Tuesday, May 28, 2013

TL;DR: What's in a Slur?

The art of creating and effectively using bigotry within your fictional world.
You'd think that it would be easy to fabricate bigotry in fiction. After all, if you’ve managed to make it to being a literate adult you've likely had a passing acquaintance with prejudice in one form or another, even if it took the form of a Death Eater.

There isn’t a shortage of bigotry in fiction  - judging by the wealth of fiction, both published and derivative, I’ve slogged through containing flippant, inaccurate, or utterly incomprehensible usage of both real life and fictional slurs. However, there is a discouraging lack of slurs being used effectively.

Using bigoted language in fiction isn’t a bad thing...quite the opposite, in fact. IF it is used in a context that enhances the story and ultimately provides the reader with a solid understanding of the moral and ethical rules established in the fictional universe.

I suspect the problems with creating and effectively utilizing bigoted language is one must first have a good comprehension of the etymology and social application of slurs in real life. Everyone has a very basic awareness that certain words are “bad,” but little understanding what the words really mean or how they came to be slurs. This lack of context can easily lead to a dismissive attitude toward the use and creation of fictional versions that have no tangible context, making them useless as a thematic element within a story.

I can’t stand seeing slurs/bigoted language treated lightly in fiction, especially when the fiction is targeting young readers. In many cases, these books may very well be a reader’s first encounter with prejudice and bigoted language. If it isn’t presented accurately, it can lead to more guileless readers misunderstanding or even casually using bigoted language in real life.

Mudbloods, Muggles and Squibs. Oh my!

JK Rowling gives a great example of how to frame prejudice and how to properly use/introduce a racial slur. The first time Mudblood is used in the series (Chamber of Secrets), when Draco sneers the word at Hermione it is very clearly a negative term. Even Harry, who like the reader, has never heard it before quickly realizes it’s a bad word by the reactions of his fellow students.
"Harry knew at once that Malfoy had said something really bad because there was an instant uproar at his words."
This is a classic scenario of schoolyard bullying/name calling - something which many of the readers themselves have likely been involved in and/or witnessed firsthand. That is what makes this scene rather brilliant. On a subconscious level, the reader understands that this behavior isn’t just rude, but also hurtful and hateful. It gives them a very clear understanding of hate speech and bigotry.

Rowling continues to emphasize the power of this word each time it is used throughout the rest of the series. It is used in scenes which mirror real life, relatable situations - A humiliated Snape spitting the word at Lily in a flashback, for example. Or in moments that reflect the real-life social dynamics that foster bigotry: Tom Riddle’s misguided plan to wipe out other mixed-blood wizards as a way to strike back at his dead father. Those who use the word are framed as bullies, villains and occasionally simply misguided, angry kids. Still, the message is clear. The word is hurtful, demeaning and is linked to a philosophy that, taken to the extreme, leads to war and genocide.

The structure of the word Mudblood inspires an almost instinctive revulsion. “Dirty Blood” brings to mind a visceral image that even the youngest of readers can grasp. The etymology Rowling created allows for a greater understanding of the wizarding world’s value of family lineage and their deeply-rooted fear of the outside (Muggle world).

Rowling didn’t stop there. She incorporated a whole host of both casual and overt slurs within the vernacular of the wizarding world that reflect similar forms of classism, racism and bigotry in our world. (Squibs, Muggles, Muggle-lovers, Mudwallower, etc). No one in the wizarding world gasps at the use of the word Muggle, but its usage clearly implies something distasteful, something less. This is a common root or origin of a slur.

But the term Mudblood is a triumph of the series in the sense that it is one of the finest examples of a fictional slur that is used effectively. It casts characters who use it as villainous or unlikeable, and demonstrates (with it's structure) the simplistic and insulting nature of slurs. Mudblood, dirty blood, not only says a lot about the wizarding world, but it reflects the warped values of racial purity and xenophobia in the real world. Especially since Rowling’s wizarding world is a parable of pre-WWII xenophobia in Europe.

How to turn readers into accidental racists.

Conversely, we have the problematic use of the words “dog” and “mongrel” in the Twilight series to describe Native American characters as undomesticated animals. Someone with even the most basic knowledge of American history can see the racist implications of a wealthy, white man (vampire or not) calling a poor Native American boy a dog. While it is true that the parallel slurs (leech, bloodsucker and even Dracula) are used against the vampires taken out of the context of the story they quickly lose their meaning and power. However, the slurs for the wolves - taken out of the context of Twilight - are eerily similar to hateful language used against Indigenous people today worldwide.

Stephenie Meyer further confuses the situation by allowing heroic characters to use these slurs in casual, and even humorous situations. This lessens their impact and cheapens their meaning as racial slurs within the fictional universe. Even Bella herself, the reader’s avatar, uses them against Jacob, something that isn’t framed as wrong, but rather deserved. Had she used the vampire-specific slurs toward Edward or any of the Cullens, the implied insult would have likely been very clear. Additionally, Bella would have been viewed as being rude and/or hurtful for using them.

"I can’t wait to see what Edward does to you! I hope he snaps your neck, you pushy, obnoxious, moronic DOG!"

Consequently, these slurs have little weight, and the (unintentional, but no-less present) themes of racism, classism, and xenophobia are glossed over or altogether ignored by the author. However, they’re not erased.

No matter how much care and skill an author employs to create a new and unique fictional world, the fictional world they create can never escape the issues of reality. Nothing is read in a vacuum. Readers bring their life experiences with them when they read. More to the point, if the material is engaging enough, they take the themes, ideas and vernacular of that fictional world back to reality when they emerge from the reading experience.

It is imperative that authors approach the usage of fictional slurs carefully and responsibly, aware of the possibility that the words they create can travel beyond the pages of their story. In the case of Harry Potter and JK Rowling, the readers absorb an insightful portrayal of oppression and racism, hopefully coming away with a better understanding of bigotry. Conversely, a less-insightful reader of Twilight, applying the rules of that fictional universe to their own reality, may never realize the racist implication of calling a Native American a dog.


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