Liminal Limitations: Politics of Travel in Fantasy and Science Fiction Film and Media
by James M. Elrod
The supernatural elements in fantasy and science fiction literature, film, and media endow these genres with utopian potential. However, the worlds that the iterations of these genres present are often dystopian, and if hope for transformation exists, the logic of these works often predicates this hope on the arrival, or invasion, of outsiders. Here I limit my claim specifically to the hybrid-variety sub-genres of fantasy and science fiction. By hybrid, I mean those works that portray acts of transversal between the intra-diegetic world audiences will recognize as their own and the world that the creators code as Other. Rather than having the fantasy or science fiction realm exist as a self-contained diegetic reality – what is often termed “high” fantasy – these works contain what fantasy film scholar Katherine Fowkes terms an “ontological rupture,” or break in reality, between worlds (2). One can see this crossing-over through portals such as rabbit holes and wardrobes occurring in many works of these genres, both classic and contemporary. Popular examples include The Wizard of Oz (1939), Alice in Wonderland (1951), The Chronicles of Narnia films (2005-2010), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and Stranger Things(2016 – ). Of course, we could all probably list several others, a fact which demonstrates the ubiquity of inter-world travel in fantasy and science fiction texts.
Although one might include the literary works upon which the creators of many of fantasy and science fiction films or television shows base their work, I am more invested in the media adaptations themselves because of their current popularity and accessibility, especially amongst adolescents and young adults in the age of streaming portals. Furthermore, I am interested in probing the logics that govern a transversal between these spaces. I ask what implications these crossings might have for our current politics. In a global political climate that makes it increasingly difficult for many immigrants to cross borders, I address the need for these genres to increase diverse representations of liminal transcendence. Similarly, in a patriarchal society which disavows and doubts the experiences of girls and women, I call for these genres to dissociate themselves from these patterns in order to contribute positively to transformative world-building. The fantasy and science fiction media genres play out or put into contest the aspirations and anxieties of cultures. Given that these genres accomplish quite a bit of sociopolitical work, this essay interrogates the political ideologies behind the genres’ enactment of border transversals and the attendant implications or consequences they carry. Additionally, since these genres reflect and assist the psychosocial development of individuals through processes of identification, this essay calls for the the need to see the works to include more progressive and diverse representations of characters who can cross into these worlds.
In addition to distinguishing between hybrid and high fantasy or science fiction, I think it is also important to note the various shadings given to the travel between realms in these genres. By these shadings, I mean the degrees to which audiences (and other characters) are meant to avow, align, or identify with the protagonists’ experiences or not. In some works, the outcomes are ambiguous. In others, they are not. For example, we are unsure if Dorothy actually visits Oz or if her subconscious, by making her believe she was flung into another world, uses a trauma-induced coma to bring her in line with the ideologies of home and family in Kansas. The same goes for works like Alice in Wonderland and Coraline (2009). Thanks to the cultural permeation of Freudian theory, we often associate fantasy in particular with the world of dreams and with struggles within the subconscious. Therefore, it is no surprise that many works of this genre blur the lines between reality and the protagonists’ dream-states. However, in a few other works, the characters do not seem to be using the foray into the fantastic as a way to mediate internal conflicts and achieve social integration but rather use it as a form of wish-fulfillment to escape the traumas of reality. One need only look as far as Pan’s Labyrinth to see how a work shadows the possibility of Ofelia’s (or Princess Moana’s) ultimate return to Underworld after her death. After all, a young girl, who not only embodies a threat to the fascist regime during the Spanish Civil War, but who also lost both of her parents to death would most certainly require some route of escape through the imagination.
Dorothy, Alice, Coraline, and Ofelia are all in the ranks of fantasy characters on whose experiences other characters and the audience cast doubt. Given that they are all girls – and the genre does not exhibit a similar disbelief toward male characters – this is particularly troublesome, especially as it also tends to pair these characters’ value or worth with their innocence, naivete, and sublimation of sexuality and trauma. Yes, there is a carnivalesque power in the reversal of sense and order that often accompanies the world of the Other, and as a genre of play, fantasy has great power for transformation. However, this does not exclude it from the need for better, more diverse representations of who can enter and explore these worlds of fantasy and dreams, and it certainly must not continue to put girls in the position of defending their experiences of reality. The genre should also not limit itself to these characters simply “learning their lessons” before returning home. Dream-logic is anything but logical, and the borders between dream and reality, fantasy and truth are immensely porous; therein lies its potential to imagine change.
Other works, such as The Chronicles of Narnia films, Stardust (2007), and SyFy’s The Magicians (2015 – ), have multiple characters crossing into the realms of the Other. This nature of their collaborative experience and the logic of these works therefore codes these realms as unambiguously real for the characters as well as the audiences. Instead of working toward the protagonists’ “social integration,” a term I take from Thomas Schatz, these iterations of the fantasy genre move to achieve “social order” within the realms they portray (27, 29). However, how these works attempt or actualize a utopian vision within the realms of Other is highly problematic. In the case of all three, the characters travel from a intra-diegetic world coded as our own – specifically England or New York in these cases – to the fantasy world – Narnia, Storhmold, and Fillory – essentially colonizing them under the reigning ideologies of the nations of origin. Moreover, of these three, only The Magicians is self-reflexive about the problematic nature of this colonization. Whereas The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe ends with White, middle-class “sons of Adam” and “daughters of Eve” ascending to the thrones of Narnia to usher in a golden age, and, whereas Stardust similarly has a White, middle-class man taking on the crown of Stormhold, The Magicians – still currently running – challenges this conservative patriarchal ideology. In season two, episode four (“Flying Forest”) the dean of the magician-academy Brakebills criticizes his students, saying, “A bunch of my students went and conquered another world. It reeks of Earth privilege.” This is something that he, and they, team up to try to amend and undo, as well as to escape. To these characters, being royalty is not a privilege, but a burden. In the eleventh episode of season two (“The Rattening”) the deity of Fillory even banishes the character acting as High King when he and another bring up the idea of democratic elections in Fillory. Season two ends with the characters killing off this deity and becoming a kingdom “officially…of godless heathens” that establishes a constitution. Thus, we see the political agenda of the characters is contrary to the conservative design for the kingdom, and, in this way, The Magicians positions itself as the most progressive iteration of the fantasy genre, a point reinforced by the presence of several queer characters and characters of color.
I might attempt to prove how these works, within a relatively short ten-year span, reveal sociopolitical progress and its reflection or instigation within cultural forms. More likely, though, is that media further out on the fringes of networks and platforms have the ability to be more radical and inclusive. In addition to its being ten years earlier, it is no surprise that Disney, who targets mostly families and children, has the most conservative politics in The Chronicles of Narnia, and that SyFy, a cable network which targets teens and young adults seems to push boundaries and limitations the furthest in The Magicians. Some might, and do, argue that the nature of the source texts create audience expectations for adaptations that they need for viewers to receive them well and therefore to be economically-viable. Furthermore, since these genres do quite a lot work for psychosocial development, it makes sense that they focus primarily on children and have certain restrictions which the cultural censors and ratings boards keep in place. However, most Internet fan-fiction tell a contrary story; teens and young adults, in particular, are ready for more progressive representation and inclusion of gender, class, race, ethnicity, nationality, and queerness. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, since fantasy and science fiction are the most speculative of all genres, the limitations of mimesis should bind them least of all.
One might raise the point that all of the works I have discussed so far are works of fantasy. Where, then, does this leave science fiction in this essay? In all of these hybrid fantasy texts characters from Earth cross into the realms of the Other. Rarely, if at all in most works, will characters from the Other realm gain access into the world we recognize as our own. In fact, this phenomenon is the feature predominantly of science fiction, and therein lies its more progressive potential. The science fiction genre asks what current fantasy has not – What happens when characters and forces from the fantastic realm – which humans invade, colonize, and probe – lash back?
Works which portray this recourse by the Other play on the anxiety that often accompanies science fiction, that of human technology and discovery getting the best of our humanity and threatening to overpower us. We see this in Stranger Things and in Westworld (2016 –), two hybrid science fiction series that both also evoke nostalgia for the past. In exploring the passages between the mundane, everyday world and Westworld or the Upside Down in these shows, we see more critically-aware manifestations of the political implications of colonialism and trauma unfold than we do in fantasy texts. The Duffer Brothers, the creators of Stranger Things, do not seem to intend for audiences to empathize or identify with the Demogorgon or the slugs in the Upside Down; they only portray them as monstrous. Furthermore, the fear-factor of these portrayals are part of the show’s appeal for audiences, seeing as it markets itself as a science-fiction/ horror hybrid. However, there is a Caliban-quality to the vengefulness and seeming evil in the creatures of the Upside Down; they, too, could be interpreted as symbols of the colonized, monstrous Other. After all, it was human experimentation and trauma inflicted upon children that resulted in the Upside Down’s opening up. Given that the show portrays Eleven, one whom oppression has also distorted, as the only character capable of durably defeating both human and non-human forces in the series puts her in an interesting position to mediate between them. Westworld, however, does invite us to identify and empathize with the non-human characters. In fact, nearly all elements of the mise-en-scène work to humanize the park’s hosts for us in a way which is counter to the dehumanization they experience at the hands of the park’s creators and visitors. What Stranger Things and Westworld both turn upside down, then, is what happens when humans enter into the realm of the Other.
Unlike fantasy, which tends to casually offer up narratives where mostly-privileged humans can enter and colonize these worlds, science fiction posits that there are drastic consequences when human agents invade or colonize the realm of the Other. Furthermore, unlike fantasy, science fiction narratives extrovert forces of the psyche much darker in their impulses and fears, and these stories symbolize and narrativize competing cultural values with more critical awareness of the consequences of using privilege or technology to control or oppress the Other.
Just as cultural values evolve over time, so too can we expect the fantasy and science fiction works which narrativize the conflicts between them to change, and not always for the better. One must not forget that these works emerge from the industry, and thus they are bound to the demands of capitalism for profit but also to the demands of audiences. As the population of the United States becomes increasingly heterogeneous, we can expect to see progress in representations and themes in these and other works. More than a call for identity politics, itself fraught with problematic aspects, this essay is a call for the mutable, undefinable queerness of the speculative imagination to separate from the logics of the real world and rely more on the carnivalesque of fantasy and dreams. Furthermore, instead of keeping the borders between spaces and the borders of belief tightly closed, I propose that these works can show more fluidic passages between realms with an acute and critical awareness to avoid depictions of colonialism blind to privileges of class, race, nationality, sexuality, and gender. Finally, I call for us to bring fantasy and science fiction out from their confines of being either child-centered, conservative, or fringe to allow for more transformative world-building.
James M. Elrod is a first-year pre-candidate in the doctoral program of Screen Arts & Cultures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His current scholarly research focuses on the fantasy and science fiction genres of film, television, and new media. His interests include topics such as gender, sexuality, and mediation/curation of identity in digital spaces and narratives.
Alice in Wonderland. Prod. Walt Disney. Walt Disney Studios, 1951.
Fowkes, Katherine. The Fantasy Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
el laberinto del fauno. Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Perf. Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Maibel Verdu. Warner Bros., 2006. English subtitles.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Dir. Andrew Adamson. Perf. Georgie Henley, Liam Neeson, and Tilda Swinton. Walden Studios and Walt Disney, 2005.
The Magicians. Prod. Michael London, Janice Williams, John McNamara, and Sera Gamble. Perf. Jason Ralph, Stella Maeve, Hale Appleman, and Summer Bishil. SyFy Networks, 20015 – 2018.
Schatz, Thomas. “Film Genres and the Genre Film.” Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. Boston: McGraw Hill. 14-41.
Stardust. Dir. Matthew Vaughn. Perf. Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Robert De Niro. Paramount, 2007.
Stranger Things. Prod. Duffer Brothers. Perf. Winona Ryder, David Harbor, Finn Wolfard, and Millie Bobby Brown. Netflix Originals, 2016 – 2018.
Westworld, Season One. Prod. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. Perf. Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton. Home Box Office, 2016.
The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming. Perf. Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, and Ray Bolger. Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939.