently, a blog post by an author I won’t name basically wrote what amounts to an excuse for his main character being a shit bag. The thread about the post pretty much devolved into what you’d expect from reddit. This weekend, a reader started a thread on the topic of “grimdark” fantasy and how, while reading a particular book, she struggled to get through it because of a very graphic and flippant gang rape scene where the protagonist first allows his men to rape a woman, but then he feels bad about it and beheads her, and then never thinks about it again. She said she felt like this type of writing was, to her, “unfair to women readers.” The responses were, of course, mostly on the ridiculous side. One poster in particular hounded “realism” and “historical accuracy” ad nauseum and boiled down her thoughts to “don’t like it, don’t read it.”

In relation, many, many posters posited that there was a genre just as “unfair” to MEN as grimdark is for women. That genre? Romance. Romance books are, according to most, nothing but disgusting porn written for women. One step further from that is the very existence of homosexuality in fantasy. Apparently, and I guess I missed the memo, gay relationships and gay sex disgust every straight man in existence and some women too. And this, of fucking course, is exactly the same as graphic depictions of rape.

And these two aspects basically sum up the entire problem with this bullshit. The arguments are entirely based in a wrong-headed approach. “Don’t like it, don’t read it” is thrown at anyone who criticizes anything “uncomfortable.” This doesn’t help anything if the critic actually says “but I could’ve liked it, were it not for these aspects.” My friend and fellow author, Krista D. Ball, was basically hounded a few weeks ago for daring to criticize the character Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files. She fucking LOVES the series. Owns every book. Huge fan. Didn’t matter. Dudebros started falling over themselves to fight her.

Rape? Misogyny? Racism? All integral and realistic for a genre whose common vision among the general public is “dragons and wizards and elves.” You can literally have hordes of zombies, skeletons, imps, and sorcerers serving a grand, DARK LORD, but the moment you make the hero a woman who has trained to become a badass? Unrealistic Mary Sue. The DARK LORD is Evil so how do we show he is Evil? He’ll rape the leading lady! That’s historically accurate. Nevermind that he’s a thousand year-old lich in the body of half-demon, half-elf. Winged, intelligent lizards that breathe fire and speak magic and may or may not be immortal? Super realistic. Matriarchal society with universal healthcare and magic-assisted farming? Historically inaccurate and you have now proven that you are a piece of shit who shouldn’t be allowed near a keyboard.

Also, why aren’t you describing boobs more? Why isn’t this character obsessed with reflecting on how her boobs feel in this spider-silk dress? Are her nipples hard? Will she be raped too? Will she actually like it? Stop fucking with history, you big phony!

Fantasy, ladies and gentleman, is not historically accurate and I’m sick of hearing that it should be. This has been a rant.

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