Slavic Representation in Western Fantasy

Two things before I start the post:

  1. Yeah, I know that’s a horrible, unimaginative title.
  2. I’m Ukrainian (with a dash of Jewish and Belarusian). I’m also what’s sometimes called a 1.5 generation immigrant. We left Ukraine when I was 5, old enough for my childhood memories to be of happily playing Lego by candlelight (I was born in the Wild 90s when electricity and hot water were ehhhh), young enough that I think primarily in English and consuming Russian-language media requires effort. I’ve lived in 5 more countries since, mainly in Western Europe.

This post is primarily a reaction to the most recent kerfuffle about Netflix’s show The Witcher. For those who don’t know, a brief summary: the show has put out a casting call for “BAME [Black, Asian, or minority ethnic] actresses” for one of the major charactersThe Witcher originated as a book series by the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, though it’s best known in the English-speaking world from the popular video game adaptation. People online are supposedly outraged at the “disrespect to Slavic culture” by the show (possibly) not casting a white person because don’t you know Slavs have gotten so much shit over the years etc etc, the word “slave” comes from Slav etc etc, Europe is not a monolith whatever you Americans think etc etc.

I’m not going to talk about accuracy to the Witcher books/video games because frankly, I’ve never been super interested in either. I’d like to talk specifically about the whole “representation of Slavs in Western (fantasy) media” bit.

So.

First of all, I do agree that Europe isn’t a monolith and that I’d love more representation of Slavic cultures in Western media. Like many immigrants, particularly 1.5 gen and 2nd gen, I do not consume much media in my/my parent’s “mother tongue”. I’ve been cautiously optimistic, and then ecstatic about books like Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale and Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver. Books where characters have similar names to mine, books which draw on the myths, foods, clothing that are most familiar to me. I love books like The Lord of the Rings too, of course. But there’s a special kind of warmth I feel when I see mention of Snegurochka and boyars, that I don’t quite get at allusions to Ring der Nibelungen.  So much of fantasy draws on people’s mythologies and fairytales, some of the first stories we hear as children and that often stay important to us. I’m always very enthusiastic about expanding the circle of whose first stories get told.

I also agree it has to be “done right”. I could rant for hours about how much I disagree with Cat Valente’s take in Deathless, how for me the portrayal strayed into caricature, and offered a complete misrepresentation of what makes the original fairytale Marya Morevna so close to my heart.

Secondly, I agree that you can’t really wave your hand and go “who cares it’s all white people”. In Europe anyway. Based on my 4 years of experience living in the US, I’d say things are different there; in Western Europe though, the old fault lines are closer to the surface. Growing up in my “hometown” in Austria, there was a bar with a sign going “No Yugo[slavian]s”. The rhetoric in the UK against Polish immigrants has only escalated in recent years; I once got (and promptly hung up) a charming flyer from UKIP reminding me of the horrors of immigrants from “The Ukraine”. Just a couple weeks ago I was kindly advised to marry a “Maier” or “Hofer” quickly so I could finally get a normal last name hohohohoho.

(NB: This is not to say, as some people do, that we don’t ALSO have a severe racism problem in Europe. For example, in that same Austrian city, some bouncers wouldn’t let in POC friends; a Chinese-Austrian friend didn’t get served in a small Austrian town until she went up to the waitress and started speaking in the heaviest Upper Austrian dialect possible. The rhetoric about (primarily Middle Eastern) refugees in every country I’ve lived in makes my blood boil. There’s both, not either.)

In terms of Slav representation in the media, I’m also kind of exhausted of us having the Bad Guy accent. People who sound like my family — and me, when I don’t concentrate — are almost always gangsters, vaguely KGB-ish agents, femme fatale spies, femme fatale hookers, just plain hookers (but still slightly menacing), and so on. I once managed to accidentally watch three movies in a row with Evil Slavic Accents. To be fair, by Evil Slavic Vulture Vlad Vladikoff (??) in Horton Hears a Who it went from vaguely hurtful to hilarious. (While I’m at it, Hollywood, surely it can’t be that expensive to get someone to make sure the Russian you put in is half-decent and the actors can stumble through it semi-coherently. Hell, I’ll do it for minimum wage if I never have to hear a Russian toast with Na zdoroviye! again. HMU.)

So yes, altogether I’m very much for more good Slavic representation in fantasy.

But. If we’re saying Slavic representation, we do mean Slavic representation, right?

Because I’m not suffering from white people representation — not with my beloved Lord of the Rings having gotten the bestest fantasy movies evers fite me (as well as some medicore but still very white prequels and an upcoming unknown quality but likely very white TV series).

To bring it back to The Witcher, it also recently cast Englishman Henry Cavill as its lead. If there was kerfuffling about that, about casting an actor whose grandparents would not have been massacred like vermin for The More Awesomer White People’s Lebensraum in the 40s, about casting an actor whose pronunciation of południca I’m bracing for like a blow from a sledgehammer, then it was some very minor kerfuffling that didn’t reach the general fantasy audience.

And for me, the argument about The Witcher comes down to this.

If we’re saying that Hollywood should remember that not all of Europe is the same, that we deserve proper representation, that we want to hear and see our shit done as authentically as possible, that there’s plenty of 1st and 2nd gen immigrant Slav actors who’d love a chance to portray Slavic characters who aren’t Evil Gangster And/Or Hooker Da? then sure, I’m down with that. But then, no offense to Mr Cavill, but GTFO.

And if we’re not angry about Cavill, if we’re admitting that “eh he’s white, that’s close enough”, then we’re also admitting that yeah, it’s cool if Hollywood thinks all white people are the same because we do too. In which case, what’re we so worried about “Slavic representation” for — we undeniably get plenty of white representation. And getting angry about a BAME actress getting cast as a major character because “but my Slavic representation!!” is downright hypocritical.

So yeah. At the end of the day, that’s what really bothers me about this Witcher casting row: using the xenophobia and immigrant angst that I occasionally encounter as a bizarre defense for good old-fashioned “only white people in this fantasy series allowed” racism. And look, if you’re the kind of person who believes the actor should match the text description as closely as possible, if 15 years later you’re still willing to hold a spirited debate about whether Legolas’ hair should have been blond or black, then you do you, boo.

Just leave “Slavic representation” out of it.

P.S. Apropos Slavic accents, this article is my favourite discussion of (Slavic) movie accents and how they should/could be represented. It’s a good read!

3 comments

  1. You mentioned a couple of books, but have you read Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series? There’s a lot of Slavic/Hungarian/Eastern European influence mixed in there. I’m not competent enough to know how accurate it is, but it seems fairly prominent.

    Liked by 1 person

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