It’s been just over a decade now since Fox News lambasted President Obama’s “hip hop barbecue” (which… was literally just his birthday party) because it “didn’t create jobs,” and for a moment there I was convinced conservatives would never top this level of unseriousness. Flash forward to this weekend in the Year of our Lord 2022, and they’re now melting down over the idea that the “woke” casting of nonwhite elves and dwarves in a fictional, fantasy world is **checks notes** historically inaccurate.
Amazon Prime’s Rings of Power, a prequel series that precedes the events of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, has cast a handful of nonwhite actors in contrast with the LotR movies of the 200s. And predictably enough, a lot of online trolls and right-wing media personalities are pissed the new show is being untrue to the supposedly all-white world of Middle Earth.
On Sunday, CNN ran an op ed titled “When ‘wokeness’ comes to Middle-earth: Why some say diverse casting ruins the new ‘Lord of the Rings’ series.” “Wokeness,” of course, is used synonymously with “Black and Asian people.” Despite receiving a solid critic’s rating of 84%, as of Tuesday, Rings of Power’s audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes stands at 38% thanks to review-bombing. Amazon went so far as to pause audience ratings of the show on its platform for 72 hours on Saturday to try to combat similar review-bombing.
Social media posts blasting the show for inclusivity are endless, all comically outraged by non-snow-white elves, though one tweet in particular comparing the show to Black Panther being cast as a white man will probably stay with me the longest. Yes, these are obviously the same things: a superhero whose identity is rooted in representing a marginalized racial group being cast as a white actor is exactly equivalent to people of color being permitted to fictionally exist in a fantasy world that never excluded them in the first place.
To be clear, there’s pretty much no basis for any of this outrage—Tolkien’s writing never expressly identified anyone as white; Middle Earth may be influenced by European Medieval times, but that’s hardly mutually exclusive with the (again, FICTIONAL) existence of Black people. Black and Asian characters hardly seem “unrealistic” in a world with sorcerers, dragons, and literal elves and dwarves—unless you simply don’t want them to exist, because that doesn’t square with your perception that this show was made for white people only.
Of course, men’s rights activists are now entering the fray, too, with a certain Tesla CEO leading the charge.
Cool!! Just wait ‘til Mr. Musk hears about how fictional women have been written for years, existing solely as semi-sentient pairs of breasts in the fantasy and superhero genres until very recently—only for pretty much every female or nonwhite superhero to be ruthlessly review-bombed.
Musk’s critique of Rings of Power may seem pretty innocuous on the surface, but it echoes a broader movement of conservative men claiming to be outraged by the so-called erosion of traditional masculinity. Back in April, noted insurrection-fleer Sen. Josh Hawley was announced as a keynote speaker for a Christian men’s conference next year, after this year’s was rife with monster trucks, fire, implied dick-measuring, and other hyper-masculine displays; Hawley is in the midst of penning an entire book about the “crisis of masculinity”—and, no, the crisis in question has nothing to do with prevalent gender-based violence perpetrated by men, and everything to do with men supposedly being weakened by women in the workforce and having abortions.
This is what conservatives and right-wing provocateurs have become: sad little caricatures bitching and fighting online about Black people existing in a world of wizards, hobbits, magic, a giant dismembered eye carrying a sorcerer’s evil spirit, and supposedly misandrist writing. Outrage and white panic over casting nonwhite people in supposedly white worlds isn’t new—from Star Wars to the Spider-Man franchise, trolls have always existed to shrug off any ridiculous plot swing, only to melt into a puddle of white tears over casting nonwhite actors or giving screen-time to woman superheroes. Racist, sexist outrage is having a Moment™ right now between Rings of Power, HBO’s House of the Dragon (the new Game of Thrones prequel series, which also casts people of color in a fantasy land supposedly based on European Medieval times), and even Marvel’s She-Hulk, which follows a woman version of the Hulk.
I honestly just have to laugh at how every time women express grievances about abortion rights and other “social” issues, we’re chided for not focusing on the real issue of inflation—has anyone asked Elon Musk or CNN what elves have to do with rising gas prices, yet? In any case, while fantasy stories increasingly progress to imagine worlds with people of color, might I also suggest imagining worlds with less violence against women and patriarchal oppression, too??