Mouse Smash

JC Lau's blog about geekery, gender and other rants

Imagined Universes and Their Inhabitants

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GotG lineupWhen Marvel announced last year that Thor was going to be female, there was some backlash from pockets of comic book fandom saying that the change went against the mythology of the comic, and that Marvel was just pandering to feminists. Of course, given our cultural climate, it’s hardly surprising that an objection would be made on the basis of Thor’s gender. But what’s weirder is that the basis of this objection is that it wouldn’t fit into a universe which, by its definition, was a fictional one, and as such could encompass whatever sort of characters we can imagine.

The vast majority of domains in geekery depend on imagination. Super Mario World, for example, is about an Italian-American plumber, who rides talking dinosaurs, can gain powers to kill everything in sight and fights a giant anthropomorphic turtle. The Avengers are a team of humanoids who fight mostly-humanoid enemies. The crew of the Starship Enterprise, while diverse in race and gender, are humans or humanoid, and they go to planets where the inhabitants are usually also humanoid. But even if we disregard the fact that most of these inhabitants are human (for example, in the case of Star Trek, there are obvious budgetary and practical reasons for casting humans), notice that in most of the characters we encounter in our hypothetical geek worlds are white, cisgender males. Even in our most diverse worlds, our heroes are, more often than not, white dudes.

The possibilities in imagined worlds are not restricted by the rules of the actual world. Image source: Texts from Superheroes

The possibilities in imagined worlds are not restricted by the rules of the actual world. Image source: Texts from Superheroes

But for imagined worlds, this seems to be an incredibly narrow-minded view. We can imagine all sorts of things, such as kingdoms of talking pineapples, or planets where it rains chocolate, or lands where gender fluidity is the cultural norm, or places where people spontaneously combust and turn into toast. The entire point of imagined worlds is that they can be inhabited by all kinds of things. Why, then, is it the case that the imaginary worlds that we are shown are overwhelmingly like our own? Or, does this simply mean our imagination is limited?

Maybe one obvious explanation is that the people who create these worlds—the writers, designers, artists and producers—model their characters after things that they know. After all, we come across white, cisgender males all the time in various areas of geekdom. But that seems, to put it bluntly, to be lazy and unimaginative, and it perpetuates the idea of geekdom is for white, cisgender males.

A diagram of possible worlds. Image by JC Lau.

A diagram of possible worlds. Image by JC Lau.

Suppose that our actual world—the one with humans and social practices that lead to disparities based on race, gender, class, and sexual orientation—lies at the center of this diagram, at the point labeled A. Suppose the space around our world are other worlds or universes that we can imagine. In philosophy, this is known as the Possible Worlds Theorem. For this theory, the more similar those worlds are to our own, the closer they are represented on the diagram to our actual world.

For example, we could interpret the diagram as follows:

  • Our actual world is at the central point, A.
  • A world where everything might be the same, but Thor is and has always been female, would be reasonably close to our world, at W1.
  • A world where Thor is female, the sky is lime green, and penguins can fly is one that is further away, at W2.
  • A world where Thor is female, the sky is lime green, penguins can fly, and Shrek is the karaoke champion of Los Angeles, is still further away, at W3.
  • At W4 and beyond are even more possible worlds that are increasingly divergent from our own. However, as long as it’s a world we can imagine, there is room for it on the map.

If we are only limited by our imaginations, then the worlds we can come up with should be wildly diverse. To be sure, we have made some progress in expanding the inhabitants of our imagined worlds. Guardians of the Galaxy is a prime example of this: of the five guardians, only one fits the “white guy” archetype; there’s a green-skinned female, an anthropomorphic raccoon and talking tree to boot! The inhabitants of the planets that the Guardians visit are still humanoid, but they go beyond our conception of people of color, with characters being vividly pink, green, and blue.

It’s no different to go from creating such diverse worlds to simply reimagining our existing worlds another way. If we can accept a talking tree, why can’t we accept a female Thor? Or, why not have a Muslim Captain America? Or, what about a transgender Aquaman? They’re not too far removed from characters we know and are already familiar with, but we would be able to come up with so many new stories and different worlds, simply by making small changes like this.

Of course, although I’ve been focusing on comic book universes, we aren’t limited to those realms. We could imagine that there are three sexes of elves, or that cisgender individuals are in the minority, or that the dothraki ride purple amoebas instead of horses. These might sound like weird worlds at first, but they are of the same imaginary status as worlds with Superman or Oompa-Loompas, and we shouldn’t disregard them merely because they are a bit different from our conventional imagined worlds. Literally anything we can put our minds to is an imagined universe, and as a result there is an infinite number of possible worlds out there for us to dream up. I think it’s high time that we started flexing our creativity to see what we can really come up with.

This post was originally published for GeekGirlCon’s blog.

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