Benjamin Rosenbaum

Comments on "On Magical Elders"

Hm. I would have added that the Magic Negro problem was that the Magic Negro is not-quite-human, which (even when that not-quite-human-ness is super- rather than sub-) feeds into our (White Anglophone) racial history and racial present far too disturbingly. As the elderly wisdom dispenser is not magical, there's less risk of the underlying idea that the old aren't really people within the meaning of the act.


Posted by Vardibidian at August 14, 2012 01:23 PM

Good point, V, though I think actually being magic is only the narrowest and most specific usage of the term "Magical Negro". It is very often (cf. the TV Tropes entry) used for any character whose wisdom, prowess, or abilities are at the service of the protagonist, when racism is what makes it never occur to us to question why that character would privilege the protagonist's goals over their own.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 14, 2012 01:30 PM

A good point. I tend to make a distinction between the ones that involve actual magic and the one where it's just a matter of inspiration or wisdom or something, but the trope really is broader than that. I would, however, for my part, talk about the humanity of the coupon-dispensing character rather than the roundedness and the arc. The offense is that the character is not properly human and therefore taints other similar characters (Negroes, the elderly, Jews, children, women--there are examples of all of these playing that same role) with the inhumanity.

The lack of proper humanity may derive, as you say, from not the character having proper goals and interests, not being rounded. But unless that is very different from other characters, I doubt that it would come off as offensive. It's a storytelling choice at that point, how much work/words/distraction/whatever to put into it, I suppose. As a reader, not a writer, I can't really speak to that; I can never tell whether the bits that don't work for me, even the bits that tip the whole book into not working for me, are the result of cut corners or of finely thought out and judicious decisions.


Posted by Vardibidian at August 14, 2012 05:49 PM

Point taken, I'm probably using "round/flat" as shorthand for a lot of other things, and yes, the underlying issue is humanity. On the other hand, "this character feels human" is a subjective end-effect, and the direction "make them fully human" doesn't give you much specificity as to how. Lack of agency, goals, interests, conflict, their own agenda, is objectively easier to determine by looking at the words on the page, so these things serve as helpful guidelines when in doubt. Is it possible to depict a character whose own goals, interests, emotions, and agenda are invisible or opaque to the reader, and who nonetheless reads as fully human? I expect it is. I expect it would be a result of masterful line-level writing? I'm not coming up with an immediate example, though.

Not every minor character who doesn't merit full description is going to read as an example of illegitimate exploitation. If the butler who announces the detective and gets one line in the whole book does not have his own visible-to-the-reader life struggle, I don't think it's going to grate on anyone. But your typical Magical Negro is much more foregrounded than that. They are salient; the Message they convey is part of the book's Message; their trust in the Hero solidifies our trust in him, and their unjust demise at the hands of the cruel Baddie is calculated to arouse our outrage. If the character is bearing that much weight in the book, then the fact that their own agency, struggles, subjectivity, goals, etc. are unknown to us -- or treated perfunctorily -- is noteworthy, and will tend to dehumanize them.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 14, 2012 06:12 PM

I feel like this somehow relates to this Genevieve Valentine film column on girl wonders that Amal linked to, though I'm not sure how.

It also occurs to me that it ought to be entirely possible to have a Magical Negro even with a black protagonist (or structural equivalent), if the black protagonist is presented as alienated from whatever aspect of black culture the Magical Negro's providing, and in need of just a touch of traditional wisdom or whatever to get through this plot gate. I think it's most common with Native American characters.

Posted by David Moles at August 15, 2012 07:08 PM

David: I don't think of Magical Negroes as having much to do with black culture; I think of them as just dispensing Wise Advice (and other selfless aid). It doesn't even have to be traditional wisdom; iIrc, Bagger Vance provided Mystical Wise Golfing Advice.

(My goodness--I just learned that the plot of _Bagger Vance_ was very loosely derived from the Bhagavad Gita. Fascinating.)

Anyway, yeah, there are a bunch of variants that don't involve black characters. Sometimes it's wise Native Americans, as you noted, or wise Asians, or whatever. (That TV Tropes page has links to various variants.) But there again, I think the actual advice doesn't usually derive so much from real-world cultures. For example, I think it was Karen who used to refer to Holy Simple Native Folk, who often show up in sf stories without being based on any kind of real-world culture; they're just generic wisdom-givers and aid-givers.

Posted by Jed at August 22, 2012 07:27 PM

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